Thursday, April 07, 2011

Looking Ahead While Protecting The Past At The Baseball Hall Of Fame & Museum

As Nats320 concludes our conversation with John Odell, Curator at The National Baseball Hall Of Fame & Museum in Cooperstown, New York, Mr. Odell touches on what's in the works for new exhibits in the near future. And also discusses the difficult process of protecting artifacts from deterioration.

John Odell: "One of my next exhibits is going to be about scouting in a couple of years. I am doing the preparation for it right now. Talking to scouts, they will tell you that they have seen players with more talent who don’t make it to the majors than do. And many other players with less talent--and Pete Rose is probably the best example out there--who do make it to the majors and do well. It’s because of work ethic. It’s because of understanding the game, being willing to apply your talent to the game. There are a lot of guys where everything was so easy for them for so long--that when it suddenly became hard--they felt like they didn’t have it." 
"For those guys for whom it was never easy, they knew they had already outworked guys in Single A to get to Double A, and guys in Double A to get to Triple A. Now it’s just a matter of outworking these older Major Leaguers or Rookie Major Leaguers in order to get their spot on the team and then to keep it. The scouts always talk about how it’s talent plus. And it’s that plus that is the intangible for these guys. That’s one of the things I am looking forward to when we get this new exhibit up and running. How tough it is to make it in the Majors and to stay in the Majors." 
Nats320: "Nationals GM Mike Rizzo talks mental makeup all the time. Elijah Dukes has to be the perfect example. Great talent, but he couldn’t put it all together on the field."
John Odell: "Elijah Dukes is the perfect example of what can go wrong. He had everything but that intangible--makeup--very important in this game. And clearly working on last chances. They gave him a chance, but it didn’t work out."
Nats320: "Then how do you put together a Scouting Exhibit? What artifacts have you already collected and what more do you need?"
John Odell: "We are open for other artifacts but over the years we’ve received radar guns donated to us by scouts and stopwatches. One of the things we are really looking forward to is an interactive, computer based, scouting data base. You will be able to look up your favorite players and see what the scouts thought of them early in their development--in high school and college or later when they became free agents. Once they reach the minor league systems, we are less concerned with that part of their development. We are more interested in finding out how the players move from little league to Babe Ruth ball, to American Legion and eventually to the minors. That’s where the scouts operate. That bridge that gets the players from the amateur game to signing their first professional contract and it’s really neat to see."

