Thursday, January 31, 2008
Chatting With The Curator
"When I had Season Tickets with my guys (for The Baltimore Orioles Games at Camden Yards)—I remember saying: ‘If there is ever a team in Washington, we are giving up on The Orioles. We are going to get Nationals (or whatever the team’s name will become) tickets, because we knew any new team would play their first few seasons at RFK Stadium—regardless whether the team ended up in Northern Virginia or DC. All we would have to do was jump on the Metro and head over. I couldn’t wait for that to happen."
Like many other Washingtonians--John Odell couldn't wait for The Return of Baseball to Washington, DC. Unfortunately, he never experienced that sensation in person--as in 1999--after 12 years as The Curator for The United States Senate on Capitol Hill--Mr. Odell accepted a new job--one that involved his passion for The Game of Baseball. John Odell was moving on to Cooperstown, New York, as the newly named Curator of Research and History for The National Baseball Hall of Fame.
"I loved living in DC--it's just a great place. I have many fond memories living there and when I heard that you and Sohna were heading up here--I just had to help you out."
During our recent visit to The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, John Odell became our confidant in baseball's rich history. With passion, he gave The African Queen and I a thorough understanding of how The Hall operates. From our Special Tour, to The A. Bartlett Giamatti Library, to Researching Washington Baseball History--Mr. Odell was the centerpoint making everything move smoothly. And when all our work was done--he still had time to sit down for the formal Nats320 Interview.
Sitting inside the media room of The Library--Sohna, John and I discussed at length The National Baseball Hall of Fame. A good thorough review of its mission. Over the next few days--this 80 Minute interview will playout on Nats320. As always, word for word--in its entirety.
With that--here we go:
As a curator, what do you do at The Baseball Hall of Fame? (SBF)
“Officially, I am the Curator of History and Research and my job is to help create and decide what stories we want to tell at The Hall of Fame. Then, through the research, we decide how we want to represent those stories and then look into our artifact collections to see what artifacts we have. And then research the artifacts, so we can see the links between the stories we want to tell with those artifacts. We tweak the story at times, if it helps to present the artifacts. But, we want to make sure we tell the right story, in the right way, accurately and effectively. And the great thing about artifacts, is that if you have the right artifacts, it really helps to present your story in the way you want it to be.”
“People always respond to stories, that is a natural human condition. To the extent that we can provide a link, between our baseball fans who are coming to The Hall of Fame and the great sport of baseball—The National Pastime. When we do that well, we’ve hit it off. But, that is my job, to make sure your visits, baseball fan's visits to Cooperstown are interesting, exciting and hopefully an insightful one.”
With all the stories of baseball, throughout history, that has got to be a difficult task to find the best tales and keep it fresh? (SBF)
“It is tough. It’s tough for a lot of different reasons and that is not unique to our museum. The more you understand about your topic, hopefully the more likely you will be able to figure out—‘Oh, there are a lot of different ways to approach it’—that would resonate with your visitor. So, OK, then you say, what are the topics and subjects you would like to discover. In a museum, it’s always a zero sum game. You only have “X” number of square feet to tell your story. And, when you are going from one temporary exhibit to another, you are losing a story in the temporary exhibit. When you are carving out a space to tell a permanent exhibit, then there is less space, by definition, for other permanent exhibits. So, you are losing that opportunity. That is probably the most difficult thing, to figure out what stays and what goes. There are a lot of great stories in baseball. There are a lot of interesting stories in baseball. Which ones are so much better than others that you can say—‘I Like It!!’—But I can’t tell it. We are just not going to be able to deal with it, because of this other exhibit—which is so much more important and so much more significant. Or, tells a so much better story.”
“Those are some of the decisions I make along with my boss, who is The Chief Curator of The Hall of Fame—Ted Spencer, with The President of The Hall of Fame--Dale Petroskey, and with other branches here of the organization. We work with PR. We work with Development. It’s all to figure out where we want to go with story telling within the museum.”
There are so many items here; I believe you told us over 34,000 (approximately) artifacts are in the possession of The Baseball Hall of Fame. And at any given time, maybe 10% of those items are actually on display. What percentage has never been on display? (SBF)
“That’s a good question. I don’t have an answer to that. Certainly, quite a number--but I am sure we have never looked to see. Also, the records before say—1980—were never kept track of—whether they were put on display and came off. So, an artifact may have gone on display, but I wouldn’t have any record of it being on display—or in what exhibit it might have been in. So, I can’t tell.”
“Certainly, I would bet, considering the number of items we have, how we move through them, if somebody said one-third of the artifacts had never been put on display—I wouldn’t be surprised. Maybe as many as half—have never been on display. This is one of the tough things about figuring out whether some artifact has been on display. Let's say, if we got a uniform from Joe Somebody—and he gives us his cap, jersey, pants and stirrups. And then, we put his jersey on exhibit. That means his cap; pants and stirrups did not go on exhibit. We may have also received his undershirt (laughing). That’s five or six artifacts—whether you consider the stirrups one or two. When you are trying to parcel down to the significance of what has happened—you can get into a quagmire over what has, and has not, gone on display. Its just not worth worrying over.”
