"Want to see Lincoln's handball?" asks Ellen Hughes, a curator at
the Smithsonian Institution, while rummaging through the
archives--closed to the public--on the fourth floor of the
National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. "It's
like a yard sale in here," she says with a sigh, digging past
Jack LaLanne's jumpsuit, Sonja Henie's figure skates and Carl
Yastrzemski's batting helmet while I lean, agog, on a metal
filing cabinet, over which is draped a pair of ancient red
briefs, evidently left over from a staff Christmas party.
"Those," says Hughes, "are Superman's trunks. George Reeves wore
them on the TV series."
The Smithsonian is often called "the nation's attic," but the
phrase is loathed by those who work there. "Have you ever seen a
nice attic?" asks curator Marvette Perez, to which Hughes adds,
"I prefer to think of us as the nation's memory."
Hughes is custodian of the nation's sports memory, but at the
moment she looks less curator than coroner--pulling open a
morgue-sized drawer to reveal a mannequin, in repose, wearing
Bill Baker's 1980 USA Olympic hockey jersey.
June 27, 2004
Immediately beneath it in the drawer, also on a mannequin in
repose, is a home Bulls jersey Michael Jordan wore in the '96 NBA
finals. In this dim warren Baker and Jordan ride out eternity as
bunkmates. History has turned them, quite literally, into strange
Hughes's official title is Cultural Historian for Sport, Leisure
and Popular Culture, and artifacts from all these disciplines are
warehoused together. Stepping into this cool, humidity-controlled
chamber, then, is like stepping into the addled brain of the
average American. A revered terry-cloth robe (worn by Muhammad
Ali in Zaire) is steps away from an exalted felt amphibian
(Kermit the Frog), who is strapped in a box in the seated
"Poor Kermit," says Hughes, passing by. "He looks like he's in
the electric chair."
One seminal pair of American icons (the black Chuck Taylors worn
by Bob Cousy) are shelved near another seminal pair of American
icons--two lengths of polished wood, connected by a hinge, that
make a whip-crack sound when clapped together. "This," says show
business curator Dwight Bowers, "is a slapstick, which gave
slapstick comedy its name." Two weeks ago, while touring the
archive, actor Mike Myers said to the slapstick, "Without you,
there's no me."
And it's true, for these objects connect humans across the
centuries, like a chain of paper dolls linked at the wrist. When
Hughes at last produces Honest Abe's handball, the leather
orb--brown, with four stitched seams--looks more like Lincoln's
Hacky Sack. Says Hughes, "Lincoln was playing with this in an
alley, with his fellow lawyers in Springfield, while waiting to
hear if he had received the presidential nomination." At this, my
jaw falls open, and must be closed manually.
Like a gentle thief in latex gloves, Hughes rifles through a
drawer in what might be a dresser. Except that the folded shirts
she removes are Pele's New York Cosmos jersey, Bill Bradley's
Princeton basketball top and Althea Gibson's Fred Perry tennis
shirt, in which she won Wimbledon. Here is the white towel thrown
into the ring by Max Schmeling's corner during his second fight
with Joe Louis in 1938; the softball skirt worn by Betsy (Sock
'Em) Jochum of the South Bend Blue Sox of the All-American Girls
Professional League; and a belt so gaudy it would make Liberace
blanch: It was presented to John L. Sullivan on July 4, 1887, by
the mayor of Boston.
"Notice," says Hughes, "that Sullivan chipped out the diamonds."
Mention how small Lance Armstrong's Lycra yellow jersey looks,
and Bowers points out a wardrobe box marked BEE GEES: "That's all
Lycra and Spandex," he says. "Every item in there, taken off its
hanger, will fit in the palm of your hand."
In these windowless confines it becomes difficult, after three
hours, to distinguish sports from entertainment. "That's the
gopher from Caddyshack," I say, gesturing to what looks like a
taxidermied rodent atop a filing cabinet. "No," says Hughes.
"That's the hat Fess Parker wore as Davy Crockett."
Contemplating a battered Celtics road jersey donated by Bill
Russell, Hughes--a lifelong Georgetown fan, working her dream
job--says, "In some ways we're the nation's conscience. It's
important to remember what Bill Russell went through as a black
athlete in Boston."
To that end, Hughes and the Smithsonian will take 40 important
sports artifacts on a national tour starting in October,
including the rhinestone-studded skirt worn by Billie Jean King
in her 1973 match against Bobby Riggs. For now, that skirt is in
a Museum of American History public display case, through which
will rotate, among other items, an Olympic basketball jersey worn
by my wife, Rebecca Lobo. "It will go right here," says Hughes,
on the museum's third floor, "next to the ruby slippers." Indeed,
in the next case sit the size 5 shoes that delivered Dorothy from
When we entered the building hours earlier, someone said to
Rebecca, "Welcome to American History," by which I thought he
meant the building. But now I know otherwise: What he said was,
"Welcome to American history."
The Smithsonian's fourth floor holds Jordan's jersey, John L.'s
title belt and Honest Abe's handball.