Senators Owner Clark Griffith Memorabilia

1924-25 Washington Senators/Nationals Artifacts
Nats320: "How far back are you going in history?"
John Odell: "We are going all the way back to the 19th century at least in telling the story.  The story goes back that far. Back in that time it was simply guys sending letters to The Philadelphia A’s asking Connie Mack to look at this guy, or come see my son (chuckling). Ty Cobb wrote letters to The Tigers saying you should look at this fellow Cobb. He’s doing a really good job. Signed: A Fan. (Everyone laughing--but it’s true)"
"Then we have guys like Paul Kritchell who found Lou Gehrig playing on a sandlot at Columbia University just killing the baseball. Smacking it all over the place so much The Yankees wanted him right away. Of course back in those days, the scouts were going all over. If I (as a scout) liked how you looked and we came up with an agreement, we’d sign on the dotted line. I would give you some money and you were my property. I would send you to the minors. That’s the way it still is in the Dominican Republic and in Venezuela, but that’s not the way it is in the United States.  Now, it’s the draft. Now, I have to take your name and your information back to the front office and I’ve got to wrestle with five other scouts to figure out whose best prospect is the Number 1 prospect. And whose prospect has to go to Number 2. And then the draft begins and you don’t get any of them because those ahead of you end up drafting them."
"Anybody can look at Ken Griffey, Jr.--for example--and tell that this guy is making it. Yet it is amazing to find out that Mike Piazza got drafted at the end of the draft as a favor to his family by Tommy Lasorda. A guy who is going to receive serious Hall Of Fame consideration when he becomes eligible for election and is probably going to get in as one of the greatest offensive catchers of all-time. The scouts job is to truly find those diamonds in the rough."
"Look back at all the players that got picked in the draft before Derek Jeter? The Baltimore Orioles decided they already had someone to play shortstop. They didn’t think they needed another shortstop. This was the time when Cal Ripken, Jr. was moving toward the second part of his career. By the time The Orioles could have drafted Derek Jeter and brought him up to the Big Leagues, Cal would have moved to third base and Jeter could have moved easily into short. Holy Cow, wouldn’t that have been something!!? But that’s what you can’t tell and that’s why we feel it’s important to tell these stories about scouting. Then you can call up your favorite ballplayer on the interactive display and see the actual scouting reports. Sometimes those scouting reports are great about a player. And some are not so much--depending if you caught the guy on a good day or not."
Nats320: "The other aspect of the game that comes into play after they are drafted is the business part that changes just about everything."
John Odell: "Yes, that’s where you find out a player might not be brought up until the second half of a season in order to hold onto him for one additional year before arbitration or free agency begins. That’s the type of thing in this game that is weird. It’s a business and you have to be mindful of that. I remember reading about a ballplayer who re-upped in 2004--his contract year with The Boston Red Sox. They won the World Series. He thought that was great and he re-signed with The Boston Red Sox for 2005 at a lower price because he wanted to keep the team together. He thought this was a great team that should stay together and they might be able to win again."
"He was right, but because he had a low salary, the Red Sox were able to trade him and his salary to another team because he was better than his salary cost. It made baseball sense for Boston. That’s the flip side to the coin of a ballplayer saying he wants to be paid what I am worth. And the team saying no--you can’t stay here. It’s all about maximizing wins at the cost of doing business and that’s a tough thing to do. I am sure you’ve read stories about Bryce Harper. When do you bring him up? The day he’s called up is the day he’s a Major Leaguer. It doesn’t matter what happens after that--certain clocks start ticking and teams have to be mindful of how much control they have on every player. Teams really own players and that’s odd when you really think about it. We look at it in the abstract, but in reality it’s not too attractive.'

Trophies In Storage

Nats320: You mentioned previously how there are many artifacts that were acquired well before you and other curators arrived here at The Hall Of Fame. For that reason, are you constantly down in the archives figuring out exactly what you have in storage? And do you use those opportunities to give you a better idea what of you can do when it comes to building new exhibits?"
John Odell: "The answer is yes. You are always looking for things that say: ‘This would be great!’ Usually, it is not an artifact itself that leads you to an exhibit. It’s more that by knowing the artifacts that you have, and being familiar with them and spending time downstairs with them--the time comes where you want to put your exhibit together and you start going: ‘Oh yeah, a few years ago I remember seeing this or that, something. Or how about that thing? I believe we have a ball related to this topic. Or a glove that was related to that.’ And that’s the kind of ways these artifacts come back in and get put on display."

"Usually, it is the larger picture that we come up with as an institution--working with our front office--working with all the other curators. ‘Ok, where are our weaknesses? What are the stories that are going on in baseball right now that we are not telling?’ The Latin story was one we were not telling. When we had a renovation back in 2003 or 2004, we had to take down our minor league exhibit. So we have no minor league exhibit right now and that’s a weakness. We should tell the story of the minor leagues. And we are aware of that. We are keeping our eye out on that kind of thing--mulling that over. So if you are working with that on the backburner, then when it is time to bring it forward, you’ve got a wider range of items that you can bring together. When we look at an older exhibit and determine we need to update that exhibit--to make it more relevant or tell a new story as a part of it--then that’s when we would remember those things we’ve come across in the archives of the museum."
Nats320: "Having talked about the Viva Baseball exhibit and the upcoming Scouting Exhibit, have you thought about a Baseball In The Orient Exhibit?"
John Odell: "Definitely, and also how the game is becoming more global. How the international play is rising. Until Ichiro, people really discounted Japan. People used to say: ‘I know Sadaharu Oh hit a lot of home runs, but they were cheap home runs off of bad pitchers.’ It was the same tone that white owners used against black ball players. This ball player might be pretty good, but the players he is playing against are so poor that he’s not really good. They are just making him look good. So Sadaharu Oh is really not that good, all of those other players just make him look good. But after Ichiro came over to America after having torn up the Japanese League--he now has 10 consecutive 200 hit seasons. It’s clear he was the real deal there. And what he did over there, he’s continued to do here. And he’s not beating up on chump pitchers in the Major Leagues. But if you are going to talk about how bad the pitching is in the United States, then you can’t continue to run down Japanese pitching because Ichiro beat up on both Japanese and American pitching."

