A Keeper of Keepers

The world's top private baseball memorabilia collections are themselves collected in a new book
October 31, 2005

SMITHSONIAN BASEBALL:
INSIDE THE WORLD'S FINEST PRIVATE COLLECTIONS
by Stephen Wong
Smithsonian Books/HarperCollins 286 pages, $29.95

If there were an MVP award for baseball memorabilia collecting, Stephen Wong would be a lock to win. While other collectors are content to chase after bats, balls, cards and such, Wong has been busy collecting other collectors.

He got the idea in 2003, he writes, when he found himself "burnt out after six and a half years as an investment banker." A collector himself, he decided to spend the next year locating the finest private collections in the world and persuading their owners to let their most prized artifacts be photographed. The result is a magnificent album of baseball mementos--by turns, beautiful, peculiar and hilarious.

The book, with some 350 photographs, most by Susan Einstein, is so much fun to look at that few fans will mind the rather lackluster text. In order to get collectors to cooperate with his project, Wong must have had to butter them up a good deal, and too much of that flattery is on these pages, as Wong introduces each of the collectors and relates "their stories about how they got started in collecting and why they chose particular themes or types of artifacts in which to specialize." Most of those tales are about as interesting as a rain delay.

But others are a delight. For instance, one of the most famous stunts in baseball history occurred on Aug. 19, 1951, when St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck sent 3'7" Eddie Gaedel up to bat against the Detroit Tigers. St. Louis's nine-year-old batboy that day was Bill Dewitt Jr., who now owns both the St. Louis Cardinals and an extraordinary collection of baseball memorabilia--including the jersey Gaedel wore that day, with the number 1/8 on the back. Wong also persuaded Penny Marshall (director of the 1992 women's baseball classic, A League of Their Own) to share her collection, which includes century-old sheet music for such long-forgotten songs as Base Ball Game of Love, My Old Man is Base Ball Mad and Slide, Bill, Slide. Marshall also has a remarkable stash of photographs taken in Cuba: One shows Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in 1959, shortly after he seized power, posing with a visiting team from Minneapolis; another shows a happy Ted Williams, seated in a Havana watering hole next to a giant bottle of Sloppy Joe's rum.

Smithsonian Baseball vividly illustrates how the relationship between baseball and advertising goes back well into the 19th century, when baseball cards first started to appear in products like Yum-Yum Tobacco and Gypsy Queen Cigarettes. A beautiful lithograph from 1888 shows Chicago White Stockings infielder Cap Anson raising a frosty glass of E&J Burke's Finest Pale Ale to New York Giants catcher Buck Ewing, who salutes him back with a glass of Burke's Extra Foreign Stout. There are also marvelous photos of baseball board games dating back to the 19th century. Zimmer's Base Ball Game (named for Cleveland Spiders catcher Chief Zimmer) debuted in 1893, followed later by the Babe Ruth Witch-E Base-Ball Game, Willie Mays "Say Hey" Baseball Game and Goose Goslin's Scientific Baseball Game. "Why the Wheeler Toy Company called this standard spinner game 'scientific' remains a mystery," writes Wong.

No more mysterious, perhaps, than the title of Wong's book. Smithsonian Baseball does not include a single item from the Smithsonian Institution. Though a publicist for HarperCollins explains that the title is the result of its "co-branding" arrangement with the Smithsonian, the title seems like a cheesy marketing gimmick. But even that bit of bad taste can't spoil the feast provided by Wong.

Baseball Deserves a Better Hearing

THE GREAT AMERICAN BASEBALL BOX
Shout! Factory, $59.98

Baseball may be "the thinking person's game," but it's definitely not the singing person's game. Try to name the 20 greatest baseball songs of all time and you will likely come up with the same list as the producers of The Great American Baseball Box--and there will only be 16 songs on it. That is just one of the many sad realities revealed in this four-CD compilation of music, classic play-by-plays, interviews and nostalgia. It was a great idea: Relive Bobby Thomson's Shot Heard Round the World; hear John Fogerty sing Centerfield; shed a tear as Lou Gehrig says goodbye to Yankee Stadium; and laugh yourself sick as Tommy Lasorda curses a blue streak in the locker room after a tough loss--everything a baseball fan could want, all in one package! The problem is, the often boring play-by-play excerpts are carelessly edited and the liner notes explain almost nothing about them. The low point comes when Hank Aaron hits home run number 715 and the listener is subjected to 40 seconds of booming and crackling sounds as fireworks go off and no one says a word. Besides, fans can already get some of this collection's best stuff on the Internet, and often for free. In fact, you can hear more of Gehrig's speech (and much more of Lasorda's cursing) on the Web than you get here for 60 bucks. As Lasorda himself might say: BLEEP!

PHOTOBETTMANN/CORBISBAT MAN In a gallery of photos best described as Ruthian, this one of the Babe is a gem.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)