Sunday, October 18, 2009

Baseball Americana--Treasures From The Library Of Congress

"This book meant a lot to me because of my love of baseball history," stated Frank Ceresi. "I wanted to see the history. I wanted to see it visually. I wanted to see the passion for the game. All of which I was hoping would be in this project and I think it is all included.”

240 pages worth in fact and over 350 images.

Baseball Americana--Treasures From The Library Of Congress--a just released coffee table sized book from Smithsonian Books via Harper Collins Publishing. Three years in the making, Baseball Americana was the brainchild of staff at The Library Of Congress (Harry Katz--Former Head Curator Prints & Photographs, Phil Michel--Manager Library Prints & Photographs Division plus Wilson McBee & Susan Reyburn--editors in The Library's Publishing Office) whom asked local museum consultant, baseball writer and historian--Frank Ceresi--to be involved in their project. Long time readers of Nats320 will recognize Mr. Ceresi's name. When Nationals Park was being constructed, Frank was hired by Our Washington Nationals to acquire, organize and formulate display plans for all the artwork placed throughout The South Capital Street Ballpark. The pictures, paintings, historical facts about the Great Game in The Nation's Capital enjoyed now by thousands during each home game in Washington, D;C.--all of which were first previewed on Nats320 in February, 2008. Mr. Ceresi also acquired and built the display units for the Shirley Povich Artifacts--now at Nationals Park in The Shirley Povich Media Center.

During the final home game of 2009, most of the five co-authors of Baseball Americana were signing copies of their new book in The Stars & Stripes Club. Sohna and I ran into them heading to our seats in Section 218 that day. Interested in the storyline, we all talked for some time. Frank and I agreed we had to get together and chat about the offering more, because this effort is not just about another baseball picture book. Baseball Americana reveals many baseball images not commonly seen. The Library Of Congress stores a copy, many times the originals, of every single copyrighted newspaper, print, photograph, film, book--you name it--ever produced.

Every single one of them.

That's an humongous amount of material. A body of historical proofs not many have indulged themselves into discovering.

Katz, Ceresi, Michel, McBee & Reyburn set out to show the history of baseball in a different light. Not just on the facts about what happened on the field of play--many understand that already--but how Baseball has always reflected American Life. From late in Colonial times, through The Civil War, Post-Reconstruction Period, Segregation, Suffrage, Two World Wars, The Depression-even The Beatles--Baseball has been intertwined in the fabric of America. Only scratching the surface of what The Library Of Congress offers, Baseball Americana gives a nice glimpse into the game's wonderful past while opening up new doors and eyes to what the largest library in the world can offer virtually anyone having the patience to study.

With that, here is the Nats320 interview with Frank Ceresi on the collaborated book Baseball Americana--Treasures From The Library Of Congress:

How did this book come about? (SBF)

“I grew up in this area and I am from this area and I have always loved the Library of Congress. In fact, when I was in high school, my first real research paper I researched at The Library of Congress. And I remember my mom, she was an educator that taught in Fairfax County for 25 years, she said (then), if you are going to do it, you have got to do it right and you should go down to the main reading room in The Jefferson Building of The Library of Congress. I went there and it stuck with me. It was overwhelming because I couldn’t believe I was living around the largest library in the world for rare books, for photographs, for any printed matter. And as time went on, I became kind of prone to that sort of thing. I like to read and write and learn more. Then, I trained as a lawyer. And as the years wore on I melded this other attraction I had to the game of baseball. Several years ago I started to write some articles and whenever I was doing research and wanted to find something arcane—or something you couldn’t find on the internet—I went down to the stacks there (at the Library of Congress).”

“So about three years ago, Harry Katz—who is the former head of Princeton Photographs—knew I loved baseball. He did too. He said: ‘Why don’t you join me and let’s see about writing a book on baseball treasures at The Library of Congress.’ We took the idea to their publishing wing and they were very enthusiastic. Then over the past two years, we did this journey of going down there, discovering and seeing what they had.”

“And let’s be clear, this is not like going to your local library. They have so much sheet music, photographs, rare books, newspapers, film, you name it they have it—that are ripe for things like this. Plus, collections like the Jackie Robinson Papers, Branch Rickey Papers, and Oral History by Fay Vincent on tape. No one had really tried to look at their contents holistically and see what they have there. We couldn’t even do it. It was too overwhelming. So we were able to find a lot of stuff but not as much as is down there.”

