Hall of Fame
Standing in the middle of Main Street, Cooperstown, New York, was like stepping into 1950s America. At least that's what my son, Jeff, and I thought when we arrived at the Baseball Hall of Fame in late September 2008.
The day was spectacular with oaks and maples ablaze in brilliant reds, stunning oranges and yellows. Red geranium baskets hung from classically styled street lights. A few boys peddled by on bikes, but otherwise Main Street seemed peaceful and quiet.
Few people are allowed to see the priceless artifacts which are housed in the Baseball Hall of Fame's climate-controlled storage room—artifacts that are only occasionally rotated out of the basement and into the regular exhibit spaces.
But, before leaving Alaska, Jeff and I had made special arrangements to meet with Peter Clark, the Curator of Collections. I wanted to show Jeff the baseball paintings my father—his grandfather, Charles Lidbergh—had presented to the Baseball Hall of Fame. I was thrilled that the artwork still existed. One of Dad's originals was an oil painting of Ted Williams decked out in his Boston Red Sox uniform. Jeff had never before laid eyes on any of his grandfather's baseball paintings, and I hadn't seen the Ted Williams oil portrait for 54 years—not since the day my father had finished it in his Boston studio, a few days before Ted Williams himself would stroll into our apartment with his girlfriend.
Peter Clark used his key to open an elevator marked "Authorized Personnel Only" and motioned for me and my son Jeff to step in. As the elevator descended into the depths of the Baseball Hall of Fame, my heartbeat quickened. We had come a long way for this.
Again, using his key, he locked the elevator and opened the vault into an area not shown to the general public, the room where the baseball treasures were kept.
As we walked past countless items of baseball memorabilia, Jeff spotted Babe Ruth's shirt on a shelf. Not only was Babe Ruth's shirt there but so were his shoes, baseball cap, autographed baseball and half of an old wooden bat. I touched the shirt and the piece of wood. As I wondered about the story behind the broken bat, Peter Clark spoke as if these artifacts were his own valuable possessions.
"I've worked for the museum since 1960, and am retiring next month. For me, preserving history shows how baseball has permeated every facet of life in many countries and cultures."
As we walked down the main aisle, he stepped back with his chin in his hand, smiling, as we stopped to view two Norman Rockwell baseball paintings, circa 1950.
I pictured Dad in his studio on our glass-enclosed porch, dressed in his paint-spattered smock, canvas on easel, paint box on a stand, slapping quick strokes of charcoal or oil paint on the canvas as he sketched his outline. He chewed on his pipe, totally absorbed in his creation, filling the room with the rich smell of tobacco, the smoke wafting throughout the apartment. When he quit smoking cigarettes, he would still light the pipe and blow puffs of smoke out into the room thinking he wasn't inhaling.
Peter Clark continued: "All these peculiar items are connected to baseball. For example, Curt Schilling, the famous Boston Red Sox pitcher, whose ankle stitches from surgery opened up the week before, while he was pitching Game Two of the 2004 World Series, donated his blood-soaked sock to the Red Sox display here. The Sox won their first World Series in eighty-six years because of that sock. His in-laws delivered his spikes from that game the next day."
Reflecting on what the curator had said, I realized how much baseball had pervaded my childhood. My father and I listened to many live broadcasts of Red Sox games, the radio always on, except when he had a client in his studio.
In a rush of excitement Peter Clark motioned us down a new aisle.
"I am honored to show your father's paintings to you both."
When I was a teenager, in the early 1950s, riding the MTA to work in downtown Boston, passionate fans brought portable transistor radios on board to listen to the games. The sportscasters' play-by-play filled the subway cars. Most of the time it was Curt Gowdy, the longtime "voice" of the Boston Red Sox, with his warm, slightly gravelly sound, a real easy style. His was "the voice under the pillow, the voice that told stories of the Red Sox to a generation of fans." At first it was quiet and peaceful as all ears turned toward whomever had a small transistor radio tuned to WHDH. But when a player struck out or had a run of foul balls, someone would yell out:
"You dumb ass, you can do better than that."
