Lessons for baseball from the Country Music Hall of Fame?

Jim McIsaac

Baseball's museum in idyllic Cooperstown is a lovely gem, but that doesn't mean it can't use a little Nashville flair, courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Warning: This might be the single longest article that I've ever written, and that includes every chapter in all my books. If you read all the way to the end, you'll be modestly rewarded with a couple of bits of trivia. They tell me everybody loves trivia. And I do promise there's a fair amount of baseball in here.

I can't resist a Hall of Fame. Any old Hall of Fame. I believe I first saw those words when I was ... oh, maybe seven or eight years old. My grandparents lived a few states away, and we would visit once or twice every year. They lived in an old brick house, and there were treasures squirreled away in the attic, in the dank basement, and in various built-in cabinets and closets scattered about it. It was in one of those cabinets that I came across two books, both of which I appropriated and still have: an ancient 1908 Reach Official Baseball Guide, and Baseball's Hall of Fame (by Ken Smith). I think that was the first time I'd ever paid any attention to the notion of a hall of fame, and it intrigued me, with all the talk of immortals and such. Were there really gods in Cooperstown? No (as I later discovered). But the intrigue stuck.

Last summer, while tooling across Iowa via the blue highways, my companions and I spotted a sign for the Iowa Aviation Hall of Fame. Well of course we had to stop for that, and were rewarded with a wonderful personalized tour through the modest museum (there was, as is often the case, a baseball-related item in one of the display cases; baseball is everywhere). Same trip, I wanted to stop at the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame, but was out-voted by a couple of miscreants with whom I was traveling.

But of course the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown is the granddaddy of them all. It wasn't the first in America; that was probably The Hall of Fame for Great Americans (which, unaccountably, I have not yet visited). But it was America's first Hall of Fame that became an important piece of our culture. And even today, more than 73 years after opening its doors, the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum remains the greatest in the public consciousness. I've been twice: first, in the dead of winter in the middle 1990s, and then a few years ago in the middle of the summer, when Cooperstown was clothed in its finest greenery and the sidewalks were bustling. Both times, I was sorry when it was time to go. And until last week, I didn't think there could be a better Hall of Fame.

Last week in Nashville, I visited the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. A few days later, I visited again.

I'm not even a big fan of country music. If you'd have asked me two weeks ago, I would have preferred to visit the Jazz Hall of Fame ... except as it turns out, one can't visit the Jazz Hall of Fame. There's not a jazz equivalent of the Country Music Hall of Fame, or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The nearest analog is probably Kansas City's American Jazz Museum, a relatively modest affair (itself analogous to the Negro Leagues Museum, in the same building). But, I digress. My point is that the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is the most affecting of these things that I've ever visited.

Before getting into specifics, a word about the Hall of Fame itself. It's a funny thing, isn't it? The "Hall of Fame" part always becomes before the "Museum" part ... but almost invariably, we spend most of our time in the museum, leaving the hall of fame for a quick few moments at the end of our tour. It's the hall-of-fame part, I think, that gets people excited in the beginning; and by "people", I mean the people with the money. Some of whom actually wind up being in that same hall of fame. No conflict of interest there, no sir.

The Country Music Hall of Fame began inducting members in 1961, beginning with Jimmy "The Singing Brakeman" Rodgers, songwriter Fred Rose, and Hank Williams. In 1962, Roy Acuff was elected. In 1963, nobody made it. Since then, there's been at least one new Hall of Famer every year; sometimes just one, but usually at least two and lately three or four. Except for 2001, when a dozen new Hall of Famers were added. Actually, it was a lot more than that, because five of the enshrinees were actually groups, including the Everly Brothers, the Louvin Brothers, and the Jordanaires.

Now, you might be wondering (as I wondered) how one gets elected the Country Music Hall of Fame. Well, unlike the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame's election process is essentially a secret. What's more, it's not even controlled by the Hall of Fame! That's right: elections are actually controlled by the Country Music Association, the industry's trade organization. From the official visitor's pamphlet:

Election to the Country Music Hall of Fame is solely the prerogative of the CMA. New members, elected annually by an anonymous panel of industry leaders chosen by the CMA, are formally inducted during the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's annual Medallion Ceremony.

In baseball, it would be like letting the Commissioner's Office and the Players' Association come up with secret voting rules for the Hall of Fame. Which we wouldn't stand for ... unless it had always been that way. In which case we probably wouldn't mind so much. And the results could hardly be a lot worse than they've been.

The Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum has four big things going for it that the Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum does not.

