Published: March 12, 2002
NEW YORK CITY – “,” the first major exhibition to examine the relationship between baseball and American culture, will premiere at the American Museum of Natural History on March 16, and, after it closes on August 18, will subsequently travel to nine leading museums across the United States.
Organized by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, and culled from its unparalleled collections, this unprecedented exhibition marks the first time that these Hall of Fame treasures will leave their legendary home in Cooperstown, N.Y. Through the exploration of a broad range of themes, including immigration, nationalism, integration, technology and popular culture, “” will reveal how baseball has served as both a reflection of, and catalyst for, the evolution of American society.
“” explores the changing roles baseball has played in American culture and history, and examines its unique position in our national life as a sport that holds the status of an art, a science and a secular religion. It examines such aspects of The Game as the rituals of fans and players; myth making and the role of heroes; the impact of technology on performance: segregation, integration and baseball’s role as a ladder of mobility for ethnic groups; The Game’s evolution as a business; the physics of the home run and the curve ball; and baseball’s presence throughout popular culture as a subject and metaphor, among many others.
Ultimately, “” reveals how the development of American culture owes so much to a Nineteenth Century game, affecting everything from our language and literature to movies, mass communication and diet.
The exhibition includes approximately 500 of the museum’s most precious artifacts, dating from baseball’s early roots in the Nineteenth Century to today, ranging from uniforms, balls, bats and gloves, to books, recordings, artworks and films, to historic documents, advertising and ephemera.
Among the highlights of the exhibition are The Game’s most sacred relic, the Doubleday ball, from baseball’s mythic first game in 1839; Jackie Robinson’s 1956 Brooklyn Dodgers jersey; a variety of artifacts from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League; record-setting bats from the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run chase of 1998, as well as those of Babe Ruth (home run #60 in 1927) and Roger Maris (home run #61 in 1961); Norman Rockwell’s 1949 painting “The Three Umpires”; the “Wonder Boy” bat from the movie The Natural; a 1908 Thomas Edison recording of “Casey at the Bat”; “Shoeless” Joe Jackson’s shoes; and the most valuable baseball card in the world, the T206 Honus Wagner.
Ritual: Weaving Myths
The need to create myths and make icons are two characteristics prevalent in almost all societies and cultures. In America, baseball players often fulfill the role of hero and cultural icon because they are imbued with traits we admire and that resonate through time.
Baseball’s foundation myth, its “invention” in Cooperstown, which led to the creation of the Hall of Fame and the ritual pilgrimage to visit The Game’s mythic home is explored by the Doubleday Ball, The Game’s most “sacred” relic.
Lou Gehrig is another focus of this section. His legend combines his feats on the baseball diamond with the extraordinary courage and dignity with which he faced the debilitating illness that still bears his name. This installation features the trophy given to him by his teammates at his Yankee Stadium farewell and a bracelet he made for his wife out of assorted World Series and All Star jewelry he had been awarded.
Babe Ruth, perhaps the most famous sports icon in American history, is also featured. His rags-to-riches story was enhanced by his seemingly effortless home runs, fun-loving attitude and generosity towards children. A gargantuan 56-ounce bat, purportedly used by Ruth in spring training, and a bat with 28 notches carved by the Babe himself (recording the home runs he hit before the bat broke) are displayed.
Our National Spirit
Baseball is so closely identified with American ideals and identity that it has often served as an expression of patriotism. In times of prosperity and challenge, baseball has served as a rallying point for the nation.
The tradition of the President throwing out the first ball on opening day, links The Game to the institutions of our democracy. Several balls used in ceremonial opening day pitches – including one signed by President William H. Taft, who began the tradition in 1910, and another signed by ten presidents, including President John F. Kennedy – are on view.
Also included is the “Green Light Letter,” written by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt January 15, 1942, to the Commissioner of Baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, encouraging professional baseball to continue through wartime. FDR noted that baseball could play an important role in boosting morale during the nation’s time of great challenge.
Ideals and Injustices
Through time, baseball has mirrored the social structures of American society. Among the many issues with which our country and our national pastime have wrestled, none better demonstrates the ways in which baseball simultaneously reflects and influences American culture than does the struggle for integration.
The signing of Jackie Robinson to play with the Montreal Royals, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ AAA farm team, on October 23, 1945, was a galvanizing moment for the Civil Rights movement in America. Robinson’s bravery in the face of hatred made him a catalyst that advanced integration. The exhibition presents not only artifacts associated with his fabled achievements as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, but also evidence of his historic role, such as a letter of admiration from then-Senator John F. Kennedy.
Segregation in baseball, is illustrated by such artifacts from the Negro Leagues as the Pittsburgh Crawford’s jersey worn by Buck Leonard and the shoes of James “Cool Papa” Bell.
The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which filled a void in the baseball market during World War II, finally gave women an opportunity to play in a professional setting. A deportment manual and a Kalamazoo Lassies uniform tunic illustrate how these “belles of the ball field” were supposed to play ball.
Ritual: Rooting for the Team
Complex and archaic rituals, both those followed by the players themselves as well as those shared by fans, dominate The Game. From Little League to the Major Leagues, a precise set of behaviors has persisted through time, passed on from generation to generation.
The high degree of ritualization that baseball contains may indicate a sense of attachment to a frozen moment in time and space – a pastoral dream recalling a society long since gone. It may signify a desire for continuity in a culture where so much changes so fast, or it may fulfill the notion that the game is a world unto itself, whose costumes, like its rules, possess their own logic.
Mascots have become an integral part of the entertainment at the ballpark, rallying the faithful to support their team. This section includes the “San Diego Chicken” costume that inspired an entire generation of fuzzy and feathered creatures such as the Philly Phanatic and Billy the Marlin in Miami.
