Hall of Fame job one to treasure

The Baltimore Sun

In the course of going to his everyday job, Jim Gates has made grown men weep with joy, sorted handwritten accounts of many a famous day and held his childhood idol's most cherished tool.

He might be the only librarian who can inspire envy far and wide.

"I still walk in here all the time and think, 'Oh my God, look at this,'" said the trim 50-year-old with light brown and gray hair. "You realize there's only about 10 million people who would love to have your job."

Gates is chief librarian at the Baseball Hall of Fame. And the lifelong Orioles fan experienced the latest in a long line of thrills last month when he watched Cal Ripken Jr. enter the Hall.

The front room of the Hall's library is unassuming enough, with a mural of old Cooperstown on one wall and two metal shelves of baseball reference tomes behind the desk. But that space is merely the jumping-off point for a collection of 2.6 million books, photographs, film reels and rare documents that occupies three floors.

It's the kind of place where a librarian's cubicle is decorated not only with a family photo, but also with the gold record Abbott and Costello received for their recording of "Who's on First."

When the phone rings, it could be a sportswriter on deadline, a third-grader working on a school project or a drunk trying to settle a $2 bet at the local pub.

For a rabid baseball fan such as Gates, every day brings another revelation.

There are the giant, leather-bound ledgers where league officials kept statistics by hand for decades, with the totals added up in pencil at the bottom of each page. One shelf holds little boxes full of hand-typed note cards covering every transaction from 1911 to the 1970s. Another contains all of the notes and manuscripts from Roger Kahn's baseball books.

More than 100 boxes cluttered a hallway on a recent morning. The Detroit Tigers had just mailed the club's entire archive, and until the treasures within could be indexed, the library had no other place to put them.

"We collect stuff faster than we can process it," Gates said.

He calls one space in the basement the "treasure room." It contains the original manuscript for "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," a rule book for the Eagle Base Ball Club from 1854, and the $25,000 promissory note covering the Yankees' purchase of Babe Ruth.

"It's all here, just this wonderful Americana," Gates said.

Every librarian has a favorite item. Gates' might be the scorecard from the first perfect game, which was labeled the no-hit, no-run, no-one-reach-first game at the time.

"To do what I was professionally trained to do but to do it with this collection is a thrill," he said.

His office betrays his lifelong attachment to Baltimore and Maryland baseball. On one shelf sit an Oriole Bird bobblehead, a Brooks Robinson bobblehead and a picture of Gates' father in his Princess Anne semipro uniform from the late 1940s.

"Before television, baseball was really a social event," he said, reflecting on his father's Eastern Shore childhood.

Gates was born in Bethesda. His father rooted for the Senators, but that struggling franchise held little allure for a youngster compared with the Orioles of Frank and Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell and Paul Blair.

"At the time, the Orioles were such a powerhouse," he said. "You could really learn a lot about the game by watching that team play."

His father's naval deployment took the family to Key West, Fla., in 1966. He was devastated when a hurricane knocked out television service as the Orioles were about to play the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. Fortunately, the games still crackled over Armed Services Radio.

"What a team that was," he remembered. "That was like the perfect season."

The Orioles subsequently played several exhibitions in Key West, and Gates, who had learned of the players mostly from baseball cards, felt enraptured to see them on the local high school field. He later met his idol, Brooks Robinson, "and I found out he was just as nice a guy in person, which was a real treat."

One of his greatest thrills as a librarian came when he held Robinson's glove from the 1970 World Series.

Gates' education in library science took him from Indiana to Boston to a tenured position at the University of Florida. His family was just settling into the warm climes of Gainesville when a friend called and said, "Hey, your dream job is open."

How could a lifelong baseball nut resist the call of Cooperstown, even if a cold day in Florida is the equivalent of balmy spring one in upstate New York?

"Just apply," his wife told him, "so you can say you did it."

He got the job, and the wonders of the collection quickly swept him up. He was going through a random box one day and found himself gripping the scorecard from the game in which Hank Aaron his his 715th home run.

"Oh my goodness, I get to hold this," he recalled thinking. "That'll send shivers down your spine."

Such moments never ceased. It might be Jackie Robinson's retirement letter one day and a folder on Eddie Gaedel labeled "midget problem" the next. Some items, such as a 1905 letter from Hawaii asking league officials what to do about bat corking, were just odd.

For the Ripken induction, his department helped dig up photos and scorecards from key games during the consecutive-games streak.

"I'm just a fan who got lucky," he said. "When you work at a library so special that it makes people cry, that's something."


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