Covering All The Bases

With presidents at the top of the order, fans' embrace of the national pastime is captured in 'Baseball as America' exhibit at Smithsonian.

April 03, 2004|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Maybe it's his affection for U.S. history. Maybe it's just that he spent the previous afternoon schmoozing with an old pal in the Oval Office. Whatever the reason, when Dale Petroskey, the president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., is asked to name his favorite installation in Baseball as America, the sprawling exhibition that opens at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History today, he's on it like Bonds on a hanging curve.

He walks past the Abner Doubleday baseball, which, at 150 years old, looks something like a shrunken head. Past the red warm-up jacket once worn by Moe Berg, the catcher who, some say, spied on military installations during a barnstorming tour of Japan in 1934. Past the rough-hewn bat carved from a fallen tree limb by an American POW in a German prison camp in 1942.

He stops in front of a glass case under a sign that reads "Fan-in-Chief." Inside are a row of baseballs signed by presidents from William H. Taft (April 1910) through Petroskey's pal, George W. Bush (October 2001); a scorecard from Washington's old Griffith Stadium, filled in by Dwight Eisenhower, and a seat from that ballpark that was once reserved for chief executives.

He stoops to eyeball an old program, perfectly preserved. On the cover, a man in a tightly buttoned suit tosses a ball from a packed grandstand. "`A big enough boy to enjoy the national game,'" Petroskey reads, his voice as earnest as a schoolboy's, "`and a man big enough to guide our country through its greatest crisis.' That's President [Woodrow] Wilson, throwing out the first pitch at the 1916 World Series."

Petroskey, 47, looks up. "Baseball and presidents," he says with a safe-at-home smile. "They're intertwined. Through history, they've shaped one another. They still do."

The same could be said for America and its national pastime. That's more or less the theme of Baseball as America, an exhibition of 500 artifacts from the Hall of Fame whose Washington opening coincides with Opening Day 2004 (scheduled for tomorrow night at Camden Yards, weather permitting). "It's the first time [a collection] of our treasures have ever left their home" in Cooperstown, says the Hall of Fame's chairman, Jane Forbes Clark, whose grandfather, Stephen C. Clark, founded the place in 1939. Washington, which presents the show through Sept. 30, is the sixth stop in a 10-city tour.

At an opening ceremony this week, Hall of Famers such as pitching legend Bob Feller, 85 (elected 1962), Negro League and major league superstar Monte Irvin, 85 (1973), Oriole icon Brooks Robinson, 66 (1983), and Cuban-born Cincinnati Reds great Tony Perez, 61 (2000), were among 20 legends who grace an auditorium stage. They personify the words on a placard in the show. "The history of American freedom," reads a sign in a display called "Ideals and Injustices," which is complex. That complexity is starkly visible when America is viewed through the prism of baseball."

Feller, an Iowan, pitched his first game at age 17 and won 266 in an 18-year career despite serving four years in the Navy during World War II. Irvin, a longtime Newark Eagles star, crossed the color line in 1949, two years after Jackie Robinson did the same, helping the New York Giants win two pennants. Robinson, a native Arkansan, was one of the first to be inducted largely on the strength of his defense; Perez, whose last job before big-league ball was in a Havana sugar-cane factory, made his mark as a clutch RBI man.

`Makes it better'

They bear out the free-market philosophy of the first ex-Little Leaguer elected to the Oval Office. "Any time you can add new blood and competition to the game," said Bush, who was managing general partner of the Texas Rangers from 1989-1994, "it makes it better, and it also helps our society understand people with different cultures."

Baseball's growing diversity, including its sometimes reluctant progress in the area of race, is just one of the seven themes Baseball as America explores. Another, "Invention and Ingenuity," includes an inflatable chest protector from 1884, a cup-tipped bat used by Hall of Famer Johnny Bench, the cleats of base-stealing king Rickey Henderson, and a Red Barber microphone.

"Weaving Myths" displays artifacts that helped turn players like Ty Cobb (shoes), Babe Ruth (Bunyanesque 56-oz. bat), Willie Mays (sheet music to "Say Hey, Willie Mays") and Ted Williams (a lookalike GI Joe) into larger-than-life characters. "Sharing a Common Culture" uses books (Casey at the Bat, 1912), games (Strat-O-Matic Baseball) and artifacts (the "Wonderboy" bat from the film The Natural) to show how baseball seeps into the nation's consciousness.

Nowhere, though, is Petroskey more excited to think about the meaning of the game than in "Our National Spirit," including its display on chief executives-and its focus on moments when baseball helped the nation through its darkest hours.

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