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Monday, October 5, 2015

Baseball Across the Smithsonian

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blog-a-thon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

As the regular season for Major League Baseball comes to a close, Washingtonians may not be the happiest fans in the league. But here in the Smithsonian Institution Archives, we received a recent reference request that had me digging into the hidden connections between America’s favorite pastime and America’s national museum.

Unsurprisingly, the answer to this question begins with the sports history collection at the National Museum of American History.  This collection begins with the museum’s first acquisition of sporting equipment in 1882.  In that acquisition was a selection of baseball equipment from Peck & Snyder, a seller of mass-produced sporting goods for the American public.  Collecting sporting equipment, especially contemporary, mass produced equipment, was unusual for a nineteenth century museum. However, its collection was representative of Secretary Spencer Baird and George Brown Goode’s vision of a museum that reflected contemporary American culture and ideals.

Baseball players in the National Portrait Gallery  collections

From that first accession, baseball related materials have spread to a variety of Smithsonian Museums. From portraits of Mark McGuire, Pete Rose, Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth, Sammy Sosa, Lou Gehrig, and many others at the National Portrait Gallery to photos of young boys playing ball in Greenville, Mississippi in the newly gathered collections of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, baseball is deeply embedded in the Smithsonian collections.

Outdoor Group Shot of Children Wearing Baseball Uniforms, Little League. NMAAHC #2007.
But the Smithsonian’s interest in baseball goes beyond just studying it – staff teams played against other local organizations, like the Washington Post and the Department of Interior, for years.  In the late 1970s, the Smithsonian team was hitting it out of the park culminating with a perfect 11-0 season in 1979.

1979 SI  baseball team, The Torch, September 1979, photo by Richard Hofmeister
Connections even appeared where I least expected them.  Going through my search results, I was surprised to find records relating to the National Zoo. In its early years, the National Zoo even had its own baseball diamond. In the 1910s and 1920s there was a baseball diamond on the National Zoo’s ground that was used by local children and baseball enthusiasts throughout the city.  The diamond was so popular that players wrote the Smithsonian to suggest time limits and reservations. However, the Zoo kept the diamond open to the public and first come, first serve.

Connections to baseball appeared throughout the Smithsonian, touching on our founding collecting mission, spanning the diversity of our subjects, and highlighting how we interact with our community. What seemed like a simple question about America’s favorite pastime lead to unexpected places and brought to light hidden connections throughout the Smithsonian.

Lisa Fthenakis, Program Assistant
Smithsonian Institution Archives

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