So how do you organize to decide what is most important? (SBF)

“That was interesting. We would literally sit around at a table, all five of us, Harry, me, Phil, Wilson and Susan. I was the only one that wasn’t an employee in a sense of The Library of Congress—although Harry is now a consultant—he is not down there permanently. For example, Harry and I would meet. Phil and I would meet. Or Sue and I, or Harry and Sue. We would go in combinations to tackle different areas. We would go into the rare books. We would talk to the head of rare books and just say: ‘Baseball’. And usually they are a fan too, so they will have filed in their head cool stuff and we would tell them what we wanted. Eventually, you start gathering these sorts of things. But you have eluded to it already—this was a real art to then be able to organize and discriminate between what we want and other cool things that we simply couldn’t get in there. We would prioritize, sit around a table, and if everyone felt pretty strong about something and we generally agreed--it went to the editors at Harper Collins and it would get in.”

“We probably met about 15 times around the table (as a group of five), but twice that many times individually or in small groups to just go tackle what was out there. And David Kelley at The Library of Congress was a great help because he is a baseball fan. He was the ‘Go-To Guy’. He’s been there for a couple of decades. So he knew where things were and sent us off in the right direction.”

Still, after you pull all this stuff together, you still have to build a story around it. (SBF)

“Yes, we talked a lot about that. Logically, when you talk about baseball, anything from a narrative to visual, you are going to fall into chronology. That is simply the way it works. It worked nicely for us and was a comfortable fit because I, for example, love 19th Century. The origins of the game. And I really wanted us to focus on that. Well that is a great starting point. Where did the game begin? When did it become the National Pastime? With The Library of Congress being ‘The People’s Library’ for a couple of centuries, the history of our country dovetailed—in a sense—to the history of baseball. So we started at the beginning and went up to the 1980’s. The reason being it usually takes a few decades for artifacts or ephemera to reach the heft or prestige to get into something like The Library of Congress anyway. In probably 10 years, what they have from the 80’s and 90’s will be filled in too.”

“What we also found out was that there was not a lot of battling among us to put things in the book. This team, this group, gets along anyway. It was more like “no brainer stuff”. Yeah, the mental battle for all of us was--and certainly to me at the end—I didn’t know how it was going to work out. How can they (Harper Collins) cleverly design all this stuff? How will this look as a package? And I was so happy with the final piece. Objectively, I couldn’t have hoped for more. This project meant a lot to me because of my love of baseball history. I wanted to see the history. I wanted to see it visually. I wanted to see the passion for the game. All of which I was hoping would be in this project and I think it is all included.”

What was the final overriding decision to put something in the book?

“It was a balance. The image needed to have two things. One, it needed to be a great image. It needed to be a knockout image and it also needed to further the story—representative of the history. Those were the two keys. There is nothing in the book that any one of us felt is a common image—meaning either photo, magazine cover, illustration—something like that.”

Ok then, if I go to Borders Book, Waldenbooks, whatever. There are a litany of large baseball books with pictures and history. Why is Baseball Americana different? (SBF)

“For me, and I have seen a lot. You have seen a lot. In this book you are going to see a lot of things you have never seen before. This book exposes the public to a slice of Our National Pastime that has really never been presented in a visual way—as this book has. For example, these are T-205 cards that came out in 1909. Tinkers, Evers & Chance—we all know that. These cards are beautiful. They are based on paintings, which I found out only because of research at The Library of Congress—were from photographs. All of which are in the files at The Library of Congress. So, that entire set of a couple of hundred cards—now I know—how those cards in 1909 so beautifully evolved.”

The Library of Congress is where anything printed or otherwise is copyrighted goes. (SBF)

"Here are some other examples that stand out because of The Library Of Congress. The entire LOOK (Magazine) collection is there. The entire Jackie Robinson Collection. I would not have known that Dorothea Lange—known for her work during difficult times of the 30’s and 40’s also covered some baseball. It’s all down there. The other thing, and this is important. This book should be considered a window to what's out there. The goal is to get people excited about what is there, but realize this is the tip of the iceberg. So, if they want to learn more about the WPA photos, or the Bain Collection, or the Look Collection, or baseball during World War 2; or baseball in film, or cards from the 1880’s—The Library of Congress has them all.”

“I have seen a lot of stuff, but I have never seen the proof sheets for The Old Judge Cards. Never, and they have eight or nine of them down there. The Library Of Congress is open so anybody from here or from all over the world can see, research, study, learn, preserve and protect all that good stuff on something as important as baseball in history.”

We've sort of touched on this already, but baseball has really reflected American life throughout history—during the Civil War, Segregation, Depression, World War 2, on and on. (SBF)

“This book is exactly what you are stating there. Baseball touches our country’s history like certainly no other sport. Here is another example. I knew about Octavius Catto—African American from the 1860’s. 99% of all historians, even hardcore baseball fan historians—probably don’t know this sad story of an early pioneer of the game that never really got any recognition.”

Why is this book important to you? (SBF)

“It’s very important for institutions and museums and particularly The Library of Congress to educate the public about the history and significance of baseball to our culture. To help, not to promote it, but to preserve it, to educate the young people about what it’s meant to our society. And it takes an institution like that (LOC) to stand behind that and bring it home. Museums have slices, but they don’t have what the The Library Of Congress has!”

