COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. - The letter, which bore a New Jersey postmark, was sent by someone who called himself the "MVP Barber." It came with a small plastic bag attached. Inside the bag, the letter writer claimed, were trimmings from Mike Lowell's eyebrows.
Surely, the MVP Barber wrote, there was a place in baseball's Hall of Fame for these?
"They didn't get in," said Jeff Idelson, vice president of communications and education for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. "They ended up on the cutting room floor. Reminds me of 2004, when people wanted to know if we'd like a piece of Johnny Damon's hair."
Idelson, a native of Newton, Mass., has worked for 13 years at the Hall of Fame since leaving his position as a PR man for George Steinbrenner's Yankees. Part of his job is to help choose and collect artifacts that will be displayed in the museum, located in this village of just over 2,000 in upstate New York, once home to Abner Doubleday, the Civil War general who was credited - inaccurately, as it turns out - with inventing the game of baseball in a local cow pasture. Cooperstown was named after Judge William Cooper, father of author James Fenimore Cooper ("The Last of the Mohicans").
The submission from Mr. MVP Barber was the first involving eyebrows, Idelson said, but oddities abound. Like the guy claiming to be a room service waiter at a Miami Beach hotel, offering to send along Mickey Mantle's toenails ("almost a full set - nine and half of another") that he'd scooped up after delivering a tuna fish sandwich and iced tea to the Mick, who was on the phone and thus distracted when the waiter collected his prize. Idelson saw right through that one ("too stupid"), but decided to have some fun with it.
He told his boss at the time, Bill Guilfoile, and suggested they clip their nails and present them at the next meeting of the committee that screens Hall artifacts. "No, you're too young," Guilfoile said. "My wife and I will do it."
Done. A couple of days later, the men dump the clippings on the table, never expecting to be taken seriously. A discussion ensued. Unbeknownst to Idelson, one curator decided to write the purported donor a letter, expressing the Hall's interest and asking for more information. The curator never said a word a couple of days later, when Idelson and Guilfoile revealed their prank.
"Six months later," Idelson says, "I'm watching CNN, and [Jerry] Seinfeld is talking about a book he'd written the foreword to, a book called 'Letters from a Nut.' The guy writes letters to institutions, like the Hyatt in Milwaukee, saying stuff like, 'I'd like to stay at your hotel but I'm planning to dress like a large banana. Do you have a problem with that?' He was the 'waiter' who wrote to us.
"Seinfeld says, 'Look at these idiots at the Hall of Fame, they wanted Mickey Mantle's toenails.' "
Idelson was mortified. "A joke gone bad," he said. Suspicion lingers in the publishing world, meanwhile, that Seinfeld wrote the letters himself under a pseudonym; he's never come clean.
Of feet and featsEarlier this month, folks were lined up outside the Hall doors to be the first to see the museum's newest exhibit, the one commemorating the 2007 World Series, won by the Red Sox. Idelson was in Denver last month to do some collecting when the Sox completed their four-game sweep of the Colorado Rockies. "I haven't figured out the term," he said, "but I'm kind of the opposite of the Grim Reaper. When I show up, it's a good thing."
Idelson had been in St. Louis in 2004, when the Sox finished their sweep of the Cardinals. When it was over, he asked Curt Schilling for his shoes.
"To me, the compelling artifact was the shoes, because he'd inscribed 'K ALS' on them and we'd had two guys who died of ALS, Lou Gehrig and Catfish Hunter," Idelson said. "Didn't even think about the sock.
"He said, 'Yeah, take the shoes.' Later, when they got back to Boston, Curt had his publicist call me and ask, 'Would you like the sock?' I said, 'Yeah, absolutely.' His wife Shonda's parents brought it up to us a week later."
The bloody sock still draws a crowd, displayed in the same case as perhaps the most notorious artifact of the 2004 World Series, the Mientkiewicz ball, as it came to be known because the Sox first baseman at the time pocketed the ball after the last out of the Series and the team demanded its return. Eventually, the parties worked out an agreement in which the ball was donated to the Hall by Doug Mientkiewicz, the team, and Major League Baseball. No tally on the number of lawyers involved.
The irony, of course, is that after all that hoo-ha, no one claims to know the whereabouts of the last ball of the '07 Series. It was last seen going into the back pocket of catcher Jason Varitek, who put it there before leaping into the arms of Jonathan Papelbon after the Sox closer struck out Seth Smith of the Rockies to finish the sweep. Varitek later said he gave it to Papelbon, who said he didn't have it.
"I have no idea where the ball is," Idelson said. "It's now in the same place as Bobby Thomson's home run ball or Carlton Fisk's ball in 1975. It's lost forever. Because it wasn't authenticated at the time, how would you ever know now if it's the actual ball?"
In 1951, Thomson hit what became known as the "Shot Heard 'Round the World," arguably the most famous home run in baseball history, one that gave the New York Giants a walkoff win over the Brooklyn Dodgers in the last game of a three-game playoff for the National League pennant, after the Dodgers once had led the Giants by 13 1/2 games.
