For a hobby that sailed along handsomely without much of a literary archive for a long time, ours has turned around in spectacular fashion in recent years with an extensive array of important reference works that now constitute a significant library all by itself. At such a moment, who better than to weigh in with yet another major-league keeper than the Library of Congress?
Maybe the trend got its official start in 1999 with the still other-worldly Halper Collection Catalog, but even that marvelous piece of work owes its own heritage to any number of massive auction catalogs in the 1990s that so impressively displayed in full color all the classic cards and memorabilia that would typically move on the auction circuit. Just by their nature and their utilitarian role in the hobby/industry, such catalogs usually found the writing constrained by the demands of commerce.
Obviously, the Halper tome took it a step further with a more literate feel to the text, along with an attendant nod to baseball history that would have been impossible to keep out of its pages in any case. Then, just in the last five years, there have been wonderful books that clamor for spots on the most elegant coffee tables as well as demanding library shelf space, most notably the Stephen Wong epic Smithsonian Baseball in 2005.
Well, it’s time to nudge that volume over a few inches on your coffee table to make room for Baseball Americana: Treasures from the Library of Congress, authored by a Murderer’s Row of baseball historians, to say nothing of a nifty foreword by noted baseball fan George Will.
The erudite Mr. Will sets the table for Harry Katz, Phil Michel, Wilson McBee, Susan Reyburn and our own Frank Ceresi, a longtime SCD columnist and a former consultant at Sotheby’s. That lineup conspired to produce a remarkable 240-page classic that lays claims to more than 350 illustrations – many never before published – including first-generation vintage photographs to die for, newspaper clippings, magazine covers, sheet music, advertising display pieces, chromolithographic baseball cards, WPA photographs and a whole bunch of cool stuff that you’ve never seen before. Even if you had a front row seat at Sotheby’s in the fall of 1999, this thing is going to be a treat and a surprise.
Turns out that, by its own assertion, the Library of Congress boasts the largest collection of baseball material in the world, but because the vast majority of it is securely salted away, getting a look at most of it isn’t quite as simple as in a more traditional museum setting.
As Ceresi explained to me in a phone interview, it’s not that the stuff isn’t accessible for the general public, but more prominently that well-honed research skills come in handy in poring through the archives and finding it.
“We rolled up our sleeves and went to rare books, prints and photographs and newspapers and began pulling out some wonderful things,” Ceresi said in describing the beginning of a process that took several years.
With the incredible website (www.loc.gov), the Library of Congress has already done much to expand its reach beyond the Beltway, and the elegant Harper Collins book represents another important step in that direction. “The LoC publishing offices want to get the stuff out there for the people to see and enjoy. The online presentation is the most visited on the Worldwide Web, but it’s a mere smattering of what we saw,” Ceresi added.
The amazing book will be the cover subject in this week’s issue of SCD (Dec. 4), but I’ll close here by adding one more note. Have you ever seen an uncut sheet of 1887 N172 Old Judges? It’s on page 59, and while we traditionally refer to the N172’s as being from 1887-90, saying 1887 works OK here, since the Library of Congress copyright stamp is included on the bottom of the page. How cool is that?
Don’t bother to answer: it was rhetorical.