In his book, “God’s Country and Mine,” historian Jacques Barzun said “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”
In the 20th century, the story of baseball is the story of America: From the rise of cities that spawned the teams to the availability of leisure time for fans to watch the sport, to the way social changes in the game and in the country mirrored each other, with franchises shifting with the population and teams becoming more representative of the U.S. population.
The Maltz Museum in Beachwood is the first stop for an exhibit that started last year at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, “Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American.” Because the Maltz Museum and the Philadelphia museum focus on Jewish history, there is a focus on Jewish athletes. Hank Greenberg’s Triple Crown is on display, as is one of Sandy Koufax’s Cy Young Awards (Koufax, the Dodgers pitcher who famously refused to pitch a World Series game because it fell on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, donated a lot of artifacts for the exhibit.)
But the exhibit focuses on baseball as a key to Americanization of all races, be it ethnic players like Greenberg or Joe DiMaggio – who in their day were viewed as non-white, or at best as “others,” said Museum Education Director Jeffery Allen – or African-American and Latino players a generation later.
“It shows us at our best and at our worst,” Allen said.
If slavery is the original sin of the United States, then baseball’s version is the “gentlemen’s agreement” that kept African-American players out of the major leagues until Jackie Robinson’s debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Among the items on display is correspondence between the Washington Senators and one of their minor league clubs, inquiring about whether a player of Cuban origin was black. If he was, he would be unable to play in Washington. (The Senators were one of the last teams in the majors to integrate, and owner Calvin Griffith later said that he moved the team to Minnesota because there were so few blacks there.)
Cleveland baseball is well represented, thanks to donations from the Indians and the Baseball Heritage Museum, among others. There are stadium artifacts from League Park, Municipal Stadium and Progressive Field. The exhibit also highlights Al Rosen – the Jewish third baseman for the Tribe who died earlier this year – and Larry Doby and Satchel Paige, black players who made an impact with the Indians. It also recognizes Latino pioneers like Roberto Clemente and Juan Marichal.
The museum shows the struggle for inclusiveness – which continues today. Under a poster encouraging the tolerance saying, “What’s his race or religion got to do with it – he can PITCH!” is a bat from the Levittown, Pa., team that won the Little League title in 1960. Levittown, like the towns of the same name in New Jersey and New York, were housing developments built after World War II for returning servicemen and their families. Blacks were not allowed in any of the Levittowns.
“We see how much we’ve done, but how much farther we have to go,” Allen said.