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Time has come to build a Rochester sports history museum

Each summer, I make a pilgrimage to two of my favorite museums. You’re probably familiar with the one in Cooperstown, dedicated to baseball history. But unless you’re from my hometown of Rome (New York, not Italy), you’ve probably never heard of the Rome Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. It’s not all that far from where the digging began for “Clinton’s Ditch,” also known as the Erie Canal, and Fort Stanwix, which played a major role in the colonists thwarting the Brits in the Revolutionary War.

It really is an impressive little museum, with tons of photographs and artifacts of famous sports figures from the little Oneida County city of 35,000 that was the birthplace of Basketball Hall of Famer Pat Riley, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred and NASCAR pioneer drivers Richie Evans and Jerry Cook.

My recent tour of the Rome Sports Hall got me to thinking again about an idea I first broached back in 1986, about a year after my sportswriting career brought me to Rochester. If little, old Rome can build a museum dedicated to its sports history, why can’t we? In other words, when in Rochester, do as the Romans do. (Rome, by the way, is the only municipality in New York to have a true, full-fledged sports museum.)

To me, the ideal place to house our rich sports history would be the old fire house on the grounds of Frontier Field. The building currently is used for storage and as a meeting place for ushers and a changing place for Red Wings mascots Spikes and Mittsy. You could free up the fire house by constructing a storage area in the space beyond the right-centerfield fence.

It would be imperative to get all the local professional sports teams, colleges and high schools on board. You could have rotating displays that could be set up at the Blue Cross Arena at the Community War Memorial, Capelli Sport Stadium and the local colleges, such as St. John Fisher during Buffalo Bills training camp and the Polisseni Center during Rochester Institute of Technology hockey games. I’ve floated the idea numerous times through the years, but sadly it’s never gained any traction. Still, you can’t give up. It would take a collaborative effort, involving county, city and state representatives, as well as officials from local sports teams and businesses. To steal a line from the movie “Field of Dreams,” if we build it, they will come.

With that in mind, here’s a short list of things that could be exhibited:

Jerseys worn by Abby Wambach, Johnny Antonelli, Joe Altobelli, Jody Gage, John Grant, Doug Miller, Bob Davies, Jason McElwain (J-Mac), Brian Gionta, John Wallace, Roosevelt Bouie and Roland Williams.

Sports Illustrated covers featuring Rocheserians Don Holleder (Army football All-American), Dick Buerkle (Olympic miler), AJ Kitt (Olympic skier) and Wambach (World Cup and Olympic soccer).

Golf clubs used and championship trophies won by Walter Hagen and Jeff Sluman.

Leather football helmet and uniform from the Rochester Jeffersons, along with the certificate denoting us as one of the charter members of the National Football League.

Home plate from old Silver Stadium.

Microphone from Don Stevens’ more than three decades announcing Rochester American hockey games.

Banner from the Rochester Royals 1950-51 NBA championship.

An original Hickok Belt, along with photographs of the scores of iconic athletes who appeared at the annual dinner known as the “Academy Award of sports.”

Organist Fred Costello’s keyboard from his 3,000th  Red Wings game.

Flags from each of the major championship golf tournaments hosted by Oak Hill Country club.

Congratulatory letter from Jack Nicklaus to women’s sportswriting pioneer Jean Giambrone.

The No. 5 Red Wings jersey worn by Cal Ripken Jr. during the 1981 season.

Olympic banners and pins from Eastman Kodak, Xerox and Bausch & Lomb, Rochester-based Fortune 500 companies who sponsored several Games.

Championship trophies won by the Red Wings, Amerks, Knighthawks, Rhinos, Lancers, etc.

Costumes worn by the Amerks’ Moose and Spikes.

A softball thrown by legendary pitcher Shifty Gears, who led Kodak to two world championships in the 1940s.

Cathy Turner’s Olympic gold medals and the speed skates she used to win them.

