Dodgers exhibit puts you in Jackie Robinson's shoes Play ball: Brooklyn Historical Society encourages visitors to play a part in a chapter of New York history.

February 11, 1996|By Douglas Martin | Douglas Martin,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

It seems the simplest of props: footprints are painted on the floor, a baseball bat is suspended by wires, home plate is just below. On the wall looms a life-size photograph of Jackie Robinson.

You, the visitor, put your feet in Robinson's footsteps and step up to the plate. You grasp the bat. Suddenly, the roar of the crowd materializes all around you, surging in intensity.

The noise becomes impossible, and you are somehow awesomely alone in front of thousands. Soon a pitcher will hurl a rock-hard sphere toward you at 90 miles an hour. This is enough, but the challenge is more than this.

You are Jackie Robinson, the first and only black man to play big-league baseball, and being crippled by a pitch in these pre-batting helmet days is not your only worry. Suddenly, a voice rises from the multitude, menacing and distinct. "Hey there, big boy," it growls ominously. "What you doin' out there on a white man's field?"

The effect is one of total involvement in a chapter of Brooklyn, N.Y., history that has been told again and again. The Brooklyn Historical Society is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Brooklyn Dodgers' single World Series triumph in 1955 with an exhibition called "Play Ball!" that aims to allow the young to experience long-ago emotions.

At the same time, the old are asked to write their own histories and interpretations in ways that then become part of the ever-changing exhibition.

"I saw Sandy Koufax pitch his first game, which I think he won, and after the game I saw him walking outside the ball park," wrote Rod Kennedy, who visited the exhibition. "I had an autograph book with many famous signatures in it, and when I asked him to sign it, he turned to the page with Babe Ruth's and Lou Gehrig's autographs on it and he said, 'I'll sign here.' "

Of the championship celebration, Leah Wolin, another visitor, wrote that she and her husband were caught in the excitement, and "walked along Flatbush until we reached the stadium and there put our hands on the place of Brooklyn's victory. It was, I'm almost sorry to say, a celebration worthy of the end of World War II," she added.

The intended message is simple: History, the kind that matters, is never over. This lesson will be repeated in other exhibitions planned at the society, ranging from life for Chinese immigrants in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn to the changing nature of the Brooklyn workplace.

Not only are the Dodgers the borough's biggest cliche, but focusing on "dem bums" amounts to wallowing, perhaps even glorifying, in the past as well.

"There's an implicit message in the good old days stuff that isn't so great," said Leslie Bedford, the society's deputy director for programs who was recently hired to develop the new exhibition strategy. "Too bad you weren't here when things were good."

But Ms. Bedford, who was the chief exhibitions' researcher at the Children's Museum of Boston, ultimately decided that the very familiarity of the Dodgers made them a good focus for her approach, which seeks to make people see new things and old things in new ways.

They Remember

Brooklyn is a place where people remember (or say they remember) Dodger players stopping by luncheonettes for ice cream after games. It is a place where people in Bedford-Stuyvesant say they remember leaning out of windows to cheer Jackie Robinson on game days.

And incontrovertibly, there is no insult in the modern history of the borough -- not the degradation of Coney Island, not the collapse of industries from brewing to shipbuilding, not anything -- that remotely rivals the indignity of losing the Dodgers after the 1957 season.

So Ms. Bedford starts with the most familiar memories, ones already well mined by the elegant institution at 128 Pierrepont St. in Brooklyn Heights, whose greatest treasure is its second-floor library.

The museum's permanent pieces on the first floor are also enticing: Already on display are such items as the "Official Crying Towel of the Dodger Sym-Phony of 1955," a group of five musical fans who serenaded umpires with "Three Blind Mice" and accompanied opposing pitchers on and off the field with hearty renditions of "The Worms Crawl In, the Worms Crawl Out." There is also an original seat from Ebbets Field.

These items find a comfortable niche in a permanent collection ranging from artifacts from the Navy Yard to Coney Island wax museums. The most charming is the original set from "The Honeymooners," supposedly in a mythical Bensonhurst, looking so very small and bare-bones, a relic from that ancient era when Madison Avenue did not require most sitcoms to be upscale.

These permanent exhibitions occupy 4,000 feet of the museum, with just 600 feet for such changing shows as the one on the Dodgers. Plans call for this ratio to be nearly reversed after the museum space is closed in the spring of 1997 for a year of remodeling.

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