Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Back At The National Baseball Hall Of Fame & Museum

"The total number of items we've collected depends on whether an item is counted individually or as a set (as in an umpire's uniform with equipment)," stated John Odell, Curator at The National Baseball Hall Of Fame & Museum in Cooperstown, NY. "We have about 38,000 3-dimensional items, around 130,000 baseball cards, over 2-million documents in the library, 400,000 photos plus thousands of hours of audio, video and motion picture footage."

After non-stop work assignments with barely enough time even for spring training baseball with Our Washington Nationals this off-season, The African Queen and I needed a baseball fix leading up to Opening Day, 2011 at Nationals Park on March 31st. The National Baseball Hall Of Fame and Museum was our desired calling.

Three years ago, we last visited baseball's shrine to the greatest game. A trip that first introduced us to the inner workings of this beloved museum. We wanted to and needed to go back. So last week, after returning from our latest assignments--off we drove the entire distance. The seven hour drive from Alexandria, Virginia to upper state New York. 61 degrees when we left the Washington, D.C. area--14 degrees and snowing our first night next to Ostego Lake. (And by way--we crossed through a 50-mile thick fog covering I-81 through the mountain before and after Hazelton, Pennsylvania that will not soon be forgotten.  Every car and truck travelling the 60 MPH speed limit the entire way--despite the fact visibility was less than two car lengths. Truly, it doesn't get much scarier than that)

But we digress.

Yes, Old Man Winter might still be holding on for its last bated breaths, but baseball was still in the air. The rites of spring were upon us. Sohna and I could not have been happier.
John Odell, again graciously welcomed us back for our visit and kindly set up a special tour which included a private look inside the museum's photo, book and player file libraries--as well as--a return engagement inside the daunting and always impressive memorabilia vault. The main storage facility for most all 3-dimensional items donated to the museum.

A thrill like no other for any baseball fan.

Later during our visit, we sat down with John Odell to followup on the ever changing exhibits now on display--including the very impressive Viva Baseball & Hank Aaron presentations. And continued our education of Cooperstown with a funny and informative sit down with Tim Wiles--The Director of Research at The Hall Of Fame. Finally, we finished off our week with a private tour of the famous Osetaga Hotel on Ostego Lake. The very resort that houses Hall Of Fame Induction Week every year and was once considered as the filming location for Jack Nicholson's blockbuster move--The Shining.
All of that coming up, but what we first learned during our stay is that The Baseball Hall Of Fame and Museum is still today getting a grip on everything that's its been given in trust to their custody--especially items from many years past. A register exists which documents what is in their possession. What the curators and museum associates are today realizing is that many times, artifacts on hand have an even greater history than was previously known.
John Odell: "Very, very often, there is much more information about a ball in our registrar. But what’s really amazing and what we are really excited about is the work of Ted Spencer—our retired Head Curator. He’s been made Curator Emeritus. He comes in twice a week and has been doing a lot of research, working through a lot of files—hundreds and hundreds of letters, that came with artifacts to the Hall Of Fame with the story of why they came here in the first place and why they are important. Unfortunately, the artifact got separated from the letter--say 50 years ago. And we didn’t know the rest of the story. All we had was the brief write up in the registrar: 'Ball from 1910 World Series.'"

"But now we can go back, find that letter, and figure out it was thrown by this pitcher. It’s the last ball or the first ball or a ball that was just a foul ball that the donator caught at the World Series. What game. What date. This is how I got it. The entire provenance of these pieces are exploding for us. It’s getting incredibly richer. And it’s one of those thing where, thankfully, people weren’t throwing things away back in the olden days. They instead were throwing things in a shoe box and putting them in a closet."
"Now, we have Ted Spencer, a man with years of experience (a quarter century of work with The Hall Of Fame & Museum). He knows the museum and can go through these files and say: 'Hey, this is important. This brings a better level of understanding about an artifact.' And one of my interns this summer will then take these pages, alphabetize them, cross check them by donor name and we will then be able to assign numbers back to them. So then when you go look for the 429th thing we acquired in 1954—there will be more complete information there."
"And many times, these are items that were just stuck in a dad’s drawer or a relatives drawer. And very often, it was donated to the museum years ago, maybe after the players passing--and the resonance of that piece might have been lost (before computers & scanning) over time. Example: We have a “Rabbit Maranville” model bat in our possession. Rabbit Maranville was a shortstop back in the 1910’s. This is a Maranville model bat that came here in the 1950’s—which incidentally coincides with his induction to the Hall Of Fame. But that’s all we had, information-wise on the bat. Ted Spencer just found the letter that came from Rabbitt Maranville’s wife, now widow's attorney, which states Mrs. Maranville has the bat Rabbitt Maranville used in the 1914 World Series when he was with The Boston Braves. The “Miracle” Braves of 1914 and glove he used during his career. And are these things (The Hall) would like to have?"

"Okay. We now know this Spalding bat is from the 1914 World Series. Now, it’s not just a Maranville model bat, the style that he used during his playing time and maybe it’s got his name on it. And maybe not one he used. But now it’s a World Series used bat by a Hall Of Famer from a miracle comeback team that was in last place in August, came back to win The National League and, eventually, The World Series. There’s a history now that adds to the story. And that is because of Ted Spencer’s diligent work looking through all those letters separated from the thousands of donations a long, long time ago."

"That's one story that I know of right now. But I’ve seen the stack he's working on and it’s getting bigger and bigger."

But matching an artifact with a more complete history is not the only issue staff at The Baseball Hall Of Fame & Museum is working through--funding the cost of operations is difficult as well. "That also puts us into a tough position since The Hall does not pay for memorabilia," says Mr. Odell. "So it's very difficult right now, but we have to make it work.”
John Odell: "We don’t want ballplayers to think that by donating to the Hall Of Fame they are increasing their chances of getting into the Hall Of Fame. On the other hand, we are doing more with Hall Of Famers saying—here is what we do. If you buy into that (the player), we would love for you to donate. But for a long time, we’ve been reluctant to hit them up. We don’t want them to hear: 'Hi, welcome to our club, now we want some money!' That would be a little bit tacky. So as the economy has continued to go south and we have been continuing to work to improve our own financial position—we are coming to new ways to work with the ballplayers. We’ve found that if we are open to them—'Look here is what we are doing. Here is how much it costs to run the Hall Of Fame. If you would like to support that—we would love to have you do that.'"

"Hank Aaron is doing that. A couple of other ballplayers have joined him as well. 'Yeah, I will do that.'—like Brooks Robinson.
But despite those concerns, The Baseball Hall Of Fame & Museum is very tight on storage space.  So strained that on the first day of our visit--massive room was being cleared in the Memorabilia Vault and on the 3rd Floor of the museum to temporarily house a touring exhibit from England comparing the differences and similarities of baseball to cricket. A series of displays that showed up via 18-wheeler and will go on display in Cooperstown in just a few weeks time.

John Odell: "There is an off-site storage area where we store long rows of seats from stadiums—for example. The very large items. We have an old (Iron Mike) pitching machine there too. The odd ball types of things that sometimes have been on exhibit, but when they come off—we don’t have anywhere to put them here (at the museum). So the next time we need it, we then go and bring it back for display.But we are always running out of space. Wherever we go, we are always running out of space."
Believe it or not, all those remarks barely touch the surface of our time behind the scenes at The National Baseball Hall Of Fame & Museum. Coming up next--what Mr. Odell showed us on our private tour--including this terrific baseball board game (patent pending) from 1913 which included Walter Johnson and The Washington Nationals.

Cool Stuff--Coming.

All Photos Copyrighted--Nats320--All Rights Reserved

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