The Secret of Real Estate
The Country Music Hall of Fame sits on the south edge of downtown Nashville. Just a few blocks north? The legendary Ryman Auditorium, home for decades of the Grand Ole Opry and still a working venue; in fact, I saw the Opry there just last week. Among the featured acts: Hall of Famer Little Jimmy Dickens, and Hall of Famer Connie Smith. The Ryman is like Fenway Park or Wrigley Field, before giant video screens. And just a few miles away from the Hall of Fame is the legendary RCA Studio B, where hundreds of hit records were recorded and the Nashville Sound was created. It's still a working studio, but there are tours, and on weekends you can usually go inside the actual room where the musicians worked, and sit down at Elvis Presley's favorite piano. Also, just a couple of blocks from the Hall of Fame is Lower Broadway, with a cluster of record stores and Western-clothing stores and honky-tonks, including the legendary Tootsies Orchid Lounge, where all the stars used to play music and hang out. And then there's the legendary Bluebird Cafe, just a short ride away.

Yeah, I know. That's a lot of legendary stuff. But I don't throw that word around lightly. For baseball's Hall of Fame to match country music's Hall of Fame, they would have to ... Oh, I don't know. Build it a few blocks away from Fenway Park, then transport the whole kit and kaboodle to Hoboken? Geographically speaking, that's about as close as you're going to get. But it's not going to happen.

The artifacts are distinctive.
Without a placard or an engraved signature, we wouldn't know one baseball bat or glove from another. I don't mean to minimize the thrill of seeing Babe Ruth's bat, or holding Honus Wagner's bat in your hands, as I have; it IS a thrill. But because all bats and glove look essentially the same, there is a certain ... SAMENESS that's unavoidable as one moves through the exhibits.

Yes, there are many other curios in the baseball museum, loving cups and gold pocket-watches and all manner of objects once owned by the immortals. And I love old baseball uniforms as much as almost anyone. But they are, compared to the outfits that country-music stars used to wear, rather drab. For example -- and really, this is just one of many examples -- there's a case containing outfits worn by the entire Maddox Brothers and Rose, a.k.a. "America's Most Colorful Hillbilly Band"; here's just a sample:

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And ohmygosh, so much more, including one of Gram Parsons' infamous Nudie Taylor-designed jackets (which you really must see to believe). But maybe fashion shows aren't your thing. What about guitars? There's Loretta Lynn's Gibson J-50 and Emmylou Harris's Gibson J-200 and (in a special exhibit) a dozen or so of Buck Owens' guitars and Roy Acuff's fiddle and Jimmie Rodgers' guitar and Ira Louvin's mandolin and Charlie Louvin's guitar and Mother Maybelle Carter's Gibson J-5 and Bill Monroe's Gibson F-5 -- the most famous mandolin in American music history -- and Hank Williams' Martin D-28 and Lester Flatt's Martin D-28 and ... I'm sure there are plenty more museum-quality stringed instruments floating around out there. I have a hard time believing you'll find a more historically significant collection anywhere.

The clothes and the instruments are the eye candy, and there's so much of it. But there are also hand- and type-written song lyrics, going way back. One of my favorite new bits of knowledge ... I've always considered Merle Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee" (video) a reactionary, pro-Establishment sort of song. Maybe I was right, maybe I wasn't. But my take on Haggard changed some when I discovered that his first choice for that record's B-side was "Irma Jackson" ... which his record company kept him from releasing until a few years later. Oh, and you can see the handwritten lyrics in a special room devoted to some of Haggard's compositions.

The Hall of Famers were storytellers.
To be sure, there are baseball players who can spin a good yarn. But they're in the minority. Most of the great baseball players were reasonably articulate, but telling good stories wasn't how they made their living, and in fact professional athletes are generally discouraged from being too interesting. If a kid comes along and seems to enjoy talking to writers too much, there's usually a veteran nearby who's more than happy to put the hammer down.

Meanwhile, country singers are famous BECAUSE they're good storytellers. Granted, some of them didn't write all of their own songs; some didn't write any. But many did, and the old-timers grew up in the midst of a culture that valued good story-telling. This shows up in the occasional video clips and interviews that dot various exhibits. Watching and listening Willie Nelson talk about how Patsy Cline figured out how to sing "Crazy" -- which was written by Nelson -- is revelatory. Watching and listening to Jordanaire Ray Walker talk about the last time he saw Patsy Cline is chilling.

The music.
This is the big one.

