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The "first ball" of baseball, allegedly used by Abner Doubleday to invent the game in 1839

Baseball Tenement Alley, 1909
Lewis W. Hine

President Woodrow Wilson on the cover of the 1917 World Series program

Jackie Robinson's jersey, 1956

Flatbush Little League at Boro Hall encourages the Dodgers to stay in Brooklyn, 1957

Seats from the Polo Grounds, home of the New York Giants, 1911-1957; the stadium was razed in 1964.
Photo: Denis Finnin
Baseball's Obscure Objects of Desire
by Charlie Finch

When Ted Williams died last week, we went to Yankee Stadium, bought tickets and stood in the crowd paying tribute to the Splendid Splinter, now joined in the pantheon of Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill and Annie Oakley.

Christopher Morley once remarked about the appeal of Sherlock Holmes that "those who have never lived can never die," but somehow our celebrity-driven age conflates fictional heroes with their mortal counterparts into one grand tableau for the always hungry imagination.

Seeking diamond reliquaries, we then journeyed to the American Museum of Natural History the next day, to view "Baseball as America," Mar. 16-Aug. 18, 2002, a curiosity shop of fetishes from the National Baseball Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.

The Natural History Museum remains a gloriously schizophrenic place -- kids still thrill ecstatically to the same dioramas of gorillas, bears and wildebeests in dank, dark and cool corridors which thrilled their Depression counterparts 75 years ago.

Conversely, the dinosaur halls are overproduced, knowledge-infested wrecks of glass, bone and clutter (and the great whale has been temporarily removed for repairs).

"Baseball as America" integrates elements of both museophilosophies. The dead hand of smug documentarian Ken Burns, progenitor of PBS' lifeless "Baseball" series, is everywhere.

Plaques and videos lecture us continually about the virtues of the politically correct and the sins of the past like a monsignor preaching at St. Patrick's, but nevertheless the sacred objects seep through the vitrines into our heads.

Here is the dirty yellow-and-black Pirates cap of Roberto Clemente, given to a young fan in 1972, a few months before the great outfielder died on a relief mission to Earthquake victims in Nicaragua -- the grime and sweat are as palpable as St. Theresa's tears.

There is a pointed jet-black leather glove, stripped of its webbing, the last glove used by the great Joe DiMaggio.

There's a baseball plucked from the murderous wreck of the World Trade Center and a mechanical scoreboard used to track telegraph action of the Murderers' Row, the Yankees' 1927 lineup of Ruth, Gehrig, Lazzeri and Meusel, from an ancient Wall Street bar.

Tiny wool caps sing of past glories -- the Reds centerfielder Ed Roush, the Giants' incomparable hurler Christy Mathewson.

Ty Cobb gleams like a gent from an old tobacco poster, while Babe Ruth promises America that four boxtops from his puffed wheat cereal addressed to "Babe Ruth, P.O. Box 1038, Chicago," will guarantee a shiny new hardball by return post.

There's something here that the average high-end art museum lacks -- in a word, participation. As Nabakov implored, "Speak, memory."

One searches for something from one's own collection behind the glass and finds it: a stale "Reggie!" bar or a '50s Nellie Fox card, then marvels at the Art Deco brilliance of Sandy Koufax's 1965 Cy Young trophy, a silver arm gripping a ball thrust from a heavy pewter baseball diamond.

The best way to view this exhibition is not sequentially, but just to dart into open spots in the crowd and take your chances on something wonderful -- Paul Richards' outlawed oversized knuckleball catcher's mitt, the disgraced Joe Jackson's silky bat "Black Betsy," a G.I. Joe doll of Ted Williams.

The quality of craftsmanship in even the plainest baseball objects is impeccable.

If Major Leaguers strike again in August against recalcitrant owners, the national pastime could be lost forever. It's a slow game in a fast world.

To feel why baseball was once so special, even with all its faults, check out this splendid show. The saints may be dead, but their shrouds survive, as the highest art.

CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).