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Maybe there's something in the soil. Maybe there's a wrinkle in the Earth's gravitational fields. Maybe it's the roadway itself, somehow cosmically attractive.
Whatever the reason, I-90, wending its 1,000-mile way between Chicago and Boston, traverses a landscape littered with sports halls of fame. Not just a few, not a dozen, but at least 17 of them, ranging from basketball to tennis, from college football to Canadian football, from boxing to volleyball.
It's as if the bland, flat pavement of the road itself somehow has the power to cause a vast array of sports relics to leap out of the ground and into glass-enclosed display cases. A collection of Chicago Bears jerseys, for example, in Canton, Ohio. A knee brace once worn by hockey great Bobby Orr in Toronto. The world's oldest soccer ball, dating from 1855 and looking like a giant black marshmallow, in Oneonta, N.Y.
Whatever the cause, there's no denying that this eastern leg of I-90 is the Hall of Fame Highway, accounting for more than a quarter of all the sports halls of fame in the U.S. and Canada. More than 3,600 men, women and horses are enshrined along this interstate.
Some of the institutions, such as the Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y., are right off the roadway. Most are within an hour or so. The Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto is the farthest away, 102 miles.
There are places like this on Earth, places that appear to be the nexus of mysterious powers. Think of the Bermuda Triangle in the Atlantic Ocean where ships and planes seem to disappear with unsettling regularity. Or the city of Jerusalem, site of the sacred precincts of three of the world's major faiths.
While it may seem sacrilegious to compare Jerusalem and the Hall of Fame Highway, there's an unavoidable quasi-religious ambience to many of these halls of fame, often consciously evoked by organizers.
In overseeing the 1993 relocation of the hockey hall to a century-old, rococo former bank building, Ian "Scotty" Morrison, mixing his religious metaphors, proclaimed the new facility would be "a cathedral to the icons" of the sport.
The 2-year-old, $45 million Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Spring-field, Mass., where the sport was invented, looks for all the world like a mosque with a 136-foot-tall minaret -- albeit a minaret topped by a basketball.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton features an appropriately beefy steeple. In South Bend, Ind., the College Football Hall of Fame plaques honoring inductees are arrayed in gently rising tiers and bring to mind tombstones on a hillside.
There's the equivalent of a storefront church: the Distance Running Hall of Fame, in a former shoe store at the edge of down-town Utica, N.Y.
Then there's the closest thing to a Vatican City: the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., now undergoing a $20 million renovation. Not only is the 65-year-old institution the oldest and most successful of the halls, it also has served as the model for every one that has come after it. At its heart is the Hall of Fame Gallery, a long, high-ceilinged, marble-columned room where visitors speak in hushed tones. No wonder, since in its look and feel the gallery calls to mind the interiors of thousands of small-town churches across America.
Along the walls are the individual plaques, honoring more than 250 baseball players, managers and executives, and at the far end (where the altar would be in a chapel), the plaques of the five original inductees -- Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson -- are in the place of honor, under a three-story-high slanting glass ceiling that floods the space with sunlight. As if that weren't enough, to the right and the left are life-size statues of Ruth and Ted Williams at bat, as if they were secular saints.
The gallery, which opened in 1958, "was designed to be reverent," says Baseball Hall of Fame spokesman Jeffrey L. Idelson. The idea, he explains, was to communicate the "sanctity" of this inner place of honor amid the hubbub of the rest of the museum.
It's a common approach at institutions along the Hall of Fame Highway to establish a separate area to memorialize a sport's heroes.
At the pro football hall, for example, a religious-like awe is clearly the effect sought. You find life-size bronze busts of the 200-plus inductees arranged in five tiers along the walls of a dark, cavernous room and spotlighted from above.
Unlike the plaques at other halls of fame featuring a photo of the honoree or a bas-relief, these busts convey a three-dimensional sense of the person. They also call to mind the carved heads of ancient Greeks and Romans -- sort of Walter Payton as Socrates.
The busts, however, may not quite match the image you've developed of a superstar after watching him over the years on television.
"I thought O.J.'s head was a little long," says Jerry Wendle, an electrical engineer from Ozark, Ala., during a recent visit. Wendle, who has wanted "forever" to see the pro football hall, describes the institution as "breathtaking" and, sure enough, "awe-inspiring."
