The Great American Pastime

For several years while Jason Varitek was playing for the Boston Red Sox he hosted an annual celebrity putt putt tournament. Red Sox players and other local athletes/celebrities would play mini-golf against ticket-paying fans, with the proceeds going to charity. You could also buy tickets just to watch the action. Back in 2009, I attended one of the events with my sister and bid on (and subsequently won) a four pack of tickets to the Baseball Hall of Fame in the event’s charity auction. Included were tickets to the Hall, as well as a behind the scenes tour. I never used it. After finding the certificate a few months ago I contacted the Hall to see if they’d still honor the package. They asked me to send them copies of the document and said they would be more than happy to honor it. We decided that it would make a great stop at the beginning of our trip.

We scheduled the tour for 10:30am on Friday morning (Day 2) and after checking in with Jackie Brown at the Administrative Offices we were sent off with Lenny DiFranza, an Assistant Curator at the Museum. We were told that the behind the scenes portion would take about 90 minutes and then we’d be free to explore the Museum and Hall at our leisure.

We didn’t really know what to expect from the tour, but were a bit blown away by the experience. Lenny began with the brief “history of baseball” – invented by General Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, NY. A fun story, Lenny explained, but not a word of truth to it. You can find lots of info about the “Doubleday Myth” on its official Wikipedia page, but needless to say, the myth did lead to Cooperstown becoming the home of baseball’s HOF.

We moved into the first part of our tour – the Hall’s photograph collection. While we were not able to to simply flip through the Hall’s extensive collection, specific prints had been pulled for the purpose of our tour. It was fascinating listening to the stories told through the photographs. The first baseball game filmed, early panoramic photographs using two different methods, opening day at the Polo Grounds (a copy of that image is on the linked Wikipedia page), baseball’s first World Tour organized by Albert Spalding, ladies day at the park (interestingly enough, we were told the majority of baseball tickets are now purchased by women), and a picture of Honus Wagner, among others. I related a story to the Lenny about the television show Prison Break in which one of the characters receives a five year sentence for having stolen some baseball cards. What should have been a misdemeanor is bumped up to a felony because the cards included a  Honus Wagner T205 card – considered one of the most rare cards in baseball and valued at over $1,000,000.

At our next stop, boxes and boxes of jerseys lined one wall. Boxes of other artifacts (balls and gloves, etc) lined other walls. We were required to wear gloves (white cotton or disposable) before touching anything. Once again, while we weren’t allowed to simply pull things off the shelves, a series of items had been pulled out for us to explore. Sriram was handed a baseball bat and realized it was the first time he’d ever held one (he grew up with cricket, which has a different style bat). The bat in question was the bat that David Justice used to hit the game winning home run in the 1995 World Series. Not bad for the first bat he’d ever held.

Another bat was presented (I don’t recall whose). It was made of maple (not the traditional ash). Maple bats apparently splinter on contact and break more frequently than ash, so the league requires that they be tested before being used. A new maple bat comes to a player with the following marking.

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If you’re interested in more about the maple bats, I found a great article here.

Lenny picked up the final bat and held it out to me. I took it carefully in my white gloved hands and held it with more reverence than an inanimate object probably deserves. I read the signature – Lou Gehrig. As a Yankees fan, it doesn’t get much better than that. A strange sensation overtook me. Perhaps it was the impact of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge that’s currently so popular (which I know I’ve been challenged – I will definitely get to it), but it was really cool holding that bat.

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We moved on to some other items: Ty Cobb’s Shriner’s hat, some memorabilia from the short-lived Federal League (including a medallion that was a “season ticket” that would get you into any Federal League game), Pedro Martinez’s 2004 World Series hat, and a harmonica.

The harmonica in question was presented to NYY Phil Linz after an incident on the team bus in 1964. As the story goes, Linz had been playing the harmonica after a loss. Yogi Berra, who was managing the Yankees at the time, wasn’t pleased with the light-hearted atmosphere and told him to stop. Linz was at the back of the bus and asked what Yogi had said. Mickey Mantle, who loved to stir the pot, relayed back to him, “He said, play louder.” Yogi eventually slapped the harmonica from Linz’s hand. The Yankees later credited that moment with turning their season around, though they did eventually go on to lose the WS to the St. Louis Cardinals in 7.

Finally, we came to a small collection of balls. Within the case, which was closed to light to protect the signatures from fading (note to self: put autographed balls someplace dark), was a series of balls. The first was a ball signed by both Kenny Griffey and Ken Griffey, Jr. The second was a silver plated souvenir ball that the Federal League used to give out. Another ball was signed by the members of the Spalding touring team. The most notable signature being that of Jim Thorpe, considered one of the greatest athletes ever.

The final ball in the series wasn’t a baseball at all. It was a small green, oddly shaped ball. I’d wondered about it since the moment he’d opened the box.

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It turned out that it was a stress ball that belonged to, then Yankees Manager, Joe Torre. During the 1999 season Joe kept two things in his Yankees jacket – a picture of his daughter, and the stress ball. When Joe was inducted into the Hall of Fame (in this year’s class) he donated his 1999 Yankees Manager jacket to his display. The photo was removed from the jacket. The stress ball was left behind. The Hall now keeps it in its collection. An interesting artifact, indeed.

We moved on to a library of sorts. The Hall keeps a folder of newspaper clippings on every player in the game. The folder that was out for our viewing was for a player by the name of Ronald Wade Wright. Never heard of him? I suppose you wouldn’t have. While his pro career lasted eleven seasons, all but on game was played in the minors. The one game he was called up for in 2002 he played as the designated hitter and ultimately struck out, hit into a double play and into a triple play. He was pulled in favor of a pinch hitter at his last at bat and never made it back to the majors. In the article we read, it referenced that he had joked to the effect that despite being responsible for 9 outs, it was the best day of his life.

Also out for us was the 1947 stats ledger. The ledger contains every statistic on every player for the entire season. The ledgers were a wonderfully maintained source that were eventually converted into digital archives by Major League Baseball. Once the project was completed, MLB planned to destroy the books. As explained to us, an unknown MLB employee suggested contacting the Hall to see if they wanted the ledgers. A good save, indeed. Here is the ledger, opened to the page documenting the breaking of the color barrier with Jackie Robinson’s first season.

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Other items we saw included a promissory note for the sale of Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees…

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…and a gold record of the famous Abbott and Costello, Who’s on First? recording.

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We saw so many wonderful things on the impressive behind-the-scenes tour. After completing the guided portion we checked back in with Jackie, who very sweetly gave us a packet of goodies for the road. It was a wonderful experience.

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We entered the main section of the Museum to begin our self-guided exploration, and spent 2 hours exploring parts of the museum. I was thoroughly impressed (and dismayed) by the collection. I feel as though I could have spent days in there and hardly made a dent in seeing the contents contained therein.

We decided to take a break for lunch before heading back for more (the ability to come and go all day is definitely a help). Items in the main collection are more easily accessible to the public, and I tend to take too many pictures anyway, so I won’t bore you with them all here. But after nearly 5 hours taking in the museum, I can definitely say, I’ll go back again to see all that I missed.

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2 thoughts on “The Great American Pastime

  1. Lisa Keniston says:

    Kris, I am so happy for you, being able to hold Lou Gehrigs bat. I still remember our fun Boston / New York rivalries back in our Somerville Lumber days. Sounds like a really cool place to explore. Years ago Steve and I went to the Football Hall of Fame in Canton Ohio and it was a great experience.

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