BASEBALL AS AMERICA
I do not keep a list of "Things to Do this Lifetime," (which may explain how I "forgot" to have children). But if I were to keep such a list, I would now add to it a trip to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, NY. That’s because I managed to see the bit of Cooperstown that came to Oakland, CA, in the form of the BASEBALL AS AMERICA Exhibition just a few days before this road show folded its tent on January 22, 2006.
I’m no museum maven; I can count on one hand the number of times I have been to museums in the quarter-century I’ve lived in the Bay Area, and still have fingers left over. But as I left the exhibition for work, I was sorry I caught it so late in its showing that I knew I would not have time to visit it again. Yet I probably saw it when my mind was most open to baseball’s past; by the time I went to the Oakland Museum of California, I’d watched my recently purchased video of Tommy Lee Jones’ gripping portrayal of the dying Ty Cobb several times, and I was about a third of the way through Billy Martin’s autobiography.
BASEBALL AS AMERICA, an exhibition of artifacts from Cooperstown, is billed as "[t]he first major exhibition to examine the relationship between the national pastime and American culture." The exhibition was organized according to cultural themes ranging from racial and ethnic discrimination, to baseball in entertainment and in the American lexicon, to "American ingenuity" in the development of baseball equipment. But I experienced the exhibition as more about the relationship between the national pastime and me, my interest in the game’s early history, and baseball in my time, in the places were I have lived, and the players and the teams for which I have rooted. Perhaps this is why it would have been great to see the exhibition a second time: after experiencing it on a personal level, I might have been able to experience it on the thematic level intended by the curators. It didn’t work out that way for me, but I would recommend that baseball fans see this exhibition at least twice.
BASEBALL AS AMERICA is on a four-year, ten-city tour, and people in each city have gotten or will get a slightly different experience because part of the exhibition is focused on local baseball. The exhibition will be in Detroit from March 11 through September 5, 2006. (Thanks to Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson for that detail). No doubt Detroit will get an extra measure of the exploits of Tiger greats such as Ty Cobb, Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, and Al Kaline. In Oakland, the entranceway to the exhibition was flanked by two homeplate views of an interleague game between the A’s and the Giants at the Coliseum. On the right, Eric Chavez was swinging at a Noah Lowry pitch in the bottom of the third with the A’s leading 3-1. On the left, Moises Alou was swinging at a Danny Haren pitch in the top of the fourth; the score was still 3-1. This set the stage for the part of the exhibition that was all A’s and Giants.
Here was where I learned that baseball first came to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1858, with the first clubs formed in San Francisco the following year. The Pacific Coast League (1903-1958), of which the Oakland Oaks and the San Francisco Seals were members, was known as the "Third Major League." (The Oaks moved to Vancouver BC after the 1955 season. The Seals disappeared when the PCL disbanded in 1958). The Bay Area has produced, either through birth or later residence in the area, quite a number of notable baseball players: Early 20th Century Red Sox Hall of Famer Harry Hooper, and other better-known names, Paul Waner, Frank Crosetti, Joe DiMaggio, Ernie Lombardi, Billy Martin, Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Curt Flood, Willie Stargell, Joe Morgan, Glenn Burke (first openly non-straight player), Dave Stewart, Rickey Henderson, Dennis Eckersley, Randy Johnson, Barry Bonds and Dontrelle Willis.
There was also this Louisiana product who made his name as a pitcher with the Oakland A’s while still too young to drink or vote and who also pitched for the San Francisco Giants later in his career. To get an idea of what it might have been like to face Vida Blue, all I had to do was to step into one of the batter’s boxes painted on the floor of the museum and stare up at the cutout of Blue in his A’s uniform (mid-leg kick) that was down the hall. Even in this static simulation, I could see what a tough task it was to pick up the ball from Vida’s delivery. (I didn’t realize how BIG batter’s boxes are until I stepped in. And now I really am convinced Eric Byrnes was standing too far away from the plate to reach those low and away strikes last year!)
I went back to those batters’ boxes another three times during my visit, and on a couple of those occasions, there was no one walking between me and the Vida cut-out. Sixty feet, six inches looked like a long ways away. Of course, in real life, the distance was quickly bridged by Vida’s fastballs.