"Aw shut up, ya jerk, wha'do ya know, anyhow."
Soon the name-calling could get really rowdy with everyone yelling at each other. As an eighteen-year-old, I would try to ignore the banter, nervously lowering my head, pushing my nose into my book.
"There are ladies on board...watch your mouth."
"Aw, who cares. Wha'do they know?"
Later, in 1986, when I visited my Aunt Eleanor on Cape Cod, she was cursing Wade Boggs, a famous Red Sox player. She lay on her bed with the radio turned on, listening to a game and yelling every time he made a mistake. I didn't know who Wade Boggs was at that time, but I knew, as she pointed out, he was "a son-of-a-bitch".
Jeff and I followed the curator down a row, and he stopped in front of a painting, excited, gesturing with his hands. There it was. The six-foot oil portrait of Ted Williams, with my father's signature on the bottom right-hand side, Charles C. Lidbergh. The wooden frame looked as if he had gilded it yesterday. Here was the illustrious painting with Ted in his Red Sox uniform at Fenway Park, captured at home plate ready to swing for one of his famous home runs. He was one of the greatest hitters of our era, nicknamed "The Kid"; he won six batting titles, hit 521 home runs, and would have topped that record had he not served his country as a Marine for five years.
Misty-eyed, thinking of how much I missed my father, I calmed myself down and told Jeff and Peter Clark the backstory.
"Ted Williams posed for this painting in Dad's studio. He always arrived with a girlfriend in tow. I was seventeen and really mad that I never got to meet him as I worked after school at Jordan Marsh Department Store in downtown Boston. However, my mother flirted with Ted and managed to get into a snapshot or two taken by Dad during the posing sessions."
Seeing the baseball memorabilia reminded Jeff of playing baseball as a kid in Alaska and of all the people he knew that would love to come here. He snapped photos, including one or two of me next to the painting.
I thought about my son's never meeting his grandfather. He was just four when Dad died. He is the only grandchild of an artist whose paintings are in the Baseball Hall of Fame. This would be Jeff's legacy.
My father is here with the greats—Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Harry Agganis, Ted Williams and others. I turned away, wanting to savor this moment.
Charles Lidbergh had a natural artistic talent and could draw as a youngster, studied art in college, eventually earning a scholarship to the Fontainebleau School of Arts, forty miles from Paris. Mother was studying to be a concert pianist at the same time, after being shipped off to France by her father who didn't like the young man she was dating. My parents then met in the Fontainebleau school refectory and fell in love in 1930. Dad had been in France at least two years and had painted on the Left Bank in Paris. His portraits were gaining popularity, as were the oils he painted on tri-panel screens and his charcoal and pastel sketches. Thus, he was able to make a modest living while attending school. They married in 1932 in the chapel at Fontainebleau. My grandfather traveled to France to meet his future son-in-law and give Mother away at the ceremony. In a cold-water flat in Montmartre, a section of Paris, they lived the life of expatriates, and decided to stay. However, in 1933, war was looming. Hitler was a threat. German planes had been buzzing Paris apartment buildings at night. The Great Depression flattened the economy in Paris to the point my parents could no longer afford to live there. They booked passage on a steamship to New York. Their American friends also left Paris within a year or two.
My father's first job in New York City, working for a photographer, painting small portraits from photos, paid the expenses for their move to Boston, where their friends were gathered. They all met up in 1934 when my father had his first art show in a Cambridge studio.
Jeff and I followed Peter Clark to the far back corner of the basement where more paintings were stored. He motioned us to stop, pointing toward another six-foot-tall painting. Jeff recognized it.
"Is this the guy, Harry Agganis?"
Holding a bat in one hand and a football in the other, here was a handsome young man walking towards us in the painting. I had some old faded newspaper clippings of Dad presenting this portrait to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1953.
"Harry Agganis was a Boston Red Sox first baseman and Boston University football star who died of pneumonia at age 25. Ted Williams, his mentor, called him an outstanding player," Peter Clark explained.
