It might surprise even the pretzel vendors and newsboys outside on Manhattan's Seventh Avenue, but within the dim regions of the arena from which it takes its name there exists a modest little museum called the Madison Square Garden Hall of Fame. It is one of the sacred shrines of sport, and these, in turn, are as curious a collection of tourist attractions as ever presumed to amuse the populace. Known as halls of fame, they dwell themselves, with few exceptions, in deepest obscurity.
To illuminate the way to some of these holy places, and to offer my own devotions while at it, I started out at Madison Square Garden on the pilgrimage described in these pages. My journey ended a fortnight later in an empty field in New Jersey, a point 35 miles distant but one that took nearly 10,000 circuitous miles to reach. Along the way I stood amid thick woods in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, in a leafy park in Southern California, by the languid waters of Florida's Gold Coast. I read immutable words graven in marble, peered down rows of bronze busts, fastened my gaze upon faded snapshots and epic murals alike. But now, against the chance that irreverences might unavoidably infiltrate this journal, a confession: I kept my head unbowed for fear of missing something.
There was enough to see. The sports world has its Lourdeses and Meccas literally by the hundreds, even if many of them, like the National Wheelchair Athletic Hall of Fame or the Roller Derby Hall of Fame, are not really halls at all, but only rolls of honored names that somebody unfurls now and again for updating, usually with a great show of ritual and rhetoric. Of the halls that exist as physical entities—the ones you actually can visit—your travel agent has probably heard of no more than a handful. Could you reasonably expect him to know that the Lacrosse Hall of Fame happens to be located on the campus of Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University? Or that there exists a Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, much less that it consists of a few framed pictures hung in the state capitol in Jefferson City?
Probably not, no more than he might know about the Madison Square Garden Hall of Fame. To visit it, I followed one of the great rivers of pedestrians that surge through the garment district, then took a tributary into the Garden's broad mall, where Muzak washes over the Niagaralike rumbling of trains in Pennsylvania Station below. There it was necessary to make my way through the thinning crowd—a trickle now—go up an escalator and pass through double doors to a desk where raven-haired Sonia Cabezas, one of the Garden's uniformed guides, looked up from her
New York Times
crossword puzzle and prettily bade me welcome.
The room was quiet, sealed off from the sounds of commerce beyond its wood-paneled walls. Other than Miss Cabezas, it was empty, which might be taken as a bad omen. While attendance—50,000 last year—exceeded that of many other halls of fame, the economics of space in Manhattan was such that the Garden had briefly considered converting the 3-year-old shrine into a bar. Actually, the problem was said to be twofold: not Only did too few people visit the place, but those who did often found the pleasures received did not equal in value the $1 admission charge.
"Visitors are occasionally disappointed," Miss Cabezas acknowledged. "They say things like, 'Gee, I thought there'd be more to it than this.' And I tell them, 'What do you expect, basketball players standing around signing autographs?' " It was a fair enough question, although as museums go, this one did seem rather barren. There was a handsome statue of Joe Gans, the old lightweight champion, and exhibits on the history of the Garden were well done. But the Hall of Fame was deficient in the kind of relics usually exhibited at such shrines, those ordinary implements of sport that, because they enjoy some connection with revered figures, take on piety by association.
These relics posed a test of faith: it was necessary to accept on trust, for example, that a spangled jacket on display had actually been worn by ice skating's Roy Shipstad, although it was somewhat easier to credit as authentic the basketball shoes—they were size 15—said to have been worn by Wilt Chamberlain. Such items being few, it is more rewarding to explore the Garden's choice of immortals, which is the term halls of fame customarily apply to their inducted members, the deceased as well as the living.
The Garden honors 88 such personages, their names etched on silver tablets handed down from some private Sinai. One bears the names of Don Budge and Bill Tilden, both of whom are also enshrined—can one be twice immortal?—in the National Lawn Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport. Another tablet lists such masters of the ring as Jack Dempsey and Sugar Ray Robinson, who are also honored in the World Boxing Hall of Fame, located in the offices of Ring magazine above a taxidermist's shop a block away. Gene Autry, star of many a Garden rodeo before he lassoed the California Angels, is included in the pantheon, too, although he is also a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville and a cinch for eventual election to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma City, which accepts only those who have gone to the great bunkhouse in the sky. Let nobody think that only sport honors its heroes.
Perhaps it was merely impatience to get on to the next shrine, the Hall of Fame of the Trotter in nearby Goshen, N.Y., but just 20 minutes was needed to tour the Garden Hall of Fame, and that included an eight-minute film of fragmentary highlights from the Garden's past—a snippet of a Tilden serve, an eyeblink's worth of a Louis hook and so on. This, admittedly, was somewhat less than the time required by one middle-aged woman who has visited the Garden shrine on several occasions, compelled perhaps by the same kind of nostalgia that moves audiences to pay $15 a seat to see No, No, Nanette a few blocks uptown. "She sits through that movie eight or nine times," Miss Cabezas said. "Then she comes out all teary-eyed. The first time it happened, she told us her father had just died. She said he used to take her to the Garden when she was a child."
If the Madison Square Garden hall can conjure up lost youth, the one at Goshen recalls an entire misplaced era, one in which the sulky was king. The Tudor-style building, a converted stable opening onto Goshen's Historic Track, faces Main Street, and from his second-story office in what used to be the hayloft, Phil Pines, the director, likes to watch visitors arriving out front. The usual picture he beholds is a 12-year-old girl bolting from the car even before it stops, with the rest of the family trudging behind, but what he might have seen this particular morning was this solitary pilgrim pulling up in an Avis rental car.