Shortly after arriving at Huntington Park, the home of the Columbus Clippers, a front-office employee by the name of Joe Santry offered to give me a tour of the five-year-old facility.
"How long a tour do you want?" he asked me, a cheery smile spreading across his face. "The longest one I've given was 11 hours."
Santry wasn't joking -- or at least I don't think he was. Either way, it's entirely plausible that he would indeed be able give an 11-hour tour of Huntington Park, or maybe even one that lasts for several days. For, in addition to his role as the Clippers' director of media and communications, Santry serves as official team historian. Professional baseball in Columbus dates back to the 1880s, and the Clippers' previous home of Cooper Stadium (1932-2008) hosted more ballgames than any stadium in the history of Minor League Baseball.
So yeah, Joe Santry has a lot to talk about.
Santry is in his third decade of working for the Clippers, having been employed by the team for longer than some of his co-workers have been alive. His work as team historian is evident throughout Huntington Park, a downtown facility that opened in 2009 to rave reviews throughout the industry. Photos and memorabilia from the team's long and (occasionally) illustrious past are displayed prominently throughout the ballpark, and, as Santry is fond of pointing out, each of these artifacts "has a story to tell."
"We're working on getting a photo of every player who ever played professionally [in Columbus]," said Santry. "We try to talk to every ballplayer or their family. We're only missing 19 players right now, and we're using Ancestry.com in reverse to get in touch with their families."
"About once a month we get a package from a former ballplayer," he continued. "Recently we got Grover Hartley's bat. He was a catcher [in Columbus] in the '20s, and played until he was 56. We don't necessarily want to feature the greatest players. We want to tell every story. We don't want to let anything die."
Eighteen Hall of Famers have plied their trade in Columbus at some point in their careers; Mariano Rivera (a Clipper in 1994 and '95) will be the 19th, and his '95 Clippers teammate Derek Jeter will undoubtedly head into Cooperstown shortly thereafter. Santry has assembled a display of memorabilia in honor of Jeter's 1995 season in Columbus (including a looping video of his first hit with the club), but a quick stroll down to the team's Hall of Fame Bar illustrates the true extent of his desire to not let anything die. The four-sided bar is decorated with thousands of photos of Clippers players, arranged in chronological order.
"I was in here recently and heard a group of women yelling, 'Luke Danes! Luke Danes!' said Santry. "And I'm thinking to myself, I don't know anyone named Luke Danes. But it was [pitcher] Scott Patterson. It turns out he went on to become an actor, and he was on Gilmore Girls. I tell you, I learn more from the women here than I do anyone else."
As the tour progressed, the stories continued. Position-specific vitrines (glass display cases) mounted on alternating concourse poles prompted Santry to tell the stories of Evar Swanson ("the fastest player ever") and George "Go-Go" Spriggs, a star with the Columbus Jets whose path to the Major Leagues was blocked by Roberto Clemente. Even taking the stairs is an opportunity for discussion, as the walls are decorated with team murals painted annually by students attending the Columbus School of Art and Design.
"This guy, he must have failed," said Santry, pointing to one of the murals. "It looks like he painted these five years in a row."
Santry, bespectacled and wearing a striped collared Clippers shirt and Clippers cap, clearly loves being at the ballpark. His enthusiasm for Columbus baseball history is contagious and his demeanor upbeat. As we walked through Huntington Park, he frequently stopped to say hello to gameday employees, referring to them as "legends" in a good-natured, grandfatherly tone of voice (I half-expected him to pull a quarter out from behind someone's ear).
But Josh Samuels, the Clippers' director of social media, maintains that Santry is the true ballpark legend.
"Joe doesn't like to brag about himself, but..." begins Samuels, going on to explain that Santry was once the only registered baseball historian at the Baseball Hall of Fame. He has also been in charge of writing the "pro" and "con" arguments for candidates being considered by the Hall's Veterans Committee and was flown to the set of The Natural as a historical advisor.
Santry was out of earshot while Samuels explained these things. He clearly didn't want to talk about himself; he wanted to tell stories. The stories are the thing.
Did you know that [Cooper Stadium namesake] Harold Cooper's first job in baseball was wiping mold off hot dogs with a rag dipped in vinegar? Or that a 1917 Columbus ballpark collapse was caused by the crowd sitting down in unison after standing for a marching band rendition of the National Anthem? Or that the first Columbus team to have numbers on their jerseys was the 1926 Senators, who went a less-than-stellar 39-125?
It all comes to a crescendo when, back in the Hall of Fame Bar, a picture of the 1884 Columbus Buckeyes yields colorful stories about the man who inspired the term "southpaw" (Eddie "Cannonball" Morris), a deaf player who prompted umpires to invent "safe" and "out" calls (Eddie "Dummy" Dundon), the inventor of the chest protector (noted lothario Rudy Kemmler) and the inspiration for Ernest Thayer's poem "Casey at the Bat" (Patsy Cahill).
It's an extremely impressive display of baseball knowledge, and suddenly an 11-hour ballpark tour doesn't seem so far-fetched after all.
"I'm no genius; I just tell the funny stories," said Santry, shortly after illuminating the finer points of the 1884 Buckeyes roster.
"No, you are a genius," countered Samuels. "Somebody has to remember those funny stories."