An Enduring Slice of Americana

The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past … It reminds us of all that once was good, and what could be again.

James Earl Jones‍, as Terence Mann in “Field of Dreams” (1989)
Hall of Fame bat

Tales from the Hall: The stories behind the artifacts 

The Formative Years 

Long before it became an institution, baseball was just a game played in grassy fields and dusty lots.

Although Civil War hero Abner Doubleday was credited with inventing the game, the earliest contemporary reports of baseball in the U.S. date back to Massachusetts in the late 1700s. The game gained popularity among young men in the Northeast in the mid-1800s as teams were formed from the membership of local social clubs. The first game of organized baseball was played in Hoboken, N.J., on June 19, 1846, with the New York Nine defeating the New York Knickerbockers 23-1. In a long-forgotten custom of the day, baseballs covered in gold and imprinted with a game’s details were presented to the winning team. A collection of these balls from the sport’s formative years can be found on display in the Hall. 

More than 400 club teams would pop up across the country after the Civil War, as baseball rapidly outgrew its New England roots and its amateur-only status. The first professional league was established in 1869, with the modern-day National League forming in 1876.

The Superstar

There are a number of seminal figures in the game of baseball, but only one Babe. No player before or since has captured the public’s imagination quite like George Herman Ruth Jr.

At age 21 in 1916, Ruth won 23 games and led the American League in earned run average (1.75) as a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. Three years later, converted to a full-time outfielder, he became the first modern slugger and a larger-than-life figure known for his excesses — both on the field and off.

Sold to the rival Yankees for $100,000 in 1919, Ruth hit 54 home runs in his first season in New York, bettering the home run total of each American League club all by himself. In 1927, he blasted a record 60 home runs, a mark that lasted 34 years; his career mark of 714 homers stood for 39 years. Before Ruth, no major leaguer had ever hit more than 27 round-trippers in a season or 138 for a career. 

For a time, Ruth carved notches in his bats to commemorate each homer. A few of the bats still exist. The hefty Louisville Slugger on display in the Hall of Fame features 28 notches, a remarkable total for one durable piece of lumber.

Hall of Fame Robinson

Breaking the Color Barrier

Before baseball stats were computerized, official day-by-day reports tracked the results of every player and team. These sheets marked the entry of 28-year-old Jackie Robinson into the major leagues in April 1947. 

“Statistics reveal a very poignant example of the desegregation of baseball,” says Idelson. “You can see how disrespected Robinson was by looking at how frequently he was hit by a pitch and how that disappears as teams’ respect for him grew.”

Robinson endured not only beanballs, but slurs and insults from opponents — and even his Brooklyn Dodger teammates — while becoming the first black player in the majors in the modern era. (A handful of black players were on major- and minor-league teams in the late 1880s before an unwritten rule banned them, giving rise to what would become the Negro Leagues of the early 20th century.)

In the course of a 10-year major-league career, Robinson captured the Rookie of the Year award, won a batting title and was named league MVP, all while displaying the courage and grace that led Commissioner Bud Selig to retire his No. 42 jersey leaguewide in 1997.

‘The Catch’

World Series history is full of indelible moments: Don Larsen catching Yogi Berra in a bear hug after firing a perfect game in 1956; Carlton Fisk flapping his arms, trying to will his fly ball inside the Fenway Park foul pole in 1975; Reggie Jackson connecting on his third homer in as many swings in 1977. But the gold standard of World Series moments for many remains Willie Mays and his jaw-dropping over-the-shoulder catch in the 1954 Series.

Known simply as “The Catch,” the game-saving play occurred in the eighth inning of Game 1 with Mays’ New York Giants and the Cleveland Indians tied at 2. The Indians had runners on first and second with no outs when Vic Wertz blasted a drive more than 420 feet to the deepest part of the Polo Grounds. Mays, 24 and wrapping up his fourth big league season, raced after the ball, catching it in his outstretched arms with his back to home plate, robbing Wertz of a sure extra-base hit. With his hat flying off his head, Mays spun and fired a strike back into the infield, preventing the runners from taking an extra base. The Giants escaped the inning without allowing a run and went on to sweep the Tribe, four games to none.

The Humanitarian

In New Year’s Eve 1972, baseball suffered one of its greatest losses. On that day, 38-year-old Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Roberto Clemente was killed in a plane crash while attempting to deliver aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

Born in Puerto Rico, Clemente made his major league debut at age 20 and went on to have one of the most decorated careers of any Latino player. He won a National League MVP award, two World Series, a World Series MVP, four batting titles and 12 Gold Glove awards for outstanding defense. On the last day of the 1972 season, Clemente doubled for his 3,000th hit, joining an elite list of players to reach that milestone. It would be the final hit of his career, and the bat he used is enshrined in Cooperstown.

Three months after his death, Clemente was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame — bypassing the usual five-year waiting period following the end of a player’s career. Every year thereafter, MLB has presented the Roberto Clemente Award in his honor to a player who exemplifies outstanding baseball skills, sportsmanship and community involvement.

Hall of Fame Wonderboy Bat

Baseball in Popular Culture

Baseball and popular American culture have long been intertwined. Baseball permeates the culture on many levels: its jargon has entered the national lexicon; its champions advance to the White House to meet the president; “Casey at the Bat” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” are popular examples of baseball’s influence on poetry and song.

And then there is film. Baseball, and its inherent drama — and sometimes comedy — has been a staple of Hollywood features for decades. There are a few misses, “Major League 3: Back to the Minors” and “Ed,” for example, but many are Tinseltown home runs. (Think “Pride of the Yankees,” “A League of Their Own” and “Field of Dreams.”)

