As the head honcho for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Peter Marzio certainly can appreciate a fine Renaissance painting or postmodern sculpture. But underneath that dapper suit lurks a stone-cold bleacher bum. So it's no surprise that he's talking like an excited preteen about the traveling exhibit "Baseball as America," which opens this week at the MFAH.
"I enjoy baseball a lot. I was raised in New York in the '50s, where we had three teams and baseball was everything," Marzio says. "We'd stand outside the wall of Ebbets Field during batting practice and try to catch balls. The neighborhoods then were completely segregated" by race and ethnicity. "So the only time you'd see all those groups together was the kids running after those balls." Included in the MFAH's ode to the diamond are more than 500 artifacts from the Hall of Fame, including historic balls, trading cards, bats, jerseys and other memorabilia. There are also the handwritten lyrics to "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," the bracelet of sports pins fashioned by Lou Gehrig for his wife, a threat letter sent to Jackie Robinson for breaking the color barrier and even the costume of the San Diego Chicken. Houston-exclusive pieces include three photography exhibits (one's on Latino baseball) and a special room about Houston baseball history -- our Little League teams, our colleges and, of course, the Astros.
The exhibit also connects the sport to the deeper roots of American society and culture by addressing topics such as racial and gender segregation and economic opportunity. One section, for example, points out that early on, fans got in free to games. An admission fee was added to help keep out gamblers and "unsavory" characters. But once business and advertising types realized how popular the game was, could Minute Maid Park be far behind?
Sports and non-sports fans alike can see how baseball has affected American pop culture through movies, books, art, comedy and comics. "Even if you're not a baseball fan, you can't go through and not find some deep, moving qualities about the human experience in America," Marzio says.
The exhibit also tackles one of baseball's long-cherished myths: its origins. The theory that the game sprang almost wholly from the mind of Abner Doubleday in 1839 in Cooperstown was propagated by über-patriotic sporting-goods manufacturer Albert Spalding (name sound familiar?) in 1908. He simply couldn't accept the more likely scenario that baseball evolved from the English children's game called rounders. With a loud voice, a compliant press and some artfully twisted evidence, his view became accepted "fact" for decades.
So with the overwhelming popularity of football and basketball -- along with the strike, salary and steroid controversies -- could baseball still be considered America's national pastime?
"There's more competition, but I think it's still the national pastime," Marzio says. Even in this no-holds-barred media age. "It's hard now to have that sort of superhuman persona that existed in baseball's golden age. I mean, reporters knew about a lot of things the players did, but it never got reported. Look at Babe Ruth."
And as Tom Brokaw points out in an essay for the exhibit catalog, "If there's any further doubt, remember the final two words in our national anthem: Play ball!"