If you thought enduring four extra months of channel surfing while waiting for the 2020 MLB season to show up on your TV screen was a journey, think about author Ralph Carhart’s decade long trek through 34 states (plus two trips to Cuba) through baseball card shows and cemeteries with a battered baseball in a quest to unite every Baseball Hall of Famer from Alexander Cartwright of the New York Knickerbockers of the 1840s to 21st century New York Mets tormentor Chipper Jones. Carhart’s odyssey, the infant days of baseball in America, the more than 300 members of the Baseball of Fame, and a baseball found lodged in a stream in Cooperstown, are the subject of Carhart’s new book The Hall Ball : One Fan’s Journey to Unite Cooperstown Immortals with a Single Baseball (published by McFarland & Company, Inc, 2020) and I had the pleasure of interviewing Carhart about his story.
For Carhart, a 25-year theater veteran and long-time Director and Production Manager at Queens College, the idea of The Hall Ball was born of his interests in early baseball and genealogy and a general curiosity of “what brought us to this place.” A family vacation to Cooperstown that included included fishing a baseball out of a small stream that runs next to historic Doubleday Field and finding the grave of Abner Doubleday’s grandfather (Carhart said that genealogy research involves trips to cemeteries) spawned the idea of this book, namely that Carhart would take a photo of this baseball – the Hall Ball – with every living member and at the gravesite of every deceased member of Baseball’s Hall of Fame.
Carhart said encountering the living Hall of Famers took him a little out of his “comfort zone.” HIs subject’s reactions ran the gamut of responses from enthusiastic and encouraging to baffled. Some like Lou Brock and the late Ernie Banks were fun to talk to while a small handful were rude; the book’s description of his encounter with Johnny Bench is stunning but Carhart was non-judgmental about it. Having worked with major theatrical stars in his career, he said anyone can have a bad day, and maybe he encountered Bench on a bad day.
On the other hand, his encounter with Mike Piazza was moving. A native of Troy, New York and long-time New York City resident, Carhart was blocks from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 so Mike Piazza’s home run in the first game after 9/11 affected him deeply as a New Yorker and a Mets fan. As he tried to keep himself composed, Carhart said, “Piazza had a very welcoming energy. His mere demeanor helped me be at ease, considering how important he is to me.”
The bulk of the project involved photographing the Hall Ball at the gravesite of most of the Hall of Famers. Some gravesites were ornate; a few were unmarked. Given that more than 19,000 individuals have played major league baseball and only about 300 are in the Hall of Fame, I found the occasional unmarked grave a dramatic juxtaposition. To his credit, Carhart was able to help get graves marked for some like Sol White of the Negro Leagues and is involved in a larger project of getting graves marked for all those who played major league baseball in the 1800s. Another rewarding experience Carhart said was being joined by 30 descendants of Pud Galvin, MLB’s first 300 game winner who played from 1875-1892, at his gravesite.
The Hall Ball also includes a synopsis of baseball’s earliest incarnation in each state visited by the author which Carhart said grew out of his love of 19th century baseball and the unifying theme of “baseball is everywhere.” Carhart gives his due to cities long forgotten as “major league” baseball cities such as Providence, New Haven, and Newark. In fact, Carhart said this experience of researching and writing this book has made him a “legitimate (semi-pro) historian” of baseball who is at work on another book and also an active member of the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR).
The actual Hall Ball is now housed at The Baseball Reliquary at Whittier College in Pasadena, California. Ralph Carhart manages to project the 200 year history of baseball in The Hall Ball while also portraying the humanity of the people engraved on the plaques at Cooperstown. It’s well worth reading.