- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Baseball is America, they say. Yes it is, in both its glory and its shadows. Just to prove it, “Baseball as America,” the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s traveling exhibition — now at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History — explores the national pastime’s relationship to American identity.

Among the more than 500 artifacts from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., is Jackie Robinson’s 1956 Brooklyn Dodgers jersey. That alone tells the stories of one of baseball’s brightest, and of one of its darkest, eras: In 1947, Robinson became the first black player to play for a major league baseball team — and his jersey, in white, blue and red, became a new flag for a changing nation.

Robinson made it into the Hall of Fame in 1962, the first black player to be inducted. He’s gone now, but the question

remains: Wouldn’t the story of baseball — and of America — have been even brighter if Robinson’s fellow Negro Leaguers had been running the bases in the major leagues before 1947?

Monte Irvin, one of the 25 baseball Hall of Famers to attend the Washington opening of “Baseball as America” in early April and a one-time Negro Leaguer himself, rattles off the names:

“Willie Wells, Ray Dandridge, Leon Day, Buck Leonard, Quincy Troupe, Satchel Paige — earlier than when he was called up — Oscar Charleston and Josh Gibson,” Irvin says, rapid-fire.

“You see what kind of talent we had, and guys in the majors knew it too.”

Irvin should know. Now 85, he joined the Newark Eagles in 1937 and spent most of his nearly 20-year baseball career in the Negro Leagues before he was called up by the New York Giants in 1949. One of the first 10 black players to play in the majors, he was one of the few Negro Leaguers to cross over to Major League Baseball.

• • •

“Baseball as America,” put together by the National Baseball Hall of Fame, has been on the road for two years, making stops in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta and St. Petersburg, Fla., before setting up at the National Museum of Natural History, where it will run through Oct. 3.

Its goal, according to its mission statement, is to “examine the relationship between baseball and the American culture.” So the exhibit explores a wide variety of themes, including immigration, nationalism and integration.

“If you look at America, sometimes it’s hard to get your mind around all of society, but when you look at baseball, it’s easier to understand some societal issues in that context,” says John O’Dell, curator of history and research at the Hall of Fame.

Baseball, he says, “very well reflects the mixed attitudes that Americans had over issues of race, ethnicity and gender.”

On display, for example, is a wooden home plate unearthed from a baseball diamond laid out at the Gila River Relocation Center at Rivers, Ariz., 50 miles from Phoenix. The people who built it during World War II were baseball-playing Americans. Yet as Japanese Americans, they were automatically suspected of favoring the enemy — and this “relocation center,” in plainer language an internment camp, was the place where they were shipped for the duration of the war.

The show’s look at baseball’s glorious and inglorious past is unflinching. Divided into seven thematic sections, the show opens with a section titled “Ideals and Injustices,” containing artifacts that shed light on some of these darker aspects of baseball’s past and raise the question:

If America stands for freedom, equality and opportunity, can baseball truly stand for America? Does the game’s troubling legacy of segregated black teams fall short of our ideal of “liberty and justice for all”?

If the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia, the game’s statistical tome, is considered the bible of Major League Baseball, then the period before Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough in 1947 can be called the Old Testament.

The show chronicles that “Old Testament” history of the separate professional leagues for black and white players through such relics as a Pittsburgh Crawfords uniform jersey worn by slugging first baseman Buck Leonard and a pair of shoes worn by speedy outfielder James “Cool Papa” Bell, generally regarded as one of the fastest men ever to play baseball.

Cool Papa was so fast, the legendary pitcher Satchel Paige once said, he could turn off the bedroom light switch and be under the covers before it was dark.

• • •

Irvin, in a wheelchair as he recovers from recent hip replacement surgery, offers some insight into pre-1947 efforts to blur the color line. He recalls particularly the tours organized by Bob Feller, a white pitcher for the Cleveland Indians who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962.

“Bob Feller organized integrated all-star teams that played exhibition games on barnstorming tours in 1946,” Irvin says, suggesting that such tours showed up Major League Baseball: “It showed how stupid they were not to have started a long time ago.”

Irvin also played on racially mixed professional teams in Mexico while still excluded from the American major leagues.

“It was the first time I really felt free to go anywhere and do anything I wanted,” he says. “The money was better. A lot of guys got married and stayed down there.”

Monte Irvin, however, came back from Mexico. He and Hank Thompson became the first black players on the New York Giants. Irvin led the National League in 1951, driving in 121 runs for the pennant-winning Giants, and stole home against the New York Yankees in the first game of the World Series that year.

The Yankees were among the last teams to sign a black player, and included in the exhibit is a handbill distributed outside Yankee Stadium in 1953 calling for the integration of the team.

