Americans love their halls of fame. That realisation struck me for the umpteenth time the other day, as I read the review of a book called Cooperstown Confidential. The Cooperstown in question is a small and otherwise unremarkable town in rural upstate New York, but which just happens to be the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
The player who is elected to the hall has achieved sporting immortality. Only two or three are honoured in this way each year at a summer ceremony to which baseball lovers flock, in the same way the faithful gather in Rome for the beatification of a saint. The parallels do not end there. As with the Vatican, baseball's aura of tradition and timelessness is tinged with scandal, and this community of 2,000 souls is right in the thick of things. For years now the sport has been embroiled in a complicated controversy over the use of steroids. But for fans, the dispute comes down to a simple question: should players who took performance-enhancing drugs while setting their records be admitted to the hall? Such is the enduring mystique of Cooperstown.
In truth, however, baseball's is merely the most celebrated hall of fame in a country that has hundreds, if not thousands of them. America didn't invent these institutions: credit for that is generally given to King Ludwig I of Bavaria who built a couple of them in the mid-19th century to honour great Germans and great Bavarians. But as it has demonstrated with pizza and countless other foreign imports, America's genius is to take a good idea from anywhere, and conceive so many variations and embellishments on the original theme that finally the idea becomes its own.
Thus it is with halls of fame. Some are majestic, some are sappy, some are earnest, some are tongue-in-cheek stupid. They can be tacky, weird, or crassly commercial. Some sound numbingly dull – any takers for the Accountants Hall of Fame in Columbus, Ohio? Others, though, can be absolutely riveting, even for non-devotees. In a few cases, like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, they alone can be reason enough for visiting America. And if you're here already and behind the wheel, they are one of the best reasons to leave the featureless interstates and explore.
A few years ago I went to Abilene, Kansas, with the intention of writing about Dwight Eisenhower, who was born there. Little did I know that Abilene was the self-proclaimed "Greyhound Capital of the World", boasting the Greyhound Hall of Fame, a grey porticoed building that felt like a temple. Why Abilene? Apparently because the early white settlers used greyhounds to hunt jack rabbits on the prairie, and then started racing them for sport. Today, Abilene is greyhound racing's Cooperstown and Vatican rolled into one.
Many have less lofty aspirations. In Plano, Texas, there's the Cockroach Hall of Fame, run by an enterprising pest exterminator who's tacked it on to the back of his shop. Seymour in Wisconsin has the Hamburger Hall of Fame. In Jackson, Mississippi, there's the Agricultural Aviation Hall of Fame, dedicated to crop-dusters. If farming's your thing, Columbus also boasts the International Drainage Hall of Fame, honouring pioneers in agricultural drainage techniques, while outside Plain City in Ohio there's the Select Sires' Bull Hall of Fame, with photos of a dozen of the local livestock industry's most virile performers over the years.
Many of the biggest and most established, of course, are devoted to sports, both mainstream and less mainstream. They range from the Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, where the NFL was founded in 1920, to the Professional Rodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colorado. And if sports stars have them, why not police, farmers, clowns, astronauts, strippers and everyone else, even Barbie dolls? Fame, after all, is in the eye of the beholder. The bottom line is, wherever you happen to be in the US, you're never far from a hall of fame.
Oddly and sadly though, there's one hall Americans are not so mad about – and it's the father of them all. The Hall of Fame for Great Americans, which opened in 1901, is to be found in the grounds of the Bronx Community College, part of the City University of New York. It was the brainchild of Henry Mitchell MacCracken, a former chancellor of New York University, and inspired by King Ludwig's creations in Bavaria.
This was no quick-fix frivolity, celebrating fame in the transient, often ill-earned modern sense. MacCracken intended his hall to be a national pantheon of its greatest citizens, individuals who had truly shaped the country as it entered what would become "The American Century". The setting is stunning, a large circular colonnade in the classical style, at one of the city's highest points. The honoured number a mere 100, each commemorated by a marble bust. There is not a sports star among them.
Today, the place might as well not exist. A century ago, its membership was as fiercely debated as that of Cooperstown today. Now the Hall of Fame for Great Americans languishes, mostly forgotten, and so broke that it took nine years to raise the $25,000 for the bust of Franklin D Roosevelt, one of the penultimate batch of inductees in 1973. And that, perhaps, explains its downfall.
Before he can be considered for election, a potential Great American must have been dead for 25 years; indeed FDR, one of the greatest of them all, died 28 years earlier. But in an age of 15-minute celebrity, that is not a generation but an eternity. Americans are, simply, not that patient. When you get into Cooperstown's hall of fame you're very much alive, and only retired for five years.