Baseball on Exhibit: Museums in the SABR Era
This article was published in the Fall 2011 Baseball Research Journal.
For better or worse, leisure and tourism have become big business. In the second half of the twentieth century, the modern concept of spare time evolved greatly. As people became more mobile, they demanded more places to go and things to see. Ballparks that were once shoehorned into old neighborhoods like Flatbush were abandoned in favor of stadiums with giant parking lots, designed to contain the thousands of cars of suburban dwellers. During the 1970s, attendance exploded at the ballpark, from 28.7 million visitors in 1970 to 43.6 million visitors in 1979.1 If baseball was not your idea of fun, there were many other places to spend your tourism dollars, such as national parks, theaters, or those omnipresent shopping centers. Museums of all shapes, sizes, and subjects were built and boomed in the 1970s. America truly was a land blessed with people who had spare time, money to spend, and places to spend it.
America in 2012 is much the same, but on a larger scale. People have many new entertainment choices—many which do not even require leaving home—but Americans still love baseball and museums. Seventy-three million fans paid to attend Major League Baseball games in 2010, nearly triple the 1970 attendance figure, and the number of museums in the United States has more than tripled since the 1970s.2 This has opened the door for a new generation of museums that focus on a specialized area, baseball being but one example of this phenomenon. Fans who want to learn more about the sport they love now have many vacation destinations to visit, and serious scholars now have places to examine the archives and precious artifacts of days gone by. Museums have also evolved in their role as protectors of history and historical items, so that future generations will also be able to enjoy the rich story of America’s national pastime. Examining how baseball is represented in historical institutions and how that study has evolved since 1971, the year that the Society for American Baseball Research was founded, can tell us a great deal about how the perception of baseball as a historical subject has changed.
MUSEUMS AND BASEBALL SINCE THE EARLY 1970S
During the 1970s, museums in the United States became aware of the need to capture the interest of a rapidly changing population. In the United States, many social groups and minorities were finally able to” break out of their shells” by asserting a demand for human dignity and rightfully expecting to be treated with the same respect as “mainstream America.” Museums, in their attempt to teach and aid society, now had to conform to these new standards of cultural consciousness, perhaps at times reluctantly. But, 40 years later, the museum-going public is still able to reap the amazing rewards of this new cultural tolerance and awareness.
During his 1966 Hall of Fame induction speech, Ted Williams famously stated that he wanted to see the plaques of famous players of the Negro Leagues such as Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson hung alongside his in the Hall’s plaque gallery. Because of the unique dual role of halls of fame (particularly in baseball’s case due to its cherished history) as both history museums and places honoring personal glory, this was a defining moment. The Hall of Fame induction offered Williams a platform to openly discuss his desire to see a subject, in this case African American baseball players, interpreted as a museum subject, and because of his stature, people paid attention. In 1971, a committee on Negro Baseball Leagues was created by the Baseball Hall of Fame with the purpose of singling out the best players from those leagues for enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. Cool Papa Bell and Judy Johnson would finally take a place alongside the top players from the established leagues that barred them from playing, as equals.
As Americans became more and more interested in the depth of their culture and history, their appetite for museums increased. The 1979 edition of Museums in Motion, a handbook for students interested in museum work, stated, “Museums are growing at an almost frightening rate… About five-thousand of them exist today. People are crowding into them in droves, and the annual visits made to museums are now estimated at 600 million.”3 According to the American Association of Museums, a reasonable estimate of museums in the United States in 2010 is 17,500, with 865 million annual visits. This explosion of the number of museums and visitors meant that there was plenty of room for new subjects to be given the museum “white glove treatment,” including baseball.
White gloves were not always required for old bats and faded uniforms. In the early 1970s, a more refined sense of proper handling and display etiquette arose among museum curators and public historians. Simply put, the field of museum studies has matured. Skills such as paper and metal conservation or art restoration have blossomed into scientific disciplines, now requiring years of training. The use of computers and databases has greatly influenced the way that artifacts and papers are documented, catalogued, and shared with the public. There is now a clearer, more systematic sense of how to secure artifacts from theft, damage, and degradation that was not always present in the early 1970s. The manner in which the items are presented has greatly changed, also. In the 1970s, most museums were of the “cabinet of curiosities” sort, or items piled up throughout with a minimum of “interpretation” (a museum term for explanation) and organization. In 2011, there is a more scientific and educational approach with a greater effort to explain items through printed labels and multimedia presentations. The valuable contributions of minorities are also typically explained and highlighted.
