Inside the Baseball Hall of Fame Plaque Gallery

People, Sports, Traditions
on July 6, 2011
David Mudd The plaque gallery at the National Baseball Hall of Fame honors baseball’s greatest players.

Only 1 percent of players who make it to the major leagues earn a spot in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, making the famed gallery in Cooperstown, N.Y., truly a hallowed hall. This month, three new plaques—honoring players Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven and executive Pat Gillick—will join 292 existing ones that pay tribute to 205 former Major League players, 27 executives, 35 Negro League players, 19 managers and nine umpires. The 2011 induction ceremony is scheduled for July 24.

American Profile recently spoke with Brad Horn, the Hall of Fame’s senior director of communications and education, about the significance of the Hall of Fame gallery to baseball fans and the sport of baseball.

American Profile: What does the Hall of Fame plaque gallery represent to America?

Brad Horn: The gallery is truly the hallowed ground for all baseball fans. It’s a room with oak-lined walls where the bronze plaques of the game’s greatest players, managers, umpires and executives reside.

AP: How does the plaque gallery tell baseball’s story?

BH: Cooperstown often is referred to as the spiritual home of the game. It’s where the heartbeat of baseball history lives and breathes. Great baseball players live on forever because of the Hall of Fame. The emotion felt within this room, from visitors to hall-of-famers alike, is why baseball history is perhaps more cherished than in other sports. The hall has an aura of being sacred ground where a baseball fan can see all the immortals live on in one location. It evokes great emotion among fans and is an emotional conduit for baseball memories. As fans walk through the museum and then come to the Hall of Fame gallery, they suddenly see the evolution of baseball players across 150 years of history, beginning with Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth [elected in 1936] and soon to extend all the way through one of this summer’s electees, Roberto Alomar, who played as recently as seven seasons ago. [A player has to be retired for five years before he can be considered.] There’s a reverence here that’s not found anywhere else in baseball.

AP: How special is it to be elected into the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America?

BH: Nearly 18,000 men have played in the major leagues, but only 205 have earned election. So the odds are just over 1 percent of anyone to make it to the majors that they’ll end up with a plaque on the wall. These are baseball’s very best.

AP: How do baseball fans view the experience of visiting the Hall of Fame?

BH: Visiting Cooperstown is often seen as a pilgrimage, sometimes even fulfilling a lifetime dream. Baseball fans often leave the gallery feeling that they have achieved a lifelong goal on their “bucket list.” When they arrive, an older gentleman may want to go right to the plaques of Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle, while a younger fan might go immediately to see Tony Gwynn or Cal Ripken Jr. They generally want to see the players that they’ve followed during their own life. As far as the portraits themselves, many fans of baseball may have heard of Walter Johnson or even Ty Cobb but don’t know what they looked like. So through the hall’s bronze portraits, they can visualize a bit more of how a player looked at the prime of his playing career.

AP: Do the hall-of-famers get to preview the plaques before they’re unveiled?

BH: The inductee doesn’t actually see the artist rendering or the plaque text until the actual induction ceremonies. These plaques are created discreetly and arrive here in Cooperstown under lock and key. Only at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony does the individual see the plaque for the first time. The reaction of those players when they see themselves cast in bronze is a great moment in and of itself.

AP: Because few players today get to play in the same uniform throughout their career, and because their career may span many years, how do you decide which representation and uniform go on the plaque?

BH: It’s challenging on many fronts because a Hall of Fame career is just that: It’s the totality and culmination of a life’s work and a career spent at the highest level of play. A player doesn’t get into the Hall of Fame just on one good year or one event. It’s the entire body of his work. So it’s kind of incongruous to pick an image that represents a moment of time. There can be issues with facial representation. A baseball career typically lasts 15 to 20 years so, by the time a player retires, his facial features may have changed many times. We try to help the artist pinpoint which era is the most accurate representation to capture an entire career. We work heavily off of historical photographs and ask ourselves, “If the plaque could come to life, what would be the look and the demeanor of the individual player?” For instance, some players are gregarious with a large smile. They played the game with a smile on their face. Some aren’t smilers, and that’s the way they played the game. As far as the team logo, we look at where the player’s career was broadly defined, and that dictates what era he’s captured in. Bottom line: A hundred years from now, if the Hall of Fame plaque was the only representation of a player that existed, could a fan get an idea of how this player looked and how he played the game through this portrait and these 90 words on a plaque?

AP: Mindy Ellis, of Bethel Park, Pa., has been the primary artist sculpting the Hall of Fame portraits since 1995. How do you work with her to develop the final product?

BH: We provide imagery that represents a player at many different times within his career to help Mindy take different physical features into account. She sculpts the portrait in clay in a formatted mold and then we review images of her work so we can dissect it and look at varying perspectives. It’s a very collaborative process. There are usually two to three exchanges before a final portrait is approved, which is cast in bronze. Our Hall of Fame staff writes the text that is included on the plaque.

AP: How do you maintain continuity in the plaques across generations?

BH: Because these bronze plaques have been here for 70-plus years and we have maintained a consistency of style, there is elegance and beauty in what the Hall of Fame gallery represents. There have been changes in artists and casting companies. Since 1983, our plaques have been cast in bronze by Matthews International in Pittsburgh, and Mindy is the foundry’s portrait artist. Mindy’s work is consistent with early Hall of Fame portraits, while also having a unique style. When you view all the plaques beginning with Ty Cobb in 1936 through today, you can see the level of detail contained within each plaque from the mid-’90s forward. Mindy does a great job of bringing to life the character that is a Hall of Fame member. You would think they would be lifeless, but each one actually contains a great deal of emotion.

AP: Mindy will have done her 60th plaque portrait by this year’s induction ceremony.  That’s an interesting contribution to be so anonymous.

BH: Her work is anonymous, but that’s part of how we view what we all do at the Baseball Hall of Fame. It’s the role of being shepherds for the great history of the sport that means so much to so many.