That being said, what is important to gather today that is important for The Baseball Hall of Fame as the retainer of history? (SBF)
“We are very much interested in gathering, first of all, with documenting the game on the field. That’s the first thing we need to do. If we don’t do that as The Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, we are not doing are job. We have to begin with the game on the field. So, records, milestones, great achievements, unusual events—we want to make sure we get those items.”
“Secondarily, as a baseball museum—if there are new styles of something—we work to get that. An example of that might be the new Cool-Max Batting Helmets, which we want to pick up at some point. But, we are not just going to call up a team and say: ‘Hey, can you send up one of those new Cool-Max Helmets, because we don’t have any?’ No, we will wait until somebody, you know, is going to get their 3,000th hit with it, or have four home runs in a game, have their 400th or 500th Home Run with it. That will give us an opportunity at that point to say, hey—let’s put that on our list of needs to get. This is how we factor in picking up new items at the next opportunity that comes along--that is how we acquire the technological developments of the game. We are not simply focused on the first time something is used, which is much less significant, than something being used and continually used.”
“We have learned about the INSIGNIFICANCE of firsts. Such as, when we read about the first night game of baseball. We found any number of first night games of baseball (all of us chuckling), even in the 19th Century. The first night game is when someone strung up some light bulbs on a rope around the infield. The guys played, but they couldn't see the ball, because on the very first pop up—no one could see the baseball. So, that was one time. Then, 10 years later, someone else tries in a fluke, or a stunt type of situation—as firsts often are in baseball."
"Somebody later on says—you know, it’s not a bad idea—but there is a lot of bad execution of good ideas. So somebody else says—‘What would happen if we could put lights up high on stands?’—Like The Kansas City Monarchs did—'and, we just drive them (the lights) around from field to field. When we stop for a ball game, we put the lights up and have a night game. All the poor guys who have to work for a living and can’t watch day games in order to put food on the table, can now come in the evening and see a baseball game.’ So, there another example of a possible first."
(Courtesy Baseball Hall of Fame--"Baseball As America" website)
“Then, somebody else says they are going to be the first to play under PERMANENT Lights. So, they put up their lights. Only to find out, someone else, a week before was the first team to have permanent lights—but they forgot to invite the press (all of us laughing). Of course—you then find three lines buried in The Sporting News that “Whahammish” played a night game under permanent lights and this was the first in the league. Finally, The Majors come through. Of course—if The Majors have done it first—then NO ONE ELSE has accomplished the feat before hand (being facetious—everyone busting out laughing). That’s how we learn about these events. So, 40 Years after we learned baseball was first played under lights—Cincinnati can say: ‘we were the first place anyone played baseball under lights (chuckling).’ First events are less significant, for the most part—when it comes to technology.”
“Now, when something is ongoing that you as an ordinary fan experiences—we say: ‘Let’s see if we can document this, as a first.’ Once that first is established, providing we can get a first, that's kind of neat. These sort of things sometimes tend to fall into your lap.”
Going back farther in history, how more difficult is it to document as more years pass? (SBF)
“Its actually getting easier (really? —SBF), believe it or not. It is getting easier because more and more full text documents are being scanned in and placed in as electronic files on the Internet. Where it use to be that if you wanted to search for something, and we don’t have a lot of money, we don’t have Lexus-Nexus, the really high powered research tools—if we just wanted to find out what The New York Times said about something happening in say 1924 with The Yankees—it use to involve getting the microfiche or the film—and then reading day, after day, after day—only to find out it happened in ’23!! (Chuckling). And, you didn’t know that. Now, there are a lot of online search engines, or going directly to The New York Times—key in: Gehrig, Start, Game & Pipp—immediately you start finding stories about when Wally Pipp was actually pulled and did not start in a game, and Gehrig started in his place. It enables us to find the entire story surrounding that moment, and not just the myth you heard growing up—that’s a great thing for us. We are more and more able, and faster, to find out from an historical perspective—what the newspapers reported at that time. Sure, the newspapers may get it wrong—but at least we know what was said and written at the time. We can then compare those articles to what the story is today. And after generations of playing telephone with one another, father telling stories to sons, sports writers telling stories to sports readers, we can go back and say: ‘OK—here is where the idea came from, the genesis, and how the story developed at that time.’ Basically, its easier now to go back and find out about that day as reported. Then, using our secondary resources, we can do comparative analyst on the topic.”
“All of us as curators and researchers are standing on the shoulders of all those writers and researchers who did the work before us—and they were on the shoulders of those before them. But now, we have some unique tools we did not have even 10 years ago. We can know measure and test these stories and ideas against what really happened. This has all made us—located in Central New York—a little less parochial, a little less isolated than just a short time in the past.”