NATIONAL BASEBALL MUSEUMS
In 1971, if you wanted to look at one of Babe Ruth’s bats, Willie Mays’s shoes, or a baseball owned by Abner Graves, you would have had to travel to the hamlet of Cooperstown, New York to see the treasures at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Museum. The Senior Director of Exhibitions and Collections of the museum, Erik Strohl, explains, “Cooperstown is a beautiful place to visit and to live, but the winters are harsh, it can get very crowded in the summer, and geographically we are hard to get to. We are not on the way to anywhere, so the Hall of Fame IS the destination of many people who come here. It almost makes travel here like a ‘pilgrimage to baseball mecca.’”4 So, why Cooperstown? And who is Abner Graves? In 1907 the Spalding Commission, determined to find an American origin to baseball, learned from Graves, an elderly mining engineer, that baseball was invented in Cooperstown by Abner Doubleday in the early nineteenth century. He presented a ragged old ball as part of his evidence, which is still in the museum’s collection. In the 1930s, local Cooperstown businessmen proposed the idea of a shrine to the invention of baseball as an economic engine for the town, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame became a reality. The Hall of Fame itself now admits that Graves’s story is not historically accurate (most scholars agree that baseball evolved in several places over time, long before Doubleday’s lifetime), but since its opening in 1939, Cooperstown, through the archives and museum, has become the home of baseball’s history.
Strohl’s duties at the museum highlight just how complex modern museums have become: “There are four departments that report to me: Curatorial—writes exhibits and chooses artifacts for display; Exhibits—designs, produces, and maintains exhibits; Collections—organizes, maintains, and preserves all artifacts and archive material; Library—assists with internal and external research questions from staff, visitors, media, etc. My job is to keep them all running smoothly as possible and make larger decisions regarding our exhibit program and the care and maintenance of our collections. Basically I run the museum portion of the Hall of Fame.”5 In the museum’s earliest days, these duties would have been handled by volunteers with little or no academic training. Today these are highly specialized careers that function as part of an organized institution. This specialization is a reflection of the awareness of the museum field and, in turn, the general public, in historical preservation. In 2011 the museum-going public expects that a “proper museum” will be thoughtfully organized with explanatory interpretation written by a trained expert, and the objects will be treated with the utmost care behind the scenes.
This Hall of Fame spawned other “Halls of Fame” in subsequent years. All of the major sports now have their own Hall of Fame museums. There are even other baseball Halls of Fame. El Salon de la Fama del Beisbol in Monterrey, Mexico dates back to 1939. Some other Mexican communities such as Hidalgo del Parral have their own baseball hall of fame. In Tokyo, the Baseball Hall of Fame of Japan was founded in 1959 and was housed at Korakuen Stadium until 1988. The museum is now in the Tokyo Dome and the stories of Japanese baseball players like Sadaharu Oh, Victor Starffin, and Eiji Sawamura interpreted through this museum undoubtedly entertain and educate many. In St. Mary’s, Ontario we find the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame Museum. Among its inductees are the amateur teams of Beachville and Zorra Townships, who played a game near St. Mary’s in 1838, a strong case for the first recorded game of baseball. In 1994, Ted Williams opened his Hitters Hall of Fame in Hernando, Florida (see below). Almost every state has a baseball hall of fame, and minor leagues, American Legion chapters, or cities may have their own shrines to local diamond stars.
Being a “national” Hall of Fame has its challenges and rewards. ”As a national museum, you need to have a little bit of something for everyone, from casual fan to baseball aficionado, from major league to minor league to Little League ball,” says Strohl. “It’s great fun, however, to tell the history of baseball, its importance to American culture, and how this is relevant to even non-baseball fans, from the food we eat [hot dogs] to the clothes we wear [ballcaps].“6 Since that culture constantly evolves, the Hall of Fame has had to evolve, reflecting the changing face of America itself. “Two of our most popular exhibits are Pride and Passion [history of African-American baseball] and Diamond Dreams [history of women in baseball],” states Strohl. “Both of these show how these aspects of the game go back into the 19th century. Viva Baseball, which opened two years ago, explores the history of baseball in the Caribbean basin and the impact that Latino ballplayers have had on the game, continuing to the present day.”7
Another “national” museum that has been sharing the story of minorities in baseball is the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. It started life in a one-room office in a historic district but has now expanded to a permanent 10,000 square foot facility and shares a building with the American Jazz Museum. The presentation of topics such as jazz and baseball as museum subjects, because of their social undertones, serves to build an understanding of diversity. This understanding is further strengthened by educational outreach programs and traveling exhibits that are prepared by museums for use in schools. As nationally respected museums, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the Negro League Baseball Museum are sources of inspiration for their respective communities and are important resources for anyone interested in baseball or the history of the United States.
