Sporting Halls of Fame

views updated


Museums have long been recognized as an effective way of preserving cultural heritage, and also as one of the most popular and traditional of tourist attractions. They can be found in every country and exhibit the range of human experience from A (art, architecture, automobiles, etc.), to Z (Zen, zoology). Given the status of sport as an international social phenomenon, it is not surprising to find sport featured prominently in many of these institutions. In fact, there has been a tremendous increase worldwide in the number of museums specializing in sport in recent years, a development in which the United States has played the most significant part.


The term "halls of fame" has been attached, although not exclusively, to most institutions specializing in the preservation and display of sporting heritage, and the term "sports hall of fame" is now commonly used. These "halls" are rightly regarded as a type of museum; indeed, many have deliberately added the phrase "and museum" to their title to more accurately describe their function, as well as in many cases to qualify for cultural grants awarded to museums. However, a clarification and distinction should be made between the two terms. The ultimate raison d'être for a sports hall of fame is the celebration of sporting prowess. The word "fame" is all-important since it honors only those accepted as having been famous enough to qualify. The procedures and rules of eligibility for attaining such recognition are almost as varied as the institutions themselves, but ultimately only elite athletes of exceptional and proven ability are admitted.

A museum as such exists to preserve heritage. Its collection may contain artifacts, documents, and relics pertaining to ordinary mortals, as well as the famous (or even the infamous). A "sports museum," therefore, will display a sporting exhibit simply because of its intrinsic historical interest. Old golf clubs, bicycles, and footballs have their place regardless of pedigree—who wielded them, rode them, or kicked them. Such objects would find their way into a sports hall of fame only if acknowledged sports heroes or heroines had used them. The myriad of depositories of sporting memorabilia includes institutions that are exclusively sports halls of fame, institutions that are sports museums alone, and others that perform both functions in the same building. Together, all represent a collection of tourist attractions that reflect the unique place of sport in history.


The preservation of sports history for public display may be traced back to ancient times, for since sport began, there have been donors, collectors, and viewers of artifacts related to it. Sport has been described in literature and depicted in art forms, such as paintings, pottery, and sculpture, for centuries, providing continuous and vivid evidence for posterity. It may be argued, in fact, that there were parallels to modern sports halls of fame and museums in the ancient world. Victors at the great Greek Games were allowed to erect statues of themselves at the scene of their triumph, and normally another at their home city. It is clear from Pausanias's Book VI that at Olympia alone these statues, with their inscribed bases, constituted a fairly complete history of the Games for passersby. The same was true at Corinth, Delphi, and Nemea, and the civic centers of other cities that honored their athletic heroes in similar fashion. Visitors customarily dedicated small bronze statuettes of themselves in the temples as offerings to the gods who had brought them renown; sometimes even the athletes' discuses, halteres, or strigils were dedicated in this fashion.

Beginnings of the Modern Concept

In the modern world, where sports museums, per se, are located in many countries, reflecting sport's international history and status, the United States has been both innovator and leader in the "hall of fame" concept. This respect underlines the individualism inherent in American culture, and the conspicuous desire to reward success and acknowledge personal attainment of "the American dream." The term probably originated in 1901, by supreme example, when the Hall of Fame for Great Americans was instituted. Thereafter, the term became customary in American life as it was applied to other institutions, such as the National Hall of Fame for Famous American Indians in Oklahoma, a Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, and a Circus Hall of Fame in Florida, among many others.

There is no question, however, but that sports halls of fame outnumber all other kinds combined. The main reason for this, apart from the popularity of sport itself, is the large number of sports, each of which may have one or more institutions devoted to it—not just in the United States, but worldwide. Writing in 1971, Jerry Kirshenbaum pointed out that among the ninety-five inductees to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans were presidents and literary figures, but no athletes, and stated, "It is an oversight for which the sports world has compensated with a vengeance, starting with that glorious June day in 1939 when the Baseball Hall of Fame was dedicated on Cooperstown maple lined Main Street" (p. 65).

Actually, a ski hall of fame had been proposed earlier, in 1928, but no building materialized until the National Ski Hall of Fame at Ishpeming, Michigan, opened in 1954. The Helms Athletic Foundation was formed in Los Angeles, California, in 1936, where the Olympic display in Helms Hall attracted thousands of visitors over the years. While these pioneering efforts deserve acknowledgment, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, as the first such home for "the grand American game," will always occupy a special place.

