At last, the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), Busan Metropolitan City, and Gijang-gun (county, 기장군) have finalized a deal to build Korea’s Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. With the initial “memorandum of understanding” made back in August of last year, the agreement yesterday had the three parties break the ground.
If you are wondering, this is not the first time the baseball community in Korea talked about a Hall of Fame museum. To begin with, a Korea Baseball Hall of Fame actually does exist. … Not the way you would think it would be, though. On April of 1995, former LG Twins manager and current manager of Seoul National University’s baseball club, Lee Kwang-hwan (이광환), used a small structure on the northern coast of Jeju island and spent his own pocket money to squeeze in an enormous collection of baseball memorabilia. It was simply known as the “Ball House” (야구의 집). This was years before people started hoarding museums in Jeju.
However, a building on the coast of Jeju island is not an easy destination for an average baseball fan to access, and resources to maintain the museum started to fade away. Three years later, Lee eventually donated his prized collection to the city of Seoqwipo (서귀포시), which had been selected as the location for training facilities of professional ballclubs. The former manager thought it would help boost the city’s plans to attract baseball tourists.
The city of Seogwipo did answer his call as they decided to run a baseball museum of their own. Over a 3,000 items were moved to a local youth center, where the entire first floor was renovated to become what is known as the “unofficial” Korea Baseball Hall of Fame (한국야구명예전당). Unfortunately, the new location adds another 30 km (18.6 miles) to the trip from its original spot, and as far as we know from watching spring training games through the net, none of them are held in Jeju.
Talks of building the Hall actually had been addressed before professional baseball even began here in Korea. Sadly, the suggestions were intermittent, sometimes used as politicans’ election campaign tactics. These plans has been announced a bit more frequently in the new millenia. However, what sparked the motivation of baseball governing bodies, which may add a bitter taste to this story, was the death of two prominent names in Korean baseball: Jang Hyo-jo (장효조, died September 7, 2011) and Choi Dong-won (최동원, died September 14, 2011). Two clear inductees if there had been a legit Hall of Fame, and two of whom we will not be able hear the voices if they were to be inducted in the future.
This was just five months after KBO Commissioner, Koo Bon-neung (구본능), announced his Top 5 Visions for the game, which included the building of the Hall. The commissioner was in tears after the two former stars passed away and vowed to build the Hall as a tribute to the legends.
According to survey by Research & Research in 2011, almost 1/3 of the respondents answered Busan as the site for Korea’s Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. With legends, stories and fandom out of Busan, many do consider the southern port as the baseball capital of Korea.
It is not much of a landslide though, and there are people who think a baseball museum (more like everything special *cough) should be in Seoul. Others claim Incheon as the rightful owner of such heritage, as they believe the earliest forms of the game had been introduced and played there.
Commissioner Koo Bon-neung happens to be a Busan native and shares the same alma mater with the late Choi Dong-won. However, regardless of these personal ties, which does play an important part in Korean society, Busan was the only city to actively pursue to host the Hall within its boundaries. (Both former stars having played for the Busan Lotte Giants, may have given the city’s pride a stir.)
Just a month after Jang and Choi passed away, Busan filed an application (to the KBO) to host the Hall. A year later, Gijang-gun, the northernmost administrative division of Busan, displayed the most interest by signing an agreement along with Busan Metropolitan City and Hyundai Motor Company to construct a large scale baseball theme park, dubbed as the “Field of Dreams” (꿈의 구장), targeted for amateur baseball. In the grand scheme of things, its blueprint actually included an area where the future Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum would come into the picture.
Fast forward to 2014, the agreement has both the city and county cover the entire construction cost of 550 billion KRW: Gijang-gun pays 435 billion KRW for land compensation and theme park, Busan Metropolitan City pays 115 billion KRW for the Hall of Fame building. All the KBO has to do is pack their collection and move them to the new facility, which is expected to open in 2016.
Where are the collections now?
Currently, the KBO has an high-tech archive with 24-hour climate control in the basement of the building in which their office is located. Lee Sang-il (이상일), former Secretary-General of the KBO, commenced a team around 2010 to prepare for the Hall of Fame and Museum. His collection began full scale in 2012, when he was appointed Special Assistant to the Commissioner.
The KBO has moved their office only once since its foundation, which makes what they already have well preserved. However, many of the pre-Korea Baseball Championship relics have been damaged or lost. Pieces of the demolished Dongdaemun Baseball Stadium are stored at Mokdong Baseball Stadium. Some of the current teams have created somewhat a competition as they began to open museums of their own. Defunct teams, on the other hand, had nothing of a concept of preserving history.
Luckily, Commissioner Koo Bon-neung has been relatively active in terms of digging up baseball history. Aside having Lee as his special assistant, Hong Sun-il (홍순일), Head of the Baseball Museum Collections Committee, has contributed to the Chronicles of Korean Baseball History, co-published by the KBO and KBA earlier this year. (*The Chronicles has been distributed to public libraries throughout South Korea.) The KBO is also currenly releasing video interviews of senior baseball figures (32 in all) which can be viewed through Spotv. Futhermore, the organization is pretty much open to new discoveries. In December, Lee Byung-suk (이병석), President of the KBA, presented new evidence extending baseball history in Korea by a year. This has been included in the Chronicles.
Compared to Japan and the United States, South Korea seems a bit late in terms of opening the Hall, and even beginning its own professional league. The expectations people have for a highly developed society, and just the fact that it is 2014, makes it difficult to tolerate slow social development. What is more is that the entire process showed once again how the Korean sports industry is highly dependent upon government funding.
However, in defense of Korea’s case, the country did spend a big chunk of the 20th century trying to push its economy to the level it is right now. And, no matter how developed a society is in terms of science and technology, and how good it looks on the outside, it will take a damn long time for a society and its people to mature.
Anyhow, the baseball community in South Korea finally have their wish of establishing a holy ground to worship their legends and to learn the roots of this great game. This should definitely serve as a moral uplift for the fans, and an utmost respect to all of the great players in the past who have not been treated the way they should be treated.
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- The Hankyoreh (Apr. 7, 1995): 이광환 야구 박물관 개관
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- Yonhap News Agency (Dec. 17, 2013): Baseball has longer history in Korea than thought
- Korea Baseball Organization (Jan. 7, 2014): KBO-대한야구협회, <한국 야구사 연표> 발간
- Korea Baseball Organization (Jan. 14, 2014): KBO 특별 기획 <야구를 말하다> 영상 제작
- Korea Baseball Organization (Mar. 4, 2014): KBO-대한야구협회, 부산광역시-기장군 한국 야구 명예의 전당 건립 협약 체결
- Sports Seoul (Mar. 5, 2014): ‘550억 투입’ 야구 명예의 전당, 왜 부산인가?
- 짠물야구: 되돌아 보는 인천 야구
- Wikipedia: Origins of baseball