Capturing America's sports history

Originally Published: November 17, 2009
By Patrick Hruby | Page 2

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Here's the thing about pelting a homeless man with a fastball: If you want to do it right, make sure you aim directly for the base of his skull. That way, you can knock the no-good thieving hobo out cold, retrieve a young farm boy's basket of stolen groceries and have the whole heroic incident celebrated in a comic strip doubling as a Grape Nuts national magazine advertisement, just like Hall of Famer pitcher Dizzy Dean. Oh, and don't use the word "hobo," because the preferred term of art is "tramp" -- at least as of 1935, when the half-page ad I'm referring to ran in something called "The Country Home," likely the US Weekly of its time, only with more sponge cake recipes and fewer snapshots of Reese Witherspoon buying coffee.

History can be so educational.

[+] EnlargeLance Armstrong
Courtesy Patrick HrubyNo, this isn't the Lance bike that someone stole last year.

A wise man -- probably George Santayana; possibly Matt Millen after drafting Mike Williams -- once said that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Not me. On this chilly December day, I've come to see the sports artifacts at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, the better to glean the lessons of Roberto Clemente's batting helmet (surprisingly tiny), Lance Armstrong's bicycle (surprisingly flimsy) and Brian Boitano's figure skating costumes (surprisingly here). Notebook in hand, digital camera ready, I'm on hand to marinate in transitive greatness, to take stock of our athletic things left behind (Jim Brown's practice jersey, Lee Trevino's baby-blue swing gloves, Dominique Dawes' Team USA leotard) and figure out what it all means.

Actually, that's not entirely true. I originally came to check out the Mickey Mantle condom.

Here's the thing about the Mickey Mantle condom: There isn't one. I thought there was. Jane Rogers, the museum curator in charge of the sports collection, thought so as well. And not some dusty, long-forgotten package of mid-century prophylactics splashed with the Mick's number, autograph and/or grinning visage -- I mean an actual roll-down product, prÍt-a-porter, stamped with his picture. A sports endorsement like no other, with the possible exception of Rafael Palmeiro's Viagra commercial.

Alas, Rogers did her curatorial duty and, you know, double-checked.

"I looked it up, and it's not Mickey Mantle," she says, shaking her head. "It's just a guy swinging a bat on the condom."

Just a guy. Swinging a bat on a condom On second thought, I'm not disappointed. I'm enlightened. Beyond Dean's cartoon veneration for what amounts to one count each of (a) attempted hobocide; (b) assault with a deadly beanball, what better measure of baseball's once-lofty perch in American pop culture than a lasting rubber reminder that chicks, in fact, dig the long ball? Indeed, who in the wide fragmented world of sports would be granted such exalted, Tutankhamen-shaming godhood today?

Tom Brady?

Michael Jordan?

Tiger Woods?

OK, bad examples. Really bad examples. Still, the point remains: There's a whole lot to learn from sifting through the nation's sports attic, starting with:

Lesson No. 1: The Stanley Cup is for losers

I'm exaggerating. As the NHL's championship trophy, the Stanley Cup is -- by definition -- for winners. Plus anyone lucky enough to swig a summer tequila shot from its well-traveled basin. That said, the much-hyped Cup isn't close to being the most impressive sports trophy on the continent, not in absolute nor even relative terms.

Let me explain.

Inside a glass display case on the museum's third floor -- one flight up from C-3P0's torso and Carrie Bradshaw's laptop computer -- rests a championship belt. John L. Sullivan's heavyweight boxing title belt, awarded in 1887, a three-headed, diamond-studded monument to an era in which the sweet science still mattered. It resembles the front gate to a gated community Donald Trump couldn't afford to live in. The main plate has Sullivan's name in multi-karat ice -- so much for athlete bling beginning with Jacob the Jeweler and jewel-encrusted-crown-of-thorns-atop-Jesus neck medallions -- rounded by the inscription "presented to the champion of champions by the citizens of the United States"; perched above are ornamental wreaths, a three-dimensional eagle and a six-pack of mini-national flags. The side plates are mirror images of one another, each a star-studded frame surrounding a picture of Sullivan sporting a "Deadwood" mustache and a Michael Buffer-esque tuxedo. Taken as a single, majestic, solid-gold whole, it's a piece to make Don Magic Juan and Glenn Beck envious -- the sort of belt that will never, ever be made for Wladimir Klitschko, Brock Lesnar or Joey Chestnut.

My point? It's only the third-most awe-inspiring trophy in the building.

[+] EnlargeGertrude Ederle Trophy
Courtesy Patrick HrubyHey Michael Phelps -- try wearing this around your neck.