His observation about the bust of O.J. Simpson, inducted as a great Buffalo Bills running back, leads to a rumination over whether Simpson should still be in this hall of heroes. (Although acquitted in a criminal trial of the murder of his ex-wife and her friend in 1994, Simpson was found liable in a civil trial for their deaths and ordered to pay $33.5 million in damages.)
"Leave it," Wendle says of the bust. "That's a different life. Football's football."
While the baseball and pro football halls are examples of highly professional operations, the Saratoga Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., represents a much more modest (and less lavishly funded) institution.
Dedicated to honoring those who played important roles at the 53-year-old Saratoga Raceway, this regional hall is in a large, ramshackle wood-frame building on the track's grounds, formerly the harness drivers' club.
Here, the walls are taken up with rows of framed photographs. One display features examples of sulkies -- the wheeled contraptions on which harness riders sit -- showing their evolution through the decades. In a room paneled in rough-cut wood, a life-size metal sculpture of a blacksmith, informally known as the Tin Man, stands over an anvil.
The effect is unpolished and homey, but never cheesy. As in each of the other halls of fame, big and small, there's no evidence of cynicism here. Halls of fame are created by fans -- by true believers. They're nothing if not sincere in their devotion to the titans of their sport.
Besides, this small operation offers something you're not going to find at any of the others -- an actual member of the hall of fame is regularly on the premises.
Virginia O'Brien, the executive director for the past 18 years, is one of its honorees. Inducted in 1996, O'Brien oversaw the press box at the racetrack and conducted daily backstretch tours for more than two decades. Her plaque notes that she is "affectionately known as Saratoga Raceway's Ambassador of Goodwill."
At 85, O'Brien remains lively, alert and proud of her institution. And, on your way out, she'll offer you a gold-painted horseshoe for $5.
"They're real horseshoes," she'll say, and, with a wink, add, "from winning horses."
Saratoga Springs also is the home of the National Museum of (Thoroughbred) Racing and Hall of Fame, across the street from the Saratoga Race Course, the oldest thoroughbred track in the U.S., dating from 1863. And the city has been selected as the future home of the National Speedskating Museum and Hall of Fame, an organization that, so far, exists only on paper. Organizers hope to open in spring 2006.
Once it opens, the speedskating museum will be New York state's ninth site along the Hall of Fame Highway. "All of us who grew up here have grown up in the shadow of the Baseball Hall of Fame," says Mary G. MacEnroe, the only salaried employee at the distance-running hall in Utica, about 40 miles northwest of Cooperstown. "I absolutely think the Baseball Hall of Fame is very classy."
MacEnroe and a friend recently visited a non-sports hall of fame -- as a professional courtesy, she didn't want to name the institution -- and came away disappointed. "I said to her, `Do you think we've grown up as hall of fame snobs because we have the best?'"
At the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta, N.Y., about 24 miles southwest of Cooperstown, the first thing you see is a display designed to answer the question: Why Oneonta? "The simple answer," the display reads, "is College Soccer at Oneonta State and Hartwick College plus the National Baseball Hall of Fame. . . . Cooperstown may not be the birthplace of baseball [a fact the baseball hall has long acknowledged], but it is, without question, the birthplace of the Hall of Fame phenomenon."
Although 25 years old, the soccer hall spent much of its existence in an Oneonta storefront. It's only since 1999 that the museum has been in its present spacious, 20,000-square-foot building. The problem is that, for the moment, the hall has much more room than it has mementos.
"I'm always jealous of the sheer amount of memorabilia [the baseball hall curators] have," says Jack Huckel, a soccer hall spokesman. "They've been doing it for 65 years."
Not to worry, of course. The thing about sports is that almost anything can be a memento -- from a hunk of asphalt that formed the finish line of the Boston Marathon (on display at the distance running hall) to two dispensers of deodorant in Mia Hamm's locker (at the soccer hall) to the full skeleton of a horse (at the thoroughbred racing hall).
These are relics, touchstones of a fan's faith. And, over time, sports mementos have a tendency to pile up.
Especially along the Hall of Fame Highway.
