By Mike Shannon
The Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory is getting used to setting attendance records. Believe it or not, the 314,149 visitors the museum attracted in 2015 was an all-time high, and the new mark was the fifth time in the previous six years that the LSMF set a record for attendance.
However, like a World Series champion that is active in the offseason player market, the museum is not content to stand pat and bask in past glories. As the museum celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2016, it is once again doing its best to raise its game and establish yet another attendance record.
The most important vehicle for accomplishing the museum’s goal is a new exhibit which opened March 5 and runs through Jan. 8, 2017: a spectacular, one-of-a-kind show called “Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Oddball!”
Yes, we are talking about that Ripley’s, the company which has been discovering, collecting, displaying and publicizing the world’s oddest, most bizarre, most mind-boggling artifacts, inventions, creations, artwork, natural objects, talents, occurrences, events and phenomenon for almost a century. The range of items and information in the Ripley’s collection is staggering and covers every area of human endeavor imaginable, but the exhibition at the Louisville Slugger Museum represents the first time in history that Ripley’s has done a special exhibition with a baseball theme.
And it’s going gang-busters. According to Louisville Slugger Museum Vice President Anne Jewell, “Our guests are having a blast with this show. They are surprised, delighted and even incredulous about many of the items in ‘Oddball,’ which is exactly what we hoped would happen. We wanted to have something for everyone, from hard-core baseball fans to the casually curious, and the wonderful reactions indicate our partnership with Ripley’s has produced a fun new interpretation of baseball.”
The “Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Oddball” exhibition includes more than 100 items, most of which are either clearly and directly baseball-themed or have a connection to one of the 30 major league baseball teams. A good example of the first type of item is the giant replica model of Yankee Stadium that is situated right past the doors at the entrance to the exhibit. The model is made entirely of toothpicks, glued together, and even contains representations of fans in the seats (painted toothpick parts standing upright). Other instances of items with an inherent baseball nature include:
• Babe Ruth game-worn uniform worn by Ruth in a charity contest in 1939, the colorful and exotic garb looks more like Arabian Nights’ attire than the usual baseball flannels. Of course, Ruth belted a home run during the game despite wearing such an outlandish get-up.
• Hank Aaron sculpture made from candy bar wrappers. Especially commissioned for the show, this original piece of play-on-words pop-art looks just like Hank and is made almost completely from the wrappers of the candy bar that puts baseball fans in mind of the great slugger: Oh Henry!
• Pete Rose portrait done entirely on rose petals. Believe it or not, this painting is beautiful, a perfect rendering of Rose’s unmistakable mug. The acrylic paint was applied by Mexican artist Ricardo Amezcua to the perfect canvas – symbolically speaking – a bed of 200 rose petals.
• A 5-inch statue of Babe Ruth made of chewing gum. The hand-painted figure of the Babe holding his cap by his side was made of “ABC” (already been chewed Chiclets), donated by school children.
• Baseball jersey worn by “Wild Thing” Ricky Vaughn in the movie Major League. The framed shirt is autographed on the second nine of No. 99 on the back of the jersey by actor and notorious bad boy Charlie Sheen.
• A silk stocking discarded by Marilyn Monroe on her wedding night with Joe DiMaggio. The owner of the hotel the famous couple stayed at, the Clifton Motel in Paso Robles, Calif., found the stocking in the room’s waste basket. He sold the “worn but undamaged” stocking for a small fortune. The framed display includes a letter written by the hotel owner to a friend, detailing his discovery.
• Plastic Aurora model of Willie Mays in a bottle making his famous over-the-shoulder 1954 World Series catch. The painted model was somehow completely and expertly assembled in a half-gallon whiskey glass bottle in a baseball-themed tribute to the old ship-in-a-bottle trick. Doug Painter of Toronto, Canada, used surgical tools to pull off this amazing feat.