"When Thomson came up here once, I asked him about the ball," Idelson said. "He said that before the first game of the World Series, he was walking into Yankee Stadium, and some kid said, 'Hey, I've got the ball for you. I caught it. Can you get me a couple of tickets?' "
Thomson told the kid he didn't have any tickets, but he'd meet him after the game. "When he got to the clubhouse," Idelson said, "there were nine other balls in his locker, all with notes saying they were the one."
Picking out the piecesIdelson said he never asked Varitek for the ball. Customarily, he doesn't, he said. The only time he did was in 1998, when the Yankees ran the table in the postseason, winning all 11 of their games. Idelson asked Andy Pettitte for the last ball of Game 4, but withdrew his request when Pettitte said his father was very ill and he planned to give it to him.
"Usually, the last-out ball is not that significant," Idelson said. "It's important, it's an important piece of history and we'd love to have it, but there are other items that are more compelling in telling the story."
Idelson and his colleague, Brad Horn, the Hall's director of communications, huddled in Denver and quickly determined the threads of the story of the '07 Series. "Like choosing the chapters in a book," Idelson said.
The first Sox player he approached, on the off day before Game 3, was Varitek. Earlier in the season, the Sox catcher had donated the bat he'd used to hit a home run off Yankees rookie Chase Wright, the fourth successive home run the Sox hit off the unfortunate Wright. The bat, it turned out, had a flaw: The catcher's name was spelled "V-a-r-i-e-t-k." He'd gotten a batch of bats in which his name was misspelled, Varitek said, and thought he'd gotten rid of them all. "He missed one," Idelson said.
What Idelson wanted from Varitek this time was his jersey, with its distinctive captain's "C." Veteran leadership, Idelson said, was an obvious and vital difference between the Sox and youthful Rockies. That same day, he asked rookie Dustin Pedroia for his bat; Pedroia had led off Game 1 of the World Series with a home run, only the second leadoff home run in a Series Game 1 (Don Buford of the Orioles hit the first in 1969).
"He was immediately, 'Absolutely. Do you want it now?' " Idelson said, smiling at the kid's enthusiasm. "I said, 'Why don't you hang onto it, it might have a few more knocks in it, but just remember which one it is.'
"I know from experience that when the Series ends, the clubhouse guy isn't going to know which bat it is. When Luis Gonzalez [of the Diamondbacks] hit that little bleeder off Mariano Rivera [of the Yankees] in 2001, I asked him if I could have the bat and he said, 'Absolutely, it's in the bat bag.' Well, there were five of his bats in there. I had to drag him down to the equipment room and figure out which one it was. It was broken, so he knew where the crack was.
"So I told Pedroia to just remember which one, and we kept it quiet, because you don't want to jinx guys."
Treasure to goOne of the more striking aspects of the '07 Series exhibit, Idelson said, is that it has nothing from either of the team's ace pitchers, Josh Beckett and Schilling, or the team's biggest boppers, David Ortiz and Manny Ramírez. The omissions are intentional. The Sox don't win the Series without them, of course, but in Idelson's judgment, the dominant theme of the Series was Boston's depth and its youth. So he sought a bat from Jacoby Ellsbury, who in Game 3 became just the third rookie in history to have four hits in a Series game. He asked for shoes from Daisuke Matsuzaka, the first Japanese pitcher to start and win a Series game. He asked for a cap from Mike Lowell, the Series MVP.
He pulled Terry Francona aside and asked for one of the warmups he wears over his uniform. Why do you want that, the manager asked. How many managers have ever won the first eight Series games they'd managed, Idelson replied, knowing the answer was one. "It's right there on the couch," Francona said.
Idelson was doing his treasure hunting, remember, in the middle of the chaos of celebration. Lowell had doffed his cap for one that said "World Series champions," so Idelson conducted a frantic search for the genuine article until he found it, in the bottom of a bucket that usually holds packages of sunflower seeds. He waded through a scrum of reporters to reach Jon Lester, the 23-year-old cancer survivor who won Game 4, and asked for his cap, too.
"He thought about it a little bit," Idelson said. "I think it was special to him. I said, 'It's the only thing we want from you. Your story's compelling. Kids need to be inspired by what you've done. Adults do, too.' "
It was closing in on midnight, Mountain Time, and there was one more thing Idelson needed for the flight home. The bats would be placed in a special case he'd had made after Sept. 11, when he no longer was allowed to carry them on board. The bat case and the bag with everything else he'd collected would remain on his hotel bed until he checked out the next morning. ("You just can't take any chances," he said. "Lose any of this, and it's lost to history forever.") But he still needed something from Papelbon, who saved three of the four wins in the Series.
Earlier, he'd asked Papelbon for his shoes, but after Matsuzaka had given him a pair, Idelson decided to ask for something else: Papelbon's glove. The pitcher came into the clubhouse and said, it's yours.
"I like to tell people," Idelson said, "that Papelbon threw his glove in the air after that last out, and it landed in Cooperstown."
Gordon Edes can be reached at email@example.com.