-->Back to Current Issue

NOISE FROM THE DUGOUT

Petroskey Shames Hall
By Eric Enders

Editor's note: Most readers are by now familiar with Hall of Fame President Dale Petroskey's decision in April to cancel an event in Cooperstown celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of the popular baseball film, Bull Durham. While the intersection of politics and baseball has always been a part of the game, the clearly partisan nature of Petroskey's actions against actors Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon seems unprecedented—and unwarranted. So I've turned my regular column over to Eric Enders, a former employee of the Baseball Hall of Fame who witnessed firsthand some of the machinations at the Petroskey-led institution.

Although Baseball Hall of Fame President Dale Petroskey has insisted that "all I was trying to do was keep politics out of the Hall of Fame," the recent Bull Durham flap is only the latest incident in a pattern that indicates otherwise. Since taking over management of the Cooperstown, New York, museum in 1999, Petroskey has worked diligently—and, until now, quietly—to align the Hall politically with the Republican party.

Petroskey, a former assistant press secretary to Ronald Reagan, came under fire in April when he canceled a fifteenth anniversary celebration of the classic baseball film Bull Durham because of the anti-war views of two of its stars, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. Wrapping himself in the American flag, Petroskey sent a letter to Robbins and Sarandon celebrating the bravery of the military and the justness of war, and all but called them traitors for opposing the conflict in Iraq. His statement that "your very public criticism of President Bush . . . could put our troops in even more danger" would have been laughable if not for the disturbingly patriotic zeal that accompanied Petroskey's words.

The cancellation generated so many e-mail messages in response—more than twenty-eight thousand—that the Hall's web server became overloaded. Estimates on how much of that e-mail was critical of Petroskey have varied wildly, from the figure cited by the Hall's PR department—"about evenly split"—to one insider's estimate of 99 percent against. In a private meeting with his staff on April 11, Petroskey gave the figure as 90 percent. "The e-mail is showing less partisanship, and more people who are simply upset by the blatant disregard for the First Amendment," says one Hall staffer who has been reading through the messages. Some "Friends of the Hall of Fame" enrollees canceled their memberships, and a few travelers abandoned their plans to visit the shrine this summer. Since the Hall is probably the most geographically isolated major museum in the country, it takes a considerable amount of effort to visit Cooperstown—an effort that some baseball-loving families may decide not to make this year. For that reason alone, business leaders in this village of twenty-three hundred were not happy with Petroskey's faux pas.

After the story broke, a number of prominent baseball figures—including the noted historian Jules Tygiel, a primary author of Baseball As America, the book the Hall published to accompany its current traveling exhibition—called for Petroskey's resignation. Roger Kahn, perhaps America's greatest living baseball writer, canceled his summer appearance at the Hall in protest. Petroskey even got to taste his own medicine: Major League Baseball uninvited him from Opening Day festivities in Puerto Rico, and he was also uninvited from dedication ceremonies for the rebuilt World War II baseball field at the Manzanar National Historic Site, a former Japanese American internment camp in California.

Petroskey's response to the furor was first silence, then defensiveness, and then, after a week and a half, a partial apology. The public apology, issued on the afternoon of Good Friday when few would see it, was really more of a justification. Petroskey didn't apologize for canceling the event, but merely for the manner in which his decision was conveyed to Robbins and Sarandon. He should have called them, he said, before sending the letter. "There was a chance of politics being injected into The Hall during these sensitive times," the statement reads, "and I made a decision to not take that chance."

As foolish as Petroskey's actions were, he is in little danger of losing his job because he answers only to one person: Jane Forbes Clark, the heiress to the Singer sewing machine fortune who runs the Hall of Fame—and the rest of the village of Cooperstown—with an iron fist. (Both Petroskey and Clark declined to be interviewed for this article.) Technically the Hall is a nonprofit educational institution run by a board of directors, but Clark, as chairperson of the board and also the Hall's main financial benefactor, controls the whole show. Her board of directors—a collection of famous baseball names that includes Bud Selig, Tom Seaver, and Brooks Robinson—generally stays out of the way and lets Clark do as she wishes.

Besides Clark, the other audience Petroskey tries to keep happy is the sixty living Hall of Famers whose attendance at Hall events is seen as vital to keeping the organization afloat. A group of wealthy ex-jocks with an average age of sixty-six, they are overwhelmingly conservative and, by and large, had no problems with Petroskey's decision.

According to Hall sources, Clark, a staunch Republican, read and approved of Petroskey's letter to Robbins before it was sent. Federal Election Commission records show that Clark and three of her top lieutenants—Petroskey, Vice President Bill Haase, and Director Kevin Moore—have made more than $60,000 in political contributions since 1998, almost all of it to GOP candidates and political action committees.

One of Petroskey's first actions at the Hall of Fame was to hire Haase—an ex-Marine and longtime mentor of Petroskey's—to serve as vice president. Haase quickly set about militarizing the Hall, setting ever-stricter dress and grooming codes. (Men are not allowed to wear earrings; women may wear one in each ear, but only as long as they "reflect the conservative manner of the organization," states the latest official policy, issued the day after the Bull Durham flap. Facial hair is frowned upon. Under a previous policy, preexisting mustaches and beards were allowed, but new ones could not be grown.)

The Hall of Fame offers free admission to active and retired members of the military, but not to teachers, firefighters, Little League coaches, or any other groups also worthy of admiration. Last Memorial Day, amid a flourish of military pomp and circumstance, a special permanent marker was placed underneath the plaque of every Hall of Famer who served in wartime, elevating them to a new status loftier than Babe Ruth, Roberto Clemente, and other baseball greats. It is certainly a fine honor, but it leaves some fans questioning whether they are visiting the Baseball Hall of Fame or the U.S. Military Hall of Fame. Any indications that the actions of the military are not always honorable—such as the story of Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson, who was court-martialed in 1944 for refusing to move to the back of a segregated military bus—are absent from the Hall's gallery.

