Where on earth are the 'Elusive 15?'
Reds Hall of Fame is missing 15 autographs, but features decades of history
In Cincinnati, the phrase "Great Eight" sparks all kinds of memories of the golden era of Reds baseball: When teammates were together for a decade and 100-win seasons and realistic chances for multiple World Series titles were just a normal way of life.
Johnny Bench. Pete Rose. Joe Morgan. Tony Perez. Dave Concepcion. George Foster. Ken Griffey. Cesar Geronimo. The Great Eight, unsurprisingly, is well-represented in the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum. But so is another, perhaps lesser-known, less celebrated group. Have you ever heard of the Elusive 15?
No? Don't sweat it -- few of us have, which is why they're labeled as elusive, and why the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum is asking for help.
The Elusive 15 is quite the opposite of the Great Eight and the Big Red Machine. It's made up of former Reds players who we've never heard of and, more importantly, who have left behind no traceable autographs. More than 1,500 players have worn Reds uniforms since 1920, and the museum has in its possession -- right now -- autographs from all of them. Except for 15.
So if you happen to know someone whose cousin is married to the sister of the neighbor who knew your great-uncle's grandfather's wife's brother, and he's related to Junie Barnes, see if ol' Barnsie maybe left behind a signed baseball card. Or even just a note to his wife. The Reds would like to talk to you.
Barnes played in two games for the Reds in 1934. That service time is in line with most of the Elusive 15, although a few exceeded the 30-game mark during their brief tenures in Cincinnati: John Gillespie (31 games, 1922); Cliff Markle (35 games, 1921-22); Gus Sandberg (31 games, 1923-24) and Joe Schultz (33 games, 1925). The rest appeared in 20 or fewer games and comprise a Reds Hall of Fame Most Wanted list of sorts.
The attention on this group is partly in jest, of course. While the Elusive 15 is very much a part of the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum this year, this is in no way a suggestion that it's the most significant. The focus is not what the Reds museum doesn't have. It's what it does have, and that list is extensive and impressive.
Every year, the museum presents a new display that highlights something significant related to Reds baseball. In 2010, it celebrated the 20th anniversary of the 1990 World Series championship team. A Johnny Bench exhibit highlighted the Hall in 2011, and last year it dedicated the seasonal display to Barry Larkin, who was inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum last July.
This year's exhibit, titled "Signature Reds," took some time to put together and couldn't have been implemented without the assistance of two Reds fans who have no ties to the museum other than trusting it implicitly with a good-faith loan of immeasurable value. Dick Huebner and Jay Neill, who have taken autograph collecting to eye-popping levels, have provided the autographs of every player -- minus the aforementioned 15 -- in modern-day Reds history, from 1920 until now.
The exhibit, sectioned off by decades, occupies almost every inch of the dimly-lit first floor of the sprawling 15,000 square foot museum and speaks directly to the fascination baseball fans have always had with obtaining autographs from their favorite player.
"Autographs used to be a phenomenon where you'd write to your favorite player, and they'd send something back to you," said Rick Walls, the museum's executive director. "There wasn't always the idea of, 'I'm going to charge you for it.' Players do a great job with it over the railing. You always see that image of that kid reaching over, the smile on the kid's face as his favorite player -- or soon to be favorite player, because as soon as he writes it, he's the favorite player. That's what keeps baseball going."
Huebner and Neill spent more than 20 years, separately, collecting the autographs. One focused mostly on the beginning of time to 1958, and the other from '58 to present day.
Amazingly, it took only two men to cover almost the entire modern-day history of Reds baseball.
"If you played one day, you're on the wall," Walls said.
The Signature Reds display is a microcosm of the entire Reds museum, but in some ways, it could also serve as a metaphor for baseball fandom in general. If baseball truly connects generations, then there's no better way to do so than to have five on display -- a mix of superstars and mostly ordinary players -- in one room. It's likely whoever walks in will find at least one relatable element.
"You get a parent and a kid or a grandparent and kid, and when they come to the Hall of Fame, they become much closer in age," Walls said. "They have something they can share. They have a common theme or bond. All of a sudden, there's the second baseman Joe Morgan who kids might not know, and then Brandon Phillips. 'I know Brandon, I know Joe.' Then they start to talk about it together."
The museum was built with Reds fans in mind, obviously, but given the franchise's rich history and extensive representation in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, it's likely baseball fans outside of Cincinnati would enjoy a tour as well. The Reds Hall of Fame is the largest team-centric building in the big leagues, and the only one that sits separately from the ballpark. Adjacent to Great American Ball Park, but not attached to it, the museum has two stories dedicated to Reds history in the form of interactive exhibits, galleries and an old ballpark-themed theater that shows a selection of films on Reds history.
One wall -- spanning almost the entire length of the two floors -- displays 4,256 baseballs, one for each of Rose's record-setting hits. The significant ones are marked: the 3,000th, the 4,000th and, of course, the most memorable: no. 4,192, which broke Ty Cobb's record on Sept. 11, 1985.
Rose, who has visited the Reds museum quite a bit, is unsurprisingly partial to this particular display.
"He loves this part of it," Walls said.
Former players showing up to the Hall unannounced is a semi-regular occurrence. In addition to scheduled autograph signing sessions and statue dedications, plenty of Reds alum, many of whom still live in the area, will drop by from time to time, usually without much advanced notice. It helps them keep a low profile and blend in with the crowd.
"We tell fans, you never know what star you're going to run into here," Walls said. "And some of them come every time we have an event. And we're so lucky to have them. You've got guys from the '60s teams that still live around here and from the '61 World Series that are here all the time and fans love them every time they see them."
The 2013 season can also be called, unofficially, "The Year of Joe," as in, Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, who will have a statue dedicated to him at Great American Ball Park in September.
Morgan's statue will be the sixth, joining Ernie Lombardi, Frank Robinson, Joe Nuxhall, Ted Kluszewski and Johnny Bench. New statues go up every two years, alternating with Hall of Fame inductions, which also take place biyearly.
The museum focuses mostly on the past, but one ever-changing exhibit gives a nod to momentous occasions that took place more recently. Titled "History in the Making," this display highlights great moments that may have just happened.
Homer Bailey's equipment -- after he threw his no-hitter in Pittsburgh last September -- for example, was on display within days of the final out. The Pirates also graciously dug up the pitching rubber and sent it to the museum.
"We're one of the first ones to grab a piece of history when it happens," Walls said. "Champagne bottles from the clubhouse celebrations. When a player gets his first win and gets the shaving cream on the face, we have that hat. Jay Bruce's Silver Slugger Award. It's neat to get this stuff and be able to show it to the fans, and do it quickly, too. What happened on the field yesterday is something you may see in the museum today."
The Reds pay homage to everyone and everything, from great players to legendary managers to World Series teams and famous broadcasters. Throw in some interactive kid-friendly activities, and a trip to the museum can be just as entertaining as a trip to the ballpark.
Now, if they could just track down Junie Barnes.