For trophies No. 2 and No. 1, you have to go to the fourth floor, home to the Smithsonian's secret stash (that is, its storage rooms). Ask for a public relations escort. Have the curator wear latex gloves. Promise not to touch anything. (For giggles, make the PR woman freak out by nearly leaning on a cabinet containing early 20th century footballs). Across from drawers containing Roger Staubach's Navy jersey and a Brian Piccolo Chicago Bears uniform autographed by Gayle Sayers -- Mitchell and Ness, eat your heart out -- is a glass-faced cabinet packed with trophies. Such as the Billiard Congress of America's 1951 championship award, a double-decker extravaganza featuring neoclassical columns, angel figurines to rival Berlin's Statue of Victory and a scaled-down Arc de Triomphe, all framing a little bronze man holding a pool cue. Who would probably peg the Lombardi Trophy for some sort of widowed bookend. Next comes the sweetest trophy you'll ever see: a giant silver chalice given to Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel. Amazing feat? Of course. But not as amazing as carrying the resulting award 50 feet without collapsing from exhaustion. As an honorific, the Ederle cup is unimaginably over-the-top; as a cocktail party display piece/potential hood ornament.

To put things another way: Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon. And all he got was a lousy government paperweight.

Lesson No. 2: "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" has ... other lyrics!

Shocking, I know. But true. To borrow from Tom Cruise: You haven't done the reading. I have. Mostly because the sheet music to the Great American Sing-Along -- well, that and the "Star-Spangled Banner" -- is arrayed right in front of me. I've moved from the storage rooms to the museum's archive center, located next to Julia Child's kitchen, where cotton-gloved historians sift through indexed boxes of photographs and documents. The place is silent. On the wall is a framed poster from the 1908 presidential campaign; atop the tables ringing the room rest a VHS deck, a LaserDisc player and an electronic machine that brings to mind a Doomsday device control panel from an "Austin Powers" movie.

Me: What is that?

Curator: A reel-to-reel player. We have VHS, Beta, even a turntable that plays all speeds.

Me: Any format you can't play?

Curator: The only thing we don't have is an eight-track player.

Tough break, Three Dog Night. Anyway, the song. Written on scrap paper during a 1908 train ride to Manhattan, it celebrates peanuts, Cracker Jack and utter, willful disregard for showing up to the office. Turns out that's just the chorus. There also are two stanzas about a ballplayer-lovin' girl named Nelly Kelly (possibly the first hardball groupie), her strong boyfriend Joe (OK, maybe not) and their fondness for heckling umpires (hey, I never said the lyrics were Sondheim). In addition, the Smithsonian has music for:

• "The Fightin' Phils";

• "Connie Mack We Love You";

• "Safe at Home (A Tribute to Our Beloved Babe Ruth)";

• "Meet the Mets";

• "The Chicago Cubs Song" -- coincidentally, not the same tune as "Take Me Out to the Ballgame";

• John Fogerty's "Centerfield."

Sadly, the Los Angeles Dodgers' epochal "Baseball Boogie" is nowhere to be found. Perhaps it's in the Betamax collection.

Lesson No. 3: Smoking is good for you

Lou Gehrig looks like the luckiest man on the face of the Earth. Unless it's Mel Ott. Or maybe Hal Schumacher.

Honestly, it's hard to tell.

The faces. They're the trip-up. All three former major league ballplayers are grinning the manner of Jack Nicholson's Joker -- zygomatic muscles pulled tight, smiles whiter than a blank page. This is likely because the uniformed men are holding Camel cigarettes, and even more likely because their teeth appear to have been airbrushed, same as the conspicuous, cotton candy-shaped wafting trails of smoke.

Hmmm. On closer inspection, it's definitely the cigs. Which also look doctored. Still, don't take my word for it. Take theirs:

Ott: I smoke all I want, yet keep in good condition.

Schumacher: Camel is the cigarette with real mildness.

Ott: Camels never get my wind or bother my nerves.

Gehrig: Camels never interfere with my 'fighting trim.'

Point is, the Camel ad is weird. Even creepy, given that smoking is now an established risk factor for Lou Gehrig's disease. Odder still, it's not an anomaly. The Smithsonian's celebrity endorsement collection contains dozens of sports-themed cigarette ads, with glowing, pro-tobacco testimonials from Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial and sportscaster Red Barber. The common themes? Smoking is healthy! It won't make you cough! It won't steal your wind! You'll never have the shakes! Puff, puff away! Trust us -- we're athletes!

[+] EnlargeBrian Piccolo
Courtesy Patrick Hruby Look, but don't touch the Brian Piccolo jersey signed by Gayle Sayers.

