"Baseball as America" at the Museum of Science

I spent the morning at the preview for "Baseball As America," the traveling Hall of Fame exhibit on display at the Museum of Science from June 15 through September 1.

And I cannot recommend it enough. Go see it this weekend.

Aiming to show how baseball serves “as both a public reflection of, and catalyst for, the evolution of American culture and society,” the exhibit comprises 500 or so artifacts — about two percent of Cooperstown’s total collection.

Among the highlights: one of Babe Ruth’s bats, Jackie Robinson’s jersey, Schilling’s bloody sock, a baseball recovered from the rubble of the World Trade Center, a scorecard from the 1903 World Series, the bat Ted Williams swung to hit his 521st and final home run, the final out ball from the 2004 Series — and more recent additions, like the cap Buchholz wore during his no-hitter and the tar-caked helmet Manny was wearing when he hit his 500th homer.

Six Hall of Famers were on hand to celebrate: Bobby Doerr, Carl Yastrzemski, Carlton Fisk, Wade Boggs, Dennis Eckersley, and Eddie Murray. Lemme tell you: it’s really something to walk into a room and see those living legends just milling about and chatting.

Before things got underway, I noticed that Pudge seemed to take special interest in a couple of the museum’s science exhibits. Indeed science, as one would expect, does play a role in “Baseball As America.” There are exhibits showing  dissected baseballs, and stations where visitors can judge their reaction time, measure their pitching speed, and try out their accuracy from 60 feet, six inches. There’s also a cage where one can put one’s face where the catcher’s would be, and stare down a machine-launched fastball, flying forward at 95 mph. It is ... terrifying.

In keeping with the theme, Dr. James Sherwood, director of the Baseball Research Center at UMass Lowell, offered a few words, remembering the time Sandy Alderson came to him and said, “Jim, people are concerned the ball is being juiced. We want you to use your expertise and let us know. If there’s a problem, we’ll address it. But we don’t think there’s a problem.” They spent months doing exhaustive research. The verdict? “It wasn’t the ball being juiced,” said Sherwood to much laughter. “I suggested [MLB] might want to look in another direction.”

(Sherwood also spoke of studies examining the differences between ash bats and maple, his take: there’s “no difference.” But, of course, “Dumbo put the feather in his trunk and thought he could fly; if you think you can hit the baseball better with a maple bat, you can hit the baseball better with a maple bat.”)

The best speech came from Peter Gammons. He doesn’t have a lot of souvenirs from his decades living the game, he said, but one of his favorite, framed in his house on the Cape, is “a long, impassioned, reasoned and statistically oriented letter” from Tip O’Neill arguing that Smokey Joe Wood deserved to be in the Hall of Fame.

Gammons asked O’Neill why he wrote it. O’Neill replied that “the Hall of Fame, maybe more than any museum in this country, is the museum that counts. It’s not only the museum that binds generations of people together, fathers and sons and grandsons, it is, without question, the museum of the social history of the United States. And I think you know better than anyone that it’s the museum that shows that greatness is not accidental.”

And so Gammons offered plaudits to the game’s greats arrayed before him.

He’d never had the pleasure of covering Doerr, but “his picture was in my parents’ kitchen, and I was always told that that was the man I should emulate for the rest of my life.”

(I spoke with Doerr, briefly, and at 90, his handshake is still firm and strong. He says Jon Lester’s “a good-looking player.” He’s pleased that the team is still playing well and keeping head above water in the absence of guys like Ortiz and Matsuzaka. He loves watching Jacoby Ellsbury — who’s from his neck of the woods — run the base paths. He says the fishing in Oregon hasn’t been too good lately.)

As for the guys Gammons has been covering for the past 40 years or so, he offered a salient memory for each:

-For Fisk, he remembered him rehabbing his knee in 1974, on his own, in the days before physical trainers were commonplace, eight hours a day, in the Manchester, New Hampshire YMCA. People thought his career might be over. He returned to the game and caught more games than anyone in history.

-Eckersley, he said, embodied accountability. Specifically, he remembered the game, during the 1978 Sox-Yanks pennant race, in which a dropped pop fly — missed by five Red Sox players, including fill-in second-baseman Frank Duffy, led to a five-run inning and eventual 7-1 loss. As reporters swamped Duffy, post-game, Eck emerged from the trainer’s room and let them have it. “Leave him alone,” he yelled. “Frank Duffy didn’t put the three guys on base before that popup, I did. Frank Duffy didn’t hang the 0-2 slider that Bucky Dent hit for two more runs... The L goes next to my name.” It was, says Gammons, “the greatest moment of accountability I’ve ever experienced.”

-Boggs was lauded for his tenacity. After “his sixth consecutive year of hitting .300 in the minors and still not on a major league roster,” Gammons visited Pawtucket to talk to him and was struck by his “unflappable will to make it.” (He took ground balls like a man possessed, said Gammons — and it paid off. “To be a two-time gold glove winner is in some ways a greater thing than 3,000 hits and all the rest, because people always told you couldn’t field.”)

-“I don’t think Eddie Murray ever realized how much I used to watch him take batting practice,” Gammons said, noting he’d heard someone say Murray “was the only person who practiced winning.” Instead of putting on a show, with homers to all fields, Murray would “dump the ball inside third, or to left field. All those great two-out RBIs that were the hallmark of his career were not accidental.”

-As for Yaz, Gammons simply looked at the Captain with a smile and said, “Carl, all the work you put in. All those hours of hitting.... I think Yaz might be the toughest man I’ve ever known."

(Apologies for the crappiness of these images. I am not a photographer by trade.)

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