"The other exhibit we are working on is Baseball & Medicine. Part of that is the steroids issue, but steroids didn’t come out of a vacuum. It’s not the first time medicine has been used and misused in baseball. So in order to put it in some type of context, we want to be able to show what made ballplayers think medicines would be good for anything? We will talk about both the good things that have allowed players to play longer--like Tommy John Surgery (ligament replacement)--which is a great example. Before Tommy John Surgery, there were hundreds of ball players that suffered the same injury back in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s who never came back. But they can now because we know how to do this. So there is a good side of medicine."
"And then there is the dark side with the steroids. Then there is the side that you don’t know quite what to do with when you find out guys have had lasik surgery who didn’t have bad eyesight, but now they have better eyesight. They have better eyesight than you and I. Ted Williams famously had 20/15 vision. Now, a player can go in and get 20/15 eyesight just like Ted Williams. I still have to be able to hit a baseball, but if you can hit a ball and you can now see the ball better, then you can hit the ball even better."

 Nats320: "Are there artifacts here that are too priceless or too fragile to show to the public in an exhibit?"
John Odell:  "To the fragile part of the question, yes. There is nothing that is too priceless to show. We will just increase security to the point that we feel comfortable. We definitely don’t talk about financial value here because we don’t go out onto the market place trying to buy and sell stuff. We’ve got baseball memorabilia that Babe Ruth used in his career and donated to the Hall Of Fame--which if it went out on the marketplace would sell for who knows how much, but a lot of money.  We do have insurance, obviously. But that’s kind of a false thing because if something is gone, it’s gone!!  It’s irreplaceable. It is in fact the only bat Babe Ruth used to hit three home runs in a game. If something happens to that then $100,000 or $1 million dollars doesn’t bring it back. We do have things we know are very valuable, but we just have to make sure that nothing happens to it. This is a hard world. We have to be aware of that as grownups. We are playing the big boys game." 
Roberto Clemente Santurce Contract
"In terms of fragile, one item in the Viva Baseball exhibit right now we are going to rotate out. In the case you will see the Roberto Clemente contract that he signed with the Santurce club. That was donated to the Hall Of Fame. We’ve made a scan of it and we are going to put the reproduction of it out on display because paper is fragile. And Ink fades in too much light. But for a period of time we wanted to have the original document out. Silks are fragile because they are light sensitive. We will put it out for a while and then will rotate that back out with another and eventually have a photographic representation out on display. We can accomodate very fragile things, just like a fine art museum might bring out water colors periodically. Or, for further protection, you have to touch the button so the light will come on in the display case."

Nats320: "How about early 1900 wool sweaters. There are some on display here. When they are in the cases are they really protected?"
John Odell: "We do climate control throughout the entire museum. The display cases don’t have special climate control, but we keep the lights low. It’s kind of tough to see unfortunately up there because we are preserving these for the long term. Humidity and temperature changes especially are bad. High humidity is bad. High temperature is bad.  Those are the types of things that add to the decomposition of things. Too much light excellerates the decomposition. Handling excellerates the decomposition. In a sense, you can minimize handling. That’s why down in collections you saw how we used white gloves. Everything is in boxes. It’s dark and we can move things around without having to handle them. There is acid free paper in the boxes as well. The temperature and humidity stays constant. 70 degrees, plus or minus a few degrees and 50% humidity--which are good stable things so artifacts don’t deteriorate and fall a part--which is the end result of anything. Things constantly want to degrade, but we can retard that and slow that down by careful handling." 