In the zone: Sports halls of fame from Chicago to Boston
College Football Hall of Fame
111 S. St. Joseph St.
South Bend, IN 46601
Yearly attendance: 65,000
Link to sport: Location of college football powerhouse, the University of Notre Dame.
Civic effort to found hall: Competing against Atlanta and New Orleans, South Bend financed construction of the hall.
Motorsports Hall of Fame
I-96 and Novi Road
Novi, MI 48376
Yearly attendance: 30,000
Link to sport: Where the legendary Novi special engine, used at Indy from 1949-1965, was created.
Civic effort to found hall: The city of Novi was a moving force in the establishment of the hall.
Pro Football Hall of Fame
2121 George Halas Drive NW
Canton, OH 44708
Yearly attendance: 200,000
Link to sport: Where the forerunner of the NFL was founded in 1920.
Civic effort to found hall: Competing with Latrobe, Pa., Canton raised $500,000.
Canadian Football Hall of Fame
58 Jackson St. West
Canada L8P 1L4
Yearly attendance: 12,000
Link to sport: Home of the Tigercats, one of nine teams in the Canadian Football League.
Civic effort to found hall: City officials persuaded the CFL to sanction a hall of fame, then provided a building and organized local fundraising.
Hockey Hall of Fame
39 Yonge St.
Canada M5E 1X8
Yearly attendance: 350,000
Link to sport: One of two Canadian cities (with Montreal) in original six-team NHL.
Civic effort to found hall: The city of Toronto was one of the hall's founders, along with the NHL and the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association.
DIRT Motorsports Hall of Fame and Classic Car Museum
1 Speedway Drive
Weedsport, NY 13166
315-834-6667 or 6606
Yearly attendance: 880
Link to sport: Weedsport was one of three tracks in the original Drivers Independent race circuit.
Civic effort to found hall: Established by DIRT founder Glenn Donnelly.
International Boxing Hall of Fame
1 Hall of Fame Drive
Canastota, NY 13032
Yearly attendance: 50,000
Link to sport: Birthplace of champions Carmen Basilio and Billy Backus.
Civic effort to found hall: Residents established the hall with pledges and state grants.
National Distance Running Hall of Fame
114 Genesee St.
Utica, NY 13502
Yearly attendance: 6,000-7,000
Link to sport: Site of the annual Boilermaker 15K Road Race, largest 15K in the U.S.
Civic effort to found hall: Local sponsors of the Boilermaker Road Race spurred the creation of the hall.
National Soccer Hall of Fame
18 Stadium Circle
Oneonta, NY 13820
Yearly attendance: 22,000
Link to sport: Home of Hartwick College, winner of the 1977 NCAA Division I national soccer championship.
Civic effort to found hall: Oneonta business people and enthusiasts lobbied for the hall, beating out St. Louis and New Jersey.
National Baseball Hall of Fame
25 Main St.
Cooperstown, NY 13326
Yearly attendance: 350,000
Link to sport: According to a longstanding, now discredited myth, this was where baseball was invented.
Civic effort to found hall: Local philanthropist began displaying baseball relics in a room at area club.
Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame
Schenectady, N.Y. (lost lease on former site; planning to reopen in new building this summer)
Yearly attendance: 3,000-4,000
Link to sport: Site of the first televised wrestling match, between local boy Tom Dennebaum and "Sailor" Jack Adams.
Civic effort to found hall: Schenectady officials have been helping the hall obtain state money for a new home.
National Museum of [Thoroughbred] Racing and Hall of Fame
191 Union Ave.
Saratoga Springs, NY 12866
Yearly attendance: 40,000
Link to sport: Site of Saratoga Race Course, the oldest thoroughbred track in the U.S., dating from 1863.
Civic effort to found hall: Initially located in local casino; later relocated to present building.
National Speedskating Museum and Hall of Fame
Saratoga Springs, N.Y. (organizers hope to open in spring 2006)
Yearly attendance: NA
Link to sport: Site of one of the nation's oldest speedskating clubs, the Saratoga Winter Club, which dates from the late 1800s.
Civic effort to found hall: With strong support from city, county and state officials, Saratoga Springs was selected as site in 2001 over Wausau, Wis.
Saratoga Harness Hall of Fame
352 Jefferson St.
Saratoga Springs, NY 12866
Yearly attendance: 2,000
Link to sport: Saratoga Raceway, established in 1941, is a major U.S. harness track.
