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Bauman: Old is new at HOF07/23/2004 11:52 PM ET
By Mike Bauman
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Old is new at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
Every time you walk into the Hall you are struck by the sweep of baseball's history and tradition that is embodied by this institution. And that sensation is even more pronounced when you walk into the Hall this summer.
There is a new section, "Taking the Field," devoted to baseball in the 19th century. It is, as you would expect, crammed with fascinating artifacts of that earlier time in the game's history. But the Hall takes you well beyond that.
Here's a reproduction of an Egyptian wall relief, dated 1460 B.C. It shows an Egyptian pharaoh, Thutmose III, playing a game, a game that clearly includes something very much like a bat and a ball. And you thought early baseball was Wee Willie Keeler. The exhibit explains that the game was played by the pharaoh as part of a religious ritual. Some of us still feel largely the same way about baseball.
This astounds and pleases at the same time. What was strategy like in the Egyptian antecedent of baseball? After all, the term "sacrifice" meant something completely different at the time.
Fast forward a few thousand years and baseball becomes our national pastime, played not by an elite few, but by an entire society.
"Baseball is our game, the American game. I connect it to our national character."
You find in the Hall's new exhibit that Walt Whitman said that, in 1888. Before the game as we know it now even took shape, with the modern leagues and structure, baseball had the kind of impact that would make an eminent cultural figure such as Whitman make that sort of sweeping statement.
And here is the evidence that American baseball went back further than we once thought. Here is a copy of the Pittsfield, Mass., 1791 by-law that prohibited the playing of baseball within the range of the breakable windows. This kind of thing is a like the Dead Sea scrolls for baseball historians.
There are items that amuse and items that instruct and items that point out that all was far from perfect in baseball's past. And some items do all three at once. Here is an 1868 classified advertisement from a Washington, D.C., baseball team seeking a first baseman. The potential first baseman is promised solid employment in the (U.S.) Treasury Department. His half of the deal is that he must work at the Treasury Department until 3 p.m. each day and then "practice at baseball until dark."
We're fine so far, but at the bottom of the ad there is this line: "No Irish Need Apply." It is a jolt, this note of advertised bigotry, interrupting a pleasant trip through the game's distant past. But if you're going to do history, you do history warts and all.
But then you turn around and there is evidence of baseball and the march of man's evolution going hand in hand once more. Here is an 1875 patent for an "enunciating base," which would be used in aiding the umpires. The runner hits the base, the base makes a noise. Where did we lose track of this innovation and why?
You could go on almost indefinitely with examples like this, just from one new section of the Hall. But it illustrates the point that while the Hall of Fame holds the history of baseball, that history, with this institution, never becomes static. There is always something more to know, something more to learn, something more to see.
The Hall is, of course, thronged with visitors this weekend, as we await the induction of Dennis Eckersley and Paul Molitor into its esteemed company. You can visit here often and never feel as though you are making the same journey twice. You leave the Hall of Fame on this summer night with the same feeling you left with in the past: You want to go back again to find out what happens next in baseball history.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.