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Baseball's Storied Artifacts

A new spring, a new baseball season — but what about the games of yore? For a glimpse into seasons past, American Experience asked Tom Shieber, Senior Curator at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, to pick some of his favorite historic items from the collection.

By Cori Brosnahan

Left: The jersey Herman Goldberg wore at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Right: Herman Goldberg in his Olympic baseball uniform. National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

The Goldberg Uniform
The schedule of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin included a demonstration game between the U.S. and Japan. When Japan backed out at the last minute, the U.S. decided to go anyway. Herman Goldberg, a 20-year-old ball player from Brooklyn, was one of the members of that team.

“Like every other player, he was a great athlete,” says Shieber. “But unlike his teammates on the baseball team, Herman Goldberg was Jewish and he was headed to Nazi Germany in 1936.”

Later, Goldberg recalled feeling sure that the country was moving towards war. Each Olympic house was paid for in part by a village in Germany; propaganda in the house where the Americans were staying made it clear that Germany wanted to expand beyond its borders. Then there was the basement, which Goldberg would later describe:

“I was curious about a door in the hallway of our home which did not open into a hall closet. I opened it and saw a big chain across the staircase. I looked around; I shouted, ‘Anybody down there?’ No answer. I dropped the chain and I walked down to the basement. I saw a cavernous cement floor with nothing on it. There were enormous overhead garage doors, almost the size of half a tennis court — huge doors and huge ramps leading to the doors.... Later I found out that the panzer, or tank, units were going to move into this house and several others after the Olympics, and the oversized basement was where big tanks were going to be stored.”[1]

As for the game itself, lacking an opponent, the U.S. team split itself into two and played in front of a crowd estimated to be between 100,000 and 125,000 people — one of the largest at any baseball game ever. Most of the fans were Germans, who’d never seen baseball. And reactions didn’t necessarily match the play. When a player hit a pop-up, the crowd cheered wildly; but when somebody hit a triple, they just stood there.

Goldberg’s side won the game with an inside-the-park, walk-off home run. Three months after the Olympics ended, the entire Olympic village was converted into a military academy.

Maria Pepe’s Young Democrats baseball cap. Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

Pepe Baseball Cap
In 1950, a girl named Kathryn Johnston cut her hair and signed up to play Little League in Corning, New York, under the name “Tubby.” While there was no official rule prohibiting girls from playing ball, there was a tacit understanding — one Johnson threatened to upend. The next year, Little League handed down a formal edict: only boys could play.

But that didn’t stop Maria Pepe of Hoboken, New Jersey, from taking the field for a Little League team called the Young Democrats in 1972. When the organization found out, they called her participation illegal and demanded that she quit.

“The way they enforced it was severe,” says Shieber. “Not only did they say she couldn’t play, they said the team and the league she was in would be disqualified. So not only is there pressure on her and her team, there’s pressure on the entire league.”

The National Organization for Women (NOW) took up the case and filed sex discrimination charges against Little League Baseball. In 1974, NOW won a ruling from the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, which held that prohibiting female baseball players was a violation of New Jersey and federal discrimination laws. Unfortunately, by that time, Maria was too old to play. She later donated her baseball cap to the Hall of Fame.

“It’s a great artifact that speaks to the struggle that continues today for women to play baseball,” says Shieber. “There’s no rule that women can’t play in MLB — but it hasn’t yet happened. We’ve come a long way, but we haven’t come far enough.”

The record “Babe Ruth’s Home Run Story.” Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

Babe Ruth Record Album
By the end of 1920, Babe Ruth had just finished his first season in New York as a Yankee. He was a huge star, whose popularity reached far beyond the field.

“They had newspaper reporters that did nothing but follow Ruth around — and not just during the season — that’s 365 days a year,” says Shieber.

In true celebrity style, he gave his name to all sorts of products, including cereal, underwear, and a 1920 album from the Pathe Freres Phonograph Co.’s Actuelle record label. Called “Babe Ruth’s Home Run Story,” the record is a monologue “by Babe himself.”

But it’s not Babe.

“It’s clearly an actor pretending to be Babe Ruth — and not making much of an attempt to sound like him,” says Shieber. “Ruth had a distinctive voice and anybody with half a talent at imitation could probably do a decent version of him.”

Still, the record company got away with it — even advertising in newspapers.

“When you think about it,” says Shieber, “there’s no baseball on the radio and really minimal radio coverage of anything at that point — it’s just coming into its heyday. And, of course, there are no talking movies. So who knows what Babe Ruth sounds like? The people who do — his friends, teammates, and business associates probably aren’t buying this album.”

