Tom Shieber, Senior Curator at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, discusses baseball memorabilia, the history of baseball, the evolution of bats and balls, and selected items in the Hall of Fame’s museum. Based in Cooperstown, New York, Tom can be reached via the Baseball Hall of Fame website, which is a member of our Collectors Weekly Hall of Fame.
The Baseball Hall of Fame officially opened in 1939, so we’re coming up on our 70th anniversary. If you include baseball cards, we have hundreds of thousands of artifacts. We have almost any artifact you can imagine and many more that you couldn’t imagine that help tell the story of the history of baseball and its importance in American culture.
Baseball evolved from other sports. There’s no inception moment, but it did really kick off in the 1850s. The 1850s and 1860s was a critical time period for the game. At the beginning of the 1850s, there were a handful of baseball clubs, all in the New York/Brooklyn area. By the end of the 1850s, there were scores of baseball clubs, and they began to travel much further around the country, although the New York/Brooklyn area was clearly still the hotbed of activity.
During the Civil War, there was a lull in ball playing activity, but once the war ended, baseball clubs sprouted up exponentially. By the end of the 1860s, there were hundreds of clubs throughout the country, and it had become acceptable as a professional sport, which is a very big deal. Prior to that, it was a strictly amateur game. The 1860s is when baseball really took root as a part of American culture, rather than a fad. It was here to stay.
Baseball also made the transition from amateur to professional in the 1860s. To be a member of the National Association of Baseball Players, the only governing body at the time, one of the stipulations was that no player could receive compensation for play. As a member of the club, players had to pay dues. The vast majority of players in this amateur era were actually paying to play, not being paid to play.
But with the game’s popularity being solidified, by the end of the 1860s, they gave up the concept of an amateur sport and the association split into two: the National Association of Amateur Baseball Players and the National Association of Professional Baseball Players. The amateur organization essentially folded within a year or two. It just didn’t make it.
Collectors Weekly: How have baseballs themselves evolved over time?
Shieber: In the formative days of the late 1840s and early 1850s, baseballs were handmade and not well-regulated. There were rules about size, but there was still a lot of variety. When people realized they could actually make a business out of selling sporting equipment, specifically baseball equipment, there started to be more regulation, and when the game became more serious, there was a call for a regulated ball.
By the 1860s, you saw people advertising baseballs for sale. We have some baseballs in our collection from the 1850s, over 150 years old. The weight and size and even the feel of them are very similar to those today. I took out a ball from the 1860s and a ball from the 1960s, and I closed my eyes and had someone place them in my hands (while wearing protective gloves, because we handle our artifacts very carefully). I didn’t know which hand had which ball. I couldn’t tell the difference. It was surprising how similar they were.
By looking at them, you can tell a lot, especially from the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s. You could tell they’re all different, especially the 1860s and earlier, because the stitching was very different. It wasn’t the figure 8 seam that we’re familiar with today. They tend to be darker-looking, mostly due to wear, although they didn’t have the bright white and red stitching that we have today. The figure 8 stitching first showed up in the mid- to late 1860s and really took hold by the very late 1860s, but in terms of behavior, it’s very similar.
Collectors Weekly: Is there a reason for the figure eight stitching pattern?
Shieber: When you’re punching out leather to make the two pieces that form together to make a baseball covering, those two pieces of leather are identical in shape. They’d look like a dumbbell if you were to lay them out. Because it’s two-fold, it’s more efficient in terms of the use of the leather. You can use more of it to keep your cost down that way. Also, it does a good job of wrapping the ball in such a way that there’s no puckering. You’re trying to wrap a sphere with a flat thing, but there’s a minimal amount of puckering with that.
Collectors Weekly: Have baseballs always been white and red?
Shieber: No. Every once in a while they’ve experimented with fun colors. Within the last couple of years, they’ve used some wackier colors for the all-star game, but essentially it’s been white and red for quite a while. In the 1930s and earlier, they had different stitching colors. We have a little document that details the difference in stitch colors on baseballs and actually does a little bit of double-checking about a baseball and purported date by making sure it matches. The American League’s colors were different than the National League for a while in the first two or three decades of the 20th century. Then, of course, you have different markings, whether it has the name of the commissioner on it, things like that.