Yet “integration” is only a word, one that doesn’t reflect the resistance in American society. Also in the show is a sample of the hate mail the Atlanta Braves’ Hank Aaron received as he was chasing down Babe Ruth’s career home-run record. That was in 1974 — 27 years after Jackie Robinson’s debut.

Irvin, who played outfield for the Giants and for the Chicago Cubs before retiring in 1956, and who was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, was himself subjected to indignities inherent in a segregated society unknown to his white teammates, who were either unaware of or insensitive to what he endured.

“They didn’t talk much about it,” Irvin says when asked if any of his New York Giants teammates spoke up on his behalf.

“We were just happy that it happened and grateful to be there,” he says of black players’ attitude toward the integration of the major leagues. “We played hard to show them what they had been missing.”

• • •

Another of baseball’s darkest moments had nothing to do with racial discrimination. Among the show’s exhibits, in its “Enterprise and Opportunity” section, is a copy of Major League Baseball’s Rule 21, which, among other things, states: “Any player, umpire, or Club or League official or employee who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with the bettor has a duty to perform shall be declared permanently ineligible.”

That’s one way of looking at the scandal surrounding Pete Rose, a 20-year veteran who played with the Cincinnati Reds, the Philadelphia Phillies and the Montreal Expos and later managed the Reds. Ultimately, the definition of this rule was the deciding factor in the 1989 decision to ban Rose from participating in Major League Baseball in any professional capacity for the duration of his life.

The Rose matter has been a controversy that has reared its head every year since he was banned. The exhibit pulls no punches regarding the depiction of this story: Also included in the show is one of the 12 volumes of “the Dowd report,” the report by Washington lawyer John M. Dowd, a special counsel to then-Commissioner of Baseball A. Bartlett Giamatti, who investigated Rose’s actions and found that he indeed had bet on sports, including baseball.

• • •

But “Baseball as America” is not all so heavy. A thread connecting the separate themes of the exhibit is an expression of the joy, romance and passion associated with the game.

In this show are more than 500 colorful artifacts, many of which have never been on display anywhere, that remind us how baseball retains its hold on the American psyche. Consider these:

• An original Victor record album of Ernest L. Thayer’s poem ‘Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888,’ recorded by DeWolf Hopper in 1906. Does America love baseball, or what?

• A jersey worn in the filming of ‘The Bad News Bears’ and a ‘Bull Durham’ movie poster. Pop culture has never been immune to baseball.

• An original manuscript of the song ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game,’ scribbled in pencil on a plain sheet of paper complete with doodles and cross-outs made by Jack Norworth while he was riding a Manhattan subway in 1908. The song would become America’s other national anthem.

• An Esskay Franks vending box. Hot dogs, anyone?

• Former Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Steve Yeager’s throat protector for catcher’s masks. Yeager devised this after almost being killed when his neck was punctured by a splintered, broken bat. An item of equipment that exemplifies baseball’s evolution in both physical and figurative ways.

• The bat Hank Aaron used to tie Babe Ruth’s career home-run record on April 4, 1974, and a certificate given to fans in attendance four days later in Atlanta when Aaron broke the record. These are in a display case devoted to slugging.

• Bats belonging to Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa from 1998, when both surpassed Roger Maris’ single-season record total, as well as the bat Maris used to set his mark# of 61 in 1961.

• • •

Among the most interesting items in “Baseball as America” is the Doubleday Ball#, an old, cloth-stuffed ball found in a trunk belonging to Civil War Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday of Cooperstown, N.Y., reputedly the inventor of the sport.

The unearthing of this single artifact in 1934 is primarily responsible for the founding of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939 and for its location at Cooperstown. The ball was for many years the museum’s signature item.

Although the Doubleday ball is included in the “Our National Spirit” section of the exhibit, it could be placed comfortably in the “Weaving Myths” section, perhaps alongside a corncob removed from the Dyersville, Iowa, site of the filming of the movie “Field of Dreams.”

In 1908, a commission of baseball leaders, statesman and military veterans concluded that Doubleday devised “the first scheme for playing baseball.” It has been since more roundly acknowledged that the game dates back to ball-and-stick fertility rituals of prehistoric cultures, to the old English game of rounders and, more recently, to the rules written by Alexander Cartwright in 1845 for the “New York game” or the “Knickerbocker game,” which Cartwright’s team played in Hoboken, N.J.

So if it is baseball’s larger-than-life and mystical elements, its ability to transport us back in time to a seat in a stadium that no longer exists, sitting next to a love now gone, that endears it to us, it’s no wonder: The game itself is founded in fantasy, owing its origins to a creation story that has been debunked but is none the less affectionately retained, if for no reason other than to keep the Hall of Fame in its magnificent Cooperstown surroundings.

But does it matter? No.

Play ball!

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