Civic effort to found hall: Established by a Saratoga Raceway announcer.
Volleyball Hall of Fame
444 Dwight St.
Holyoke, MA 01040
Yearly attendance: 12,000
Link to sport: Where William Morgan, a YMCA director, invented volleyball, originally called mintonette.
Civic effort to found hall: Established by the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce to promote city.
Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame
1000 W. Columbus Ave.
Springfield, MA 01105
Yearly attendance: 300,000
Link to sport: Where James Naismith invented basketball in 1891.
Civic effort to found hall: Springfield College provided space for the hall's first office and later first building.
International Scholar-Athlete Hall of Fame
3045 Kingstown Rd.
University of Rhode Island, Kingston, RI 02881
Yearly attendance: 8,000
Link to sport: University of Rhode Island was the site of the first World Scholar-Athlete Games in 1993.
Civic effort to found hall: Rhode Island philanthropist Alan Shawn Feinstein gave the initial $1 million grant to get the hall started.
International Tennis Hall of Fame
194 Bellevue Ave.
Newport, RI 02840
Yearly attendance: 100,000
Link to sport: Located in Newport Casino, a social club, the site of the first U.S. National Championships in 1881.
Civic effort to found hall: Conceived in 1954 by James Van Alen, the president of the casino.
Sources: Halls of fame
Displays of greatness
You can expect some surprises as you journey along the sports Hall of Fame Highway
Go into any one of the sports halls of fame along Interstate Highway 90, and you'll see images of great heroes. You'll hear and read about daring deeds of prowess and abrupt twists of fate. You're also likely to be surprised at finding something you never expected to see. Here are some examples:
A replica of a battered human skull in a glass case exhibiting the various types of footballs used throughout the centuries. A small card next to the skull reads: "In 1049 A.D. the English played a game called `Kick the Dane's Head,' using the skull of a long-dead enemy."
A mouthpiece worn by Mike Tyson. Obviously, Tyson wasn't using this particular mouthpiece during a 1997 bout when he bit off a piece of Evander Holyfield's right ear.
The metal cup worn by the 1929 world featherweight champ Bat Battalino.
Three plastic rats. These were among the hundreds tossed on the ice during the 1995-1996 NHL season after a Florida Panthers player killed a rat in the team's Miami dressing room.
A manikin wearing the oddest-looking protective gear from around 1900: A network of leather straps covering little of the head, but connecting ear-protectors that seem a cross between earmuffs and Princess Leia's cinnamon-bun hairstyle in "Star Wars," and a nasty-looking metal nose protector that has the vague look of a flattened-out rat and appears to be likely to cause more damage than it would ever repel. Also, no shoulder pads.
A small tombstonelike memorial with the names of 32 drivers who have died while racing on the 20 dirt tracks that make up the DIRT Motorsports circuit. A sign on the memorial reads: "If We Have Inadvertently Omitted Someone, Please Let Us Know."
Otto Graham's 1945-46 contract with the Rochester Royals. Graham, a standout tailback at Northwestern University and star quarterback with the Cleveland Brown, is a member of the halls of fame for college and pro football. But, except for this contract, he's not in the basketball hall.
Babe Ruth's bowling ball, in its own glass case. Babe Ruth's bowling ball???
--Patrick T. Reardon
For those not interested in sports
Interstate 90 -- the Hall of Fame Highway -- also has its share of halls of fame devoted to non-sports pursuits. Here are some examples:
-- Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, 751 Erieside Ave., Cleveland, Ohio, 216-515-8425, opened in 1995. Recognizes those with a significant impact on the evolution, development and perpetuation of rock 'n' roll. Distance from I-90: one mile.
--National Museum of Dance and Hall of Fame, 99 S. Broadway, Saratoga Springs, N.Y., 518-584-2225, opened in 1986. Honors the founders and innovators of American professional dance. Distance from I-90: 27 miles.
-- National Women's Hall of Fame, 76 Fall St., Seneca Falls, N.Y., 315-568-8060, opened in 1979. Celebrates the contributions of American women in the arts, athletics, business, education, government, the humanities, philanthropy and science. Distance from I-90: 11 miles.