The crack of a wooden bat, the
of a fiercely thrown pitch boring into a catcher's mitt, sunny dispatches from Florida about the Phillies' prospects.
These sweet signs of spring are welcome everywhere, but no more so than at Bob Burton's Barber Shop in Kennett Square.
"I like baseball because I like the time of year," says Burton, 71, who presides over the four-chair shop. "You know the days are going to get longer and warmer, as opposed to football season, when you know the days are going to get shorter and colder."
Burton's Barber Shop is a town landmark and popular gathering spot for many reasons - its location (in the middle of the block on State Street, the main thoroughfare), its longevity (Burton's grandfather Amos began trimming locks in 1892), Burton's personality ("The banter," says one patron, is "Southern-fried Seinfeld"), and last but hardly least, the economical price of a haircut ($13).
But the shop is a civic treasure for another, more important reason. It's the site of the Kennett Old-Timers Baseball Association Hall of Fame.
Founded in 1974 by Burton's father, Malcolm "Bat" Burton, and minor-league umpire Howard Lynn, the Hall of Fame honors local ballplayers who, in Bob Burton's words, were "better than average" on high school diamonds in southern Chester County and went on to play American Legion, community league or college ball with distinction. One important criterion: You must be alive at the time of your induction.
Including the nine admitted to the hall in January, 210 athletes have made the grade. Their names are engraved on a large, ornate plaque just inside the door.
Most are stars who shined mainly in the Kennett Square cosmos. The honor roll is replete with nicknames: Tunk, Scoop, Peck, Newk, Spike, Bud, Lem, Buck, Tick, Babe, Stump, Duck, Shortwave, Honus, Howdy and Rocky.
While no big-leaguers are on the plaque, several played in the minors, including Carroll "Crow" Mattson, a triple-A pitcher with the Giants and Dodgers in the late 1940s whose bid to join the Phillies was dashed by a bum rotator cuff. Also recognized is Judy Johnson, a Negro Leagues star immortalized in the big Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
Burton's affection for the game is as obvious as the rotating barber pole out front. The walls are plastered with baseball memorabilia - caps and pennants, team pictures, and autographed photos of the likes of Tug McGraw, Steve Carlton, Lenny Dykstra, Larry Bowa and Dick Allen.
Some of the items he inherited from his father; most have been donated by patrons.
There's a shirt signed by Curt Schilling after winning the World Series in 2001 with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and a bat signed by a slugger from yesteryear whose signature is so faded no one can decipher it.
Connie Mack's sober mien is encased in a frame, as is the confident mug of Joe DiMaggio in his prime. In the rear of the shop are photos of early 20th-century baseball stars with local connections - Kennett Square's Herb Pennock, a pitcher who helped the New York Yankees win three World Series in the 1920s, and Mike Grady, a Kennett Square catcher who, around the turn of the last century, played for the Phillies, Senators and Cardinals, notching a .294 lifetime batting average.
One intriguing photo, dating from the 1920s, captures Pennock and Babe Ruth in tweedy riding gear, about to go fox hunting in Unionville.
Nicknamed "the Squire of Kennett Square," Pennock was a proficient rider, a master of hounds, and raised silver foxes for their pelts.
"Pennock had a farm where Longwood Shopping Center is now," Burton says. "He was always inviting ballplayers over to ride to the hounds."
Sharing the back wall are Eddie Collins, father and son. Eddie Sr. is regarded as one of the most accomplished all-around baseball players ever. A second baseman, he was the star of Connie Mack's "$100,000 infield" and a mainstay of the great Athletics teams from 1909 to 1914.
Eddie, the son, captained the baseball team at Yale and also played for the Athletics. He later taught history at Episcopal Academy. A Kennett Square resident, he visited Burton's Barber Shop for tonsorial attention.
Not all the rogues in this gallery are baseball players.
Burton's sports museum also celebrates football players, and includes autographed photos of Joe Montana and Bill Bergey. There's a charming portrait of the 1916 Kennett High football team - its dozen or so members looking fierce, hungry and surprisingly slight - winners of the county championship, juxtaposed with a photo of their beefier 2005 counterparts.
Interspersed with the major-leaguers are pint-size standouts, such as the 1954 Kennett Square Little League team that reached the playoffs in Williamsport. (They failed, alas, to advance to the World Series.)
The same small-town spirit characterizes the Hall of Fame. The honorees are picked by Burton and a committee of cronies based on suggestions from townsfolk or anyone who wishes to add his two cents.
As few as three and as many as 18 local worthies have been inducted each year. They are saluted at a festive banquet at the town fire hall that has been emceed by such luminaries as Richie Ashburn, Harry Kalas, Terry Francona and Dallas Green. The Hall of Fame is underwritten by donations from local merchants and raffles. Among this year's premiums: a carved mallard decoy and a Maine moose-hunting trip.
It should be noted that Bob Burton himself is a member of the hall's class of 1994. In his day, he was, as he might put it, a "better than average" catcher. So, too, was his son, Mike, who played for Temple in the late 1980s, and his grandfather Amos, who caught for Kennett's town team along with Pennock.
"My grandfather was responsible for helping make Pennock a good pitcher," Burton asserts.
Amos Burton could also swat the ball. In a big game against West Chester about a century ago, he hit the winning home run and hundreds of fans showered him with money - $12 in all.
"People were making $12.80 for a week's work in the foundry," Bob Burton points out.
If catching is in Burton's blood, so too is barbering. He's been at it since 1955.
"It's his personality that runs this shop," said Fred Null, who's been a patron for the last 18 years. "It's kind of an oasis, a very masculine atmosphere. You can forget about a lot of things. You can shoot the breeze."
Sometimes the breeze can be gusty and hot. "I've been known to irritate people on occasion," Burton allows. One thing he's learned: "Politics, religion and people - be careful about those."
Baseball and the Phils, though, are another matter. His favorite team is the Dallas Green gang that won the 1980 World Series. Could it happen again this year?
"Absolutely," Burton says. "If they stay fairly healthy, they have a good shot."