We spent Thanksgiving break down in Virginia so that Friday I took the boys into DC to see the Baseball Americana show at the Library of Congress. They’re both into the sport enough that they were excited to go when I showed them the website and they managed to make it through the subway ride and exhibition just fine before they ran out of gas and needed lunch.
To be clear, by “making it through” I mean they put up with me doing the exhibition at my speed instead of theirs. So I got to read the wall text and item descriptions and would call them back to look at things they may have skipped over as they skipped through the gallery. Thankfully te exhibition is a good one for kids. There’s lots of things to touch and video screens that kids can use to kill time while their parents catch up.*
*I usually don’t like video-based exhibits because I prefer to go on my own pace than be limited to what the screen shows but with kids they’re wonderful.
Plus, by being baseball, there’s a lot of things that the kids just recognize and get excited about. I’ve been good about exposing them to the history of the game and they’ve been wonderful about wanting to learn that stuff. My eldest has already surpassed much of my baseball trivia knowledge and his younger brother will catch up any day now.
What this exhibition does best is constantly pair old items with their modern equivalents and invite us to compare the two. This is super accessible to kids and drives home the point at how constant the game has been.
Bats look like bats. Cleats look like cleats. Caps look like caps. Gloves…well those have changed a bit. But we’ve had baseball cards and scorecards and ticket stubs and programs for well over a century and they’re recognizable. It’s not just that the game’s been around for that long, it’s that my 4th grader can look at a scorecard from decades ago and recreate the game in his head and that my 1st grader can see a 100-year-old baseball card and know not only what it is but how it was used and maybe even who the player or team depicted is.
While the equipment is fun to see, because this is the Library of Congress, most of what’s on display is ephemera. Many of these items are programs, posters,* promotional items and all kinds of the accoutrement that accompanies being a fan. These are very fun to see—both from a design point of view and a “how the game is marketing itself point of view—but they’re also almost too familiar.
*Of special note are early promotional posters such as the baseball and chess doubleheader that served as the first collegiate game.
I found myself really enjoying the documents that weren’t just old but offered a perspective on the game that I’m less aware of. So many wonderful items from the players and other people in the game. Photos, letters, scouting reports. I love the scouting reports and how they’ve changed as the game trended toward more data-based in its analysis. But the letters* are great and the contracts provide insights into aspects of the game that fans don’t usually see.
Contracts are typically private. We’ll be made aware of certain details but it’s not like teams just release the full text as a press release. And I’m okay with this since I certainly wouldn’t want the terms of my employment to be published publicly either. So being able to read Ty Cobbs’s contract is great. As is being able to read the full text of the reserve clause since its legacy on the game is so strong. I appreciate the Curt Flood shoutout since the business of contracts and trades and player movement is such a sore subject even today.
The player-focused documents also allow the exhibition to make the claim that Baseball Americana is the national pastime not just for fans but for participants. It highlights how non-white players played the game long before 1947. How women have played it long before the AAGPBL; and how they’ve continued to play it to the present. How Americans played it while overseas and introduced it to other countries. How internees played it while being treated as if they were not American.
One of the big points that the show makes is how the traditional narrative of the game’s history excludes the majority of the actual ballplayers. Major League Baseball is the tip of the iceberg and while it’s The Show, it’s also excluded many players and the game is better as a common game for everyone.
I enjoyed this show it immensely. As did my kids and I’m glad we all got to see it together. Do they have the stamina for a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame? Maybe they do. Maybe they do.
Oh, and there’s a part 2 of this review looking specifically at baseball cards that I’ve posted over on the SABR Baseball Cards blog.
The catalog for this exhibition is also fantastic. It has a lot more information than the exhibition does—especially in the formative years—and was definitely worth picking up. I suspect that it will get read through a lot by at least three members of the household. The only criticism I have of it is that it stops in the 1960s and doesn’t take things to the present day.