Baseball’s anthem, one of the most recognized songs in America, is “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” sung during the seventh-inning stretch. The original manuscript, penned by Jack Norworth in 1908, is included in this section.
Enterprise and Opportunity
For many people, baseball is a game; for some it is a passion; and for others it is a philosophy. But, for a significant number of people, baseball is a business. What began as an informal ball game and grew more structured as baseball social clubs were organized, has now evolved into a complex economic web involving franchises, players, fans, cities, media conglomerates, advertisers, sports equipment manufacturers, bubble gum makers and countless others.
The introduction of an admission fee followed the growing popularity of baseball in the Nineteenth Century. In an attempt to keep out gamblers and other unsavory spectators, some teams began playing in enclosed parks that required an admission fee. Smart businessmen understood the potential of profit in such an undertaking and the business of ballparks soon took off. An original ticket window from Comiskey Park, built in 1910, and a turnstile from the Polo Grounds, will help illustrate this theme.
The role of our National Pastime in advertising is also examined, since baseball, more than any other sport, has also been used for marketing products. The artifacts illustrating this section range from a box of New York Champion Chocolates from 1890 to Roger Clemens’ picture on a Wheaties box to Ted Williams brand fishing tackle to Babe Ruth Athletic Underwear.
Invention and Ingenuity
Another section will examine how the evolution of the design of equipment and the use of new materials has improved player performance and safety. Advancements in technology have also greatly affected the impact of baseball on American life and culture.
Technological advances in the design of sports equipment, is illustrated through the Thayer mask, the earliest known catcher’s mask, patented in 1878, and an inflatable chest protector from around 1884.
The evolution of the bat and the secrets of the “sweet spot” is revealed in a display devoted to famous home run bats that belonged to Babe Ruth (#60 in 1927), Roger Maris (#61 in 1961), Mark McGwire (#62 in 1998) and Sammy Sosa (#66 in 1998). This installation includes reproductions of famous bat handles from different eras that visitors can touch, allowing them to compare such factors as bat weight and circumference that determine how far the ball will travel when hit.
The aerodynamics of the fastball and the curve, will be revealed through artifacts tied to great moments in the careers of such Hall of Fame pitchers at Sandy Koufax, Tom Seaver and Walter Johnson.
Ritual: Creating a Common Culture
Baseball images, metaphors and reference permeate virtually every aspect of American popular culture – its films, songs, comedy and literature. The Game and its heroes have become a form of cultural shorthand through which we define and recognize ourselves.
Norman Rockwell, whose paintings and drawings have come to represent traditional America, chose baseball on a number of occasions as a topic for his art. Rockwell’s “Three Umpires,” or “Bottom of the Sixth,” originally produced for the Saturday Evening Post in 1949, will be featured.
Ever since Thomas Edison’s Ball Game in 1898, directors and producers have created movies that use baseball as a metaphor to provide insight into American culture, character and values. The Wonderboy Bat and the New York Knights jersey worn by Robert Redford in the film, The Natural, and the Rockford Peaches uniform tunic that Geena Davis in A League of Their Own, help explain America’s double passion for baseball and the movies.
After its New York premiere and presentation at the American Museum of Natural History, “” will start a three-year national tour to: Los Angeles, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, September 21 to January 5, 2003; Chicago, Field Museum of Natural History, February 7 to July 20, 2003; Cincinnati, Ohio, Cincinnati Museum Center, August 16 to November 9, 2003; St Petersburg, Fla., Florida International Museum, December 13, 2003 to March 6, 2004; Washington, D.C., National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, April 3 to August 15, 2004; St Louis, Missouri Historical Society, January 29 to April 24, 2005; and three additional venues to be announced.
The exhibition is accompanied by a major publication entitled , published by the National Geographic Society. The book explores and illuminate the themes of the exhibition and is illustrated with images of objects in the exhibition as well as historical photographs.
A unique compendium, featuring 45 newly commissioned and 30 classic essays, commentaries and literature from a wide spectrum of writers, commentators, scholars and humorists, the book contains 320 pages with 200 illustrations, many of them in full-color.
The specially commissioned pieces include authors such as: news anchor Tom Brokaw on baseball’s importance to wartime America; filmmaker Penny Marshall on the making of A League of Their Own; best-selling novelist John Grisham on the significance of baseball to children; architect David Rockwell on designing stadium interiors for fans; and chef and cookbook author Molly O’Neill on the primal importance of the hot dog to baseball; and baseball writer Roger Kahn on the Brooklyn Dodgers. The classic pieces include singer/songwriter Paul Simon on Joe DiMaggio as an icon; Pulitzer Prize-winning humor columnist Dave Barry on the most resonant baseball story of 1960; and writer Roger Angell on the destruction of the Polo Grounds. Jules Tygiel, author of Past Time: Baseball as History and a recent biography of Jackie Robinson, has written the introduction to the book and a series of essays on the themes explored throughout.
The exhibition has been organized by a curatorial team from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, headed by lead curator Krisen Mueller, with John Odell, Mary Wiedeman Quinn, Erik Strohl, Tom Shieber and Kathleen Gallagher, under the direction of Ted Spencer, vice president and chief curator, William Haase, senior vice president, and Dale Petroskey, president. The exhibition has been designed by Gallagher and Associates of Washington, D.C.
Curatorial input for the American Museum of Natural History was provided by Robert Carneiro, curator in the museum’s division of anthropology. Oversight for the installation at the museum has been provided by the exhibition department under the direction of David Harvey, vice president for exhibition.
The American Museum of Natural History is at Central Park West and 79th Street. For information, 212-769-5100 or www.amnh.org.
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