COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Ted Spencer is nearly as much of a fixture at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum as the statues of Babe Ruth and Ted Williams that grace the lobby at 25 Main Street. He is vice president and chief curator there, and will witness his 26th induction ceremony on Sunday afternoon when Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken are enshrined. MLB.com sat down with Spencer on Friday:
MLB.com: What do you like most about your job?
Spencer: What I like is beyond baseball. This is years of growing and learning, preserving something important. Anybody who works in a museum should feel a certain pride ... that you're not taking up space. It's an incredible value for the culture. It makes you feel like you've done something with your life.
MLB.com: What is one thing most visitors to the museum might miss but really should discover?
Spencer: It's not one item. What we try to do is show them it's an integral part of American culture. Take away a new realization about what is here and what they've been following and what their parents and ancestors followed since the Civil War. It's much more important than an event or an artifact. It's spiritual. ... I'm named after Ted Williams, so obviously I grew up in a house that loves baseball. This is important stuff. It really is. Almost anybody out there, they can connect to their parents and grandparents in this way. You can go stand on Main Street anytime and a van's going to pull up from, let's say, Illinois. Out will step a 14-year-old kid. Someone 35. Someone 73. it shows what's going on in our lives.
I met a doctor here. Early 50s. He said, "I came here with my father. My father was close to the vest. I came here with my two sons. We walked through that door, and my father totally changed." He said, "I learned more about my father in those two hours than in 50 years."
MLB.com: Since you mentioned it -- is your name really Ted Williams Spencer?
Spencer: It's actually William Thomas Spencer. But that was the nickname my parents gave me. It looked like I was gonna be a left-handed hitter, which I was, and they were big Ted Williams fans.
MLB.com: Did anyone call you Billy or William?
Spencer: Only the nuns at high school. They didn't buy into the nicknames. If I get a call at home now asking for Bill, I know they're trying to sell me something.
MLB.com: What was it like for someone from Quincy, Mass., to finally meet Teddy Ballgame?
Spencer: Growing up in the '50s in Massachusetts, he was the guy. I met him in 1987. He was special. You only see him from the stands or on TV, and all of a sudden you're in a room talking to him with a couple of other people, shaking hands with him. It can be overwhelming.
MLB.com: What are the highlights for those seeking Gwynn and Ripken artifacts?
Spencer: We treat them like we do everybody else. There's a special entrance to the inductees' gallery, and that will stay up until next May or June. We pulled artifacts from our collection.
MLB.com: What single exhibit or artifact are you most proud of and why?
Spencer: We're proud of "Women in Baseball." It opened in '88. We feel that exhibit motivated a lot of energy. Penny Marshall came and spent the weekend with 150 former players, and that generated (the movie) "A League Of Their Own." We now have quadrupled the size of the women's exhibit with last year's re-opening.
MLB.com: How different is the curator side since your early days here a few decades ago? Spencer: I was the only curator and we had a manager of collections. It's was just the two of us. It was that way up until '95, then over the next few years we added staff. I did the curating and design, which was my background. Now there are 13 people doing work that two people did up until '95. It's become a much more energized organization over the last 10 or 12 years.
MLB.com: How do you know if something belongs in the Hall of Fame?
Spencer: We're a history museum. What belongs in the museum? You have to ask it that way. First and foremost, we look at artifacts that represent baseball history. It's an important point to drive home. A plaque is a great honor and the ultimate thing. But we look at everything that has historical and cultural significance. (Craig) Biggio's 3,000 (hit) ball, that's really obvious. Usually it's the things we are offered. There are eight of us who consider those.
MLB.com: That's the Accessions Committee?
Spencer: Yes. The act of putting something into a collection is called "accessioning." Sometimes things are very obvious. But some things make you say, "This has got some historical significance." It'll help us tell a story better. It'll make someone smarter. Sometimes it's just a gut feeling. "I don't know what good this is, but something's telling me it should stay." We don't promise something will go on exhibit when we accept it. Sometimes, it just becomes a good piece of research, such as for a book. We're about saving the history.
If you're dealing with a subject, even if you're passing through an exhibit, you're attached to that subject, and then you start looking for more to augment that exhibit. Knowledge sticks to you. The whole process of the traveling exhibit was a classic example. You had a whole team of curators, and you came away with tremendous knowledge. One of us will say, "In '95, I saw this photo; why don't you see if it's there?"
MLB.com: So there are three decades worth of knowledge about the most arcane baseball history in your brain and it just has to be somehow accessed.
Spencer: It's like in Harry Potter. You take your memory with a wand, and it goes into a Pensieve. That's what we need to do. If that's ever invented in real life, it will be perfect for the History major.
MLB.com: You've got a World Series rings exhibit, and apparently your Red Sox actually won one of those in 2004. Take us back to that American League Championship Series comeback against the Yankees, and how you handled it.
Spencer: It was foggy and misty along the lake here. The Sox had just tied Game 5. I went outside, and the only other person on the street was my son. I was going crazy. A bloop hit in extra innings. I had a cigar, Matthew and I bumped into each other on the street. I said, "I've got 10 minutes left on this cigar." He had to be in bed early. I said, "Don't call me, I have to go to bed."
I get to bed, and drift off to dreamland. Sure enough, the phone rings, and my son says, "I know I'm not supposed to call, but the Red Sox won!" Then I watched ESPN News till 3 in the morning, over and over.
After Game 6, I said, "You know, it might kill me, but they're working that hard, I have to watch the rest of it." And it was unbelievable. My mother called in the middle of Game 6. She was a basket case. She'd had heart problems previously. She said, "My heart is beating so fast." I said, "At least you know it's working."
MLB.com: What is your best Induction memory?
Spencer: The year Harmon Killebrew was inducted. It was 1984, and my oldest boy was probably about 12. I used to play wiffleball with him in the backyard. I was out there hammering away. During that Induction ceremony, I was outside of our building, and I was listening as he gave his speech. Harmon tells the story that his mother was complaining because the boys were playing baseball on this lawn. His dad said, "We're raising boys, not grass." That hit home.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.