The Hall of Fame Story

We all owe a debt to King Ludwig I of Bavaria. The Pinball Hall of Fame, the Mascot Hall of Fame, the Hot Dog Hall of Fame, the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame - all can thank the early 19th century monarch who was known for his healthy appetite for the culture of the German Middle Ages and fetching women, although not necessarily in that order.

Ludwig was able to exert his kingly influence to indulge his passions. In 1850 he opened the Schönheitengalerie (the Gallery of Beauties) which displayed portraits of 36 of Bavaria’s most breathtaking Frauleins, all of whom had posed for Ludwig’s court painter, Joseph Karl Stieler, over the previous two decades.Three years later he built a classical Greek temple in Munich and lined the walls behind the Doric colonnade with busts of historical figures who had brought glory to the kingdom of Bavaria and the Germanic peoples. He called his creation the Ruhmeshalle - the Hall of Fame.

This is the guy who gave us the Hall of Fame - King Ludwig I of Bavaria.

The idea of a “hall of fame” spread slowly; it did not reach American shores for another half century. The first incarnation in the United States appeared on the campus of New York University (NYU) in 1901. The Hall of Fame For Great Americans was the brainchild of 62-year old Henry Mitchell MacCracken who had established the first school of pedagogy at NYU and risen to the post of Chancellor of the University. MacCracken’s vision called for nominations to the new Hall of Fame by citizens across the country of any American-born person who had been dead at least ten years.

The first 29 inductees to receive busts included Founding Fathers (Franklin, Jefferson, Adams), inventors (Peter Cooper, Eli Whitney), writers (Washington Irving, Ralph Waldo Emerson), artists (Gilbert Stuart, John James Audubon), scientists (Asa Gray), clergymen (William Ellery Channing, Jonathan Edwards), and soldiers and sailors (Ulysses S. Grant, David Farragut). There was no consensus on who was truly a “great American” - only George Washington was inducted unanimously by a board of electors assiduously assembled by MacCracken.

The actual “hall” was an open-air colonnade set on a leafy hillside in the Bronx that was part of the University Heights campus where MacCracken had recently moved the expanding NYU. Stanford White, America’s pre-eminent arbiter of classical sensibilities, designed the graceful curving Beaux Arts structure with enough space for 102 bronze sculptures. The busts were executed by many prominent sculptors, including White’s close friend Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who would be inducted himself in 1920.

The Hall of Fame of Great Americans still resides in the Bronx.

The Hall of Fame of Great Americans was enthusiastically embraced by everyday Americans. Newspapers joined in the lively debates as to who was a “Hall of Famer” and who was not. Special interest groups lobbied extensively - and expensively - with campaigns for and against nominees. As writer Richard Rubin described the mini-mania, “For a while the term ‘Hall of Famer’ carried greater cachet than ‘Nobel laureate,’ and a hilltop in the Bronx seemed, to many, the highest spot in the country, if not the world.”

The Hall of Fame for Great Americans inducted new members every five years until all enthusiasm had been wrung out of the shrine in the 1970s. New York University abandoned the campus and left the Hall to rot. By that time 98 busts had been installed but the inductees from the last election in 1976 would never be memorialized. In recent years New York State has injected a few million dollars into the restoration of the Hall but the century-year old American treasure sits largely forgotten on the campus of what is today Bronx Community College.

In the meantime an estimated 3,000 halls of fame have picked up the torch for the Hall of Fame of Great Americans. The most famous have been shrines to our athletes, beginning with the Baseball Hall of Fame in the 1930s. The first talk about a golf hall of fame took place at Augusta National in 1956 where CBS was televising the Masters for the first time ever. Augusta was proposed as a natural location for such a golf shrine but Bobby Jones, founder of the club and the most respected voice in the game, thought that if a Hall of Fame was indeed organized it belonged in Pinehurst.

By this time golf had had a museum, more or less, for twenty years, maintained by the overseer of the game in America, the United States Golf Association (USGA). George Blossom, a Chicago-born,Yale-educated insurance executive who was a USGA committee member, kickstarted a small museum devoted to the sport in 1936 - before the establishment of the Baseball Hall of Fame. The displays were maintained in the Association offices in downtown New York City but did not feature a Hall of Fame.

