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A Whole New Ballgame

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The display at Nats Park explores baseball's roots and D.C.'s baseball past. Courtesy of the Washington Nationals.
The display at Nats Park explores baseball’s roots and D.C.’s baseball past. Courtesy of the Washington Nationals.

The Library of Congress is taking its collections out to the ballgame, reaching a new audience in a new venue.

The Washington Nationals in April opened an exhibition at Nationals Park that, through Library photos, explores baseball’s roots and celebrates the game’s traditions – especially in the nation’s capital.

“Baseball Americana from the Library of Congress” opened April 6 on the main concourse at the stadium’s home-plate entrance and continues indefinitely.

The exhibition features more than 30 oversized facsimiles of Library treasures covering more than two centuries of America’s pastime: the game’s origins, early competition, the men and women who played the game – Hall of Famers, members of Congress, soldiers – and those who cheered it on.

Library and Washington Nationals officials first discussed the idea two years ago while organizing an event to celebrate the Library’s acquisition of the papers of sports broadcaster Bob Wolff.

“There were several ideas discussed that arose from conversations with the librarian and the Development Office about ways we could work together with the Nationals that would be mutually beneficial,” Director of Communications Gayle Osterberg said. “Curators from several divisions brought some of the Library’s baseball treasures to share with Nationals representatives at a meeting in the summer of 2013.

An integrated Marine Corps team poses at Camp Lejeune in 1943. Prints and Photographs Division.
An integrated Marine Corps team poses at Camp Lejeune in 1943. Prints and Photographs Division.

“Of course, when they saw the wonderful collections items and heard curators tell the history and stories, the notion of having a facsimile display at Nationals Park seemed like a good fit.”

Prints and Photographs, Manuscript, Music and Humanities and Social Sciences division curators worked with the Interpretive Programs Office and the Publishing Office’s Susan Reyburn – co-author of the 2009 Library publication “Baseball Americana” – to identify themes and items of interest to the Nationals.

The Library supplied the club with text and digital images, and the Nationals did the rest.

“So many people have contributed time and enthusiasm toward making it come together,” Osterberg said. “It will be a nice way to showcase the diversity of Library collections in a sort of unexpected location.”

The exhibition represents a new kind of outreach in another way.

“We’ve had traveling exhibitions go to many different places,” senior exhibit director Betsy Nahum-Miller said. “Something like this, where we do a display offsite that wasn’t an exhibit here, is a first.”

The Library preserves the world’s largest collection of baseball material: sheet music, baseball cards, photographs, films, newspaper clippings, broadcasts and recorded sound.

It holds the first film of a baseball game (Edison’s 1898 “The Ball Game”), the original copyrighted version of sports’ greatest hit (“Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” of course), the personal papers of pivotal figures (Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson), perhaps the earliest baseball card (“Champions of America,” 1865) as well as the countless accounts of victory, defeat, historic teams and wretched losers found in the millions of newspaper pages of the institution’s collections.

“That you can find a box score here at the Library for almost any game I think is pretty remarkable,” Reyburn said.

“Baseball Americana from the Library of Congress” provides a taste of that to a new audience on its own turf – Nationals Park.

Curators divided the exhibition among seven themes: baseball roots, presidential pitches, congressional games, music, Washington baseball history, women in the game and – using images donated by servicemen to the Veterans History Project – baseball and the military.

A 1787 printing of “A Little Pretty Pocket-Book” features verse and woodcut illustrations depicting outdoor activities for children – and provides the earliest-known printed mention of the game in America.

“A Little Pretty Pocket-Book” (1787) provides the earliest-known mention of
baseball printed in the United States. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

“The Ball once struck off/Away flies the Boy/ To the next destin’d Post/And then Home with Joy,” the author wrote in “Base-Ball.”

“The most fascinating strength of the Library’s collections is the Colonial material,” Reyburn said. “Nobody else has this material. It’s so rare.”

Many images explore the capital’s baseball past through scenes at Griffith Stadium, the ballpark that for more than 50 years served as home to the Washington Senators.

In the exhibition photos, Senators players raise the American League pennant in 1925, Babe Ruth slides into third, Hall of Famer Walter Johnson loosens up before taking the mound, Joe DiMaggio mingles at an All-Star Game and, on Ladies Day, fans visit with Bucky Harris, the player-manager who, at age 27, took over the Senators and led them to a World Series title.

A rare sheet of baseball cards dates to a still-earlier era of the game in D.C.

The Goodwin tobacco company in 1887 submitted the uncut sheet of photos of “Washington Base Ball Club” players to the Library as a copyright deposit. The company never distributed the cards in this form; the full sheets were only used to secure copyright and for advertising purposes.

“To produce large quantities efficiently, baseball cards are printed onto large sheets and later cut into individual cards,” said Phil Michel of the Prints and Photographs Division. “The cards are rarely seen in their uncut form on the original printing sheets, especially from the early years of production.”

The exhibit also highlights the D.C. roots of a baseball ritual: presidential pitches, a tradition inaugurated by William Howard Taft in Washington on opening day, 1910.

“It took time to become an annual ritual,” Reyburn said. “Most of them seemed to have been legitimate baseball fans. Woodrow Wilson truly was. A couple of them really did attend a lot of games.”

As defending American League champions, Washington Senators players raise the pennant early in the 1925 season. Prints and Photographs Division.
As defending American League champions, Washington Senators players raise the
pennant early in the 1925 season. Prints and Photographs Division.

Exhibition images show Taft, Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt tossing first pitches from the stands – though not always successfully. Roosevelt’s throw, according to contemporary news accounts, struck a photographer’s camera, and the ball bounced into the hands of a nearby policeman.

Baseball and America, the exhibition notes, grew up together. The Library’s collections grew with them.

“I think people will be very surprised that the Library of Congress collects baseball and that this is important for the Library to collect,” Nahum-Miller said. “They’ll see that the Library collects all different kinds of things from American culture, including sports.”

The baseball exhibition is also available online.

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