- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 15, 2003

For Washington area fans desperate for baseball and impervious to the Orioles’ dubious charms, there is balm in Gotham if not Gilead. Two museums in the greater New York City area serve to slake our thirst until Major League Baseball comes to its senses and moves the Montreal Expos to these parts.

Since 1998, the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center on the campus of Montclair State (N.J.) University has provided a neat mini-Cooperstown for lovers of the national pastime. And starting Tuesday, the American Folk Art Museum in midtown Manhattan will premier “The Perfect Game: America Looks at Baseball,” which offers more fascinating artifacts than you can shake a stick — or bat — at.

Both are a definite must if you’re heading north. No other sport has a more glorious past than baseball, and the two museums showcase it most effectively.

First the Berra pantheon, where you can observe a lot by watching and learning that 90 percent of this game is half mental. It’s better to go early in the day because it gets late early out there, and a wonderful trip through the building is never over till it’s over. Just be careful, when you come to a fork in the road, to take it.

Sorry — I couldn’t resist.

Actually, Lawrence Peter Berra, now a spry 78, is much more than a funnyman. His record 16 World Series rings — all on exhibit at the museum — attest to the fact that he was a marvelous catcher and slugger for the dynastic New York Yankees of the 1950s and ‘60s — and a manager who won pennants for the Yankees and New York Mets.

Deputy director Dave Kaplan, currently the museum’s only full-time paid employee, was showing a visitor around recently when Yogi came around a corner and said hello. Berra, a longtime resident of Montclair, drops by the museum several days a week to keep an eye on things and schmooze. Bumping into him is something akin to encountering Connie Mack or Ty Cobb because Berra’s place in baseball and national history is secure. His Hall of Fame status, TV commercials and reputation for amusing malaprops don’t hurt, of course. By now, the guy is a full-fledged American icon.

Yogi didn’t say anything funny this particular day. But he did say, “I’m very proud of the museum, although we need more room.”

Well, that’s coming, too. A fund-raising drive is under way to more than double the size of the current layout to 40,000 square feet. Curator Frank Ceresi of FC Associates in Northern Virginia says the expansion will add a theater seating 180, a research library named for former Houston Astros owner John McMullen, greatly increased room for exhibits and a gift shop. The museum is scheduled to close at the end of this year and reopen in 2005.

Even now, however, it’s a fascinating place to spend a couple of hours. By no means do Berra’s life and times monopolize the scene. In addition to photos, articles and artifacts concerning his career, there are exhibits on the Yankees, the Negro Leagues and 19th century baseball among others.

A life-sized photo shows Jackie Robinson stealing home ahead of Berra’s tag in one of those Dodgers-Yankees World Series in the ‘50s — though Yogi will argue to this day that Robinson should have been called out. Another shows him leaping into Don Larsen’s arms after the final out of Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 Series. (The pained expression on the pitcher’s face is because Yogi’s knee caught him squarely in the groin.) And there are memorable photos from Yogi Berra Day at Yankee Stadium in 1999, when David Cone emulated eyewitness Larsen by delivering his own perfecto.

Two exhibits in particular catch the eye. On one wall are the plaques honoring Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle that were removed from Yankee Stadium during its renovation in the mid-‘70s. The accompanying text explains, movingly, how Mantle specified that Joe D’s plaque must always hang several inches higher than his own.

Near the front entrance stands a huge plastic cow adorned in pinstripes and bearing the signatures of many baseball notables. The most prominent is on the bovine’s forehead: “Holy Cow! Phil Rizzuto.”

Yet the museum is more than merely a place for fans to get their kicks. Its stated mission “is to educate and inspire all people, particularly children, with culturally diverse, inclusive sports-based programming … to foster a better understanding of social justice, mathematical and scientific principles and the historic and contemporary role of sports in society.”

The museum welcomes hundreds of groups during the school year, stages many events and publishes materials for youngsters. Not everything on the premises is based on learning, though. Behind the building is a neat little ballpark — Yogi Berra Stadium, naturally — that serves as home for the university’s team and the minor league New Jersey Jackals.

The moving light behind the museum is president and founder Rose Cali, a former university trustee who got to know Berra after she bought his house in the ‘70s. The $2million project was created through private donations rather than government funds and designed by Frank Cirillo. Everyone connected with the museum should be as proud of it as Yogi is.

Over in Manhattan, the American Folk Art Museum looks at baseball in a different and equally engaging way. The exhibit, which runs through Feb.1, displays more than 100 art objects ranging from the 1840s to the present day. Elizabeth V. Warren is curator, and a companion coffee table volume ($29.95, Marquand Books, 150 pages, illus.) is available for those who wish to have a permanent record of the exhibit.

When it comes to artifacts, just about anything is fair game concerning this fair game. Visitors will see weather vanes, advertising figures and signs, textiles, arcade games and carnival figures related to the sport. And historic scorecards and baseball cards are all over the place.

What this sort of exhibit does, among other things, is further disprove the hoary inaccuracy that Gen. Abner Doubleday “invented” baseball at Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1839. The game’s long past has left us thousands of mementos, and a goodly helping is on display in Noo Yawk.

Especially noteworthy are a lithograph of Union prisoners playing ball at a Confederate camp in Salisbury, N.C., circa 1863; a painting of Jackie Robinson playing the outfield (which he seldom did) with the misspelled word “Dogers” on his uniform; an 1844 painting of a formally dressed child titled “Boy With Ball and Bat”; and many marvelous 20th century shots by noted photographer Charles Conlon.

The museum also will publish a book for children 8-12 titled “Baseball for Everyone: Stories from the Great Game ($16.95, Harry N. Abrams Inc., 48 pages, illus.) and present educational programs on such topics as adult and child collectors, dialogue with artists and baseball songs (No, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” is not the only one, just the most famous.)

“This is all about art, history and culture all coming together,” Warren said of the museum’s effort, and the exhibit does justice to all three.

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