Here’s a pitch for a new TV series, maybe on the MLB Network. Call it “Outside the Box.”
Each week, curator Tom Shieber goes into the basement artifacts room of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, opens three boxes, and explains the story not only behind what the item he’s displaying, but also how they came upon adding it to their collection.
During our recent tour of the HOF basement, where Shieber led a group of us around and seemed to have story for nearly everything down there — such as the recent blog post (and today’s column, linked here) about the Babe Ruth-Walter Johnson myster photo from 1924 — the idea came to find a way to expose as much of what’s there for all to see.
One-fourth of all the Hall’s collection is on exhibit — a very large slice when compared to most museums.
“But it’s not like we’re keeping hidden all the good stuff,” Shieber said. “We try to bring things out that have something related to a specific date or time in history, with an exhibit we have on a certain project.
“Really, it’s just a matter of space available more than it is time or staffing (to get it all presented.”
The archive room is kept at 70 degrees, with 50 percent relative humidity. The photo room, for comparison, is kept from 52-to-55 degrees with 30 percent humidity, while the glass negatives in storage are kept in a separate room at 47 degrees with 20 percent humidity.
Boxes and boxes and boxes, all alphabetical, line the rows of shelves that go up to the ceiling — a ceiling that looks like the crawl space you might have in a large building. They either have a player’s name on it with contents of his donations, or they are lettered (“B” stands for “baseball”) and numbered (“256.95″ for example, is the 256th item acquired in 1995) accordingly.
When a new box is added, all the boxes are eventually shifted to put it back in alphabetical order.
And don’t even try to get there without an escort. Bags are checks in the small lobby. Security cameras are everywhere.
“West of the White House, this is the most secure archive you’ll find,” Shieber said as he wheeled out a few carts with several pieces of baseball history.
Some of the things we were able not just to see, but actually handle with the white gloves:
== A bat that Babe Ruth used during the 1927 season when he hit the record 60 home runs. What’s special about the bat — there are 28 notches marked around the label. Shieber said after every home run Ruth hit with that bat, another notch was made, kind of like a cowboy notching his six-shooter handle.
== A bottle of Gray Eagle Whiskey Sour, that belonged to Tris Speaker, known as the “Gray Eagle.” There’s a tax stamp on it from 1933, so it’s post-prohibition. The bottle is sealed, but only half full because of the evaporation of the liquor.
== The bat Jeff Kent used to pass Ryne Sandberg for most home runs hit by a second baseman. Sorry, but that didn’t pique our interest much.
Among the boxes we spied while we stood and marveled at the shelves: One containing a two-fingered glove from 1928, a Johnny Evers model (from “Tinkers to Evers to Chance” fame, labeled “B.253.2001.”
A box or two away, a six-fingered glove worn by Greg Harris, the former pitcher out of Orange County who made it 15 seasons in the big leagues with the ability to throw left and right handed (linked here). Freakish.
There’s a glove used by the late Ken Hubbs, who won the 1962 Rookie of the Year awared with the Chicago Cubs but was later killed in a plane crash. It was donated in 2003.
There’s the glove Bucky Dent had from 1978. Was that important as this one over here used by Ty Cobb, there on the left?
“When we accept a donation, we have to feel good about what we’re saying it us, so we have to do all the research on it before we display it, which is one reason why some of these things haven’t been put out yet,” said Shieber. “We have to be comfortable saying, ‘This is what we say it is.’ Sometimes we take a leap of faith, but only as small of one as possible to be reasonably good about what we have, so the roof won’t cave in on us years from now when someone discovered it’s not what they said it was.”
There’s a glove Randy Velarde used to complete an unassisted triple play. It’s near a box that contains DeWayne Wise’s glove that he used when playing in Mark Buerhle’s perfect game for the Chicago White Sox in 2009. And Jason Kubel’s batting glove that he used to hit for the cycle on April 17, 2009.
Someone must really need to keep this stuff in a safe place?
Eventually, when prompted by Ken Meffert, the Hall’s Senior Director of Development, Shieber brings out a box what contains a sweater that Ty Cobb wore, probably in 1938, covered in white tissue. The heavy wool looks like it’s nearly brand new.