Growth and Diversity

A significant expansion of sports halls of fame and museums occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, illustrated by the appearance of such institutions as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum (1956), the San Diego Hall of Champions (1961), the Professional Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio (1963), and the Amateur Trap-shooting Hall of Fame and Museum in Vandalia, Ohio (1969), among others. The titles of these four examples alone give a small indication of the diversity involved, as sports halls of fame exist for amateurs and professionals (male and female); for minor as well as major sports; to honor athletes, coaches, and administrators ("builders"), regionally by city or state, or nationally; or by ethnic background. Most colleges and universities have their own such institutions, also. Facilities reflect this diversity, as they range from miniature, perhaps some pictures on an office wall, to the magnificent, in a building costing millions of dollars. Funding also varies, coming from many sources, mainly sports organizations, benefactors and sponsors, civic and government grants, and visitors' fees.

Churches of Modern Sport

If there is a common factor within the American sports halls of fame milieu, Jerry Kirshenbaum probably captured it best after having visited most of them in a journey of 10,000 miles. This he described as "an irreverent pilgrimage" in the subtitle of his satirical account, the second paragraph of which begins, "To illuminate the way to some of these holy places. . ." Like all true satire, his words contain the element of truth, beyond the fact that some sports halls of fame have churchlike spires and/or stained-glass windows, or that they are often used for prayer meetings by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and similar groups. Athletes become "immortal" when elected to these "shrines," where "devoted followers" gaze at their "revered figures" and read inscriptions "graven in marble," before departing "very moved" from the many "hushed rooms, filled with nostalgia" (Kirshenbaum). This may be regarded as the jargon of the churches of modern sport, yet another demonstrable act of faith by the masses of sports fans. If the statement is correct that "tourism is the secular counterpart, and the modern successor in the western world, of the religious pilgrimage" (Macdonald and Alsford, p. 42), then visitors to sports halls of fame qualify as pilgrims of sorts.

The IASMHF and Other Landmarks

Americans led in the formation of the International Association of Sports Museums and Hall of Fame, in 1971, with approximately three-quarters of its member institutions located in the United States. Three years later, two sport historians, Guy Lewis and Gerald Redmond, produced Sporting Heritage: A Guide to Halls of Fame, Special Collections and Museums in the United States and Canada, the first such book of its type, giving details of fifty institutions. Another significant development was the production of a video, in 1990, by the IASMHF, entitled "Together in Excellence," stating that sports halls of fame spanned the globe, and referring to the association's 110 member institutions. Four years later, the IASMHF sanctioned A Guide to Sports Museums, Shrines and Libraries, published by ReView Publications, with details of 123 institutions worldwide. There are now more than 140 member institutions in the IASMHF, and the association's 2003 annual conference was held in October in Indianapolis, Indiana, cohosted by the NCAA Hall of Champions and the National Art Museum of Sport.

See also: Professionalization of Sport, Sporting Memorabilia, Tourism


A Guide to Sports Museums, Shrines, and Libraries. Irvine, Calif.: ReView Publications, 1994.

Alexander, E. P. Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums. Nashville, Tenn.: American Association for State and Local History, 1979.

Gardiner, E. Norman. Athletics of the Ancient World. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930.

Harris, H. A. Greek Athletes and Athletics. London: Hutchinson and Company, 1964.

Hudson, K., and A. Nicholls, eds. The Directory of World Museums. London: Macmillan, 1975.

Kirshenbaum, Jerry. "Bats and Busts, Size 15 Sneakers, and a Dead Bird." Sports Illustrated (28 June 1971): 62–74.

Lewis, Guy M., and Gerald Redmond. Sporting Heritage: A Guide to Halls of Fame, Special Collections, and Museums in the United States and Canada. South Brunswick, N.J.: A. S. Barnes, 1974.

MacDonald, G. F., and S. Alsford. A Museum for the Global Village. Hull, Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilisation, 1989.

Museums of the World. New York: R. R. Bowker Company, 1973.

Redmond, Gerald. "A Plethora of Shrines: Sport in the Museum and Hall of Fame." Quest (January 1973): 41–48.

Gerald Redmond