I haven’t had the opportunity to open a freshly waxed pack of 2012 Topps baseball cards yet (it won’t truly be spring until I do), but I got to do something just about as good, probably better, a couple of weeks ago when my friend Sharon and I visited the Met.
Not the Mets, the Met.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art dipped into its legendary Burdick Collection and set up an exhibit devoted to those ballplayers responsible for Breaking the Color Barrier in Major League Baseball. It takes up but a veritable speck of space inside an immense cathedral, but what it features is larger than life: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige and dozens of other greats in their late 1940s Bowman and early 1950s Topps best, streaming ahead in time to future Met Pumpsie Green, pictured as a 1961 Red Sock. (Boston was the last team to integrate, in 1959, thus his inclusion among the immortals.)
Implicit in the display is respect for these pioneering players and a reminder that baseball, like America, sure took its time getting on the right track when it came to justice for all. But let us not undersell what beautiful work these baseball cards were and are. There’s no mistaking why they have a home in a place like the Met. They are art. Those 1953 Topps above, in particular, drew me in to a point where I think I could have produced a few raindrops of my own on a misty day.
Man, I thought after being disgusted all over again that the most wonderful sport ever invented blocked its doors to gifted athletes based not on fielding, hitting or throwing but on skin tone, can you imagine getting a pack of these in 1953? Can you imagine being a kid and opening one? Topps had just gotten into the baseball card business in 1951, had produced its first legitimate set in 1952. By 1953, wow, did they nail it.
Oh, and Willie Mays, New York Giant then, New York Met eventually, Say Hey Kid always. Imagine having him drop out of your pack in 1954, the year he returned from the army and ascended to the top of his game, where he’d stay for the rest of eternity. Imagine Willie and Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson — each represented at the Met — composing the Giant outfield in the first game of the 1951 World Series at Yankee Stadium, the first time three black players manned left, center and right in any “big league” ballgame, let alone in the Fall Classic. Imagine how many people saw a trio of African-Americans on such a grand stage and, a moment later, realized it never should have been any bigger a deal than three white men playing the same positions. Imagine if the Giants were still in Manhattan, and the next time I was heading uptown, it wouldn’t be to a museum on Fifth Avenue but to a ballpark at 157th Street and Eighth Avenue.
I did a lot of imagining during my brief visit. I guess that’s what art is supposed to make you do. Share in the imagining and visit this brilliant exhibition honoring our national pastime. You can find it, fittingly, in the American Wing of the Met through June 17; information here.
Photos (and gallery admission) kindly provided by Sharon Chapman.
Jason and I didn’t have to imagine too hard to come up with The 10 Best Things About Being a Mets Fan. The real challenge was limiting ourselves to 10. See for yourself at Yahoo! Sports Big League Stew.