Baseball's reliquary: the oddly possible hybrid of shrine and university - At The Museum - history of baseball and the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
Baseball did not win its central place in America's heart and culture because the sport, in a silliness of common parlance, "imitates life" or stands as a symbol for larger truths and trends of human existence. Rather, baseball became America's defining sport for the far more ordinary and concrete reasons of simple persistence and pervasiveness. (And one would have to inhabit a particularly tall ivory tower, or a particularly deep cave, to deny the status of sport as a central institution of human culture.)
Baseball (as the codified form of a large variety of basically similar stick-and-ball games) has, like the poor, always been with us. Teams, leagues, and various lists of "official" rules had coalesced by the mid-nineteenth century, but Jane Austen refers to something called "base ball" in her 1797 novel Northanger Abbey, and various contests based on hitting a ball with a stick and scoring by running around bases came to America in the early days of European colonization and then grew and diversified as the nation expanded and knit together.
One might assume, given the current popularity of football and basketball among Americans of all social classes, that these sports, rather than baseball, should carry (or at least share) the status of "national pastime." But these games are neophytes in popular acclaim, as anyone of my generation will remember. They do boast a reasonably long following--but they emerged mainly as college sports, at a time when only a few percent of Americans (not including anyone in my family) enjoyed access to higher education. During my childhood, professional basketball and football were distinctly minor enterprises, with short seasons and limited followings. But baseball, known to every sentient citizen and played with enthusiasm by farmers, street urchins, and swells (or whatever prosperous young men have been called at various times), has been keeping us together from our beginnings.
If I may offer just one person's testimony, I am enmeshed in four generations of serious random. My immigrant grandfather arrived in 1901 and acclimatized to America, or so he told me, by watching Jack Chesbro win forty-one games (still a record, and not likely to be broken) for the New York Highlanders (now the Yankees) in 1904. My father regaled me with tales of Ruth and Gehrig, the ultimate secular gods of his world. I have been a passionate Yankee fan for five decades, from tears of joy at age eight for victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1949 World Series to bitter tears in November 2001 at a gruesomely painful ending in Phoenix--that is, from DiMaggio to Jeter. My son, a native of Boston, has switched to the Red Sox; he rises by the bashed dreams and plunges into the despairs of that particularly painful form of rooting. (I was especially touched when he interviewed me last year for a paper in his college sociology course on baseball as a mode of bonding between fathers and sons--though daughters will now be commonly included as well--especially in past generations when fathers, culturally constrained to assume far greater emotional distance, could use this opportunity for forging ties otherwise hard to establish.)
Baseball's status as both a secular religion and an embodiment of important themes in American history imposes a common, yet fascinatingly paradoxical, problem for any exhibition dedicated to conveying the essence and vitality of the enterprise. How can a museum present two such apparently different, even contradictory, aspects of a single subject at the same time, especially when both embody primary responsibilities of museums in general: the role of the reliquary (reverent display of sacred objects, whose importance lies in their very being) and the role of the teacher (instructive display of informative objects, whose importance lies in their ability to inspire questions)? How can the awe of reverence mix with the skepticism of learning?
In my observations, only two museums have ever managed to solve this common dilemma in a consistent, even triumphant, way: the Ellis Island Immigration Museum (where I can pay homage to my grandfather's courage, as embodied in whole walls devoted to respectful display of such humble but noble items as battered traveling bags and lockets of loved ones left behind, and also study the history of American immigration in any desired degree of detail) and the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York (where I can immerse myself among the actual relics of our primary secular religion and also trace nearly any desired detail or generality about the history of baseball and its linkages to American life).
The wonderful selection from Cooperstown, on temporary display at the American Museum of Natural History starting this month, epitomizes this duality to near perfection and therefore gives us an object lesson in how to hybridize these two greatest potential excellences of museums, despite their apparently irreconcilable disparity. In other (and more specific) words, we can learn a ton about baseball while feeling both the spine shivers of contact with "holy" items and the touch of genius loci, the magic of real and special places.
To cash out my claims by examples on display, consider just five categories where the object as both relic and item for instruction forges potential synergy rather than frustrating contradiction:
1. The embodiment of mythology. As a supreme irony, the Cooperstown museum, as argued above, has covered itself in deserved glory but still occupies an utterly inappropriate turf for the weirdest of perfectly reasonable circumstances-as the very antithesis of genius loci. I say this not primarily for the practical reason that this tiny and isolated town in central New York State cannot offer enough hotel rooms within fifty miles to house the crowds of people wishing to attend the annual induction ceremonies for the Hall of Fame, but simply because Cooperstown can stake no legitimate claim as a shrine for baseball. As argued above, baseball experienced no eureka of origin but just grew, evolved, and eventually coagulated from a host of precursors. But humans need origin myths, so when baseball became enshrined as a national pastime, an official commission, established early in the twentieth century, was charged with the task of discovering baseball's origins. For a set of complex reasons, the members of the commission allowed themselves to be persuaded that Abner Doubleday had effectively invented the game in Cooperstown in 1839. No even remotely plausible evidence links Doubleday to baseball (one commentator pungently remarked that the man probably couldn't tell a baseball from a kumquat). But Doubleday was certainly a sufficiently adequate American hero to embody an origin myth, for he had fired the first Union shots of the Civil War, as artillery officer at Fort Sumter, and he later served as one of the generals at Gettysburg.
In any case, myths require relics, so you may see on display the famous Doubleday ball--submitted as corroboration for the founding legend, perhaps discovered in Cooperstown, probably a bit younger than 1839, and surely possessing no plausible tie to Doubleday himself. I have also been told that enough nails from the true cross exist in European cathedral reliquaries to affix a hundred of Spartacus's soldiers to their crosses on the Appian Way. Thank God that the human mind can embrace contradiction by acknowledging reality in the head yet respectfully allowing an imposter to stand for a symbol in the heart. (In a funny and recursive sense, moreover, once frauds achieve sufficient fame, they become legitimate objects of history in their own right!)
2. Relics and icons. If a reliquary really preserved a nail of the true cross, any Christian (I am not one) would bow in reverent awe, and any decent person (as I am) would stand respectfully before such an important item of history and symbol of human cruelty and hope. Well, this exhibition includes many true relics of a secular church that admittedly cannot claim similar importance but that does mean one helluva lot to many quite sane and even reasonably perceptive people. Hey folks, I mean you're really going to see the Babe's bat from 1927 (the year he hit those sixty dingers for an "unbeatable" record), Roger Maris's bat from 1961 when he broke the record, and Mark McGwire's bat from when the record fell again in 1998. And because failure can be as sublime as hope (the raised Lazarus versus that nail of the true cross, although I know that Christian theology does not regard the Crucifixion as a dud), you will also see Michael Jordan's bat from the year he tried baseball, discovered he really couldn't hit a curveball despite being the world's greatest athlete, batted about .225 in a year of minor league play, but stayed the course (and played the full season) with honor.