Baseball archive, game librarian a hit with fans

May 16, 1994|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff Writer

The answer to any baseball question that has an answer lies beyond a portrait of Casey Stengel, the fabled New York Yankees manager who once quipped: "You could look it up."

Baseball Hall of Fame librarian Tom Heitz had to go looking for answers the day the call came to Cooperstown, N.Y., from inmates seeking to settle a jailhouse bet.

"They were calling from a state pen out in Oregon," says Mr. Heitz. "And they wanted to know about Manuel 'Jungle Jim' Rivera."

To look it up, Mr. Heitz went to the Hall of Fame archive down the hall from the Stengel portrait.

Did the inmates want to know that the Chicago White Sox outfielder led the American League in stolen bases with 25 in 1955?

Did they care that he hit 16 triples in 1953, more than any other American Leaguer?

Not really.

They wanted to know what Jungle Jim served time for.

Along with the record of his achievements on the diamond, Manuel Rivera's criminal record resides with some 6 million baseball documents -- including the original sheet music to "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" -- in a library on the ancestral home of James Fenimore Cooper.

"He was convicted by an Army court martial of attempted rape and served four years in an Atlanta penitentiary prior to his rookie year in 1952," says Mr. Heitz, 53, reading from the library's Rivera file. "It caused a lot of controversy. There was pressure to ban him from baseball, but [commissioner] Ford Frick said he'd already been punished."

To be paid to manage such information -- along with the box scores of nearly every major and minor league game and thesis papers on the evolution of uniform collars -- is considered one of the most coveted jobs in the library world.

"Right up there with being director of the Marvel comic book library," he says, laughing.

Mr. Heitz frequently is invited to share tales of books and baseball with groups around the country, as he did earlier this month in a speech to the Special Library Association of Baltimore, which held its annual meeting at the Camden Club overlooking Oriole Park. And he sometimes instructs fellow librarians -- whom he considers a far too serious lot -- in the art of the "high five" for good work behind the reference desk.

Like most of his peers, Tom Heitz did not dream of becoming a librarian when he was growing up in Kansas City, Mo.

He spent a lot of hours practicing the violin and many more waiting for his law professor father to come home so they could take turns pitching in the back yard.

"I had to practice my scales for three to four hours before I could play baseball, and my violin instructor was in some anxiety over my baseball career," says Mr. Heitz. "He didn't have to worry. I was too near-sighted to be a hitter."

Aiming to become a law professor like his dad, Mr. Heitz went to law school. His plans were interrupted when he joined the Marines in 1966, and after his discharge he took a job as an assistant law librarian at the University of Puget Sound, while attending library school at the University of Washington.

A dozen years ago, while Mr. Heitz was working as a law librarian for the attorney general of New York, a friend told him that the library job at Cooperstown was open. To the opening, he brought his love of the game and his resume.

"They appreciated the fact that I was a fan, but you don't have to love your subject to do a good job," he says.

And so Tom Heitz landed the job and was handed a mandate: Open up the stuffy archive to the public and try to make it as enjoyable as the game whose heritage it preserves.

"Up to that point, it was a private hunting preserve for scholars and the privileged," says Mr. Heitz of the library, established in 1939. "The standard was that you had to be a serious researcher to get into our files, but who can tell that by looking at someone?"

Today, the library is open to anyone. "We don't care how serious or whimsical you are, whether you're doing your dissertation or looking up Uncle Charlie's batting average when he was in the Piedmont League," he says.

He also instituted a paper preservation program to protect documents, such as the 1921 contract for the sport's first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis; oversaw construction of a new library that opened last December; and takes part in re-enactments of crude bat-and-ball games that preceded baseball as we know it.

Yet for all the passion he carries for baseball, there is a recreation that Tom Heitz loves even more.

"Reading at bedtime should be the national pastime."

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