Lesson No. 4: Exercise hooey did not begin with ab rollers and Bowflex

Back in the artifact storage room -- climate-controlled air, dull, off-white walls, halogen light, no windows, as glamorous as a Laundromat -- I'm examining a ridiculous product endorsed by Mantle. And no, it can't double as a water balloon. It's an exercise contraption, two plastic handles cupping a metal tube, attached to a blue rope, tethered to a foot-sized piece of tin. The surrounding packaging reads MICKEY MANTLE'S ISOMETRIC MINUTE-A-DAY GYM; an illustration depicts a man in trousers, a dress shirt and tie standing on the tin, holding the metal tube aloft. Meanwhile, Mantle's personal (note: term used loosely) testimonial states, "invest one minute a day and have the muscles and physique of an athlete ... without strain, without sweat, without exhaustive exercises."

Right. And smoking is good for you.

Also in the collection are a vibrating exercise belt -- the Shake Weight of its era -- and a clutch of goodies from sand-kicking nemesis Charles Atlas, including a bent-in-half, 2-foot-long nail and a couple of vitamin bottles.

"Atlas sent us lots of stuff," Rogers says.

"Nice supplements," I say. "You should get some items from BALCO."

No answer.

Lesson No. 5: Jackie Robinson didn't have it so tough

The cover reads "Jackie Robinson." Published in 1950. Ten cents a copy. Quite a comic book. Tells the well-known tale of the first African-American major league ballplayer, a story that in this particular telling seems to have been penned by conspiracy-minded postwar writer Dan Brown:

" ... striking a blow against intolerance with every swing of his bat," Robinson made his 1947 MLB debut "already a hero who had triumphed over his scheming foes ... [his] spirit unbroken by sinister plotters ... "

So far, so good, so very, very whitewashed. (No pun intended). In the ink-color world of the Robinson comic, Robinson heroically saves a young black child from being hit by a car while on his way to meet Dodgers owner Branch Rickey. Upon his minor league assignment to Montreal, No. 42 heroically ignores a "threatening letter" reading:

Jack Robinson,

Don't try to play ball here.

-- A friend

Note: If you're unfamiliar with the term "artistic liberties," now would be a good time to look it up. And really: a friend?

Lesson No. 6: Funny is serious business

This one has nothing to do with athletics. But bear with me. The sports collection shares storage space with entertainment history items, which is why a 2,500-year-old Grecian urn sits on a shelf opposite a poster-sized print of Jerry Seinfeld wearing a puffy shirt. Anyway, while checking out the original Oscar the Grouch puppet, I come close to resting against another file cabinet -- this time really freaking out the public relations woman.

The reason? It isn't a Smithsonian cabinet. It's Phyllis Diller's joke file, some four feet high, as big as a library index, stuffed with gags typed neatly onto 4x6 index cards, organized alphabetically by topic:

A: Accessories, Accidents, Advice Columnists, Agriculture (Agriculture!), Airplanes, Attitude, Animals

M: Men, Medical, Military

In an instant, I realize: (a) there's a reason comedians always have a witty rejoinder; (b) Page 2 needs to seriously step up its game. Shortly thereafter, Rogers shows me a golf trophy from the Chevron World Challenge that belonged to Tiger Woods, an absurdly kitschy prize consisting of a ceramic tiger with its paw atop a plus-size golf ball painted to look like the globe. I wonder if Diller has an index card for Non-disclosure agreements.

I wonder if the trophy could fit in the "T" drawer.

Lesson No. 7: Postcards were Twitter before Twitter

The archive center orientation video -- snappier than an OSHA welcome-to-the-office, don't-eat-printer-toner production; slightly less compelling than the trailer for "The Expendables" -- declares that historians use documents to tease out and recreate the past. Curator Cathy Keen tells me that the Smithsonian is particularly interested in ephemera -- that is, things intended to be thrown away -- because it provides a window into everyday life.

This probably explains the postcards.

The museum has a large baseball postcard collection, donated by a sports collector from upstate New York. (In related news: baseball postcards exist.) There are pictures of the 1889 Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers (managed by a man in full "Gangs of New York" regalia) and 1870 New York Mutuals, the 1897 Boston Beaneaters and 1914 Chicago Whalers (surprisingly, no affiliation with Japanese baseball). There are two Native American teams from the early 1900s, one with solemn visages and "Indians" stitched along the fronts of their jersey -- a far cry from Chief Wahoo and other grinning caricatures. There are cards of Ty Cobb and Mantle and Thurman Munson and even Black Sox-bustin' commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, whose incomprehensibly swollen eye bags bring to mind subcutaneous boil weevils. (Also, do you know anyone today who would buy a Bud Selig postcard? Whom you would remain friends with if they sent you a Selig postcard?)

Then there's the truly strange stuff.

