My father and I made a short pilgrimage to Cooperstown this weekend; short in distance, relatively speaking but not in time. We attended a VIP Weekend at the Baseball Hall of Fame, including an after-hours access window to the main museum exhibits, and then two private sessions with an artifacts expert and one of the Hall librarians, who shared a variety of paper ephemeral that have been made permanent. It was a true pilgrimage for me, in many ways, as this may be the first year I did not watch a single baseball game in its entirety, the first summer I didn’t wait to hear John Sterling’s “The Yankees win! Theeeeeee Yankeeeees win!” on the radio, and the first post season that felt like a necessary conclusion only to get to the next season of sport.
Upon arriving, we were greeted by some of the Hall staff who reminded us that “Baseball is generational” – they told stories of three generations of single-family fans of single-sport fandom visiting, the innings of their stories and heroes spread over thirty or forty years. This trip, however, was generational in my enthusiasm for the sport. We don’t have the same-team affiliations across the generations in my family – I grew up a Pittsburgh Pirates fan (hence the Willie Stargell obsession) and have veered toward the local favorite Yankees, my son is a Nationals and Red Sox fan (by-products and time and geography) and the first of many discoveries this weekend is that my father was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, until another change in geography and time (my father’s college years and the Dodgers move west). On the topic of Bobby Thompson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round The World”, the home run that sent the New York Giants to the 1951 playoffs (while my dad was a high school student, in prime sports rooting years) – and something that repeatedly came up in our behind the scenes tour of the artifacts – my dad’s comment was that “my team lost.” The stories aren’t always happy ones.
Honus Wager’s T206 card, on prominent display, is a neat intersection of time and space. It was donated by the collection of the late Barry Halper (a fellow Livingston resident for a while); is the subject of one of my favorite baseball card books; conflates hockey and baseball (Wayne Gretzky owns the other pristine example of the card); and to quote Cory Doctorow from “Craphound,” there’s a poem and a story there. Wagner went on to coach with the Pirates nearly two decades after his playing career ended, and one of his minor league prospects was a future dentist who later became my father’s best friend.
I’ve always loved LeRoy Neiman’s bold, brushstroke heavy work, especially depicting baseball, because it captures the way we see those events – through summer haze, through flying dirt, through a light shower, never quite fixing the image perfectly in all places at once. A new exhibit at the Hall is about the art of baseball, including one large-scale Nieman work (which I believe is Willie Mays). You see art differently when you visit with an artist (like my dad).
We cannot tell our baseball stories without names, and I became acutely aware of the power of choosing names during our library artifact tour. One of the items on display was a nearly 70 year old player statistics register, a green lined ledger book better suited for the accountants of the game. Before computers and spreadsheets, it was the system of record for all statistics, and once a player had a page in it for a single at-bat or chance in the field, it was a matter of record. Neatly printed in block letters across the top of one page in the 1947 register is the name “ROBINSON, JACK R”. Not “Jackie” as has been retired in our memories and ballparks, but “Jack Roosevelt,” his given and preferred name. “Jackie” was a concoction of the media to make him “less threatening;” the librarian also spoke of Roberto Clemente, whose baseball cards read “Bob Clemente” so that he might be somehow less Latino. We are given names, but choose what we wish to be called, and when another party — media, public, fans — makes that choice for us it robs a bit of our self-determinism. Nowhere was the power of names to control more evident than on the reverse of one of the four $25,000 bonds posted to finance the sale of Babe Ruth from the Red Sox to the Yankees; it is one of two remaining and is been endorsed by the Boston American League Baseball Club. Over the years that transition had names swirling around it: “Curse,” “Bambino”, “Babe” but the formalities simply involve a man named George and a club named Boston. The librarian also pointed out to us that they prefer items that are not autographed, because they collect artifacts, not memorabilia. We ascribe time, place and context to memorabilia, as it tells a story of who, why and where we acquired the item, but artifacts tell the large story of the game, left for us to interpret later in different contexts, when the names perhaps mean more.
The Hall continuously rotates artifacts in and out of display, and while I was disappointed not to see Ron Blomberg’s first designated hitter bat, we did discover Rennie Stennett’s bat used in his 7-for-7 game (the only player in the modern era to do so). Stennett was an integral part of the Pirates in the 1970s – the team that was the object of my affections and box score scrutiny. Only a few weeks after that batting feat, Stennett and company lost the National League playoffs to the Reds on a wild pitch in the bottom of the ninth – a defeat that for me was on the order of Mookie Wilson’s hit through Buckner’s legs, the ignominy of the Bartman incident, or Bobby Thompson’s home run as experienced by my dad.
Sometimes the stories just need a generation, and a road trip, to become happy ones.