Walter Johnson Jersey & Signed Baseball

Nats320: "Will you then rotate out things in the permanent collection in order to keep them from further deterioration?"
John Odell: "One of the great things about baseball is that many artifacts are durable overall. The things in baseball that are not durable are the colors of uniforms. And there is a fine line that curators and conservators are always fighting in every museum and that is showing the actual artifact or putting it away and showing some sort of reproduction.  Inherently, anything that’s out is degrading. So there comes a time where we have to put things away."
"We have two Babe Ruth Jerseys. So we will put one away and rotate in the other. But the sad thing is that these artifacts don’t recover. They are not alive. They can’t recover from damage. It’s just that you can prolong the times when people can see them by treating them well. There is a common misconception and it happens a lot in the museum industry that you can rest the artifact--put it away for a while. Well, you are implying that it recovers in some way and it doesn’t.  If you want to do a graph of deterioration you can plateau that. But every time it goes out, the item degrades a little bit farther. It doesn’t climb back up to a better condition."

Hall Of Fame Climate Controlled Photo Library

Nats320: "With digital technology advances, does that mean you can perfectly copy a photo and never have to put out the original?"
John Odell: "That’s exactly what they are doing downstairs in the Photo Library. More and more digitizing of these photos so you don’t have to handle them. You can scan them once. If you scan them well and we have a criteria we use for our scanning--that takes care of 99% of the need for handling it. Sometimes they are scanning whole files and sometimes it's just a photo out of that file."
Nats320: "And sometimes they come out better than the original."
John Odell: Yes, we can. Downstairs we can improve the contrast. When Ansel Adams was doing his work--a good photographer can work with the brightness and contrast and get something better. I won’t say we are as good as Ansel Adams, but we can do something similar on the computer now with Photoshop. We can take old color photographs where the only thing left is pinks or reds or cyans. We can re-introduce color back into it and it comes back through the process. We can actually make those pictures better."
Nats320: "Final question. You seem to have matched your love of baseball with museum artifacts and history. Your passion, where do you get it?"
John Odell: "I always loved history and I am truly lucky. I do have the best job in the world. There is no doubt about it. I’ve always loved baseball. I only loved it as a fan before I started working here. I didn’t know much about it from the historical  perspective. So the 12 years I have been here so far have really deepened my appreciation and understanding of baseball as a mirror of, and a microcosim of, American culture. And who we are and how we act. And it’s been amazing to me as someone who loves American history how: ‘Oh, all the topics we talk about in American history--race, language, labor management relationships, urban versus rural, transportation, technology--all of these stories have long been found in baseball. And are still found in baseball. If you see how baseball often deals with all of those issues, you see how we handle or don’t handle other things in the United States. It goes hand in hand."
"So, I am in debt to this great game for showing me what a great game it is far beyond going to a Class A minor league games with my grandad because grandma wanted me out of the house (chuckling). And then enjoying it as a young adult in Philadelphia, jumping on the subway and for the price of a beer today, getting into the game and enjoying the game on a different level. To then coming here and understanding there is so much more." 
"The thing that is most amazing is the more you learn about baseball from an academic standpoint, the more you learn there is some much more to learn. I have a better appreciation for how much I don’t know now then I did 12 years ago when I first came here. That’s a little bit daunting, but it keeps it fresh. And I love talking about it and I love talking with people who share that same passion like you two."
2010 Andre Dawson Inductee Display

Courtyard Entrance To Hall Of Fame
With that final answer, Our Conversation With John Odell at The National Baseball Hall Of Fame & Museum concluded. But we are not done yet though.  Much more coming up later from Cooperstown on Nats320.

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