Published: August 12, 2003
– Baseball is recognized as the national pastime, but for some artists and collectors the game has become a driving passion as well. This year, the American Folk Art Museum steps up to the plate with “The Perfect Game: America Looks at Baseball,” a comprehensive exhibition of more than 100 pieces of folk art with a common theme that will enjoy an exceptionally long run through February 1.
Elizabeth V. Warren, who organized the exhibition and authored the accompanying catalog, was the museum’s curator from 1984 to 1990 and has been its consulting curator since 1991. A lifelong New Yorker, Warren had an additional job qualification: “The museum asked me to do the show, knowing that I was a baseball fan and have always followed sports,” she said.
As it turned out, the spirit was willing but the collection was weak. “It was different than other projects I have worked on in the past,” states Warren. “Number one, we had almost nothing in our own collection to start with — we had one object and that was it. But that one object — a baseball show figure on rolling stand — was bought for the museum as a promised gift by Bill and Millie Gladstone.” In her introduction to the exhibition catalog, the curator states flatly: “Without the Gladstone Collection of Baseball Art there would be no ‘Perfect Game.’ You are the ultimate baseball collectors.”
As a starting point, Warren had paid a visit to the couple. “I had been told that the Gladstones had a wonderful collection of baseball art. I said, ‘Before I commit to this project, let me see what they’ve got and find out if there’s enough material out there to fill the museum.’ So I went to see their collection and judging by what was there, I knew it was a viable project. At the very least, we’d have a small show, and at best we’d be able to get three floors, which we did. The Gladstones put me in touch with a couple of people who put me in touch with others. It was very much word of mouth.”
The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. — the institution that one might expect would lend multiple objects to the exhibition — was not a major source because of the criteria for inclusion the curator had established. She says, “We weren’t looking for memorabilia; we didn’t want relics. We wanted works of American folk art with baseball as their subject matter.”
Self-taught or “outsider” artists are often driven by religious devotion, but “The Perfect Game” proves that baseball could produce the same fervent inspiration, clearly seen in the colorful “Homage to Hank Greenberg” by Malcah Zeldis (born 1931) or “Night Game – Yankee Stadium” by Ralph Fasanella (1914-1997). Other famous names in this field who have their baseball moments on display are Thornton Dial, Sr (born 1928), “Remembering the Road”; Rev Johnnie Swearingen (1908-1993), “The Baseball Game”; Sam Doyle (1906-1985), “Jackie Robinson in the Outfield”; and Jimmy Lee Sudduth (born 1910), “Jackie Robinson.”
While many of these more recent works appear in show segments devoted to the “Stars of the Game” and “Playing Fields,” a section of the exhibition devoted to “The Historic Game” takes us back to the Nineteenth Century when baseball’s rules were still under construction. A watercolor painted by an unidentified artist around 1870 shows a leisurely game between two amateur clubs, the Liberty Nine of New Brunswick, N.J., and the Baltics of Brooklyn, N.Y., watched by well-dressed spectators in top hats and bonnets. The idyllic setting with a clubhouse veranda and no fixed seats is reminiscent of English cricket field pictures of the same period. A scorer and referee are seated at a small table on the first base line; the frock-coated umpire at the plate would have been supplied by the home team from reserve players or the spectators on hand.
The historical development of the sport is of principal importance to some collectors. Warren notes, “Dr Mark Cooper has a collection of every baseball game that was ever made.” Cooper, a radiologist at Methodist Hospital in South Philadelphia, lent one of his best games to the exhibition: an 1878 Parlor Baseball Game played with a giant spinner. Also on display is the original patent drawing for the board game created by Edward B. Peirce of Lowell, Mass. The collector also owns the winter sled in the show decorated with a folk art painting of 1880s baseball star Mike “King” Kelly in his catcher’s outfit.
The doctor says, “My collection is predominantly but not exclusively baseball games — board games, card games, arcade games. As games evolved in the 1840s and 1850s, they reflected the way in that American society was changing. When baseball became our national pastime, board games were produced which reflected the evolution of baseball. The rules of baseball were very different in the Nineteenth Century from what they are today. Pitchers had to throw underhanded back then and sometimes eight balls were a walk and four strikes were an out, or if you caught the ball on a bounce, that was an out.”
The exhibition does not include equipment memorabilia of the Babe Ruth’s bat or Hank Aaron’s uniform variety but there is a display of painted and carved “Bats and Balls.” In addition to the Sosnak baseballs, these include a presentation bat with lodge symbols from West Lynn, Mass., a grain-painted bat from the early Twentieth Century, a Kentucky bat and ball whimsy carved around 1930. Many of the bats are on loan from the private collection of David Hunt, an auctioneer of historical sports memorabilia in Exton, Penn., who also provided an early Twentieth Century walnut folk art carving of a player.
One of Warren’s greatest discoveries during her exhibit-hunt was a beaded baseball made by the Lakota Sioux at St Francis Mission in South Dakota, which led to more information about early Native American players of the game. “I found an archivist at Marquette University in Milwaukee and discovered that they had this beaded baseball in their collection which they weren’t even aware of,” she remembers. “Then he got interested in the subject and started turning up all these photographs of teams, which we included as background for the beaded baseball and the Baseball Star Quilt, also made by the Lakota.”
She continues, “I also love the 1844 portrait of the boy with the baseball and bat in his hands, and I love the Lewis Smith drawing of the Maximo Bloomer Girls Baseball Club — I wanted it to be the exhibition T-shirt! The section on the women’s game was the first chapter I wrote. I did that as a sample for the editor. And the All Girls Softball Game carved by Earl Eyman of Oklahoma was clearly done at that period in the 1940s when the women’s league was big, particularly in the Midwest.”
Collectors will enjoy the exhibition catalog, The Perfect Game: America Looks at Baseball (Abrams 2003; $29.95) by Warren with an introduction by sportswriter Roger Angell, available through booksellers or directly from the museum. For children 8-12, Baseball for Everyone: Stories from the Great Game (Abrams 2003; $16.95) by Janet Wyman Coleman with Warren offers a colorful tour of baseball history.
In conjunction with the exhibition, the American Folk Art Museum is presenting a busy schedule of gallery talks, lectures, films and other events. On November 7, a special program, “Catch the Fever: Baseball Collectors Share Their Passion for Folk Art and the Game,” will feature collectors Bill and Millie Gladstone, David Hunt, Richard Merkin and Paul Reiferson.
The American Folk Art Museum is at 45 West 53rd Street and is open Tuesday through Sunday 10:30 am to 5:30 pm., Friday until 7:30 pm. For more information, call 212-265-1040 or visit .
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