The elegance that otherwise characterizes the Saratoga shrine is at odds with the blatantly commercial souvenirs it stoops to sell, including perfumed horse manure at $1.25 the bag. But Saratoga's selection of souvenirs pales next to the medallions, tie clasps, ashtrays, pennants and color slides I found on sale the next day at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. If the souvenir stand there has a breathlessness about it, so does the rest of the basketball shrine, which has set for itself the formidable task of covering the game on all levels—professional, college, AAU, even high school. There are the usual relics, such as a hunk of wood from the Armory YMCA where James Naismith invented basketball in 1891, and the walls are practically papered with group photos of basketball teams.
Located on the campus of Springfield College, the rectilinear and airless building looks from the outside like an arsenal, as if to symbolize Springfield's historic role as producer of small arms for the U.S. military. Actually, the simple design was an economy move that enabled Springfield civic leaders, who had inherited the project from the National Association of Basketball Coaches, to complete the building in 1967. That was six years after a foundation had been laid and then abandoned, leaving a gaping excavation that one local newspaper called "the hole of shame."
To compensate for a meager annual attendance of 20,000, the Hall of Fame not only peddles souvenirs but also prominently displays brochures offering visitors low-cost group life insurance, with an appeal to name the Hall of Fame the beneficiary. Its director, Lee Williams, who once coached basketball at Colby College, is confident that attendance will pick up, and he is enthusiastic about his shrine's hall of illuminated stained-glass windows, one for each of its 76 immortals. "It's awesome, isn't it?" he asked after I toured the hall. "When people get in there, they start to whisper. It's kind of a mood thing."
Williams is the Hall of Fame's curator, archivist, fund-raiser and publicity man all rolled into one, and I spied a letter on his desk that indicated another of the many tasks he performs. Addressed to a Montana State College basketball star of the 1920s, the envelope read: Cat Thompson, Idaho Falls, Idaho.
"Oh, that?" Williams said. "I send birthday cards to all our living members. Just a custom I started." To the outsider, it seemed an inspired touch, one calculated to bring pleasure to members of the Basketball Hall of Fame, even as it brings profit to the sponsor of TV's Hallmark Hall of Fame.
Any doubts that halls of fame were peculiarly an American phenomenon disappeared after my arrival at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. It is true that Europe honors its heroes with great tombs and statuary, and also that Chaucer, himself an old hand at pilgrimages, wrote a poem in which he was transported by an eagle to an imaginary House of Fame. But modern-day shrines? The Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto is just another outcropping of American culture in Canada—indeed, it could easily be confused with the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth, Minn.—while Japan's long-established Baseball Hall of Fame, consistent though it is with the Shinto practice of ancestor worship, was openly modeled on Cooperstown.
Leave it to Americans to confer immortality by ballot, and then to dress up the process with the kind of can-do boosterism that runs rampant in Canton. The Pro Football Hall of Fame holds its induction ceremonies during "football's greatest weekend," an occasion, co-sponsored by the chamber of commerce, that includes a parade with floats and beauty queens, a $25-a-plate dinner for 900 and, finally, an NFL exhibition game at adjacent 19,000-seat Fawcett Stadium.
The Football Hall of Fame has the smell about it of crisp greenbacks and newly minted coin, an odor redolent of a huge infusion of capital—$800,000 from the promotion-minded NFL, another $500,000 from Canton industry—that has enabled it to patiently build its attendance following uncertain beginnings. Last year it drew 122,000, and it expects to reach the break-even point—roughly 160,000—this year. Clearly riding a wave, it continues to defer to Cooperstown as the No. 1 shrine, but it is the slightly grudging deference that the nouveau riche pay to established families whose time has passed.
"We're the on-the-go Hall of Fame," says Don Smith, whose position, that of full-time publicity man, is one that few other shrines can afford. Smith prepares spot plugs for the Hall of Fame that are aired during televised NFL games, and he keeps the Canton dateline in the public eye by disseminating press releases to a mailing list of 950. Showing me through the shrine, a futuristic building crowned by a conical dome shaped like a football (although this was realized only upon completion), Smith called my attention to Red Grange's ice tongs, then showed me a mound of earth, pebbles and all, dug out of the home field of the old Canton Bulldogs. Maybe it was because Canton is the home of Hoover vacuum cleaners, but this last was balanced by a display of AstroTurf.
It is a common figure of speech that somebody has earned a niche in the Hall of Fame, but Canton literally does have niches—individual spaces, each with bronze bust and portrait, for all 63 of its immortals. It was largely because of the space devoted to these niches that this past spring, just eight years after the Hall of Fame opened, a $625,000 wing was added. "Of course, we can't build a new wing every eight years," Smith admitted. "We'll have to reevaluate the situation." It was a welcome assurance, for one had the nightmarish vision of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, its hunger for expansion fed by NFL dollars, eventually stretching to Ishpeming, Mich., home of the National Ski Hall of Fame.