A section labeled "comical and picturesque baseball images" proves that while Andy Kaufman would have spent the Roaring Twenties as a doorman, Benny Hill would have cleaned up. A series of cards depicting a young couple kissing and physically horsing around (read: pretty much groping each other) features double-entendre captions like "Safe at Home." A separate, less-whimsical card depicts a group of ballplayers joyfully beating an umpire, with the text, "will I ever again umpire another ball game? Nix!" (Hey, perhaps Kaufman would fit in). More intriguing is the faded handwriting on the backs of the cards, many of which were used as intended. Read a dozen scribbles, and it quickly becomes apparent that postcards are perfectly ephemeral in both form and function, the Twitter of the pre-information age:

... I arrived safe but I am leaving tonight for Chicago ...

... received your card and was as usual delighted ...

... eleven o'clock so am going to bed ...

... will write a long letter soon.

Not likely. Even in a time before texting and Nigerian e-mail scams, nobody wrote long letters. (Apologies to men's fashion magazines that are constantly harkening for a return to missive-penning.) Instead, they sent postcards adorned with cartoon baseball players striking out, inked with messages like the following:

Hello H,

Are you anything like the poor chap on the other side? Isn't he having back luck? I am glad that you remembered my last birthday. I had forgotten all about it. T.L.E."

See? You don't need automated Outlook birthday reminders to feel like someone cares about you. Even though they help. A lot.

Lesson No. 8: Sports history stinks

Literally. The key concept here? Game-worn. Beyond Musial's bat, Bill Russell's 10,000th rebound basketball, and President Truman's White House bowling pin, the Smithsonian has Bob Cousy's canvas Chuck Taylors, Lou Brock's red cleats and the wing-tip golf shoes worn by Ken Venturi at the 1964 U.S. Open -- the latter three items stored in the same cabinet.

"I can open this for you if you like," Rogers says.

"Of course," I say.

"Are you sure?" she asks.

Oh. My. God. The odor. The ... odor. My nostrils -- they dead.

"Shoes, what are you going to do," Rogers says with a laugh. "They stink. My 9-year-old has shoes that smell like this. We keep them outside."

The curators have a rule: Don't mess with the artifacts. That means no laundering of Mia Hamm's jersey, no repainting of old Reebok Pump-style inflatable-fit football helmets, no Febreze bath for Lou Groza's shoes. Preserve, don't polish. Everything is as it was -- and if that means Armstrong's sweat-stained bike handlebar tape still smells vaguely like Armstrong's underarm runoff, so be it. Just another window into the past.

Rogers closes the shoe cabinet. I've never been more excited about the future.

Lesson No. 9: Your junk could end up in the Smithsonian

You may assume the museum acquires its precious artifacts the old-fashioned way: scouring estate sales, looting conquered empires, narrowly escaping giant boulders set off by Mayan booby-traps.

Alas, none of that is how it actually works.

Remember that ancient Grecian urn? An Italian ambassador gave it to the Smithsonian after acquiring it from -- of all places -- the Time-Life building in New York City, where Sports Illustrated used the piece as a model for its Sportsman of the Year trophy. The museum's Team USA Miracle on Ice uniform is actually a composite, its parts collected from five different players. While some of the sports collection comes from active solicitation -- Rogers currently is attempting to cajole Michael Phelps into donating a swimsuit -- much of it is added serendipitously. Via dumb luck.

[+] EnlargeGreek Vase
Courtesy Patrick Hruby OK, they have SI's Grecian urn -- but where's the sneaker phone?

In other words, people simply donate things.

"There's a guy out there with a collection of Snow Cat ski-grooming trucks," Rogers says. "All beautifully restored. It's hard for us to take things that large. But we're always looking.

"Right now, I'm trying to find a hockey sledge, which is used by handicapped hockey players. I was in Arizona and saw it on TV."

Take it all in: The Smithsonian is home to Ali's gloves, James Worthy's goggles and the Swamp Rat, the first top-fuel dragster to go faster than 270 miles per hour (stored off site, unfortunately). Still, Rogers emphasizes, it's a museum of American history, not just famous Americans' history. Its most recent addition? A working 1970s high school basketball electric scoreboard.

On the bottom shelf of a cabinet containing dirt-stained Negro League hats and a New York Yankees cap worn by Allie Reynolds sit two items both lacking and suffused with historical significance. (And also sure to perplex our future monkey overlords). The first is a Green Bay Packers cheesehead hat, yellow and gaudy. The second is a Nebraska Cornhuskers corn ear -- also yellow and gaudy and big as a gas pump nozzle -- meant to be worn the same way.

"No foam No. 1 hand?" I ask.

"We don't have one," Rogers says, interest piqued. "We should get one."

Listening, America? Your country needs you. If there's something educational in your sports attic -- something surprising, something ephemeral, something like the elusive Mickey Mantle condom, or maybe just a giant foam finger -- then do posterity a favor. Share.

Patrick Hruby is a columnist for Page 2.

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