Weekend arts and culture: Baseball cards at the Met

This isn’t just another baseball card collection, but rather the second-largest collection in the world that’s been on display since early July at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Legends of the Dead Ball Era,” continuing through Dec. 1, includes 600 of collector Jefferson Burdick’s 30,000 baseball cards — dating from 1900-1919 — that he donated to the museum.

o_1909-t206-honus-wagner-piedmont-reprint-e833As Paul Lukas writes at ESPN.com, Burdick, who died in 1963, gradually turned over his collection during 20 years of visits to the Met, doggedly cataloging the items at the museum’s request. (He donated some 300,000 collectibles of all types, according to the Met.)

In his baseball card numbering system, Burdick jotted down T-206 for what turned out to be the most valuable card ever — part of a 1909 Honus Wagner series — that sold for $2.1 million earlier this year.

As Dan Barry writes in The New York Times, Wagner is hardly the only star of this collection, whose timeline spans from the legendary “Tinker to Evers to Chance” Cubs double-play trio to the Black Sox, whose throwing of the 1919 World Series coincided with the final year before Major League Baseball went to a livelier ball.

Babe Ruth personified the new era, but Ty Cobb, Mordecai “Three Finger Brown,” Christy Mathewson and Black Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte are recalled on cards that were enclosed as throwaway items contained in tobacco packs. As Barry writes of an era that was “about as innocent as the gyrations of little Egypt:”

Rows and rows of long-dead ballplayers stare out from the past like the mug-shot denizens of the New York Police Department’s once-famous Rogues Gallery.

Well, that’s a bit severe, especially in the cases of noted gentlemen Wagner and Mathewson. But there’s no bubble gum, no stats on the back and no contrived poses here. They’re obtained by purchasing either cigarettes or Cracker Jack — take your pick.

Here’s more on the exhibit from The Boston Globe, Sports Collectors Daily, and The Huffington Post, where Michael Busch writes:

In its brief introduction to the exhibit, the Met declares that the cards are important both to the history of American printmaking and to the game of baseball. Sure. How exactly they fulfill this function is left unexplained, however; the curators didn’t see fit to elaborate the point. The question that jumped to my mind during my visit was entirely different: what is it about baseball cards that draws in so many little boys and not a few little girls, and makes fanatics of grown men? (I’m pretty sure that obsessive card collecting among adults is the exclusive sanctuary of guys.)

As one of those “few little girls” whose 1960s and 1970s childhood collection was either lost somewhere during moving or thrown away by my very tidy mother, I painfully wince at the thought that I cannot retrieve it now. Busch offers up another observation about the exhibit I find interesting: mathewson1915-Cracker-Jack-Christy-Mathewson-226x300

But it offers so little information about the Dead Ball Era and the cards themselves that anyone poorly acquainted with baseball lore is lost at sea trying to contextualize what they’re looking at. I think that may be the point. The way the cards are presented forces visitors to confront them on their own terms, as objects of art. And what is a gallery of cards but a hall of portraiture when all is said and done? In one sense, the series of pink-cheeked anonymous white men immortalized in these cards is no different in kind than the endless oil portraits of forgetworthy white men hanging in other rooms throughout the museum.

I was heartened to learn that the Met is no stranger to sports collections, and has variously displayed chunks of Burdick’s baseball cards for the last 20 years. What I wish I had known earlier is that Burdick also had a substantial collection of cards about women in sports and adventure (Annie Oakley).

Indeed, “A Sport for Every Girl” was on display in the same space as the Dead Ball exhibit until early July.

Decades before Virginia Slims became the now-politically incorrect sponsor of the Women’s Tennis Association that Billie Jean King emboldened, there was an image of the “Polka Dot Nine” found in a pack of Virginia Brights Cigarettes, from the “crop of 1884.”

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