As I showed up at the plate for the fourth time that day, an elderly couple was leaving. The woman told her husband, "No one is throwing a rock 95 miles an hour at me!" They must have thought there would be a pitching simulation. There wasn’t, but I wish there had been. I would have liked to have experienced facing a laser simulation of Vida’s fastball. Could I have even seen it?
I got a close-up look at the World’s Championship trophy won by the Oakland A’s in the 1989 "Earthquake" Series against the Giants. It was exciting to see it. I have never seen one close up before. It brought back memories. That World Series may have saved my life. In those days, I worked in the Marina district (though not near the fire everyone saw on TV) and drove home to Oakland via the Bay Bridge. The Oakland direction is the lower deck. But for my decision to work late and listen to the game in my office, I would have been on the bridge, and possibly quite near the collapsed eastern section, when the earthquake hit at 5:04 p.m. I also remember driving to the downtown Oakland business district, with a broom visible from my back windshield, after the A’s took Game 4.
In addition to the batter’s boxes, there were two other parts of the exhibition I would term "interactive." One let us handle bats modeled after those used by Babe Ruth, Rod Carew, Mark McGwire and Edd Roush, a contemporary of the Babe who played primarily for the Cincinnati Reds. I liked Carew’s bat, which, at 32 ounces, was the lightest of the four. I found it strange that McGwire’s bat seemed much heavier than Carew’s, even though it was only one ounce heavier and half an inch longer (34.5"). I did not actually handle the Roush and Ruth model bats, which I knew I would find too heavy. But I could see that the Sultan of Swat had a scepter befitting his stature and that Roush was probably telling the truth when he said he did not break a bat in his big league career. His thick-handled model could stand up to a fastball without breaking.
The other interactive part of the exhibition let us try four pitching grips: for a curve ball, a change up, a fastball and a knuckleball. Above each ball was a picture of the appropriate grip and a quote. Two of the quotes I noted down, finding them amusing. Charles W. Eliot, President of Harvard University from 1869 to 1909, said of the curve ball, "I understand that a curve ball is thrown with a deliberate attempt to deceive. Surely that is not an ability we should want to foster at Harvard." And as for the knuckleball, Charlie Lau said, "There are two theories on hitting a knuckleball. Unfortunately, neither of them works."
Catching a knuckleball is hardly easier. As I was taking a break from writing this article, I wandered over to the "Inside the White Sox" blog, where Scott Reifert, White Sox VP of Communications, is writing about spring training. He said, "Charlie Haeger is a knuckleball pitcher. Yesterday, Man Soo Lee tried to catch him as everyone stood, watched and laughed."
This was among several areas of the exhibition that were a humorous counterpoint to presentations about serious issues, including racial and ethnic discrimination, the marginalization of women, baseball in wartime, and the commercialization of the game.
"…sentiment no longer figures in the sport, it is now only a battle of dollars." No, you did not read that comment in your hometown newspaper this hot stove season. But maybe your great grandad read it. Cooperstown culled that quote from an editorial in the New York Evening Journal, October 1, 1908.
The BASEBALL AS AMERICA exhibition is quite comprehensive. There’s something in it for everyone, from people interested in baseball’s place in American culture, to baseball’s place in one’s local community, to baseball history, to the current game. I was less interested in Billy Martin’s cowboy boots and Berkeley High School letter jacket, Harry Caray’s eyeglasses, or Andy Warhol’s portrait of Tom Seaver than in things that were intimately connected with what goes on between the white lines: the evolution of catcher’s gear (which would have been the subject of my final project had I been able to stay in my video editing class), Ty Cobb’s spikes, Grover Cleveland "Pete" Alexander’s 1926 World Series ring, that 1989 Oakland A’s World’s Championship trophy, and the glove used by Brooks Robinson when he played the role of "Human Vacuum Cleaner" at third base in the 1970 Fall Classic. (His answer to my question about that glove is on his blog, Brooks Robinson’s Hot Corner).
If you can see BASEBALL AS AMERICA, do it. And whether you can or you can’t see this exhibition, put a trip to the Hall of Fame on your lifetime "To Do" List.