“We have to know how we can store things,” said Shieber. “For example, with the Curt Schilling bloody sock (from the 2004 playoffs, see this link). We have a lot of experience with things that have blood on them over the years, but we were worried that if it was sent to a cleaners, the blood would come out. But if we left it as it was, the iron in the blood could eat away at the cotton. I guess in that case, we just have to hope he’s anemic.”
Back in the archives part of the library, Shieber explains that not everything donated to the Hall is accepted. First, they have only so much room. Second, once the Hall accepts it, it has to keep it.
Some of the things they find donated aren’t really that relevant. Sure, someone may have a glove that Willie Mays used — and the one he had on to make the catch in the 1954 World Series is proudly on display — but if there’s no real piece of baseball history attached it to it, “we end up writing a letter back, thank the person for their interest and the offer, but politely decline it,” said Shieber. “If you think about it, we have to think hundreds of years ahead from now. Is what we have now worth keeping that long — the amount of time and money we have to put into keeping it. We don’t throw things away.”
The amount of money an item might be worth really doesn’t come into play with the Hall’s decision to keep it.
“We’re not in the business of buying or selling, and I don’t know the market prices for anything really,” said Shieber. “To me, the value of an item is in telling a story. That’s our responsibility. That, and the space it will take up.”
Point in fact: About 100 bankers boxes of material from the Detroit Tigers were recently accepted. Why? It had records of all kinds of transactions, bills, concession records, ticket sale receipts, etc. In essence, it told the story of the team from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. During the last ownership change, all these records were found and someone had to decide what to do with them.
Shieber said after the Hall’s weekly meeting of discussion about each thing donated, it was decided to keep this one because of how it documented the day-to-day operation of a major-league team.
“It’s really a unique snapshot of how a team operates,” he said.
As a result, the Hall has some three million documents on file. What info do you need?
“Everything we have here is to help researches — some working on a graduate thesis, or someone from the President’s office who wanted to make a baseball reference in a speech,” said Shieber. “We’ll even get someone at a bar in Utica who calls in to try to win a bet. Sometimes, we give them the wrong answer just to mess with them.”
In the archives are hundreds of file cabinets containing hundreds of folders — more than one for the more-than 17,000 major league baseball players since 1876. The first file cabinet is also an indication of what’s kept there: This one contains references to baseball that have been made by comedian Woody Allen.
One of the items Shieber pulled out to show off was a large green, hand-written book from 1947 that’s referred to as the “day-to-day sheet.” From each game that year, the official scorekeeper would call into the league office to have the statistics kept in the official record book. Since there were no computers, it was done by hand up until about the 1960s.
On this page, the first game ever played by Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers. According to this page, Robinson’s breaking the color barrier of major league baseball wasn’t official until it was recorded in this exact book — showing he played first base, went 0-for-3 and scored one run.
“We’re always trying to give context to everything we have here — and this for example, is something that’s really a part of American history,” said Shieber.
Because there are discrepancies in some of the numbers logged in the day-by-day sheets and those of other historical books, Shieber said the Hall has to be careful in giving out information by making specific note of where it came from.
“Sometimes an interpretation of a statistic is changed, so if we state a record, we have to say ‘according to …’ to differentiate any discrepancies,” said Shieber.
One last thing: A book sat on the counter. The title: “Baseball As Seen by A Muffin.” From 1867.
Shieber moved the tour to another part of the archive and didn’t have time to tell the story of this piece of history.
I asked Meffert if he knew the story behind it.
“That’s really interesting, actually,” he started. “Have you ever heard the term, ‘He muffed the ball?’”
Meffert said that came from the term, “muffin,” which was used back more than 150 years ago to describe what amounted to a fourth-string player. Players who were on the first- and second-string were often on contract and were paid well. By the time you were a fourth-stringer, you rarely got into a game.
“So if they did get in, and made an error, they’d say, ‘He muffed it,’ because he was one of the muffin players,” said Meffert. “And that’s how the term came into use.”
Somewhere, there’s got to be a glove used by a “muffin” we can bring out and use in our new TV show.