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If you exhibit it, they will come

The “Baseball as America” exhibit at the American...

By Brian M. Rafferty

In the land of dinosaurs and pharaohs, vertebrates and primates, mutant moths and celestial wonders, there lies a doorway to America’s past and perhaps a key for a glimpse of hope of America’s future.

The “Baseball as America” exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, which includes items in a three-year tour on loan from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, will be at the museum on W. 81st Street in Manhattan through Aug. 18.

Despite the current talk of strike, contraction, overpaid superstars and owners buying themselves World Series championships, baseball remains the National Pastime — and for good reason. It is a living, breathing example of what America is, where America has been and where America is going.

The exhibit keeps these lofty themes in mind, and describes them not just in words but in pictures, in film, and in tangible materials culminating in one of the greatest history lessons I have had a chance to learn.

Upon entering the exhibit, there is a brief film showing the storied history of American baseball on one side, and a montage of clips from film, television and cartoons on the other. The montage series includes memorable moments from “Bull Durham,” “The Natural,” “Field of Dreams,” “The Simpsons,” “Bugs Bunny” and other cultural icons.

The exhibit is broken into seven categories: Our National Spirit, Ideals and Injustices, Sharing a Common Culture, Rooting for the Team, Invention and Ingenuity, Enterprise and Opportunity and Weaving Myths.

In Our National Spirit, the link between American pride and baseball is evident with pictures of presidents throwing out the first pitch of the season, including George W. Bush throwing a strike from the mound on opening day 2001.

Ideals and Injustices handles the topics of race, multiculturalism and tolerance within the country and within the game, as well as the terrorist attacks on the country on Sept. 11.

The uniform of color barrier-breaker Jackie Robinson hangs in a glass case, with the contract he signed to be the first African-American major league baseball player. The shirt of Mets shortstop Rey Ordoñez hangs with the tilde in place over the “n” — a symbol of the acceptance of Latin American players and their influence on the game.

The dirty hat worn by New York Mets pitcher Al Leiter, with a small shield clipped on and “9-11-01” stitched into the back of the cap, is accompanied by his shirt, with the same stitching on the sleeve. The shirt and hat were both worn the day baseball play was resumed last season following the Sept. 11 attacks.

Sharing a Common Culture highlights just how deeply rooted baseball is in the fabric of American life. Whether it is the familiar image by Norman Rockwell of umpires deciding whether to call a game because of rain, or the standard baseball talk that has become part of our language — “take one for the team,” “hit a home run,” “Striking out” or “a ballpark figure” — are all part of the American experience.

Literary and film classics, like the Abbott and Costello routine “Who’s on First” and the epic baseball poem “Casey at the Bat” are prime examples of a shared joy for the game at a very basic, cultural level.

A fish net on a pole used to scoop balls off the backstop behind home plate is just one of the many pieces of memorabilia in the Rooting for the Team segment of the exhibit.

What players and owners seem to forget when talks of strikes come about is that there is a third, equally interested party in baseball, without whom there would be no game — the fans. This part of the exhibit yields the obligatory giant puffy hand with “We’re #1,” as well as a host of baseball cards, program, bobble head dolls and other freebies and giveaways. Crackerjack boxes and hot dog vending carts are as much a part of the exhibit as they are a part of the fan involvement in the game.

Over in Invention and Ingenuity, the first catcher’s mask, handmade with metal wire, string and some padding, looks very similar to the masks used today by some off the game’s best catchers.

From lighter bats to better ballparks to differences in every nuance of the game, baseball continues to evolve as more is learned. The idea of the curve ball, explained by the Navier-Stokes equation, didn’t exist until 30 years or so after the game was invented. (William “Candy” Cummings gets the credit for throwing the first curve.)

Since then the knuckleball, split-finger fastball, slider, change-up, cutting fastball, screwball and other pitches have made their way into (and, as in the case of the spitball, out of) the game.

Enterprise and Opportunity is not a section dominated by free agency and owner greed, but marketing and selling of the game. A host of player-endorsed products, team items, Reggie bars, Topps cards and more range from the obscure collectible to the market-saturated throwaways.

The achievements of baseball’s finest are women into the Weaving Myths section of the exhibit, where Yogi Berra’s glove sits frozen in time with Don Larsen’s ball caught just south of the pocket, both from the only perfect game ever pitched in a World Series.

Though it is not the real one, visitors can swing a similar bat to the one used by Mark McGuire to break Roger Maris’ single-season record for home runs.

The items in this part of the exhibit, though mostly the actual ones used by the players themselves, seem larger than life — unreal, in a way.

That goes for the exhibit as a whole. To see the broken remnants of home plate from the day the Mets won the division in 1969 and the crowd stormed the field seems almost silly, but such a piece of lore — especially for someone too young to appreciate the moment when it happened.

The letter from Franklin D. Roosevelt to baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis giving his approval to continue baseball during World War II puts into perspective the tragedy of Sept. 11, when baseball was halted for a mere six days.

Contrasting the emotion of that piece is the comically-small uniform of Eddie Gaedel, the 3-foot-7 member of the St. Louis Browns whose only plate appearance drew a walk with his diminutive strike zone. There is also the uniform of baseball clown Max Patkin and the original gear for the Phillie Phanatic.

The exhibit is well spaced, with plenty of room for large crowds to work their way through and catch a glimpse of everything. It will only be at the museum through Aug. 18, when it packs up to continue its three-year tour of the country. Next stop — Dodgertown. The exhibit will be in Los Angeles, then move along to the home towns of the White Sox and Cubs, the Reds, the Devil Rays, the Senators, the Cardinals and the Astros before sliding in safe back at Cooperstown in August 2005.

For more information on the exhibit, go to www.baseballasamerica.com or go to the American Museum of Natural History’s Web site at www.amnh.org or call 212-769-5200.

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