Collectors Weekly: How did baseball bats evolve? Have they always been made out of wood?
Shieber: Yes. That’s a rule. It has to be a single piece of wood. It’s changed in a number of ways over the years. It started off as a much longer piece of wood, much heavier, with less of a tapering than you see now. Now it’s very tapered as you get toward the handle. If I were to show you a bat from the 1880s, it’s something you would certainly recognize as a baseball bat, but the handles are much thicker and heavier.
The game was different back then. You weren’t trying to hit for the fences, so you didn’t need a thin handle. The bat right now is much more suited for being swung at high velocity, which gives the ball a greater distance. You can impart more kinetic energy to the ball. Back then it was more of what they used to call a scientific game where there were not a lot of home runs. You tried to hit the ball through the infield, but not over any fences.
There were different ideas on how to improve baseball bats, and some of them were dumb and didn’t work that well. As the game changed, the equipment changed, too, and vice versa. They play off one another. Now baseball bats all look very similar, although they’re certainly different in length and weight and the thickness of the handle and barrels.
Ten years ago, the vast majority – very close to a hundred percent of all baseball bats – were made out of ash. Now over half of Major League Baseball bats are made out of maple. That’s a recent change that’s had a significant impact on the game. There are still a lot made of ash, but over half of the bats used in Major League Baseball are made of maple now.
A lot of people think that baseball doesn’t change, and actually a lot of people point to that as a positive – “I love this sport because it’s so similar to the way it’s always been played and therefore I can really compare players across the ages” – but in fact, the game continues to change even as we speak.
Collectors Weekly: Have people always been excited about getting the baseball at a game?
Shieber: For a while there, you had to return the ball. It wasn’t until well into the 20th century that the rules were changed and that you were allowed to keep the baseball. Furthermore, ever since the strike of 1994, as ballplayers walk off at the end of an inning, they’re encouraged to toss a ball into the stands. That didn’t used to happen prior to 1994, and that was encouraged as yet another way to entice fans to come to the ballpark and have a relationship with the team and get hooked in the game. They’ve actually recently increased the number of balls that go to the stands.
Collectors Weekly: Where do you acquire the items you have in the museum?
Shieber: We’ve never paid for artifacts and we never will pay for artifacts. They come in strictly through donations, in various ways. Major League teams or players donate artifacts from recent games. We get artifacts from the current World Series. Fans have artifacts in their possession, whether they got it at a recent game or it’s been handed down in the family for generations. Players have kept things and then later in life decided to donate it to us. There are lots of different ways, but all through donation.
The players, the teams, and the fans have been extremely generous in donating, which allows these items to be seen by people who love baseball around the world. We have over 350,000 visitors a year, so it’s nice that these artifacts can be shared rather than being shut in somebody’s closet and not seen or not necessarily well cared for. While the artifacts are strictly donations, we do spend money on preserving, conserving, and displaying them. We make sure there are storage facilities with a controlled environment with a set temperature and humidity and security systems.
Collectors Weekly: What about autographed memorabilia?
Shieber: Not many of our artifacts are signed. We actually prefer them not to be signed. An autographed item today is generally collected for its monetary value. We do not collect artifacts for monetary value because we don’t pay for them and we won’t sell them. Our value is how well it helps to tell a baseball story. That’s what we consider when we’re looking at a potential donation: Will this help tell us a baseball story?
In general, it’s rare that an autographed item helps tell a story better than a non-autographed version. Let’s say that someone donated a baseball glove from a great shortstop to the Hall of Fame from a specific event; say it was used to break a record. As a curator, I’d rather display that artifact the closest that it was to when he was using it on the field so I can impart an excitement to the museum goer that they’re in the presence of this glove, almost as close as you can get to being in the shoes of that player wearing that glove doing the specific event that he did.