After Harry died, Dad received a commission from the Boston Greek Society to paint his portrait based on photos from the Agganis family albums. Harry's mother was a small woman, maybe five feet tall, who spoke with a thick Greek accent. When she came to my dad's studio to view the portrait, she put her arms around the canvas before we could stop her, sobbing, "Ari, Ari," over and over. My father knew at that moment he had captured the likeness of her son. For the next hour, while we tried in vain to wash the oil paint off her clothes with a solution of diluted turpentine, we consoled her. Dad re-worked the smudged canvas later.
Snapping a few photos, I turned to leave this row, this last painting, and my father. I didn't want to go; I just wanted to linger in the basement and at this last painting, basking in the love he had brought from the work of his hands.
Daddy would paint portraits of me too, when I was between five and twelve. I was a disgruntled subject though, always wanting a break. I was required to sit in one position for a long period of time which could have been less than twenty minutes. My favorite was the one in the rocking chair in my blue taffeta dress and black Mary Jane shoes, my arms around a favorite doll. He supported us in 1937 by going door-to-door selling pastel portraits for five dollars apiece. These pastels were considered some of his best work at that time. Murals were a favorite medium. We had eighteenth-century ballroom figures dancing down the hallway to the kitchen. Humpty Dumpty sat on my bedroom wall; Little Bo Peep and her sheep on another wall along with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; and Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
Eventually, his clients began coming to the Lidbergh studio as he received portrait commissions from prominent Massachusetts politicians and celebrities.
Jeff broke into my thoughts, "Come on, Mom. Are you ready to take our big tour of the museum?" He smiled affectionately, as he gently pushed me along. "Why are you so emotional?"
Oh dear, I was embarrassing him but Peter Clark understood. He beamed, excited that I was sharing these personal stories.
Securing the vault, Peter Clark unlocked the elevator and we rode up to the main lobby. We shook hands with this gracious Curator of Collections who handed us complimentary passes to the museum. "Please, send anything you have to add to the Ted Williams and Harry Agganis collections," he said.
On the second floor we joined a tour group inside a replica of a baseball stadium, called an experience exhibit. Baseball crowds were painted in oil on a 360-degree wall display. The recorded voice of baseball radio announcer, Curt Gowdy and his mellow twang, resounded throughout the room.
"Williams swings, and there's a long drive to deep right...that ball is going, and it is gone! A home run for Ted Williams."
At the end, the lights were dimmed as we all sang "Take Me Out To the Ball Game", a song Jeff and I had just sung with 36,000 other people in the seventh inning of a Red Sox Game at Fenway Park two days earlier, my very first time at the stadium. Jeff recorded a video of me singing the song as my eyes filled with tears. The lights came back on.
"Take Me Out To The Ball Game" is a song that belongs to baseball fans. It's now considered baseball's unofficial anthem and sung in all the ballparks around the nation during the midpoint of the seventh inning, "the seventh inning stretch". No one is quite sure who invented the tradition, but it's rumored that it was Harry Caray, a famous sports broadcaster in Chicago at Wrigley Field. And, yes, fans do enjoy the opportunity to stand and stretch and sing.
On the third floor of the Hall of Fame, we visited Sacred Ground, the life-size fabric maché figures of famous fans greeting visitors. I expected a wax museum, and, although the figures were of excellent quality, I was disappointed they were not made of wax. An exhibit room dedicated to Babe Ruth was next. We watched old-timers move around the displays in their wheelchairs listening to the tape, reveling in Babe's glory, his 714 home runs. Jeff took several more pictures. He wanted to make sure he could pick out the best ones later to put in an album on the computer to show pictures of the portraits and other Baseball Hall of Fame memorabilia to his wife and daughter back in Alaska.
After a few hours, we wandered outside on the grounds where the baseball statues were. Statues of boys playing baseball. A maple leaf rustled and fluttered to the ground. Jeff snapped pictures of the red leaves, acorns and chestnuts scattered on the lawn, plants he'd never seen in any of Alaska's autumn seasons. He picked up a round and brown something.
"What's this?" he asked.
I smiled, remembering the old chestnut tree in front of the apartment house where I grew up.
"It's a chestnut," I said.