Hall of Fame Dad: A hidden tribute
Photo at museum a poignant reminder of father-son bond
The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum seeks to preserve history, honor excellence and connect generations. It accomplishes this most often by telling stories, and doing so through exhibits, activities, events and publications. But there is only so much show space, so many activities and events that can be planned or printed material that can be published, and sometimes stories slip through the cracks.
Or into them.
During a renovation at the Museum in winter 1994, an employee found a photo lying on the floor where the World War II case had been. The black-and-white photograph showed a man wearing a Sinclair Oil baseball uniform; he was posed with bat in hand, his body offering the lazy leanings of a batting stance made just for show. On the back was a handwritten note from the man's son, Pat, thanking his "Hall of Fame Dad" for never being too tired to play catch and watching all of his games.
The employee passed the photo to Ted Spencer, who is now vice president and chief curator for the Hall. Spencer was able to identify the uniform as one from the late 1930s or early 1940s, and the dinosaur logo helped tab Sinclair as the man's team. Realizing it wasn't a Hall of Famer touched Spencer, who believed the story a perfect response to any baseball naysayers.
"I was overwhelmed emotionally," Spencer said. "It didn't take a brain surgeon or a rocket scientist to figure out what somebody had done. It was very difficult for me to read it to people because I would become emotional. I'd say, 'You have to read this, I can't read it.' And then they would react the same way."
Spencer remembered that Sports Illustrated writer Steve Wulf had recently visited the museum with his adolescent son to collaborate on an article for SI for Kids. Thinking Wulf would find the story of the "Hall of Fame Dad" poignant, he sent a copy of the photo and a note to the writer. Wulf eventually wrote a piece for Sports Illustrated's baseball preview issue, published April 4, 1994.
In that piece, Wulf chose not to seek out Pat, instead regarding his story as the manifestation all baseball-bound father-son relationships. He also revealed the Hall's debate on how to move forward with the story's tale, before Spencer ultimately decided to place the photo, along with a note explaining its origin, back beneath the case under which it was found.
With the publication of the Sports Illustrated article, it was discovered five days later that the author of the note was Pat O'Donnell, a bar owner in Andover, N.Y. Local reporter Neal Simon of The Wellsville Daily Reporter knew that Sinclair once had a refinery in the town, and he began quizzing older residents. After being referred to O'Donnell and confirming he was the one to leave the photo, Simon told the story of O'Donnell's tribute to his father in the April 10, 1994 edition.
A subsequent Reader's Digest profile in the magazine's April 1995 edition expanded the story to reveal the relationship between Joe O'Donnell, who abandoned his baseball playing dreams to support his family, and his son, who never got to see his father play. The profile in Reader's Digest revealed that the younger O'Donnell once had a broken relationship with his own son, Rick, but had reconnected in 1988, sealing their rekindled bond with a game of catch on Pat's birthday. The next August, Pat created the tribute to his father.
Ben Couch is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.