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SPORTS: Hits And Errors, Donated Liberally


April 24, 2002
Copyright © 2002
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- A YEAR ago, on April 1, Major League Baseball opened its season in San Juan, P. R., and Tony Batista homered as his team, the Toronto Blue Jays, defeated the Texas Rangers. To commemorate the occasion, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum here acquired the lineup cards and a hat from Batista, a journeyman who was waived several weeks later by the Blue Jays and finished the season in Baltimore.

You may not think the hat, one of 346 pieces added by the museum in 2001, particularly noteworthy. But here it is, in a prominent display case, testament to the continuing history of America's most representative sport, which the museum traces season by season, record by record, game by game.

Indeed, because of the peculiar statistics-and-trivia-driven appeal of the sport and its habit of insinuating itself into the lives of children, it could be argued that in baseball, events become history at an accelerated pace.

As another season gets under way, last year is already gathering dust here, on its relics if not its memories. Among the gathered paraphernalia: the jersey worn by Barry Bonds the day he hit the last of his record-setting 73 home runs; the uniform, spikes and batting glove of Tony Gwynn, who retired at season's end; a jersey, cap and fielder's glove from Cal Ripken, another star who called it quits; the bats used by Tino Martinez and Scott Brosius for their ninth-inning home runs that won consecutive World Series games for the Yankees; and the bat used by Luis Gonzalez for the dinky single that won the decisive game for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

"The fact that we're collecting from today makes us somewhat unlike other history museums that unearth dinosaurs and the like," said Peter D. Clark, the curator of collections. And because the museum doesn't throw anything out, the collection grows rapidly. Storage space is packed; construction on an expansion has begun.

There are 36,000 three-dimensional items in the collection, and 130,000 baseball cards. In addition, the research library holds 2.6 million items, including half a million photographs; 10,000 to 15,000 hours of audio recordings, film and video; 35,000 clip files, personal papers, scrapbooks, original manuscripts, scorecards, media guides, books and publications and assorted documents that would make serious scholars and baseball nuts salivate – like a promissory note from the Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert to the Boston Red Sox for partial payment for Babe Ruth.

It is, in other words, a vast and idiosyncratic collection, the result of an acquisition policy affected by many factors, not the least of which is that the acquisitions budget is, in Mr. Clark's concise description, "zilch." The museum depends on cooperation from Major League Baseball and players and the generosity of donors, both of which are encouraged with active arm-twisting.

Jeffrey L. Idelson, the museum's vice president for communications and education, tries to keep ahead of the collecting game, alerting players and teams of the museum's interests before foreseeable records or landmarks are reached, or, if not foreseeable, as soon as possible.

Most players are flattered and happy to contribute, Mr. Idelson said, but his efforts do not always work. Barry Bonds, for example, would not part with the bat that hit the 73rd home run, leaving an inconsistency in the museum's tribute to record-setting sluggers: the bats that produced Babe Ruth's 60th home run of 1927, Roger Maris's 61st of 1961 and Mark McGwire's 70th and Sammy Sosa's 66th of 1998 are all here.

The decision about what to ask for is made by a five-member accessions committee (which includes Mr. Clark and Mr. Idelson), and often depends on what the museum already has from a particular player, among other factors. When Roger Clemens of the Yankees broke the American League record for career strikeouts, the museum received not only Clemens's jersey and spikes but also the pitching rubber from Yankee Stadium.

"Well, we don't have too many of those in our collection," Mr. Clark said. "But I suspect it's here because the Yankees wanted to send it."

Other quirks are brought on by the sometimes conflicting requisites of documentation and display; it has long been a museum policy, for example, to collect a ball and a pitcher's cap from every major-league no-hitter. It is certainly within the museum's parameters to acknowledge these achievements, which are significant in baseball history. But does a hundreds-long string of labeled baseballs satisfy the visual hunger of a museumgoer?

"Baseball is something people feel especially possessive about," Mr. Clark said. "And people who come to the museum really get something out of the actual objects, even if they are repetitive. Being next to Clemens's record-setting strikeout ball, they feel an attachment to it that's different from what they feel when they go to a history museum and see 10 clay pots."

About a quarter of the museum's collection comes from people who volunteer memorabilia and from other, sometimes more dubious, collectibles. Over the years, this has resulted in peculiarities, not to mention inconsistent and questionable calls.

Mickey Mantle's toenail clippings, for example, are not here (someone claiming ownership offered to donate them), but a razor blade used by the game's winningest pitcher, Cy Young, is.

A kitchen window broken by Pete Rose, age 3, with a rubber ball isn't here (also offered), but a license plate (Wisconsin) from a car that was owned by Burleigh Grimes, who pitched nobly for six National League teams, is.

A lamp made from seashells to honor Robert Moses Grove, one of baseball's great southpaws (he was better known as Lefty), didn't make it; but a machete owned by Byron Bancroft (Ban) Johnson, the man who created the American League, did.

When the museum opened in 1939, Mr. Clark said, it was an addendum to the Hall of Fame. There had been little or no thought as to what to put in it, and for much of the first few decades, the museum gratefully accepted almost anything, from a petrified stone in the shape of a catcher's mitt to a red-felt Shriner's fez that belonged to Ty Cobb to half of home plate, torn from Shea Stadium after the New York Mets improbably won the 1969 World Series.

That was the year Mr. Clark arrived. "When I came here," he said. "We simply had the old dusty display cases with Ruth's bat and Cobb's shoes and a label next to each one showing what it was."

In the last two decades, the museum has worked hard to grow into the role of sociological and historical storyteller. In addition to strictly baseball exhibitions, like one depicting the evolution of the catcher's mask, the museum has a permanent exhibition on the history of blacks and baseball, and it has begun collecting cultural artifacts that it did not formerly care about: a baby's pacifier with a Chicago Cubs logo on it, as well as a can of Iron City beer from 1979 that commemorated the World Series champion, the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Recently, for the first time, the museum sent out a major traveling exhibition. Called "Baseball as America," now at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the first of 10 stops on a tour scheduled through 2005, the show consists of 500 pieces that illustrate – broadly but persuasively – the interweaving of baseball and American culture. Among other things, the exhibition makes the museum's current direction and aspirations clear, an achievement that is also evident in the list of acquisitions from a year ago this month.

Aside from the season opener in Puerto Rico on April 1 and Clemens's strikeout record on April 2, several other events were deemed worthy of documentation.

New ballparks opened in Milwaukee and Pittsburgh and, oddly, the same player, Sean Casey of the Cincinnati Reds, got the first hit in each park; the bat he used is here. Sociologically speaking, on April 12, a Japanese batter, Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki, faced a Japanese pitcher, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, for the first time in the major leagues; a lineup card and a signed ball represent the occasion.

"Our job is to preserve and present American history, or at least an element of American history," said Ted Spencer, the chief curator, who says he was named after Ted Williams. "That's certainly what has happened. There's always been the desire to be an education facility. Now the goal from a curatorial standpoint is to explain to people what we have come to learn is the value of the game."

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