Just because the A’s aren’t playing in this year’s World Series doesn’t mean that there is no joy in Oakland this October.
Just a few miles from the stadium where the Oakland Athletics came up short in their run for the division title this year, the Oak land Museum of California is presenting “Baseball as America,” a traveling exhibit from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
The exhibit tells the story of the intersection between baseball and American culture over the past 150 years, displayi ng 520 artifacts. This is the first time the museum has lent out memorabilia.
The exhibit offers a welcome respite for fans tired of allegations of steroid use. The Bay Area played a large role in the scandal which dominated the sport this year, with the BALCO drug lab trial, leaked testimony by former Oakland Athletic Jason Giambi about his drug use, a tell-all book by his former teammate Jose Canseco, and endless speculation about the drug habits of San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds.
The first room of the Oakland Museum exhibit takes a more celebratory look at Bay Area baseball, filled with memorabilia from the Giants, the A’s and the Oaks, Oakland’s minor league team from 1903 to 1955. After the Oaks left for Vancouver, Oakland was without pro fessional baseball until 1968 when the A’s moved to town.
Two related exhibits accompany the Hall of Fame show at the Oakland Museum. “The Latino Baseball Story: Photographs by Jose Luis Villegas,” features 60 photographs, many chronicling the early yea rs of former Athletics star shortstop Miguel Tejada.
The other exhibit, “Oakland’s Coach: The Legacy of George Powles,” celebrates the famed McClymonds High School coach. Powles coached from 1947 to 1975, mentoring many players who became major league st ars, including Frank Robinson, Curt Flood, and Joe Morgan.
Mark Mederios, acting executive director of the Oakland Museum, said the Bay Area has much to be proud of in its contributions to the game. He singled out Robinson, who became the first African-A merican manager in the major leagues, and Flood, who in 1969 fought a trade to another team, arguing that players shouldn’t be treated as property. His complaint made it to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972, and although he lost, the case paved the way for t he advent of free agency in 1975.
“Baseball fans and non-fans alike can both come in here and realize that the game is more than wins and losses,” Mederios said. “More than any other sport, baseball has mirrored American history. There have been wars and segregation. Ted Williams fought in the Korean War. After 9/11 there was healing for New York at Yankee Stadium.”
Ted Spenser, curator of the traveling exhibition (Oakland is the ninth stop out of 10), said that to understand how meaningful baseball has been in American life, one need look no further than the oldest and newest artifacts in the exhibit, both of them baseballs.
One of the balls was found by a firefighter in the rubble of the World Trade Center. The other is from the first game where admi ssion was charged. The 1858 game was a benefit for the New York City firefighters.
“No matter where you go in American culture you find baseball,” Spenser said. “There is the good and the bad. The problems of American society have been reflected in baseb all.”
He pointed to a portion of the exhibit displaying a home plate from a internment camp baseball field, an artifact he considers one of the most poignant displays in the exhibit. He said that American culture is as tied to the game today as it ever w as. In fact, he said, the recent controversies show just how passionate the public still is about the sport.
“I don’t believe for a minute that a separation is taking place,” Spenser said. “Baseball is being held much more accountable that other sports h ave been because of the connection that exists, and that produces the backlash. The game has had a rough time, but it will heal.”
Jane Forbes Clark, Hall of Fame board chair and granddaughter of Stephen C. Clark, who founded the Hall of Fame in 1937, sai d the exhibit was not an attempt to defend baseball against criticism that the game is too driven by money to protect its integrity or prosecute steroid use.
“I don’t think there is anything defensive about it,” she said. “The more we looked at our colle ction the more obvious it became how many parallels baseball has to American culture. It relates to everyone’s lives. This exhibit reflects how people in America have always felt about baseball but it has never been articulated before.”
Hall of Famers St eve Carelton, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, and Joe Morgan, all of who played with the Giants, were on hand for the opening of the Oakland exhibit last month. Morgan, who grew up in Oakland and played for Powles at McClymonds High, also played with the A’s.
Now an announcer with ESPN, he said that he hoped the Oakland exhibit would help fill the many seldom-used diamonds around the Bay Area.
“When you have the baseball history that we do in the Bay Area, maybe this will help bring players back to the f ields here to follow in the footsteps of these men and rejuvenate baseball in our cities,” Morgan said. “When I played as a kid I wanted to be like Frank Robinson.”
But as Morgan hoped for a rebirth of interest in baseball, he said he also realized the s port is in a time of crisis. He said he was concerned that many records have been broken by players suspected of using steroids.
“It’s too late to be concerned about records,” he said. “I am concerned, but we waited too long to care. It’s too late.”
Mor gan said that he recently was talking to Willie Mays about the problem. Mays, a star of the Giants in New York and San Francisco in the 1950s and ‘60s and the godfather of Barry Bonds, said that once the current generation of players retire, the problem w ill disappear.
“Like the ‘Deadball Era,’ maybe we’ll have to say that this is the ‘Steroid Era,’” Morgan said. “They will have to address it someway in Cooperstown in the future.”
Contributed photo: Willie Mays was known to stop for a game of stickball with local youths on his way to and from the Polo Grounds for New York Giants games in the 1950s.
The Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., is presenting Baseball a s America through Jan. 22. For more information call 238-2200, or see www.museumca.org.