Sport and society are often linked, whether by a fan’s comparison between a game-winning goal and real-life heroics or a journalist’s association between performance-enhancing drugs and rampant dishonesty in American politics. Such comparisons are primed for aggrandizement: caught up in the moment, we often forget that the realm of sports does not always equal the realm of the real world. Based on its name alone, the traveling Baseball as America exhibit seems likely to fall under this category of distorted reality.
However, a closer look at the exhibit, currently on display at Boston’s Museum of Science, reveals that the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum has largely avoided this trap. The creators have pieced together the history and development of a sport and related its context to history in just a subset of items from Cooperstown. Though the exhibit uses baseball as a barometer for the national culture, it focuses on baseball and America’s complex co-evolution instead of making superficial comparisons.
Admirably, the exhibit does not attempt to gloss over the uglier sides of American history: it covers commercialization and racial, gender, and ethnic stereotypes in as much depth as it covers memorable World Series and individual achievements. As the exhibit proclaims, “It is this controversial history and changing face that make baseball an effective emblem of America. Look to baseball and you will see our ideals and our injustices, our triumphs and our struggles.”
The shining moment of the exhibit, however, lies in something far less prominent than Curt Schilling’s bloody sock. (For the record, it really doesn’t look like it was smeared with ketchup.) The label of this memento reads, “Shoebox of baseball cards thrown away by your mother.” The appeal of the Baseball as America exhibit hinges on the idea that baseball mirrors American life — not just its professional achievements, but also the everyday items and memories that connect millions of people.
Similarly moving is the display on 9/11 that immediately greets visitors upon entry. Accompanying a promotional baseball found at Ground Zero by New York City firefighter Vin Mavaro is Mavaro’s letter to the CEO of Trade Web, the company that manufactured the baseball: “Being a baseball fan, coach and player, this item has become a symbol of hope for me.” For me, this pairing is even more poignant than Curt Schilling’s cap from the 2001 World Series, adorned with a New York Police Department shield. A lesser exhibit might have included only the professional baseball connection to 9/11 and missed how powerful the average person’s relationship to baseball can be.
Of course, there are the usual suspects: the panel devoted to Babe Ruth, the Jackie Robinson display, the Black Sox scandal from 1919. Other interesting tidbits are the Strat-O-Matic, the precursor to fantasy baseball; several items belonging to Moe Berg, the major-league catcher who was also an American spy; and a picture of the Ichi Roll, a sushi roll at Seattle’s Safeco Field named for All-Star outfielder Ichiro Suzuki.
For those interested in the technological side of baseball, the “Invention and Ingenuity” placard discusses the Navier-Stokes equation in relation to the way pitches rotate, a prelude to displays of equipment and communications advances. Regarding the curve ball, former Harvard president Charles Eliot gave us this ironic gem: “I understand that a curve ball is thrown with a deliberate attempt to deceive. Surely this is not an ability we should want to foster at Harvard.”
Additionally, there is a section devoted just to the Red Sox. A good portion of these items represented the players taking the field in Fenway today. I’m not sure if this is in light of their two titles since 2004 and the requisite mention (and resolution) of the 86-year curse, or perhaps a feature that the curators tweak every time the exhibit changes cities to reflect the history of the team closest to that city. If it’s the latter, I’m even more impressed at the way the exhibit involves the casual regional fan.
That’s not the only personal touch, either. The exhibit encourages fans to upload their own baseball “stories” to its database. Additionally, when your party enters the exhibit you pass by “home plate,” and have your picture taken for a collection of your own — for $20.
Perhaps the Museum took a lesson from the “Enterprise and Opportunity” section. But in a few years, maybe your pictures or ticket stubs from the exhibit will lie next to the Ted Williams-endorsed fishing rod and tackle.
The Baseball as America exhibit will stay in Boston’s Museum of Science until Sept. 1, 2008. Admission is $21 per adult.