Stock certificates from the shareholder drive that saved baseball in Rochester, along with a huge photo of the man who masterminded it – Morrie Silver.

An etching of Don Holleder’s name from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, as a reminder of the major’s heroism in a field vastly more important than football.

J-Mac’s 2006 ESPY Award for the year’s best sports moment.

Artifacts from the longest game in baseball history – including a score card and a Red Wings cap worn by Dave Huppert, who caught 31 of the game’s 33 innings.

Signed Locust Hill Country Club flags from Nancy Lopez and Patty Sheehan, commemorating Rochester’s nearly four decades hosting LPGA tournaments.

A “Bull Durham” lobby card signed by former Wings infielder and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Ron Shelton.

The cover from the “Live Oak Polka,” which was printed in Rochester around 1860 and is one of the first color illustrations in baseball history.

A signed ball from Millie Ignizio, a member of the Women’s Bowling Hall of Fame.

Roland Williams’ Super Bowl championship ring.

Johnny Antonelli’s World Series ring.

Challenger Baseball World Series T-shirts and a gallery of photographs.

Swords from Olympic fencing pioneers Felicia and Iris Zimmermann.

Photo gallery of Rochesterians who competed in major league sports or the Olympics.

Saddle cloths used by lovable thoroughbred Zippy Chippy in his three races vs. Red Wing outfielders.

A collection of all the sports bobbleheads given out to Rochester fans through the years.

Warm-up jacket worn by sprinter Trent Jackson during the 1964 Olympics.

Signed boxing gloves from world champion boxer and long-time Irondequoit resident Carmen Basilio.

A whistle and striped referee’s jersey from Pete Pavia’s illustrious basketball officiating career.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

(c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-363-7269 or email madams@bridgetowermedia.com.

5 comments

  1. Well done Scott. A great idea overdue for a HOF for rochester

  2. An excellent idea! Im behind the idea 100 percent!

  3. Great idea! Anyone at City Hall listening? Where do I signup to support this?

  4. I’ve had this idea in mind as well, but had not the opportunity to approach anyone to make it happen. There is a lot of team and individual sports history in the Rochester Area that has gone unspoken. As a Penfield Little Leaguer in the ’70s, I had no idea that we had a professional softball team (Rochester Zeniths) that played nationally at Harris Whalen Park until I did my own research about our professional (and semi-professional) teams. (The Zeniths later changed their name to the Express, and moved over to Cobbs Hill Park in 1980, and won the APSPL World Series that year.) And it was due to Douglas Brei’s research that the New York Black Yankees of the Negro National League played in Rochester for the 1948 season.

    There are many successes and failures that have come through Rochester, but not talked about much today. There is a banner recognizing the 1974 NLL Rochester Griffins Championship at the Blue Cross Arena, but being a lacrosse fan, I know more about one of the players on the opposing team in those finals (John Grant, Sr., played for the Philadelphia Wings) than about the whole team who won for Rochester. Where are the accolades for the Rochester Zeniths these days? Heck, if you go over to Capelli Sports Park, you wouldn’t know about the earlier league titles for the (Raging) Rhinos or the Rattlers, but just their 2015 title. I had the same complaint at Frontier Field until the Red Wings started celebrating their Governor’s Cup titles within the last two years.

    As for the not-so-successful teams, only the sports geeks would know about the NFL Rochester Jeffersons of the 1920’s. What about the Rochester Colonels of 1958 of the Eastern Professional Basketball League (forerunner of the Continental Basketball Association), which lost 8 games and folded, and was seen as so terrible that the EPBL just deleted any acknowledgement of the team’s existence until decades later?

    There is so much sports history in the Rochester Area (and Greater Rochester Area, at that), as well as so much knowledge that the sports writers and historians could give to such a museum (as well as a warehouse for championship memorabilia). I could easily envision it as a success, as long as the Rochester sports community is willing to invest in it.

  5. That idea really stinks. Build a business where people can work and earn a living consistently.

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