It is best to visit Ishpeming in summer because, and here you are asked to contain your mirth (just as you do when you think of something funny in church), the Ski Hall of Fame is closed in winter. Ray Leverton, the part-time caretaker, will be happy to show you around by appointment almost any time, but the Hall of Fame gets most of its 3,000 annual visitors in July and August, when the Upper Peninsula comes alive with fishermen. In winter life is far quieter as Ishpeming's 8,000 residents, a decline from the 10,000-plus who lived there before the area's underground iron mines began closing down, exchange Finnish jokes ("Hear the one about the Finlander who tried to build a basement on his ice-fishing shack?") and work their snow into 10-foot banks that give Ishpeming the appearance of a walled city.
Ishpeming's Suicide Hill is one of the nation's oldest ski jumps, and it was in Ishpeming in 1904 that the U.S. Ski Association, now based in Denver, was born. But the town's development as a commercial ski center has lagged behind such Michigan locales as Ironwood and Boyne Mountain and tourist traffic does not justify keeping the Ski Hall of Fame open in the winter on the $10,000 budget provided by the distant ski association. The wonder is that the shrine is as presentable as it is, a snowflake-clean building with the knotty-pine coziness of a lodge hall. That exhibits tend toward bulletin boards covered with yellowing clippings from the local Mining Journal adds to the rustic flavor, as does the fact that Gretchen Fraser's name on the hall's scroll of 123 immortals comes out "Gretchen Frazer."
The sponsoring U.S. Ski Association and Ishpeming civic leaders accuse each other of failing to properly promote the shrine. At one point Leverton stopped by the office of Charles (Bob) Markert, who welcomes visitors to Ishpeming as executive vice-president of the local chamber of commerce even while he helps them leave as manager of a travel agency. Greeting Leverton, Markert cried: "Hey, somebody came by the other day and asked when the Hall of Fame was open, and you know, I couldn't even tell him."
"Well, there's a sign on the door," Leverton replied.
"That's two miles away," Markert scolded. "I sure can't see it from here."
Markert's travel agency might have charted a different itinerary, but I wound up next in the Lower Peninsula city of Kalamazoo, home of fast-growing Western Michigan University, whose chronic classroom shortage did not prevent it from converting a large room into a home for the National Collegiate Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame. The shrine ended up at Western only after both Amherst and Williams, opponents in the first college baseball game in 1859, told the sponsoring National Collegiate Baseball Coaches Association they were not interested. The Michigan school was happy to step in; it is a perennial baseball power and played host to the first College World Series in 1947.
The Kalamazoo shrine is not among the biggest, what follows being a more or less complete catalog of relics displayed: six or seven baseballs, a few team photographs, two old bats, a gilded glove, a coin tossed before that first College World Series. As for immortals, these consist of 39 baseball coaches, each honored by a plaque on the wall. According to Bob Culp, Western's athletic business manager, it is not unusual for an enshrined coach to travel 2,000 miles or more to view his plaque in Kalamazoo. "Most of them are very moved," Culp told me. Of course, what they see is not altogether new to their eyes. Culp said that upon selection into the Hall of Fame, every coach was given a duplicate plaque for his home or office.
My next destination was a shrine called the Hall of Champions in San Diego, which is practically virgin territory for halls of fame. Most American games took root in the East, and it is at the Cooperstowns, Springfields and other so-called cradles of sport that their shrines are found. Few sports have their national shrines in the West, an exception being the National Softball Hall of Fame, which, along with the Amateur Softball Association of America, moved from Newark to Oklahoma City seven years ago. More typical are such local operations as the Pepsi-Cola-sponsored Arizona Basketball Hall of Fame or the Coke-backed Arizona Football Hall of Fame, both of which get by without buildings but hold induction dinners washed down, we may be sure, by something cool and carbonated.
But occasionally one finds a shrine in the Western U.S. exemplifying the same spirit that built Hoover Dam. It is only a rumor that a shrine honoring the ladies of the Barbary Coast pleasure palaces—a Hall of Ill Fame—will open soon in San Francisco, but Los Angeles' remarkable Helms Athletic Foundation still exists, delivered last year from the brink of bankruptcy by United Savings and Loan. Now known as the United Savings-Helms Athletic Foundation, it recently moved into the savings-and-loan company's headquarters. It must have been some move, for the awards-happy foundation—it has given out 100,000 trophies, scrolls and medals over the years—consists of two dozen shrines under one roof, including the Helms Soaring Hall of Fame (the Wright Brothers are members) and the Helms Fencing Hall of Fame (D'Artagnan is not), plus separate halls for volleyball, weight lifting and college athletic trainers.
In its own way, San Diego's Hall of Champions is every bit as ambitious as Helms, for it apparently expects its members to be not just immortals but saints, too. Thus it was that the San Diego shrine once delayed induction of native son Don Larsen a full year because of his reputation as one of baseball's most practiced playboys. At least, so said Leo Calland, the Hall of Champions' longtime manager, who explained: "We expect our members to come in with a clean shirt."