Perhaps the greatest baseball film of all is 1984’s “The Natural,” starring Robert Redford. Based on a novel by Bernard Malamud, the film tells the tale of aging player Roy Hobbs, whose comeback — and bat, Wonderboy — propel the fictional New York Knights to the pennant. 

Hall of Fame Ripkin

The Iron Man

No matter how tired, sick or injured Cal Ripken Jr. was, he always showed up for work. Every day for more than 16 years. 

Ripken was a fixture in the Baltimore Orioles infield from May 30, 1982, until Sept. 19, 1998, appearing in 2,632 consecutive games. On Sept. 6, 1995, Ripken broke the hallowed record of 2,130 set by Lou Gehrig from 1925-39.

“Think about how grueling a baseball season is at 162 games,” says Idelson. “The fact that Cal didn’t call in sick for all those years speaks volumes about his longevity and role in the game.”

Ripken’s pursuit of Gehrig’s mark is widely considered to be one of the seminal moments that brought baseball back from the indignity of the work stoppage that canceled the 1994 World Series. For all of his durability, Ripken’s performance scarcely suffered. Considered by some to be too large, at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, to play shortstop, Ripken instead redefined the position in his image. He was a 19-time All-Star and two-time American League MVP who amassed 3,184 hits and 431 home runs in his 21-year career.

The Captain

Few could have imagined the impact a lanky kid from Kalamazoo, Mich., would have on the future of the mighty New York Yankees when Derek Jeter was drafted sixth overall in 1992. But Jeter’s arrival in the Big Apple ushered in a new Yankees dynasty.

Jeter was still a rookie in the 1996 World Series, the first of his seven trips to the Fall Classic. Prior to Jeter’s arrival, the winningest franchise in the game went through a dry spell — no playoff appearances since 1981 and no world titles since ’78. But starting in ’95, when Jeter was first called up to the big league team, the Yankees made 16 postseason appearances in 20 years and won five world championships, including four in the five-year span from 1996 to 2000. His jersey from the ’96 Series is on display at the Hall.

As the Yankees’ captain, one of the most prestigious roles in sport, Jeter became a symbol of class and grace under fire, often performing his best at the biggest moments. His World Series heroics, in particular, earned him the nicknames “Captain Clutch” and “Mr. November” as well as a 2000 World Series MVP award. Jeter retired this past fall with 3,465 hits, the sixth-highest total of all time. 

Mound Magic‌ Hall of Fame Pedro

At the height of the so-called Steroid Era, when home runs ruled the game, Pedro Martinez tamed the game’s greatest hitters as though they were swinging Wiffle bats.

One of his most masterful performances came in the 1999 All-Star Game in Boston. Pitching at his home park, Martinez started for the American League and struck out Barry Larkin, Larry Walker and Sammy Sosa in succession in the first inning, becoming the first pitcher to ever start an All-Star game with three straight punch-outs.

At the top of the second inning, Martinez whiffed the then-reigning home run king, Mark McGwire. After Matt Williams reached base on an error, Martinez struck out Jeff Bagwell, with Williams caught stealing on the swinging third strike. 

“Of all the events that I’ve worked over the years, nothing was more impressive than Pedro at Fenway Park striking out five of the greatest hitters in the game,” Idelson says. “The jersey that he wore while accomplishing that is now in the Hall of Fame forever.”

Martinez, elected to the Hall in 2015 with more than 90 percent of the vote, won 219 games over 18 seasons, including an amazing seven-year run (1997-2003) during which he went 118-36 (.766) with five ERA titles and three Cy Young Awards.

An International Stage

Baseball has long been America’s pastime, but it is truly a global game now. From Cuba to South Korea, Australia to Spain, baseball continues to grow around the world, expanding into new markets while continuing to draw some of the most talented international players to the major leagues.

Yet there had never been a player like Japan’s Ichiro Suzuki in the majors before he made his North American debut in 2001 at age 27. For starters, no other Japanese position player had ever before made the jump across the ocean to the U.S. But once he got to the States, Ichiro proved that he was a one-of-a-kind talent, no matter where he played.

In 14 seasons in the majors, Ichiro has collected 2,844 hits (a .317 career average), two batting titles, an American League MVP award and 10 Gold Gloves. Adding in his 1,278 hits in Japan’s Pacific League, he is one of only three players (joining Ty Cobb and Pete Rose) to accumulate 4,000 hits as a pro.

And Ichiro has shone on the international stage as well. He twice led Japan to championships in the World Baseball Classic, a World Cup-type international tournament. His batting helmet from the 2006 Classic is on display in Cooperstown.

Modern-Day History

Not all baseball history is ancient history. Some is as recent as you can get.

Take Madison Bumgarner, who topped off a World Series MVP performance this past October by pitching five scoreless innings of relief on two days’ rest to propel the San Francisco Giants to their third title in 
five years.

“We received a number of artifacts from the 2014 World Series,” says Idelson. “But when you think of dominance over time, from Cy Young to the present, Madison’s brilliance is remembered by the cap he wore throughout the World Series.”

Bumgarner had a historic Series against Kansas City, allowing only one run on nine hits in 21 innings (0.43 ERA). He won two games, saved the Game 7 clincher and struck out 17 hitters while walking only one. For the entire 2014 postseason, the 24-year-old left-hander was 4-1 with a 1.03 ERA. He allowed only 28 hits and six walks in 52-2/3 innings, while striking out 45. 

May 17, 2015