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Rascals and Heroes, Before the Babe: Metropolitan Museum Opens Huge Show of Baseball Cards

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Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
“Legends of the Dead Ball Era” at the Met contains 600 cards out of the 31,000 it holds, the fruit of one man’s obsession.

The annual All-Star Game is scheduled to take place on Tuesday at that crime scene in Queens known as Citi Field, where the New York Mets routinely commit misdemeanor assaults on the heart. A night of celebrity baseball, neatly wrapped in red, white and blue bunting, might be just the thing to clean the slate and help the Mets see the light, and maybe a fastball or two.

But if the All-Star break for many fans is a welcome timeout in a long season, all I can think of is some century-old baseball doggerel about an ancient Chicago Cubs infield: Tinker to Evers to Chance.

Tinker to Evers to Chance. Tinker to Evers to Chance. I don’t care that much about the All-Star Game, but Tinker to Evers to Chance.

Please don’t misunderstand. In my boyhood my life was so defined by baseball that I often conflated the Yankees starting lineup with the Twelve Apostles (batting leadoff and playing second base, Horace Clarke; batting second and playing center field, Simon who is called Peter). But the use of performance-enhancing drugs — by the players, not me — and the related corruption of once-sacrosanct statistics have cooled my enthusiasm. Not for baseball so much as for the baseball of today.

I prefer a more innocent time. A time when the same ball might last the entire game, and fielders wore gloves not much larger than their hands, and batters strived to hit ’em where they ain’t. A time when ballplayers brawled with fans, and tobacco companies used baseball cards to entice the young, and a small group of corrupt baseball heroes from Chicago could throw the World Series, and …

In truth, the dead-ball era was about as innocent as the gyrations of Little Egypt, the Dita Von Teese of the day. But this distant time — a two-decade period between the close of the 19th century and the ascent of a true game changer, the home run hitter Babe Ruth — was far more colorful, helping to cement baseball’s claim as the national pastime.

Now, as if to please wayward fans, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has reached into its bottomless duffel bag of curiosities to present an exhibition of early and extremely rare baseball cards. Rows and rows of long-dead ballplayers stare out from the past like the mug-shot denizens of the New York Police Department’s once-famous Rogues Gallery.

Here is that human snarl, Ty Cobb, so knotted with rage that he alienated opponents and teammates both; he may be the greatest, loneliest player of all time. Here, too, is Cobb’s polar opposite, Henry Joseph Smith, an average outfielder for the Brooklyn Superbas who played only one year in the major leagues — but who went by the nickname Happy.

The 600 baseball cards on display at the Met in “Legends of the Dead Ball Era” are really only a sampling from its trove of 31,000, a majority of them belonging to the Jefferson R. Burdick Collection. Burdick was a simple-living bachelor from the Syracuse area who found distraction from his chronic arthritis in the collection and study of American cards and ephemera, including the baseball-theme trade cards produced by tobacco and candy companies.

Burdick donated his massive collection to the Met in the late 1940s, but its breadth and responsibility nearly overwhelmed the museum’s curators. This problem was solved when illness forced him to retire from his job assembling electrical parts: he relocated to modest lodgings in Manhattan, moved his oak desk to the museum’s print department and personally began the meticulous slog of cataloging and mounting his life’s work.

The task took more than a decade and required the help of volunteers and the use of cortisone to ease his increasingly debilitating arthritis. It became a race against time, as Burdick more than once wondered aloud whether he would live to see its completion. Finally, in early 1963, Burdick announced to the print room that he had mounted his last card. As A. Hyatt Mayor, one of the museum’s legendary curators, later recalled, Burdick “twisted himself into his overcoat” and said goodbye, adding, “I shan’t be back.”

Burdick, now considered the father of card collecting, died two months later at the age of 63. According to Mayor, the cause of death was an exhausted heart.

Today the collection is the responsibility of Freyda Spira, an assistant curator in the museum’s department of drawings and prints. Ms. Spira has a Ph.D. in art history, with an expertise in German prints and drawings, 1400-1700. The All Stars of her world are Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach the Elder and, of course, Hans Holbein the Younger — “the Cy Young” of that era, she says.

But from now until Dec. 1, she has traded Hans Holbein for Hans Lobert, a National League outfielder so fast in his day that he once nearly outran a racehorse around the bases (he would have won, too, he later said, if the horse hadn’t cut him off between second and third).

Instead of Dürer, she has Mordecai (Three Finger) Brown, the Chicago Cubs pitcher whose damaged right hand — he lost most of his right index finger in a farming accident — allowed him to throw a ball that dipped like a shot bird. And John McGraw, the New York Giants manager, whom you might call hypercompetitive, superstitious, even obsessed, but don’t you dare call him Muggsy to his face.

And Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance, who made up three-quarters of the Chicago Cubs infield immortalized by some baseball verse written in 1910. Its author, Franklin Pierce Adams, did not rhyme the fact that Tinker and Evers loathed each other, or that Chance was a fierce but sometimes unsportsmanlike competitor who was not above launching a bottle at fans who bothered him.

And while it may not be a masterpiece from the Northern Renaissance, Ms. Spira also has a rare T206 Honus Wagner card, the size of a matchbox and valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions. Its worth derives partly from the supposed back story: that Wagner, a shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates and perhaps the greatest all-around player in history, blocked continued production of the card because he did not want to help promote cigarettes to children.

Beyond that, the card is striking for the rugged nobility conveyed in the face of its subject. He was the awkward son of hardscrabble immigrants, big-chested, bowlegged and with shovel-like hands that threw rocks and dirt to first base along with the ball. But he was baseball royalty, and his expression on this card says he knew it.

The museum does not provide the intriguing back stories of the men depicted in these cards. For that you may need the indispensable Web site baseball-reference.com, or, better yet, the classic oral history “The Glory of Their Times,” by Lawrence S. Ritter, probably the best baseball book ever written. So do some research first, perhaps, and then go to the museum to slip into another baseball era, free of steroids but not of human complication.

Here is Christy Mathewson, the cerebral pitching star for the New York Giants who preferred chess to carousing; he conveys a boyish assurance of his charms. Here is Wild Bill Donovan, a curveball pitcher for the Detroit Tigers whose nickname referred to both control and lifestyle; his look all but dares you to ask him about Cobb. Here is Laughing Larry Doyle, a second baseman with power; his smile underscores what he is said to have once crowed: “It’s great to be young and a New York Giant.”

And here is Eddie Cicotte, a star knuckleball pitcher for the Chicago White Sox. In 1919 he and a few underpaid teammates conspired with gamblers to lose the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds — a felony assault on the American heart that makes any Mets loss seem like a gift of sweet ineptness.

The card on display depicts Cicotte a few years before the baseball crime for which he would spend the next half-century apologizing. He is young, handsome and looking away, as if unwilling to make eye contact.

“Legends of the Dead Ball Era (1900-1919) in the Collection of Jefferson R. Burdick” continues through Dec. 1 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; (212) 535-7710, metmuseum.org. –NYtimes, By DAN BARRY, Published: July 11, 2013

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