Chris Epting: Shrine of the Eternals 2019 Keynote Address

Pasadena Central Library, Pasadena, California, July 14, 2019

Chris Epting delivers Keynote Address (photo courtesy of Jesse Saucedo)

Thank you Terry – we are all grateful and indebted to you for all the good baseball work you do.

Congratulations to both the inductees and the honorees today. And welcome, everyone. It’s a privilege to be with you all.

We are not here today by accident. Our paths have all led us here to this place, from different directions and destinations, with different passions and professions. We all come at this game from different angles. We all have different baseball journeys. Each path is unique, yet all of our paths led us here today.

We are fans, writers, photographers, historians, players, front office personnel, scouts, trainers, coaches, collectors. We are all keepers of the flame. We are all keepers of the faith.

How did your path first open up before you?

For me, it was growing up in New York in the late 1960s, listening to my Italian relatives, former Brooklynites who recounted, over endless lasagnas, cannoli pastries and bottles of Sambuca, their days growing up at Ebbets Field. How those tales captivated me. Ebbets Field loomed so large and became so real to me, even though she was long gone. That’s where my first path was forged.

Where was Ebbets Field? What’s there today, I wondered? Can I go stand at the exact spot where my uncles would pass freshly prepared sausage and pepper sandwiches to Babe Herman over the wall in right field? Where years later, my mom cheered for Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese and Gil Hodges?

What’s it like at that site today? Can I go there and breathe that same air?

Years later I would find myself writing about wild and wonderful former places where baseball magic occurred – an alligator pond in Hot Springs, Arkansas where one of Babe Ruth’s most famous home runs landed; an open field near the Pacific Ocean in Oxnard where Hans Lobert raced a horse around the bases. But it was the crowded and raucous dinner discussions about Ebbets Fields that first inspired me.

Tommie Agee

As a fan, for me it started at Shea Stadium – with Mets centerfielder Tommie Agee. He was my first baseball hero. His face – which first caught my attention on a baseball card – just seemed so serious, rugged and dependable – that’s who I would model my Little League game after. I fought to wear number 20. And I mimicked his batting stance. Then there were the voices on radio and TV – Lindsey Nelson, Ralph Kiner and Bob Murphy for the Mets; Phil Rizutto, Bill White and Frank Messer for the Yankees. They all brought the game to life for me. At the stadiums, both Shea and Yankee alike, we lived for Bat Day and twi-night doubleheaders. And we always had a sharpened number two pencil to diligently keep score.

My dad took me to my first game – a 1970 Cardinals vs. Mets affair – but that’s not the ballpark outing I remember most from childhood.

Banner Day at Shea Stadium

One of my aforementioned Brooklyn Dodger-loving relatives, my uncle Frank Catapano, once took me to Banner Day at Shea Stadium – when fans would parade around the warning track competing in a pre-game contest to choose the most clever or colorful bed sheet slogan that you would have made at home. There were many rumors about my uncle Frank. Decades earlier, he may – MAY – have been involved in organized crime. But he most certainly had been a serious gambler. Still, I thought nothing of it at ten years old when he suggested a slogan for our banner: “Place your bets on the Mets.” As we colored in the letters in bright orange and blue, he said to me, all gruff and confident – “this is a sure thing.” And it was. We won.

My life as a fan changed forever on Saturday, October 25, 1986, when I attended Game Six of the World Series at Shea Stadium. In the bottom of the tenth, when the Mookie Wilson grounder found its way beneath the glove of the great Bill Buckner, it struck me that I was simultaneously watching a majestic and triumphant victory AND a brutal Greek tragedy, both colliding in one moment. I cheered for the Mets – but I ached for Buckner. Today I measure my life on either side of that game – that game that taught me that anything is possible – no matter how crazy it may seem – anything is possible – both good and bad.

Everyone’s path is different. Experiencing the game with our son Charlie has carved another important path for me. We’ve been to hundreds of games together, and experienced the thrilling seven-game World Series in 2002 when the Angels beat the Giants. It was having children that reminded me once more, just how powerful baseball as a teaching metaphor is.

What has the game taught you? What experiences is your path lined with? Think for a moment right now. What was the first ballgame you ever attended? Where was it? Who took you? Do you remember the details? Of course you do. That’s part of your path. That’s part of your story.

Chris Epting with his ticket from Game Six of the 1986 World Series (photo courtesy of Jesse Saucedo)

We are connected by these stories.

We are not here by accident.

The essence of baseball is hard to measure, but it is real and it matters to us. As the Angels game two nights ago illustrated – occasionally we baseball fans even seem to get the benefit of some divine intervention. There is nothing like this game.

So may we all stay connected, fueled by the love of the sound of the crack of the bat and the feel of the sting of the ball as it pops in our mitt.

Let us never forget the great ghosts of the game, not just Ruth, Mathewson, Cobb, Wagner or Gehrig. But the offbeat characters – the dreamers, the rebels, the revolutionaries, the iconoclasts, the glorious trouble makers that rattled the cages and challenged how we think and how we feel about the game – long may they disrupt and force change – long may they fight for what they believe in. Jackie Robinson, Curt Flood, Hilda Chester, Bill “Spaceman” Lee, Jimmy Piersall, Bill Veeck as in wreck, and especially Jim Bouton, whose words affected so many of us and whose recent loss I know we all feel deeply today.

To all of these personalities – the fearless and the ferocious, the cool and courageous, the silly and sublime, the brash and the bold. We salute you and all those like you.

Baseball Reliquarians one and all.

Chris Epting (photo courtesy of Jesse Saucedo)

The Noted businessman Thomas J. Watson once said, “Follow the path of the unsafe, independent thinker. Expose your ideas to the danger of controversy. Speak your mind and fear less the label of ‘crackpot’ than the stigma of conformity.”

Yogi Berra had his own spin on this theme – “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Our paths have all led us to this place, a space filled with grace, guts and good humor. And may our paths cross again, sooner than later. Perhaps in a vacant lot where Babe Ruth once clouted one. Or where Satchel Paige defied all space and logic. Or maybe out in the warm summer sun – off in some distant bleachers – watching, absorbing, connecting with this game that connects all of us.

This game that comforts us.

This game – that brought us all here, together, today.

We were not here by accident. We were here because of baseball.

Thank you.

*****

Chris Epting is an award-winning journalist and the author of over thirty books on history and popular culture, including Roadside Baseball: The Locations of America’s Baseball Landmarks.

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