The artifacts in the second category are not what one would normally describe as “baseball items,” but the talented crew at the museum have cleverly found some connection between them and baseball, and particularly between them and the nicknames of major league teams, so that the items “fit” and every team is represented in the exhibit. And given the items’ strangeness and wonder-inducing power, no one is going to complain about this stratagem. For instance, a dress made completely of licorice and a painting of Tom Cruise made from ketchup and mustard represent the snacks popular in ballparks. And who would object to a life-sized sculpture of actor Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, made completely of seashells, representing the Pittsburgh Pirates! Or a huge, dare I say “unbelievable,” portrait of Saint Michael the archangel made from 450 pieces of burnt toast standing in for the Los Angeles Angels!
Other amazing items and their team connection in this second category include: a stunning image of the face of a tiger embedded in rows of knitted wool that can only be deciphered when one looks at the square artwork from the side (Detroit Tigers); a huge sculpture of a grizzly bear (Chicago Cubs) made entirely from pine needles; a portrait of a red bird (St. Louis Cardinals) exquisitely painted on cobwebs that took days to gather, clean and form into an image; a fossilized stingray found in Wyoming that indicates that 40 million years ago much of North America was underwater (Tampa Bay Rays); and a super tiny portrait of President John F. Kennedy done in less than 30 minutes on one black bean (Boston Red Sox). You can just imagine the crazy items that represent some of the teams not mentioned here.
Of course, no Ripley’s show would be complete without certain classic curiosities, and a group of such things are included in the show at LSMF, such as a two-headed calf, a shrunken head, an ancient Egyptian mummified foot and a vampire killing kit. All in all, it is a stupefying lineup of unique things you won’t ever see anywhere else.
Ripley, the man
However, the best part of the show may be the information about and the personal items of Robert Ripley himself, which amount to a gratifying tribute to this ultra-curious world traveler who had the vision to realize that the people of the world would be just as interested in his finds as he was. The “Oddball” exhibit tells Ripley’s story, which interestingly enough has a bona-fide baseball connection.
Born in 1890, Ripley had two passions growing up in Santa Rosa, Calif.: drawing and baseball. A pretty good semi-pro player, he traveled to New York City in 1913 to try out with the New York Giants. His baseball career ended before it even got properly started though when he broke his arm. So the young man turned to his second love and became a full-time artist, specializing in realistic cartooning. His pen-and-ink cartoon drawings became his way of sharing the discoveries he made while traveling the globe, and they became a staple of American newspapers. According to Ripley’s vice president of Exhibits and Archives, Edward Meyer, “Ripley was a lot of things: Writer, explorer, movie star, radio personality, but first and foremost he was a sports-loving cartoonist. His original baseball drawings capture the sense of motion and detailed realism that were the hallmark of his art style.”
The exhibit at the LSMF includes two different displays of original Ripley cartoons, one of six cartoons which features his baseball drawings (of Babe Ruth, Pete Gray, Jackie Mitchell and other lesser lights who accomplished unusual or noteworthy). They are simply not to be missed (nor is the display of Ripley’s beat-up suitcase, which is adorned with colorful stickers from all parts).
The folks at Louisville Slugger describe Robert Ripley as a “superstar,” and it is hard to argue with their assessment. His cartoons ran in hundreds of newspapers in more than 40 countries, and his “Odditorium” exhibits enthralled countless numbers of curiosity seekers. He was the first cartoonist to earn a million dollars and the first to be inducted into the Cartoon Art Hall of Fame.
Ripley also never lost his love of baseball, and he stayed as close to the game as he could. In 1939, for example, he organized an exhibition game to raise money for the war effort. Baseball celebrities such as Ruth and Walter Johnson took part in the contest, and Ripley himself played second base. He probably thought himself to be unbelievably lucky to get to rub shoulders with the likes of Ruth and Johnson. You will get a similar feeling if you visit this great exhibition, which does not cost anything extra to attend beyond the museum’s normal admission price.
The Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory is located in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, at 800 West Main Street. The museum is normally open Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday Noon-5 p.m. Summer hours are slightly extended. Admission is $14 for adults, $13 for seniors (60+), $8 for children (6-12 years old) and free for children 5 and under. For more information call (502) 588-7228 or visit www.sluggermuseum.com.
Mike Shannon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.