Curt Schilling, Bobby Bonds and Roger Clemens couldn’t get into the Baseball Hall of Fame this past year, but Keswick resident Art Beltrone and a team full of retired reporters, sports writers and public relations men made it.
Beltrone, whose efforts to save canvas bunks from old Vietnam-era troop ships resulted in a 15-year traveling museum show, earned his Hall pass back in the early 1970s when he sat behind the plate on a traveling baseball show that toured Venezuela.
It was those old canvas bunk beds that led the boys on the news bus into the Hall of Fame.
“The Vietnam Graffiti Project travel exhibit ended last year and we’ve been looking for places that would be interested in the canvases and then sending them off,” Beltrone explained. “We had one with a GI drawing of the cartoon character Charlie Brown on it that said, ‘Charlie Brown is a draft dodger.’ Beneath it someone had written, ‘Sandy Koufax is a Los Angeles Dodger.’ Koufax is also a member of the Hall of Fame.”
Beltrone, a man not averse to reaching out to those he doesn’t know, called Cooperstown, New York, home of the Hall of Fame.
“I was talking to a woman there about the canvas and I thought, ‘well, I’ve got all these photos from that trip back in 1973 to Venezuela. I should see if they want them.’ So I asked,” Beltrone recalled. “She said to send them up with the canvas and a committee would look them over.”
Beltrone got in touch with others from the team, gathered their recollections, photographs and a few goods, such as ball gloves and hats, and sent them up for committee review.
The team had some big names on it, but not big in a baseball way. These were names that were big when sports writing was a big deal, including Roy Blount Jr., then with Sports Illustrated; Phil Pepe of the New York Daily News; and Joe Donnelly of Newsday.
“When I was in college, a San Francisco Giants bird dog was watching the team play. That’s the guy who looks at possible talent and then calls the scouts for the team,” Beltrone recalled. “A teammate of mine and I knew he was there and he watched a couple of games. Then he called me over and said, ‘Art, do me a favor.’ Then he handed me his card and I thought, ‘I’m getting his card!’ And then he said, ‘I can’t make any more of your games so if you see any good ball players, give me a call.’”
Although he didn’t make the majors, Beltrone loved to play. It was pretty common among his crowd.
“I was working for Newsday along with Joe Donnelly, who was a great sportswriter, and he knew I played baseball in college. When he got a softball team together, he recruited me,” Beltrone recalled.
Beltrone was one of the first to sign on when Donnelly made the travel team deal with Venezuelan sportswriter Juan Vené, who continues to author a sports column at age 92.
“He got into a conversation with Juan, who said they had a team in Venezuela made up of sportswriters and celebrities and if Joe had a team, he should bring them down and play,” Beltrone said.
The tossed gauntlet led to the pickup team of players mostly from the New York-area media. Lending support were the New York Yankees and New York Mets, who offered the team some uniforms. President Richard M. Nixon, a big sports fan, got in on it, too.
Beltrone had started a public relations firm prior to the game and had a congressman for a client. He warned the man that the trip would mean Beltrone’s absence to play in the three-game goodwill series in South America.
“I saw him just before we left and he handed me a letter to Juan Vené from Nixon,” Beltrone said. “He apparently contacted Nixon, who wrote a personal letter. That letter was handed to Juan by Joe Donnelly at the pitcher’s mound of the big game we played in Caracas, which was the one that was televised.”
The team landed in Venezuela and met with their opponents at the U.S. ambassador’s residence. They started their three-game series playing to thousands in stadiums and getting clocked in the first two games.
Beltrone, playing catcher, wasn’t doing much better.
“I went hitless, except for the big game that was televised, the one in Caracas,” he said.
Here’s the call: It was the bottom of the ninth. There were two outs. The Americans, wearing New York Yankees uniforms, were down a run. It looked dark. It looked very dark.
Then Maury Allen, of the New York Post, hit an infield popup and took off toward first.
“It had a horrible, terrific spin on the ball and it didn’t come down quite at the pitcher’s mound and, because of the spin, it bounced over the first base line.”
It was a fair ball and Allen was on first. Now, with the tying run on first base, the hapless hitter, in the big stadium with a national television audience, came to the plate.
“I somehow hit a triple,” he laughed, “and Allen comes in and the score is tied 3 to 3.”
Blount came to bat. Beltrone stood on third.
“He hit a single and brings me in to make it 4 to 3,” Beltrone recalled. “Yes, I was pretty excited about that.”
The visitors hold the home team in the bottom of the ninth and the big game is won by the Americans, with Beltrone scoring the winning run.
“The Venezuelan team came up to New York later that year and we played in Yankee Stadium,” Beltrone remembered. “We were a big deal in Caracas with television and 7,000 fans, but at Yankee Stadium, all we had were family in the stands and the guys sweeping up between the seats. They didn’t even turn the stadium lights on.”
The Hall of Fame committee accepted the memorabilia and the memories and will put all on display.
“They are going to use the photos and everything from that trip as part of an educational program about the international appeal of baseball. I even sent them the glove that I played with,” Beltrone said.
“I’ve loved baseball all my life. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a professional ball player. I played as soon as I could hold a bat, from Pony League and Little League to college. It’s pretty exciting to have my photo and memories in the Baseball Hall of Fame.”