So, what should some learn from reading Baseball Americana? (SBF)

"First, the history kind of grabs you. The reason why I give this book high marks is because it touches on everything I could think of in the game. There certainly may be a favorite player of someone that is not there, or things like that. We are limited by a number of photos--but it doesn't take away from the important role that baseball has played in our society. How important baseball is to our culture. How important it is to preserve the purity of the game. And how much the game means to, not only hardcore baseball fans, but to the casual fans—families and kids. I don’t think it is a coincidence that so much of the love of baseball is derived by children following their father’s or their mother’s love. Baseball tends to bind us as a society. It does not divide us into class, race or economic status. It gives us a collective way of enjoying and viewing the sport together. And that's what, I believe, this book represents."

What were the most surprising aspects you learned about the game for the first time? (SBF)

“There were a lot of surprises. The Old Judge Proof Sheet from the 1880’s and seeing the Washington team. I know a lot about the Old Judge Cards from the 1880’s, but I didn’t know there were such things as proof sheets. And it’s so logical. For the tobacco companies to create the cards, they needed to copyright them. And by law, the copyright depository is The Library of Congress. So I was surprised to see these things. Even with my education and background in collectibles, I had never seen them before. You could spend the next two years of your life going to divisions of The Library Of Congress and you are not going to know everything about whatever subject you choose, let alone baseball. They have amassed so much cool stuff that it’s everywhere—advertising, film, letters, people—their life’s work—like the Branch Rickey Papers. And I think Branch Rickey is one of the most important individuals, not just in baseball, but also in the 20th Century. This book gives a taste of what is down there.”

“In fact, James Billington—The Librarian Of Congress—believes they have to just get this stuff out. Let’s get it to where people all over the world can enjoy what we have. And that has been his passion for much of the past three decades. He was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in the early ‘80’s, so he has been there for nearly thirty years.”

Is it safe to say this book and the effort to get this material out there—as you stated—is a love affair for the people that work at The Library of Congress? (SBF)

“Absolutely, because it can be intimidating to go there. To you and me who have both been here (in D.C.) our entire lifetimes, it’s intimidating. You go to The Jefferson Building and The Madison Building (on Capitol Hill), those are huge buildings, and items are sectioned off—like the newspaper division. My goodness, you could spend two weeks reading newspapers just to find box scores. People have done it for a lifetime. What you have to do is focus. You can’t do it all in one day. I love baseball photographs. So you have to go to Prints & Photographs and find people there to help you as a member of the public. It’s still a hands on institution."

"What has also made me really happy is that the hardcore "sabrites" (SABR) have given nothing but great praise back on the book. I think we told the story the right way and it’s a beautiful book at a time when books like this just aren’t coming out.”

So there really is something for everybody? (SBF)

“Absolutely. That is a good way of putting it.”

With that final answer, my conversation with Frank Ceresi came to a conclusion. The large format book is a comfortable read. One you can pick up, study for while, then get back to later and explore some more. What I found most interesting, and sort of ironic, is the very fact that here is The Library Of Congress playing Gatekeeper to the rich history of baseball--much like The Baseball Hall Of Fame & Museum does in Cooperstown--but on a far different level. The largest baseball reference in the world and the Federal Government is holding the keys to the fascinating past of The Great Game--in the very city Major League Baseball thought was undeserving of a Big League Team for over 33 years.

Honestly, that is ironic and why this book is also an important edition for any fan of Baseball. The Library Of Congress--keeping the flame alive for The Great Game--so all can enjoy and re-live history's past.

Available on the shelves in most major bookstores, Baseball Americana is also available online at

If you are interested in doing your own research at The Library Of Congress you can browse the online catalog at

Finally--There a good deal of artifacts covering baseball in the Nation's Capital included in Baseball Americana. A chapter on the 1924 World Series Champion Senators and this factual tidbit in Baseball Americana that again proves how important Washington, D.C. was in the early development of the game's reach throughout these United States.

Frank Ceresi: "1867 is the year The Washington Nationals, as an amateur team, did the first tour of the western United States. An organized baseball team toured the west to kind of sow the seeds of the baseball gospel—two years before professional baseball began (in Cincinnati). This country—all the way out to Missouri—was so enamored with baseball and this team that a very popular song was written called ‘Home Run Polka’ composed by a Mrs. Bodell for The National Baseball Club of Washington, D.C."

Above is the early image from that songbook in the Library Of Congress Catalog.

Images used for this story courtesy of The Baseball Americana Authors, Smithsonian Books and Harper Collins Publishing. Any reproduction or usage strictly prohibited. All Rights Reserved.

1 comment:

Pete said...

Nice to see you are still on Point! Thanks for the walk down memory lane. PP