"The Perfect Game: America Looks at Baseball," June 17, 2003-Feb. 1, 2004, at the American Folk Art Museum, 45 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.
The "perfect game" is a rare thing. A no hitter, in which a pitcher so dominates an opposing team that it records no hits over a complete nine innings, is a remarkable enough. But a perfect game is something quite out of the ordinary. Not only does no batter get a hit over the entire course of a game, but none reach base at all -- no walks, errors or that uncommon combination of striking out and beating it out to base through the help of a wild pitch or passed ball.
In terms of perfection, the offering of eccentric and unlikely objects currently on view in "The Perfect Game: America Looks at Baseball" at the American Folk Art Museum in New York is particularly appropriate. It is perfect for a sport in which so little happens over such an extended period that lovers of the game come to reverence its minutia, reveling in the narratives of baseball history, personality and artifact as events unto themselves.
It is perfect also for all the ways in which folk art has taught us how to marvel at the wonders of outsider idiosyncrasy, folkloric traditions (like quilt-making, whose cultural value is precisely in its resistance to change), and the un-mediated power of expression that comes from the self-taught.
Folk art is an ideal medium for us to understand the broad impact this national pastime has had upon the American imagination, as well as how the legacy and self-perpetuating lineage of baseball lore is primarily a story-telling tradition that makes fetish of the slightest variation in an ongoing spectacle of the ordinary.
It is a sentiment wonderfully expressed by that bard of baseball's absurdity, Yogi Berra, a maxim posted on the wall at the entry to this exhibition: "You can learn a lot by just observing." That is surely the kind of contemplative space and poetic obsession that baseball and folk art occupy in our field of dreams.
If there is one contradiction in "The Perfect Game," it would have to be the notion that there are no hits, for over the four floors of the museum is a star-studded cavalcade of legendary athletes, great artists and treasured artifacts. Here you can bask in the reflective glory of Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford as well as exceptional works by such outsider greats as Sam Doyle, Thornton Dial and Raymond Materson.
But the real delights arise from that special chemistry of the game and the people, which resulted in folk objects like the hand-painted illustrative baseballs by amateur umpire and artist George Sosnack and the Brooklyn Dodgers Sym-Phony Band Drum played by fans at the old Ebbets Field in the 1950s. Recovered artifacts from this beloved history include a portion of the original terracotta frieze at Yankee Stadium and a stadium seat from the long-ago-demolished old Polo Grounds. And of course there are the uncanny variety of decorative and functional items, from weather vanes and andirons to carved wooden show figures and arcade amusements all that have borne our love for the game.
Exhibition curator Elizabeth Warren says that she hopes "to introduce baseball fans to the world of folk art" as well as to bring "a major part of American culture" to the "folk art enthusiasts who are not already enamored of the national pastime." It is hard to tell what sort of success this mission will have, but to fans of both folk art and this peculiarly American folk sport, it is together a winning combination.