As for President George W. Bush, his ties with Petroskey go back to 1999 when Bush, as Texas governor, spoke at a Hall-of-Fame sponsored press conference honoring Nolan Ryan's induction. (During his visit to Cooperstown, Bush stayed as a guest in Clark's mansion.) Two years later the Hall installed a special baseball exhibit in the Bush White House, something it had never done for any other president. Petroskey and Clark have been invited to the White House multiple times, and since 2001 every new Hall of Fame employee is required to watch a video of a speech by Bush as part of their orientation. One Hall of Fame board member, Bill DeWitt Jr., was co-chair of the Bush-Cheney inaugural committee. Bush was even nominated for induction into the Hall of Fame last year, making him the only blatantly unqualified candidate on the list of 260 distinguished players, managers, and executives. (As Bush himself has often noted, the most significant thing he did in his five years as part-owner of the Texas Rangers was trade away Sammy Sosa.)

But Bush is far from the only GOP politician to appear at Hall-of-Fame sponsored events during Petroskey's tenure. In 2000, as part of a "Winter Cultural Series" (in collaboration with the other Cooperstown-based museums also controlled by Jane Forbes Clark), the Hall promoted an April appearance by Ken Duberstein, Ronald Reagan's former chief of staff, to "discuss the upcoming election." And last year, Petroskey invited White House spokesman Ari Fleischer to speak about Bush's war on terrorism. (Bill and Hillary Clinton have also visited the Hall, but theirs was an uninvited personal visit; there were no speeches.) New York Republican Governor George Pataki has been a featured speaker at recent Hall of Fame induction ceremonies; his predecessor, Democrat Mario Cuomo, was also invited to attend the ceremonies as governor, but it's unclear whether he was ever invited to speak. Finally, last year the New York Republican State Committee held part of its annual convention in the Hall's meeting rooms, and some Hall staff were required to work overtime for the gathering.

Despite the sheepish "Who, Me?" persona he displayed in the Bull Durham incident's aftermath, those close to Petroskey believe he was hardly ignorant of the controversy he might cause. The feeling at the Hall of Fame, one employee says, is that Petroskey knew exactly what impact his words would have and hoped the publicity they generated would put him in position for some future GOP job. Indeed, Petroskey was warned by his public relations department of the flak his letter might bring, but decided to send it anyway.

When the incident became more of a brouhaha than anticipated, one way Petroskey tried to minimize the damage was by showing that he wasn't such a conservative guy. In an interview with the Cooperstown Freeman's Journal, Petroskey claimed to be a "centrist"—even though his resume includes five previous political jobs, all working for Republicans. As evidence of his open-mindedness, he offered the fact that he and Fleischer were once "the only two white guys on the team" in a recreational baseball league. Indeed, the Hall of Fame has publicly been progressive on racial issues, even initiating a $250,000 academic study on the history of the Negro Leagues. But this public face has never been visible in the Hall's hiring practices: Cooperstown is almost the baseball version of Augusta National. So far as anyone can remember, the Hall did not hire a single full-time African American employee from its opening in 1939 until 2001. That summer, a black receptionist became the Hall's Jackie Robinson of sorts.

Even if Petroskey weathers the current storm and keeps his job, he will likely never regain the trust of his staff, which had begun slipping away long before the Bull Durham fiasco. When he first arrived in Cooperstown full of ideas, Petroskey announced that his door would always be open for employees to talk with him. But that open-door policy quickly degenerated into distrust as staffers were reprimanded (and, in at least one case, fired) for disagreeing with him. By 2001, Petroskey was surreptitiously reading through his employees' e-mail and making efforts to control the way they dressed and acted away from the office.

After finding that a Hall of Fame employee had leaked his letter to Robbins to the media, Petroskey's first response was a frantic effort to sniff out the source of the leak. But when it became clear that the majority of Hall of Fame staff disagreed with him on the issue, he tried to save face, calling an organization-wide meeting to explain the reasons for his decision. However, the main thing his employees were looking for—an apology for the embarrassment and loss of credibility he caused them and the Hall—was not forthcoming. A few workers, emboldened by recent events, took him to task, asking, among other things, why he used the word "we" in his controversial letter when he wasn't speaking for anyone but himself.

Although baseball often tries to portray itself as a sport devoid of the political intrigue that frequently embroils society, there is no escaping the heavy-handed, partisan nature of Petroskey's actions. After offending both his staff and baseball fans nationwide, it seems obvious that he has become a detriment to the Hall of Fame. And while his job may not be in jeopardy, Petroskey will clearly never be the visionary executive the institution needs: someone who can not only move the organization forward, but also cater to the concerns of the fans rather than the politicians. Bill Veeck was such a person. Branch Rickey was another. Too bad Petroskey never bothered to learn the history of the very institution he was supposed to lead.

—EFQ

ERIC ENDERS is a baseball writer and historian living in Cooperstown, New York. From 1998 through 2001 he was a staff researcher at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Research Library.

This column first appeared in EFQ 20:3, Summer 2003

© 2003 Eric Enders

BACK TO TOP


In the Batter's BoxBring Us HomeOn the NewsstandSample an Issue
Submit a storyTell a FriendAdvertise with usOur First at batPrivacy Statement


© 1999 - 2006 Elysian Fields Quarterly Web Master Dahlke Designs