Baseball in the Natural History Museum. (Exhibits)

By Gmelch, George | Nine, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Baseball in the Natural History Museum. (Exhibits)

Gmelch, George, Nine

On the third floor of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, just down the hall from the African mammals, is the new traveling exhibition Baseball As America. In museum parlance the "big idea" for the exhibit is the intimate relationship between baseball and America. I am alerted to the theme in the first salon by an oversized quotation from French historian Jacques Barzun: "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball." Every baseball scholar knows barzun's words by heart. The passage is cited so often that it has become a cliche, but the point is valid. Baseball and the nation share similar values and have grappled with similar social and economic issues. They have evolved together.

Initially I walk through the entire exhibit several times just trying to get my mind around it. This exhibition is much more than a collection of Cooperstown's treasured memorabilia (500 of the Baseball Hall of Fame's 35,000 artifacts are here); it looks more like a celebration of baseball's place in American culture.

On each pass I notice a small crowd around a display of four bats. Some of the few artifacts that can be touched, they are the models used by Babe Ruth, Edd Roush, Rod Carew, and Mark McGwire. As replicas they have no direct connection with Ruth or the others. Rather the appeal is that visitors are able to lift, feel their heft, and compare. Rod Carew's thirty-four-inch, thirty-two-ounce seems featherweight next to Roush's thirty-six-inch, thirty-seven-ounce model. A few ounces and two inches might not seem like much of a difference, but it feels enormous in my hands. I marvel at the strength of Roush. Holding the bat I think of the D2 model, thirty-four inches, thirty-three ounces, that I used as a Minor League first baseman in the 29605. One D2 stands in the corner of my study at home, and I still occasionally take a swing and wonder how I was ever able to get it around in time to meet a fastball.

I linger in the "Invention and Ingenuity" section, which examines the evolution of baseball equipment and how it has improved player performance and safety. Baseball people like to say that the game doesn't change, but the displays of early equipment, such as fingerless gloves, bottle-shaped bats, and heavy wool uniforms, tell a different story. Indeed even the gloves and spikes I wore just thirty years ago now look antique compared to the streamlined, high-tech gear used by today's players. The changes invoke a notion of historical progress.

Elements of a few old designs, however, have resurfaced in the modern gear. I was surprised, for example, to see a pair 1906 high-top spikes--I had assumed that high tops did not enter the game until the 1980s. Comparing old and new in the exhibition, I see that some fashions, such as belts and button-down jerseys, run in cycles.

I am struck at how often an artifact triggers a personal memory--and not just for me but for other visitors whose comments I overhear. At moments it's like looking at a family album. A medical bag from the 1960s displays the ointments, unguents, and Band-Aids that had once been applied to my own bruises and minor injuries, though not with the expertise of today's trainers. In the 1960s Minor League trainers had little training and only rudimentary knowledge of sports medicine. Jerry, the trainer on my Jamestown Tigers of the New York--Pennsylvania League, was also the team bus driver.

Moving on the exhibition reminds me that not all of my baseball memories are fond ones. Although I knew of the hate letters Hank Aaron had received in 1974 as he closed in on Babe Ruth's hallowed home run record, to actually see one, in the bigot's own penmanship, means something else. I recall my youthful outrage at the racism I witnessed. Baseball had exposed me--a young, naive, California suburban boy--to a degree of bigotry I had not known before. On my first road trip in North Carolina in 1966, our team bus stopped for a late-night meal, and I watched in disbelief as my black teammates walked around to the back of the restaurant to be served in the kitchen. …

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