Whereas baseball's uniforms and bats and balls can at least begin to hold their own with country music's colorful outfits and historic instruments, baseball's actual accomplishments just can't compete with country music's music. Not in a museum. A perfect game or a big home run isn't really the point; winning games is the point of the thing, and those accomplishments are really just the means to an end. But a great song is the end. It is the thing. Spaced in the Country Music Museum, every few yards, is a sort of booth. You enter, and all you see is a simple display consisting of the actual, vintage record, a photo or two, perhaps some sheet music, and a few explanatory statements. But what really counts is the music, coming from a hidden speaker, of a seminal country-music song, played all the way through. I cannot imagine a better way to experience the fundamental nature of what's being celebrated, in a way that probably can't be duplicated in a sports museum.

Before moving along, I do want to mention the actual, physical Country Music Hall of Fame, which has a much different feel from baseball's physical Hall of Fame. Both times I visited, it was around sunset on an overcast day, so there wasn't much natural light. But it seemed like sort of a spooky place, with dark metal plaques hanging on dark metal rails. With the sound of water running through an indoor stream, it felt like nothing so much as a lavish mausoleum. Which, considering how much of the old-time country music was about death -- whether the death of love, or of an actual loved one (not to mention murder ballads) -- this didn't seem inappropriate at all. Meanwhile, baseball's physical Hall of Fame, celebrating a game that's played in a park, in which the object is to be safe at home! Baseball's Hall is well-lit and airy and kid-friendly, which seems perfectly appropriate.

What's difficult for someone building a baseball museum, I think, is that so much of baseball happens in the mind. When you want to experience a country song, you just track down the recording and you listen to it. But while the beauty of Joe Morgan and Tom Seaver might begin on YouTube, it must end in your mind. When I want to enjoy the Royals' lone World Championship, I don't usually go to Baseball-Reference.com and MLB.com for statistics and video; I just close my eyes and conjure dozens of images and sounds and written words. Which is easy, because I was there. But I can't do the same thing nearly as well for the 1945 Detroit Tigers, let alone the 1908 Chicago Cubs. I wasn't there, and while the uniforms and the photos and the books are lovely, they still require a great deal of imagination if one's trying to connect with those events.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. I believe a lot of us love baseball because so much of it's in the mind; because it gives us the freedom to fill in so many of the empty spaces, in the same way baseball on the radio can be more rewarding than baseball on television.

Which isn't to say the baseball museum can't learn something from the country-music museum. At the moment, the Country Music Museum features two temporary exhibits: one small room devoted to Patsy Cline, and a large space devoted to The Bakersfield Sound (primarily Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, but others as well). I think it will be a long while before I forget either exhibit. But if there were any similarly affecting exhibits at the Baseball Museum the last time I visited, I don't remember them. And there don't seem to be any there now. There seem, instead, to be a number of permanent exhibits designed largely to satisfy the demands of various interest groups. There's a permanent Babe Ruth exhibit? Okay, we'd better install a Hank Aaron exhibit. There's an African-American exhibit? Okay, we'd better install a "Women in Baseball" exhibit, even though -- I mean, let's be honest -- women have played, relatively speaking, a tiny role in the game's history. There's an exhibit that features artifacts from all 30 teams, just in case there's a flood of Marlins fans coming through.

I'm not saying all these aren't worthy subjects. But everything begins to feel sort of locked in, there not because it should be, but because it has to be. What I would prefer is fewer permanent exhibits, and more temporary exhibits. That would give me a reason to visit -- especially if I lived in New York or Pittsburgh or Boston -- every two or three years, rather than every five or 10. You build me a room devoted to the history of the Chicago Cubs? I'll spend an hour in there and I'll buy the beautiful book that features the artifacts and some well-written text. You build me a room devoted to the evolution of the baseball uniform? A room devoted to the Negro Leagues? Ditto, and ditto again.

So that's some free advice, from me to the Hall of Fame. Here's another little bit: Hire someone to spend a month or two, traveling around this great land of ours and visiting as many Halls of Fame as he can, and then report back to Cooperstown with the very best ideas from all of them. I have just the right guy in mind.

Congratulations! Here's your trivia ...

There are (at least) two ex-minor league baseball players in the Country Music Hall of Fame: "Gentleman Jim" Reeves, who played briefly in the low minors in the 1940s; and Charlie Pride, who also played in the American Negro League (and still works out with the Texas Rangers, in whom he's got a small ownership stake, every spring).

There aren't any Country Music Hall of Famers in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but you gotta figure Gene "The Singing Cowboy" Autry has a shot. He's already in the former, and owning the Angels for 26 years might someday get him into the latter.

P.S. By the way, popular country music went to hell in the 1970s or '80s. But even today there's still some fantastic country music being made, all the time. We can discuss that in the comments if you like.

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