Baseball Hall of Fame on Road Trip Through U.S.

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
Updated July 3, 2002
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Babe Ruth's bat is back in the Big Apple. So is Jackie Robinson's Dodgers jersey—the one he wore while smashing baseball's color barrier.

They're on display, along with "Shoeless Joe's" shoes and hundreds of other cherished relics of America's national pastime of baseball, at New York's American Museum of Natural History.

Nearly 500 objects from the permanent collection of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum are going on the road for the first time in an exhibition, Baseball As America, that will travel to ten U.S. cities over the next four years.

"This tour is really going to be great," Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson said during a recent interview in Washington, D.C. "I had a chance to see the exhibit and they must have really dug into the archives. I've never seen half of these artifacts before, and they are really incredible."

The exhibition offers a chance for people across the country to enjoy the rich legacy that has made a visit to Cooperstown, New York—home of the Baseball Hall of Fame—a pilgrimage for 400,000 visitors a year.

Besides housing prized artifacts of the game, the museum is a gathering place for baseball's living legends. "I love going back each year, love seeing the guys," said Robinson. "There is no place more beautiful than Cooperstown, New York, in August."

American Romance

Among the artifacts included in the road show is the so-called Doubleday ball, from baseball's first official game in 1839. But the Baseball As America exhibition is more than just a collection of historic balls and bats, because baseball has always been more than just a game.

The country and baseball evolved together, and the exhibit examines this link—the shared history and culture, such as baseball's role in immigration, patriotism, and technology.

Baseball had been played in the United States for years before it exploded in popularity in 1855, beginning in the New York area and spreading throughout the country.

By 1860, the craze was so widespread that the famous lithographers Currier and Ives produced a print portraying Abraham Lincoln's 1860 presidential election as a baseball game and describing the event in the vernacular of the game. Lincoln was a ballplayer and ardent fan of the game.

Baseball, of course, remains a huge part of U.S. culture today. "Whether you are a fan or not, baseball is so much a part of our lives that we often don't even realize it," said Dale Petroskey, president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

"Not a day goes by when you don't hear slogans such as 'out in left field' or 'you threw me a curveball,'" he said. "The game is so well understood that we use its phrases as a kind of shorthand, because we all know what they mean."

The language of the game has become as all-American as a ballpark hotdog or the baseball caps donned by people of all ages.

"Everyone's got a baseball memory," said Robinson, "and I'm not sure that's true in the same way with other sports. That's what the game's all about—it's our national pastime and it's always been such a big part of our culture."

Baseball, he added, "reflects some of our American ideals like patriotism and ingenuity, and others that you'll see in the exhibit." Petroskey agrees that the game holds a unique place in the hearts of Americans. "It's the only sport with its own song. Everyone knows the words to 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame.' Only the 'Star-Spangled Banner' and 'Happy Birthday' are more popular," he said.

"The president himself begins the season by throwing out the first pitch, and has since 1910," he added. "And baseball hats are worn to promote all kinds of organizations, including teams from other sports."

Unique Cultural Role

Baseball's expansive role in U.S. culture is reflected in the artifacts—not all of them from the playing field.

Visitors will see the world's most valuable baseball card, the T206 Honus Wagner, an icon of a hobby that has become something of a national pastime in its own right. Also on tour are an original 1908 Edison recording of "Casey at the Bat," a beloved Norman Rockwell painting of three umpires, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "Green Light" letter addressing the role of baseball in time of national crisis.

FDR addressed his famous 1942 letter to baseball commissioner Kenesaw M. Landis, urging the continuation of professional baseball as a way to boost morale during World War II. Roosevelt's belief that "it would be best for the country to keep baseball going" illustrated the game's importance, even in troubled times.

That belief in the importance of baseball during times of national tragedy is echoed in more recent additions to the Hall of Fame collection. Two baseballs in the exhibit relate to the terrorism events of September 11.

One is the baseball President Bush used to deliver a dramatic strike to open a game of the 2001 World Series in Yankee Stadium. The other is a ball found intact in the rubble of the World Trade Center. The fireman who retrieved the ball sent it to the Hall of Fame, expressing his belief that the ball symbolized America and the nation's indestructibility.

The tremendous influence of baseball is something Brooks Robinson said he did not always appreciate as keenly as he does now.

"When you're playing every day, you don't always realize the impact you have on people," he said. "Once you retire and step back a bit, you realize how much baseball means to people. Then you get a chance to really connect with the fans, and hear their stories about how much the game has meant to them over the years—that's really special."

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