- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The “that-was-then-this-is-now” element of the Library of Congress’s new baseball exhibit is evident as soon as visitors walk in.

On the left, a screen displays the flickering images of Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax throwing the final pitch of his perfect game in 1965. That’s the “then.” On the right, another screen shows footage of three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer rejoicing after one of his no-hitters in 2015. That’s the “now.”

That’s one of the points of “Baseball Americana,” an exhibit years in the making that opens to the public Friday as part of a Washington-wide celebration of the national pastime ahead of the July 17 MLB All-Star Game at Nationals Park.

The concept behind the exhibit began with a simple question, said Betsy Nahum-Miller, senior exhibition director.

“How do we connect to someone who knows baseball now and maybe not so much then? It was almost from the beginning, before we came up with the idea of baseball as a community, we had then and now,” she said. “Because we knew it could be a hook to people who really don’t know the really big, long history of baseball.”

For Carla Hayden, head of the Library of Congress, the entrance is her favorite part. She paused and watched black-and-white footage of historic baseball moments and remembered going to St. Louis Cardinals games when she was a kid with her grandfather. She’d buy a hot dog, sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and, when the San Francisco Giants came to town, watched 24-time All-Star Willie Mays play center field.

“As a little African-American girl, watching Mays play, it was unforgettable,” Hayden said. “On those days, the stadium was filled with more people who looked like me.”

The exhibit highlights baseball’s historic role as a unifier of communities in America, Nahum-Miller said. She said race and politics leave the equation when you’re among fellow fans. What matters most becomes peanuts and Cracker Jack while rooting for the home team.

It’s also the culmination of a dream staffers have had since the Library of Congress published a book called “Baseball Americana” in 2009. In the past, the Library of Congress has featured its impressive store of baseball memorabilia in smaller displays for the Lerner family, the owners of the Nationals, and other baseball minds visiting town.

Hayden’s appointment in February 2016, as well as MLB’s announcement that the Midsummer Classic would take place in D.C., prodded the exhibition in the right direction.

“We figured the timing couldn’t have been better to actually make it happen,” said Susan Reyburn, curator of “Baseball Americana.”

The year-long exhibit features 148 objects, some on loan from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum while others originated in the Library’s own archives. Most of the archival film footage was obtained with assistance from ESPN and Major League Baseball.

Babe Ruth’s shoes, a letter from Jackie Robinson to baseball executive Branch Rickey and the “Laws of Base Ball” from 1857 are all included. Baseball’s “Magna Carta” standardized nine-inning games, 90-foot base paths and nine players on each team. The basic rules were born.

“Baseball really grew up with America, and you really see that with the things in our first case going back to the 1780s,” Reyburn said. “Baseball has been with us as the United States has grown up.”

But it didn’t start here. Reyburn’s favorite item is a pocketbook from England, written in 1744 (but since reprinted) that mentions “Base-Ball.” Bases are called “posts,” but it describes a bat-and-ball game.

“It just took Americans time to make it really competitive and eventually expensive,” Reyburn said.

From Dottie Key’s Rockford Peaches uniform of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League to a Walter Johnson baseball card from 1911, baseball’s past is on display as MLB’s All-Stars descend on D.C.

“What I really hope that people will take away, especially if they’re hardcore baseball fans, is that they’ll see something here or read about something here that they hadn’t seen before,” Reyburn said. “The game that you know is maybe a little different and a little older than you thought.”

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

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