LOCAL BASEBALL MUSEUMS
It could be said that Fargo, North Dakota (which is my hometown) is 50 years behind the times in one significant way. When it comes to baseball’s single-season home run record, most Fargoans still want it to be 61, set in October 1961 when Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s cherished record. Maris was actually born in neighboring Minnesota, but he grew up in Fargo and since 1961 it seems every anecdote about Roger Maris features the disclaimer that he was a humble kid from North Dakota. Fargo, never afraid of a little publicity, has taken every opportunity to commemorate Roger Maris around town. There is an annual celebrity golf tournament, a cancer hospital with a “61 for 61” fundraising event, Roger Maris Drive, and, housed in the Roger Maris Wing of West Acres Regional Shopping Center, is the Roger Maris Museum. Founded in 1984, the museum features artifacts from all eras of Roger’s public life and is a source of pride to the community.
Rusty Papachek, the general manager of West Acres, oversaw a major renovation of the display area in 2003 and took over the curatorial reins of the museum five years ago. Papachek credits the first curator, Jim McLaughlin, with being the creative force behind the origins of the museum. “Jim was friends with the [Maris] family and everyone thought it would be a good idea to have a museum for Roger.” In fact, the mall has an ongoing relationship with Roger’s family, who donated most of the artifacts. “West Acres is happy to work directly with the Maris family to provide for the community.”8
The museum itself consists of a bright, neatly-arranged, and colorful display area that is adorned with flags tracking each of Maris’s 61 historic homers. You would think that a museum dedicated to one person would be filled with boring factoids or photos to “pad it out.” This is not the case with the Maris museum, for it consists of nothing but first-class pieces of Maris memorabilia: uniforms, from his Shanley High School football jersey to pieces from all of his stops at the major-league level, game-used bats, awards such as his Sultan of Swat crowns, and home run balls from 1961, including the last ten or so. Except one. The record-breaking home run ball number 61 is in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, but Roger himself is not.
Papachek’s sentiments about Maris’s legacy are not uncommon around Fargo: “Roger holds a special slot in the history of baseball and many still believe—I’m one of them—that he is still the legitimate single-season home run champ.”9
Museums focusing on one player are a relatively new phenomenon. In 1967 the birthplace of Babe Ruth, two blocks from Camden Yards in Baltimore, was about to face the wrecking ball, but was spared to become a museum, which opened seven years later. The Bambino seems to be the first player honored with his own museum, which also houses an extensive collection and archive of Baltimore sports history materials.
In 1994 the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame was opened in Hernando, Florida just a few miles from the house where Williams was living in retirement. The specially-built dual museum—half honoring Williams’s life and career, half the Hitters Hall of Fame—featured an 85-seat theater and a “Walk of Fame.” Despite being what its website called the “top tourist attraction in Citrus County,” after Williams’s death the museum moved to Tropicana Field, the home of the Tampa Bay Rays, where it can be seen free of charge by stadium guests.
If you are lucky enough to be in Van Meter, Iowa, minutes outside of Des Moines, you could make a stop at the Bob Feller Museum, which opened in 1995. This museum features artifacts and presentations from the career of “Rapid Robert” and other sports figures. Interestingly, the museum’s centerpiece is a bat of Feller’s, made famous not by the pitcher, but by Babe Ruth, who used the bat as a cane while giving his farewell address at Yankee Stadium. A photo of Ruth leaning on the bat during the speech won the Pulitzer Prize, and Feller’s bat went down in history.
Royston, Georgia is home of the Ty Cobb Museum, which houses “art and memorabilia, film, video, books and historical archives” concerning that town’s favorite son. The collection includes not only game-used memorabilia, but portraits of Cobb’s parents, and the “be good” letter often mentioned in Cobb biographies written by Cobb’s father when young Ty first left home to play in the bush leagues. Members attending SABR’s annual convention in 2010 were offered optional side-trips to both the Cobb Museum and the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum in Greenville, South Carolina. [Editor's note: The Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum is an institutional member of SABR.]
