MONTGOMERY, Ohio (AP) — Shoeless Joe Jackson might have asked if THIS is heaven.
Here was one of his thick-handled bats, being gripped lovingly and studied for cleat nicks and baseball smudges from games he played nearly 100 years ago. Newly arrived, it soon will be carefully displayed, near a rare Jackson signature, and in the days and years to come, it will be viewed by dedicated fans who will also be mingling with stars of the game.
Jackson, depicted in the movie "Field of Dreams," was banned from baseball for his role in the 1919 "Black Sox" World Series-fixing scandal, by lore disappointing a young fan who shouted: "Say it ain't so, Joe!" But the ill-fated star has a place amid such greats as Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron in the Green Diamond Gallery in suburban Cincinnati.
The gallery showcases a top private collection of baseball memorabilia while hosting a small club of fans who in recent months have been able to ask pitcher Jack Morris about falling short of making the Hall of Fame, slugger Jose Canseco about illicit steroid use, and manager Tony La Russa about secrets of the St. Louis Cardinals' success.
"There's Cooperstown, then it's Green Diamond, and I don't know what would be a close third," La Russa said, referring to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, celebrating its annual induction weekend in upstate New York. The Hall's president, Jeff Idelson, has visited the gallery and agrees it's unlike anything else he's seen outside Cooperstown.
The gallery's roots are in a child's first trip to a baseball game five decades ago.
Bob Crotty still savors memories of the sights, sounds and smells of Crosley Field, then home of the Cincinnati Reds. He was drawn to the souvenir stand, buying buttons and other inexpensive trinkets.
And so it began.
"Once I got the bug, I got it pretty bad," Crotty said.
The preteen boy cut lawns for cash to fund his new passion, and he spent hours writing letters to teams requesting yearbooks and other items. His bedroom desk and shelves filled, then his entire bedroom, then the family's basement.
He networked with collectors and learned the best auction houses and authenticators while becoming a top executive in the family-run Van Dyne Crotty uniform company. When it was bought in 2006 by industry giant Cintas Corp., Crotty suddenly had plenty of time and money — and a very large collection.
"I was pretty much at a crossroads ... either get rid of all this stuff or do something with it," said Crotty, now 54. He met with Kevin Manley, who had worked for a nonprofit that Crotty's company supported, to brainstorm.
Most collectors by nature want to protect their privacy and valuables, so not many fans get to view what they have.
"I always wanted to give this a home where I could display it, share it in some capacity, maybe create an environment where we could do something different," said Crotty, who made Manley the manager of what opened in 2007. It included:
— A one-floor exhibit area packed with 4,000 items such as autographed baseballs, game-used jerseys, ballpark relics, rare documents, photos and letters, organized into categories such as Hall of Famers, greatest teams, the Negro Leagues and a tribute to character and courage honoring Jackie Robinson, Lou Gehrig and Roberto Clemente.
— A private club, initially 100 dues-paying members, then upped to 250 with two levels of membership. The club, which includes female members, has a waiting list for the few spots in the top-level Wright Society that open each year, at $2,000 annual dues.
— A charitable foundation, supporting baseball-related activities for economically disadvantaged youths and disabled and sick children. Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench has headlined fundraising events.
— Monthly receptions, featuring question-and-answer sessions with baseball's stars and characters. Hall of Fame pitchers Steve Carlton, Bert Blyleven and Jim Bunning (also a former U.S. senator) were among last year's speakers, and hitting star Rod Carew is coming up in August.
"I was overwhelmed," said La Russa, who spoke last month. "The collection is staggering, the whole concept of the club ... You are surrounded by people who love the game."
Among them: Buck Newsome, an investment adviser who was part of initial word-of-mouth membership recruiting.
"I was like a little kid again. It was just unbelievable," Newsome recalled. "Within five or 10 minutes, I asked, 'How do I join?'"
Newsome tries to make every meeting, appreciating the chance to rub elbows with stars in a convivial atmosphere for hearing inside stories. Speakers like talking baseball with knowledgeable fans who aren't hounding them for autographs; after visiting, La Russa decided to help arrange for a Cardinal predecessor, Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst, to make an upcoming appearance.
Rentals for special events such as off-site corporate meetings and wedding rehearsal dinners help cover operating costs. Tight space and security concerns restrict numbers of visitors, but the gallery opens once or twice a year for paid tours.
Crotty, meanwhile, keeps adding. Besides the Jackson bat, he just bought Warren Spahn's Hall of Fame ring after the late pitcher's son put memorabilia up for auction. He doesn't disclose prices paid and said the only way to know the value of his collection would be to sell it.
"When you're a collector, it can be a lonely journey," Crotty said. "The beauty of having this model is I can continue to collect, and I've made friendships and relationships you can't put a monetary value on."