SBJ/August 1 - 7, 2005/SBJ In Depth

Hall chief went from Capitol Hill to Cooperstown

Dale Petroskey likes to joke that, in his previous job, he was responsible for the National Geographic Society’s hall of famers.

“Jacques Cousteau, Jane Goodall, people like that,” said Petroskey, who spent 11 years at the society before taking the job as president of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999. “We didn’t call them our hall of famers. But they were our hall of famers.”

Petroskey (left) presents 2004 Hall of Fame inductee Paul Molitor his plaque.
Petroskey, 49, was a senior vice president at the society, the world’s largest nonprofit educational organization, when a friend who was visiting Cooperstown for Thanksgiving phoned with an idea.

“There’s a job here that you have to have,” said the friend, who happened to be in Cooperstown on the weekend that Petroskey’s predecessor, Donald Marr Jr., announced his resignation.

Petroskey agreed. Though he had no background in baseball and no direct connections in the game, he was an avid fan who made it no secret that the way to his heart was with a pair of great seats or a book that filled a niche in his baseball library. He pursued the job and was named Marr’s replacement in July 1999.

Petroskey, who collected a $320,000 salary in 2003, started his career in Washington politics, first as a congressional chief of staff, then as assistant press secretary to President Reagan and as a spokesman for Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole. He went to the National Geographic Society as head of public affairs and spent his final three years there as a senior vice president.

When Petroskey left the society, he was managing a museum exhibits budget of $13 million, which was exactly the budget of baseball’s museum.

“All the things I do here, I was doing there,” said Petroskey. “So it was a great fit. It’s a fantastic place to live and work. It’s fun every day.”

Or almost every day. Petroskey did endure a trying week in August 2003, when he was widely criticized for canceling a planned tribute to the movie “Bull Durham” after its stars, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, spoke out against the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Petroskey’s letter notifying Robbins and Sarandon of the cancellation accused them of helping to “undermine the U.S. position, which ultimately could put our troops in even more danger.”

Though he insists he canceled the event because he was trying to separate politics and baseball, Petroskey’s deep ties to Republican politics made for a compelling story line. Within a week, the hall received letters or e-mails from 28,000 people, a barrage that led Petroskey to issue an apology.

He says now that, in hindsight, he wishes he had phoned Robbins and Sarandon to explain his position, rather than sending a letter that he says was miscast.

“Tensions in the country were high,” Petroskey said. “It was Hollywood. It was baseball. It was the perfect storm for a week. But I haven’t heard about it much since then. We’ve moved on.”

Under Petroskey, the baseball hall has evolved into a museum that acknowledges that outreach is central to its mission. Its touring exhibition, Baseball as America, has been a smash hit since debuting in 2002. Its distance learning program pipes programming into schools via videoconference, allowing students to ask questions from their classrooms as they learn about history through baseball.

“There are times here when you feel a very heavy responsibility,” Petroskey said. “We who work here are the current stewards of something pretty great. It’s the repository of the game’s history.”

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