Now You Don’t Have to Go to Cooperstown

1213301841Just got back from the press preview for the Museum of Science’s Baseball as America exhibit. It opens Sunday, but you can get an early look at the show here. You’re welcome.

Boston’s the last stop for this sizable traveling collection of equipment, documents and paraphernalia, which the Baseball Hall of Fame has been shipping around the country since 2002. There are 500 artifacts in all, and they sketch out ways that baseball has reflected – and, in some instances, instigated – changes in American culture. Onto this tapestry, the Museum of Science has added an interactive lab that examines the physics behind the sport.

And, this being Boston, gratuitous Sox shout-outs are everywhere.

The museum pulled in five Sox Hall of Famers – Bobby Doerr, Carlton Fisk, Dennis Eckersley, Carl Yastrzemski, and Wade Boggs – to woo an assemblage of corporate types and an unusually ripe-smelling media contingent. Eddie Murray also showed up, and he was promptly swamped with questions about why Baltimore fans don’t seem to be interested in buying tickets to Sox-Orioles series at Camden Yards; like the O’s fans, it might’ve been better for him if he had stayed home.

Museum director Ioannis Miaoulis, decked out in his finest Red Sox tie, delivered opening remarks about baseball tapping into the museum’s visitors’ passions, and about how hitting a 95 mph fastball is “No easy task. I’ve tried it!” Pudge Fisk seemed less than interested in the talk, craning his neck around to check out former Globe reporter David Arnold’s exhibit about global warming. He livened up, though, when Jane Forbes Clark, chair of the Hall of Fame, whipped out Manny Ramirez’s helmet from his 500th home run, which she’d hidden behind a podium.

Dr. James Sherwood, director of UMass-Lowell’s baseball research center, made the day’s first uncomfortable allusion to steroids. Major League Baseball had come to him in 2000, asking whether their baseballs were juiced. After “extensive studies,” including a visit to the league’s Costa Rican factory, he’d assured the suits in New York that, “It wasn’t the baseball that was producing the record number of home runs, and that they might want to look in another direction.”

Miaoulis introduced Peter Gammons, who launched into a story about one of the few mementos from his work hanging in his Cape Cod home – a letter from then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill. “It was a long, impassioned, reasoned and statistically-oriented letter about why Smokey Joe Wood belongs in the Hall of Fame. It was classic Tip O’Neill. I had dinner with him three months later and I asked him, why would you do this? Why would you spend all that time? He said, well, because the Hall of Fame is, more than any museum in this country, the museum that really counts. … It is without question the museum of social history of the United States. It’s a museum that shows that greatness is not accidental.”

Then Gammons worked down the line of players, telling stories. About when he was up in New Hampshire in the winter of 1974, watching Fisk rehab his blown-out knee at the Manchester Y, eight hours a day. About when Eckersley, in the midst of the 1978 collapse, pulling 75 reporters off Frank Duffy, who’d muffed a popup, yelling, “Frank Duffy didn’t put the three guys on base before that popup, I did. You want to talk to the guy with the L next to his name, come to my locker.” About watching Murray lace singles in batting practice, instead of swinging for the bleachers. About sitting, on the morning of his Hall of Fame induction, listening to Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax talk pitching for an hour. “It’s the thing,” he said, “when we’re around it, that can still reduce us to all being 10 or 15 years old again.”

The exhibit has been on the road since 2002, and in some places, it shows its age. The 1989 Dowd Report that led to Pete Rose’s banishment from baseball is displayed – as are bats from Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. When the tour started, there was nothing bitterly ironic about inquiring about the science behind baseball. Now, there is. But there’s also a sense, walking through the exhibit hall, that the best way to get past the bad feelings of this Game of Shadows era might be to gawk at some old gloves and cleats, to get at that visceral feeling Gammons was describing.

The stuff is all there. There’s Shoeless Joe Jackson’s, um, shoes, Jackie Robinson’s jersey, Babe Ruth’s bat, a fingerless infielder’s glove from 1886, multiple Wheaties boxes, Norman Rockwell’s “Game Called Because of Rain (Tough Call),” a turnstile from the Polo Grounds, and a baseball pulled from the World Trade Center rubble. There are crude racist cartoons from the 1900’s and the 1950’s, baseball cards calling Roberto Clemente “Bob,” the home plate from a field in a Japanese internment camp, and a July, 1960 letter from JFK to Jackie Robinson, vowing that “It is time for us to fulfill the promise of the Declaration of Independence – to make good on the guarantee of the Constitution – to make equal opportunity a living reality in all parts of our public life.” There’s Cy Young’s jersey, Manny’s helmet, Lowell’s hat, Papelbon’s glove, Schilling’s bloody sock.

“I never got to see Cooperstown until I was inducted,” Eckersley said, gazing around at the cases of memorabilia. “I didn’t want to jinx it, just in case. That was my first taste of it, when I got there. You have this vision of the Hall of Fame being this, pillar, New York museum, something out of Rome. And it’s miniature. But it makes it intimate. And this gives you a taste of it. Especially, to have this roving exhibit, because it’s not that easy to get to Cooperstown.”