If it’s autographed, then it’s actually been altered from when it set the record. That’s going to distract the visitor. The visitor might start looking at the autograph and start wondering about it – “Is that his autograph? He has bad handwriting. Why did he sign it there?” – instead of paying attention to the story that I’d like to tell, which has nothing to do with the autograph; it has to do with the fact that he set this record and he’s a great shortstop, etc.
A collector probably doesn’t feel that way. The majority of collectors want the autograph, but it has to do with the resale monetary value. An autograph is useful for us here at the Hall of Fame when I’m doing an exhibit about the history of autographs; otherwise, it’s extremely rare. I can probably count on one hand the number of times that I’ve used a signed item.
We don’t accept every donation. As I mentioned, in order to accept a donation, we have to be willing to pay for its conservation, its research, housing, that kind of thing. There are a number of items that we just don’t need. Maybe we have several of them already or it’s not a story that we ever envisioned telling. There are lots of reasons why we may turn down an artifact. It goes through a committee who discusses it and decides whether we should accept it or not. Probably a third of those that make it that far get accepted.
A lot of times we return things, but we always say thank you. Every potential donation is very thoughtful and nice of people to do, but we’ve returned items and people have been surprised – “But this is a very valuable item; it’ll go for a lot of money.” We just have to say, “We’re not in that business. We’re not buying and we’re not selling.” There have been a number of items we’ve returned that are very valuable in terms of what we could get for it on the open market, but they didn’t help us in terms of our ability to further a baseball story or fill a hole in our collection.
Collectors Weekly: So the museum’s striving to tell the complete story of baseball?
Shieber: Yes, not only in a chronological fashion, but also in a fanatic fashion. We certainly tell the straight-ahead history, but we also split it in different ways. We have an exhibit on ballparks for example, where we split it up in terms of themes: the history of concessions at ballparks, the history of fan involvement in the stands, entertainment at the ballpark, architecture, that kind of thing.
Collectors Weekly: How did you decide to group the dates in the game exhibit the way that you did?
Shieber: It’s just a convenient way to fit text on a map. We don’t actually do hard and fast splits between things. The second floor is a timeline history of the game interspersed with fanatic elements. The first room you enter talks about pre-1900 baseball, and so on. In the future, we’re going to separate things out and come up with more of a demarcation between time periods.
I would guess, for example, that the next section will go from 1900 to 1919 or so, because 1920 is an acknowledged beginning of a livelier ball era, even though it started a little bit earlier than that. It also was the first year that Babe Ruth was with the Yankees. It was the first year after the Black Sox came out. There are a number of reasons why 1919, 1920, and 1921 are really good breaking periods.
Collectors Weekly: Do you have a wish list for the museum?
Shieber: For a long time, there wasn’t really a wish list, but we do come up with some for specific exhibits. For example, one of the sections that I worked on in the ballparks exhibit had to do with entertainment at the ballpark and beyond the baseball game, so I talked a lot about scoreboards.
Starting in 1960, instead of reflecting what was happening on the field, scoreboards started to get more and more information. Now, of course, it’s a multimedia extravaganza. You have information about other games going on, little cartoons, advertising, etc. So there are different ways of entertaining at the ballpark. One of them is team mascots, which is especially prolific in the Minor Leagues where you have a big, lovable, fuzzy animal that kids like to look at.
I wanted to show merchandise related to one of these characters. We didn’t really have anything that fit the bill, so I actually contacted a Minor League club that I knew had a neat mascot. I explained the story I was going toward and we brainstormed a bit, and they said they had a foam version of the mascot – the same foam used for the fingers that say “Number 1” – that you could wear on top of your head so you’ll look a little bit like the mascot.
In that case, we didn’t just wait around and hope something came in. I approached them and said, “Would you be willing to donate that?” and they were more than happy to. It was a win-win for everybody. I got an artifact that helped tell the story exactly how I wanted to, and they got a free advertisement in a sense because their mascot and the name of their club is mentioned in the Hall of Fame.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the major documents that the museum has?