Those who did buy it were treated to a string of second-rate puns.

“They’re real groaners,” says Shieber. “For example, he says: ‘I’m a baseball player and specialist in home runs. I made a record in home runs, and now I’m making a record of quite another kind.’ And that’s like a joke.”

It’s uncertain whether Babe Ruth was aware of the album or derived any proceeds. It wasn’t until the following year in 1921 that Ruth hired a sportswriter named Christy Walsh to pay attention to such things. Today Walsh is recognized as the first sports agent.

Ed Mackall Trophy
In 1911, the New York Giants won the National League pennant. At the official celebration, players and individuals affiliated with the team were awarded trophies inscribed with their names. One of the recipients was the great manager John McGraw. But McGraw is not the only name on his trophy; seemingly added later in a different style is the name of Edward Mackall. That name was a bit of a mystery until curators at the Hall of Fame began to investigate.

Left: The trophy originally awarded to New York Giants manager John McGraw, later inscribed with the name Edward Mackall. Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Right: New York Giants trainer Edward Mackall circa 1920. PD.

“Ed Mackall was the trainer for the New York Giants, an African American trainer — which was pretty rare at the time,” says Shieber. “What we think happened is that Mackall wasn’t going to receive one of the trophies, but McGraw, who received this kind of bling all the time, thought it was unfair. So he decided to have Mackall’s name added to the trophy, and gave it to the trainer.”

Mackall and McGraw worked together for many years, up until Mackall passed away in his mid-40s in 1922. When Mackall died, McGraw eulogized his longtime friend at his funeral.

“He was moved to tears talking about how much Mackall meant,” says Shieber. He told a reporter, 'Ed helped me to win and succeed as I have and without him I could have never won the World and League  Pennants that I have. I owe him and baseball owes him more than I can say.'"[2]

Egyptian Baseball
At the peak of his career, the great pitcher Al Spalding quit baseball to go into the sporting goods business, where he thought there was more money to be made (spoiler: he was right). A savvy marketer, after the 1888 season, Spalding took two teams to Australia to promote baseball and Spalding sporting goods. They must have had fun because mid-trip, the crew decided to go all the way around the world.

Left: The ball used in a first-of-its-kind game played in Egypt.Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Right: American baseball players pose on the Sphinx. New York Public Library Digital Collections

One of their stops was Cairo, Egypt, where they arrived on February 7, 1889. Two days later, they rode a herd of donkeys and camels out to the pyramids. After a quick lunch, they climbed on the Sphinx, producing some memorable photo ops. The second thing they did was improvise a baseball diamond, inscribing it in the sand in front of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Then they played a game — undoubtedly the first attempted in that particular locale.

“Now, playing baseball in the sand is a ridiculous concept,” says Shieber. “Once the ball hits the sand it basically stops and players find it difficult to run. They knew that, but they thought it would be a great publicity gimmick and a great photo op. And they were right.”

George Wright — one of the greatest players of the 1860s and 70s — umpired the game and saved a ball from that game.

Moe Berg Medal
Moe Berg spent 15 years in the Major Leagues. He was never a particularly good player, but he earned a reputation as “the brainiest guy in baseball.” Berg, who had studied at Princeton, was rumored to speak as many as seven languages — though in reality he was proficient in just three. One of them was French, for which he was awarded this Alliance Française Medal in high school.

Left: A medal awarded to Moe Berg in high school for his achievements in French. Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Right: Baseball player & international spy Moe Berg. He played catcher for the Washington Senators. Bettmann/Getty

“The story of Moe Berg is a large, complex one,” says Shieber. “He was a very mysterious guy. He loved baseball, and he loved that it afforded him the ability to travel around the country and visit museums and libraries.”

It was his post-baseball life, however, that really put Berg into a category of his own. In 1943, as World War II raged on, Berg joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor of the CIA. Sent to neutral Switzerland to observe a lecture by the great German scientist Werner Heisenberg, he was authorized to assassinate Heisenberg if he felt the Germans were close to obtaining a nuclear weapon. In the end, Berg decided they were not and Heisenberg’s life was spared.

Published March 2018.

[1]  Louis Jacobson, "Herman Goldberg: Baseball Olympian and Jewish-American," in Peter Levine, ed., Baseball History 3 (Meckler Publishing, Westport, 1990), p. 75.

[2]  Mobile (AL) Press-Forum Weekly of June 24, 1992 (page 1).

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