SI Vault
Joel Sayre
November 19, 1956
A California baker with an Olympian's heart devotes time and money to honoring—and enshrining—athletes of all nations, races and creeds
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November 19, 1956

Mr. Helms's Happy Hobby

A California baker with an Olympian's heart devotes time and money to honoring—and enshrining—athletes of all nations, races and creeds

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It is this museum that brings most of the 100,000-odd visitors to Helms Hall every year. About three-quarters of the visitors are aged from 10 to 17. A squad of hostesses trained in sports lore conducts the kids on half-hour tours of the premises in groups sometimes as large as several hundred. The behavior of the youngsters on these tours is, almost without fail, exemplary. Being all sports-minded, they feel they are in a kind of shrine, for everyone of the 6,000-odd mementos on display belonged to some sports champion or hero or heroine, and each has a story or maybe even a saga behind it. The general tone among these kid groups is one of awed fascination.

But you don't have to be wearing bands on your teeth to be fascinated by the Helms Hall museum. No matter what his vintage, a sports fan of catholic tastes and a relish for the nostalgic could spend a pleasant hour there. I append some of the exhibits that fascinated me:

A racing bicycle of 1880, with its huge front wheel, tiny rear wheel and a section of straight iron pipe for handlebars; the laurel wreaths awarded to Ralph Craig of Michigan for winning both sprints at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912; portraits and landscapes painted by Football Coaches Pop Warner and Bob Zuppke and Middleweight Champion Mickey Walker; a baseball used in a game played at Kingston, N.Y. by two Philadelphia clubs, the Eclipse and the Red Stockings, on June 2, 1862 (the ball's cover is made in one piece); the shoes worn by Seabiscuit in 1938 at Pimlico when he beat War Admiral and brought joy to countless investors, including this one; the shoes, pickled in bronze like a baby's, that Charlie Paddock, "the world's fastest human," wore when he won the 100 meters at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics in 10.8 seconds.

There is, further, an elegant hand-colored photograph of Heavyweight Jake Kilrain, whom it took John L. Sullivan, in his last bare-knuckle fight, 75 rounds to stop at Richburg, Mississippi in 1889 (Vachel Lindsay mentioned this fight in a poem); the pocket-sized, terribly emaciated whisk broom that Pacific Coast League Umpire Jack Powell used for 31 years to brush off home plate; a helmet which belonged to Colonel A. M. Weyand, the football historian, when he starred at West Point as a tackle ( Cadets Eisenhower, Bradley and Van Fleet were on the team in those days, too) against Civilians Rockne and Dorais the time the latter two uncorked the new-fangled forward pass and plastered the Army 35-13. Compared to the space-pilot headguards that footballers wear today, the colonel's helmet looks like a skull cap with ear flaps.

You can also see a pair of pole vault standards with the cross bar set at 15 feet 7� inches, to convey how high Cornelius Warmerdam soared outdoors at Modesto, Calif. 14 years ago for the record he still holds (when you look up at this cross bar you shudder); and a collection of World Series press badges dating back to 1900. (They recall to mind the time in St. Louis at the 1926 Yankees-Cardinals Series, when the late Hype Igoe, covering for the late New York World, discovered just a little before game time that he had lost his badge. The dauntless and ever-resourceful Hype got into the park by removing a plumbing fixture marked PRESS from his hotel bathroom and attaching it to his lapel.)

You might also pause to gaze at a pair of unscuffed football shoes worn by Jim Thorpe when he served as technical adviser during the filming of Jim Thorpe, All-American. Sadly, this is the sole memento the museum possesses of the great Indian who made so much history in football and track. When he died he did not have even a withered press clipping to show for his countless triumphs, only the cleated boots furnished by a studio's wardrobe department.

On exhibition, too, are the gloves used by Jack Dempsey in 1918 to knock out Fred Fulton, the Giant of the North, in 18 seconds and inscribed "To my pal, Puss Halbriter" (now distended and ratty looking with age, they are remindful of the gloves Bobby Clark wore in his old burlesque prize-fight routine); a framed front page of the San Francisco Examiner's sports section for Sunday, Nov. 25, 1898, devoted entirely to California's 22-0 victory over Stanford. Its eight-column streamer headline reads: "RAH, RAH, RAH! CAL-I-FOR-NI-A! U. C. BERKELEY, ZIP-BOOM-AH!" In a boxed interview, Mrs. Jane Stanford, window of Stanford's founder, declares that she "liked the game's spirit and dash." A ringside ticket ($40) to the heavyweight classic at Reno on July 4, 1910 between James J. Jeffries and Jack Johnson which didn't settle white supremacy (stamped on the pasteboard are photographs not only of the fighters but of the promoters, Tex Rickard and Jack Gleason); three colored pictures of the A. G. Spalding world tour in 1888-1889 of Cap Anson's Chicago White Stockings and an all-star team, showing the boys demonstrating our national game at Rome's Villa Borghese and London's Crystal Palace and attending a huge party thrown for them by King Kalakaua of Hawaii; a large photograph of the great Negro welter and/or heavyweight Sam Langford (who stood 5 feet 6� inches and weighed around 170 pounds) in his prime, displaying a build that Praxiteles would have busted his best chisels over; a jacket and trunks worn by High Diver Frank Kurtz at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Five years later, Bomber Pilot Kurtz had to leave them behind in a foot locker when the Japs overran the Philippines, where he was on duty. After the war a Japanese sportsman sent the jacket and trunks to Kurtz's home in Omaha.

To baseball fans, one of the prize exhibits of the whole museum is the glove worn by Walter Carlisle in the only unassisted triple play ever made by an outfielder in organized baseball. With the score tied in the first half of the ninth inning of a Pacific Coast League game on July 18, 1911 between Los Angeles and Vernon (Carlisle's own club), the first two L.A. batters walked; then came a hit-and-run play with the ball blooped to short center field. Carlisle, who was very fast and had been a circus tumbler in his youth, sprinted in and caught the ball just off the turf tips, turned a somersault, touched second, doubling one base runner, sprinted to first and beat the other base runner back to it, then trotted off the field. A few seconds of stunned silence were followed by a five-minute effort of the fans to tear the stands down. In hats that were passed, nearly $1,000 was collected, and with it the fans bought Carlisle a diamond-spangled gold medal to commemorate his impossible feat. The museum has this medal, though minus the diamonds, which Carlisle's widow understandably pried out before presentation. P.S.: Vernon won the game 5-4.

As if all these engaging relics weren't enough (and I have listed merely a small fraction of them), the foundation has thrown in the gold watch chain Abraham Lincoln wore the night he was assassinated and an ax handle, with his name carved in it, which he owned when he was the best freestyle wrestler around New Salem, Ill.

But the museum, the question-answering service and the library are but tributaries of the foundation's mainstream activity, which is honoring athletes and those who have contributed to athletics.

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