In 1950 the USGA moved into an elegant five-story brownstone in Manhattan’s Murray Hill section and set aside two floors for its historical collection. The New Yorker magazine dubbed the small museum “the Louvre of the golfing world” - not exactly the setting for a celebration of “celebrity.” In the 1970s the USGA relocated to the rolling hills of New Jersey horse country and settled into a 1919 mansion designed by architect John Russell Pope who spent much of his career populating Washington D.C. with blindingly white Neoclassical structures like the Jefferson Memorial. The new Golf House museum was set up in small rooms with dark wood paneling more suited to memorabilia of the “gentleman’s game” than voting on hall of fame enshrinement.

The upshot was that when Bobby Jones would die in 1971 the world still did not have a golf hall of fame. But that was about to change - in a major way. The Tufts family, which had owned the Pinehurst resort since Boston soda fountain magnate James W.Tufts developed it in the North Carolina Sandhills in 1895, sold the property to the Diamondhead Corporation, a real estate developer, in 1970. The new owners immediately began to makeover Pinehurst Village from a genteel Victorian enclave to a golf destination more keeping with the 1970s - think bellbottom jeans, wide lapels and loud shirts open to the navel.

At the centerpiece of Diamondhead’s facelift was a glitzy new World Golf Hall of Fame whose main purpose was to promote land sales. CEO Bill Maurer poured $2.5 million into two sparkling white museum buildings fronted by imposing marble columns and surrounded by fountains and reflecting pools. He situated his new confection behind the fourth green at historic Pinehurst #2. An inaugural class of 13 inductees was announced in 1974. Eight of the golfing immortals were still living - Patty Berg, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead. Jones, Walter Hagen, Francis Ouimet, Harry Vardon and Babe Zaharias were deceased.

Nobody in golf was particularly thrilled that a company whose main goal was to sell condominiums had established the first golf hall of fame but all the living honorees showed up for the dedication on September 11, 1974. Even more surprising to onlookers was the appearance of President Gerald Ford as main speaker at the ceremonies. Ford had just taken over the duties as the most powerful person in the world after the resignation of Richard Nixon and the NewYorkTimes called it “the coup of the year.”

But the country had not yet had time to become acquainted with the passions of its new “First Golfer.” This was one function the 38h President was not likely to skip. He played the first three holes of Pinehurst #2 with Palmer, Nicklaus and Player (outdriving Arnie and the Black Knight off the first tee); numbers 4 though 6 with Nelson, Sarazen and Berg; and the final three holes with Snead. Ford’s golfing idol Hogan watched from the gallery as the President carded a 48.

New President Gerald Ford put aside state business to fill out this celestial foursome at the opening ceremonies for the World Golf Hall of Fame.

 

Despite the World Golf Hall of Fame’s glamorous beginnings the museum foundered. Wags noted that the only way visitors could walk to the museum was off the fourth green on #2. And most golfers were coming to Pinehurst to play golf, not study history. Diamondhead had also saturated the Hall of Fame with an inaugural class that did not permit an encore. Consider the less than headline-grabbing group that was inducted in 1975 - Willie Anderson, Fred Corcoran, Joe Dey, Chick Evans, Tom Morris Jr., John Taylor, Glenna Collett Vare, and Joyce Wethered. Jerry Ford was not leaving the White House for a Pinehurst tee time.

Meanwhile the Diamondhead empire was crumbling and it would be devoured whole by a hungry pack of banks in 1981. Two years later the Professional Golfer’s Association took over management of the deteriorating shrine. Still, nobody much cared about the Hall of Fame. But at least it was in the hands of a golfing body and not a corporation selling time shares.The pace of inductees slowed to about a three on the stimpmeter - only Patty Sheehan in 1993, Dinah Shore in 1994 and Betsy King in 1995 before petering out altogether.

The World Golf Hall of Fame’s 71 members would not be stranded in Pinehurst for long, however.The PGA was building a brand spanking new vacation destination in St. Augustine, Florida that it was calling World Golf Village with a pair of championship courses, high-end accommodations and new digs for the World Golf Hall of Fame. In May 1998 the new building welcomed Nick Faldo and Johnny Miller into the Hall of Fame and Palmer, Snead and a 96-year old Sarazen were on hand to validate the new era.