Whether it’s Trevor Hoffman for the Saves Record, or Barry Bonds for the Home Run Record, those events are destined to happen and The Hall will follow those moments and collect artifacts to preserve that mark. (Yes, absolutely—John). But, what causes a buzz here? What gets everyone in The Museum all excited about? (SBF)
“Here's a good example. In Pittsfield, Massachusetts—a fellow named John Thorn was doing research and came across a town ordinance that dates from 1791. The ordinance reads essentially—no baseball playing 80 yards from The Town Hall. A couple of things are clear. One is that this baseball thing is popular enough that you have to write a law about it (all of us laughing—John smiling). So, Don’t Play It Anymore!! And, why would you not be able to play it? In my mind, I can only imagine young boys and young men playing the game and putting a ball through the window!! That’s the classic. Or, hitting some poor old lady trying to get into court to get her widow’s pension (chuckling)--something like that—from The Revolutionary War (all of us busting out laughing). I don’t know what prompted it, but baseball was listed among a number of things they (Pittsfield) didn’t want people to do around the court house building.”
“That caused a buzz, the finding of that ordinance moves the story forward, or in this case backwards."
Does that actual ordinance now exist here at The Hall of Fame? (SBF)
“No, but we do have copies of it. That’s fine. We don’t have to have the original here. It would be nice for them (Pittsfield) to do so, but Pittsfield saw that as an important part of their historical record—and that’s fine. You guys can keep that, but can we have a copy? 'Oh sure—we want you to have a copy—in fact you guys NEED to have a copy!!'"
“One of the nice things too is that since I have been here, it’s been increasingly clear—and let’s use this (Ordinance) as an example. Cooperstown is the home of baseball. The Baseball Hall of Fame is here because a report at the turn of The Century (19th-20th) called The Mills Commission, determined that Cooperstown was where baseball was invented in 1839. Now, we know today that is not the case. History shows baseball was not invented on a particular day. Baseball was not full born like Zena from Zeus. Its developed over time and changed a great deal over the whole course of the 19th Century.”
“We know that (Cooperstown As First Baseball Town) is not how it happened. We are also glad others found that was not the case after the turn of the 20th Century because it meant that just a few years later—The Baseball Hall of Fame was created—right here in Cooperstown—because a few folks in town said—‘Hey, remember that report that came out a few years ago about baseball. Let’s build a museum related to baseball (Sohna and I chuckling over his expressions). Folks will come here, they will spend a quarter to go to the museum, spend money in our restaurants and hotels—and have good time.’”
Sohna says: Its like the town has become the custodian of the game.
“Yes, that’s exactly right. It really has. The town has really taken on that responsibility to be the hometown of baseball. Now, when somebody says Cooperstown when you are at a ballpark, everyone knows exactly what he or she is talking about. You are talking about a player who belongs there, or the history of the game, or a moment. We are the spiritual home of baseball. We are not going anywhere else. Remember, the game we are most familiar with now—you would have most likely first seen in New York City, than any place else. Probably not a rural game. Most likely, the game stemmed out from the city. And coming out of the city, it arrived here in Cooperstown. Somebody came up here and said: ‘I want to show you the latest game they are playing down in the city.’ It’s a lot like today: ‘I want to see the clothes they are wearing down in the city. I want to bring you the music they are playing down in the city.”
"And what we think happened—to complete thought—the person who said baseball was invented here in Cooperstown in 1839—was a gentleman named Abner Graves—who said he was there when Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown. What we think he saw was this game that was being played down in the city and was being moved up here. Graves was 5 years old when this all took place. So, if you see someone who is 17 Years Old showing everybody a new game—you are seeing someone invent it in your own mind’s eye. While the 17 Year Old was saying: ‘I was just down in the city and you guys would not believe this great game they are playing.’ End result—you go from town ball (New York City) being played on a square to baseball where you are playing on a diamond (Cooperstown). Basically, it’s the turning of the field 45 Degrees—one of the basic differences between baseball and town ball. Also, foul balls instead of no foul territory. Once you make that switch—you have baseball instead of town ball.”
Going back to the permanent displays at The Hall—how much of the game is actually covered in The Museum? (The African Queen)
“I think you are talking about the timeline of history that runs through the 2nd Floor. (Yes—AQ). We cover the history of baseball, sort of, by dynasties; the great teams and extends up to (the year) 2000. That area stays pretty static, year after year after year. We may move an item in and out. We just completed a major $20 Million renovation here at The Hall of Fame. And one of the things we intend to do is to totally revamp that area. In the meantime, what we did do was freshen it up a little bit. We had acquired some artifacts over the years—allowing us to switch some things in and out. At one time, we use to have white lettering on the glass, which when you have a white jersey behind them, is really tough to read. It looked very pretty in the architects drawings, but it did not work very well.”
"But, that (2nd Floor) is about half of our exhibit space. Probably a little more than half our artifacts are in that area. But, that is space where displays remain the most constant, like the Babe Ruth Room. Because—not a lot of people are giving us fresh Babe Ruth stuff (all of us chuckling). The Babe Ruth things we are offered—are harder and harder to document and verify as being authentic Babe Ruth Artifacts. Obviously, verification is a very important part of what we do.”
And that's where we will pick up tomorrow with Part Two of Chatting with John Odell--Curator of Research and History at The National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum. The Sports Memorabilia Market boomed over the past 25 years. The Hall of Fame had to make a crucial decision on how it would acquire further artifacts. Mr. Odell discusses the topic--in detail.
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