One common thread running through these museums, besides the obvious baseball connection, is that they are in areas that are not traditionally “tourism hotspots.” Fargo, Van Meter, and Royston are all fine places to visit, but one would usually need a specific reason to do so, and these museums provide this. To the people of Fargo, Roger Maris gives Fargo something “special,” and a museum celebrating him is a fine reason to get people to see Fargo. These museums give communities a sense of civic pride and a small economic boost. All of this was made possible by the huge boom of motor travelers of the last half of the twentieth century and their desires to see “something new.”
All of this is not lost on Rusty Papachek, who notes that because the Maris museum is located in a mall, it is “accessible to over seven million annual visitors without charging anyone. One of Roger’s stipulations was that it had to be free of charge.”10 Another common theme of these museums is the benefactor’s desire to use the artifacts for educational purposes and to enrich their communities in some small way. Says Papachek, “The community has been very receptive of the museum. The [Maris] family has been tremendous to work with and the museum wouldn’t be what it is today without their guidance and assistance.”11
BASEBALL MUSEUMS AND EDUCATION
As museums change and grow with the population, some may wonder what the role of a museum is in the twenty-first century. Museums most certainly store three-dimensional objects, but also the information that goes along with them. How does this fit into modern America? Kristen Madden, archivist at the Center for History in South Bend, Indiana, which houses the archives of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, believes that the spread of information is crucial. “Most areas that provide historical or academic information, like museums, archives, and libraries are trying to become much more accessible to the public by making more things available online. Because of this, there has been a large push to digitize information in the archive.”12 At the National Baseball Hall of Fame, educational outreach has become very important, according to Erik Strohl. “We have a full time education department which does programming for 7,500 students on-site per year [in school groups], plus point-to-point videoconferences with classrooms around the country which reach 25,000 students annually. Sometimes we do large electronic field trips which can reach 15 million students at a time. We have 15 learning modules based on different aspects of school curriculum.”13 All of this is made possible with technology that could not have been envisioned when SABR was organized at a meeting in Cooperstown in 1971.
We know that Americans love baseball and museums, but is baseball truly a subject worthy of an educational setting like a museum? Strohl thinks so. “Most aspects of American culture can be seen in microcosm in baseball—segregation, integration, multiculturalism, evolution of business, evolution of technology, popular culture, etc. We can learn about ourselves and American culture by studying almost any aspect of baseball history. Because they have a shared history that goes back to the 1830s, baseball and America have grown up together.”14
Rusty Papachek has a more pragmatic, but equally insightful opinion about this: “There are all kinds of museums and I think the end-user determines whether or not a museum is worthy. We continue to receive great reviews so we feel that our customers are still interested.”15
In the long run, that level of interest is all that matters. The subject of a museum exhibit has to be engaging and interesting enough to get people to visit, or it will shut down quickly. Some museums can be very “high brow” and intimidating, but these institutions are usually visited only by academics. It could be argued that museums that are able to focus on more popular cultural institutions such as music, mass media, and sports are doing more to educate the masses because their subjects are more appealing and accessible to a wider spectrum of visitors. While the topic of baseball may seem trivial in the scope of world events, the areas of society that baseball has touched and has been influenced by are vast and very real and relevant. It makes sense, then, that viewing baseball as an important piece of America’s history, started by the National Baseball Hall of Fame in the 1930s, continuing with the establishment of SABR in 1971, and the expansion of baseball museums in the years after, fills in fascinating and significant pieces of our collective history. And besides, like a baseball game itself, baseball museums are fun and provide us an opportunity to reflect on the glories of the past and hopes yet to come.
ZACHARY JENDRO is a Public History student at North Dakota State University. He studies baseball’s earliest days up until 1920 and also the Northern League. He has been working on a history of baseball in North Dakota for several years and one day hopes to work in a museum.
- 1. Thorn, Palmer, et al., Total Baseball (New York: Total Sports, 1999).
- 2. Edward P. Alexander and Mary Alexander, Museums in Motion (Lanham, Maryland: Museums in Motion, 2007).
- 3. Ibid.
- 4. Erik Strohl, interview by author, 2 June 2011.
- 5. Ibid.
- 6. Ibid.
- 7. Ibid.
- 8. Rusty Papachek, interview by author, 2 June 2011.
- 9. Ibid.
- 10. Ibid.
- 11. Ibid.
- 12. Kristen Madden, interview by author, 25 May 2011.
- 13. Erik Strohl, interview by author, 2 June 2011.
- 14. Ibid.
- 15. Rusty Papachek, interview by author, 2 June 2011.