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Events: The Church of Baseball

Baseball memorabilia is woven into our national identity

By Brandon Brady · August 20th, 2003 · Events
  Jackie Robinson's 1956 jersey
Jackie Robinson's 1956 jersey

"I've tried them all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul is the church of baseball."
-- Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) in Bull Durham (1988)

Perched in front of a trio of red stadium seats, Gaylord Perry bears a holy resemblance. The famed pitcher's lanky frame has given way to a Buddha-esque girth. The standard-issue navy blue Hall-of-Famer knit polo shirt that Perry wears sports the mark of baseball hierarchy. His arms fold assuredly across his pot-bellied shelf. Reporters gather around as he holds a spiritual court, memories shared for love of the game.

For today, Perry's field of dreams is the media preview of Baseball as America sliding into the Cincinnati Museum Center (CMC) through Nov. 9. The traveling exhibit boasts 500 artifacts (including a special case dedicated to the glory of the Reds) and Perry's aged, textured face is a priceless, though temporary, addition to the story of the greatest game ever played.

Organized by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., Baseball as America is a shrine not simply celebrating the sport but honoring the game's effect on history, technology, sociology and pop culture.

Upon entering the exhibit, located in a newly renovated exhibition hall at the CMC, a placard poses the question, "If America stands for freedom, equality and opportunity, can baseball truly stand for America?"

Evidence comes straight from Ground Zero. Amid the rubble and despair of the World Trade Center, Vin Mavero, battalion chief with the New York City Fire Department, uncovered a promotional baseball. Mavero e-mailed the company, TradeWeb, to alert them to his find.

"Being a baseball fan, coach and player, this item has become a symbol of hope for me," Mavero wrote. But then hope floats throughout Baseball as America.

Residing beside photos of pitcher Bob Feller and left-fielder Ted Williams during their military service is a foul ball returned by fans at New York's Polo Grounds for donation to military teams. Adjacent to a snapshot of smoky diva Lena Horne throwing out the first pitch at a 1945 post-season exhibition game is the No. 42 Dodgers jersey worn by Jackie Robinson, the man who broke baseball's color barrier. And, most hopeful of all for Cincinna-tians, is the Reds helmet Pete Rose adorned when he passed Ty Cobb as the all-time hits leader. (Although Rose is banned from Major League Baseball and, consequently, the Hall of Fame, Rose memorabilia apparently has an open invitation to Cooperstown. The 1989 Dowd Report which details evidence of Rose's alleged gambling misconduct is also included in the exhibit.)

Perry steers clear of the controversy that regularly infuses the sport. That goes for Perry's own questionable maneuvers as well: George Brett's pine tar bat, another relic in Baseball as America, which Perry hid from umpires during 1983 when he and Brett played for the Kansas City Royals.

But Perry, who earned his Hall of Fame status by becoming the 15th pitcher to win 300 games, doesn't reflect on personal memorabilia as he gazes out over this kingdom of baseball wealth. From his makeshift throne, the pitcher's focal point rests a few feet away on a free-standing case, tomb to a familiar mess of garish red-and-yellow feathers. A small smile emerges from Perry's bushy white beard.

"The chicken means the most," Perry says without hesitation. "He took a lot of pressure off when things were going bad."

A fixture when Perry played for the San Diego Padres in 1978-79, the San Diego Chicken, as embodied by Ted Giannoulas, best represents the cross-cultural boundaries that baseball encompasses. Even non-sports enthusiasts could delight in the Chicken's crazy antics.

Perry might be a spiritual leader of the game, but the Chicken is its religious icon. By singling out the bumbling bird as the most meaningful piece of memorabilia, Perry hints at the scope behind the Baseball as America exhibit. All are touched by the church of baseball.

BASEBALL AS AMERICA will be on display at the Cincinnati Museum Center through Nov. 9.


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