Shieber: We have millions of documents in our library. You can think of us as being three separate entities merged together: the Hall of Fame itself, where we honor great individual players, managers, and executives; the museum devoted to the history of baseball, which is the largest amount of real estate physically that’s taken up; and the library and research facility.
The library has millions of documents in it. I think our latest number is 2.6 million. We have over half a million photographs and well over 10,000 hours of recorded media. I have seen thousands of people that actually come into our facility to do research, and we get thousands of research requests each year in person, over the phone, or by e-mail from the smallest kid who’s doing a book report in third grade all the way to people writing postgraduate theses, people doing litigation, or the White House checking a certain fact so that the president can use it in a speech.
Collectors Weekly: How often did teams change the look of their uniforms and do you have the different variations?
Shieber: Yes. They changed them frequently. Major League Baseball has actually cracked down and they have a design department that oversees the changes. You can’t just make a change willy-nilly; it has to be run through Major League Baseball. We don’t try to collect every single uniform, but we do try to cite every single uniform. We have an online exhibit about the history of the baseball uniform, which includes a database. The core of the database is based on one individual’s fantastic research on the history of the baseball uniforms in the 20th century, but then we built upon it. If you look up the uniform that was worn by the 1949 Brooklyn Dodgers’ home and road, you see a drawing of it.
Uniforms used to be made of wool, but now it’s a synthetic material that breathes much better and lasts longer. It’s not as heavy, so players don’t sweat as much. On a hot day in St. Louis or Washington, D.C., it’s not only close to a hundred degrees, but it’s close to a hundred percent humidity. Sweat was soaked up by the uniforms, so players carried all this extra weight. I don’t know how those guys did it.
Collectors Weekly: What are some examples of the more obscure and rare artifacts you have?
Shieber: A huge percentage of the artifacts we have are unique. There is only one baseball that Barry Bonds hit for his 756th homerun. There’s only one bat that Stan Musial used for his 3,000th hit. A large number of our artifacts are irreplaceable and unique, but we also have artifacts that are not. That little foam head of the mascot from the Minor League team is available at that Minor League team’s store. It’s of great value to us in terms of storytelling, but not in terms of what it costs.
Collectors Weekly: What happened to baseball during World War II?
Shieber: During World War II, a number of Major League players were drafted, so they had to give up their regular jobs as a baseball player. The average quality of Major League players went down. That was true in the minors as well, but people just tend to focus on the Major Leagues. Many more Minor League players left their jobs as baseball players to take jobs to aid the war effort.
Baseball was initially not deemed as helping the war effort, and there was some thought that actually all professional baseball would be shut down during the war, but that was overturned. The President of the United States thought that it would be best to keep baseball going because he felt it would be a good morale booster, give a form of entertainment to people who were working hard during the day, and provide a form of relaxation and a sense of normalcy.
Ultimately, baseball didn’t shut down at all, although certain parts of it were curtailed, whether it was the quality of the players or cutting down on excess. It actually helped the war because they would have benefit games where they promoted selling war bonds. They still did what they could to aid the war effort, and basically that’s what that exhibit’s all about.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the things visitors get really excited about when they come to the museum?
Shieber: They get excited about seeing these artifacts and learning the stories that help tell the story of baseball and its relationship to American culture. There’s an excitement factor to being near an object that had historical significance. That’s a visceral thing and an emotional thing, and that’s one of the reasons that museums can educate and entertain. These objects allow you to feel the history. The stories can be related, but without coming through an artifact that was there, you lose the emotional link. Ultimately, it’s the story that counts, but the artifact is the catalyst and the road through which you can travel to relate to it.
If everything we used was a replica artifact, it’d be much more difficult to relate to that story because there’d be less of an emotional experience for the individual. I can show you the bat that Hank Aaron used for a certain record or an award that he won as a young child that meant a lot to him – the actual items, the actual documents. That’s what allows us to do the job that we do.
Collectors Weekly: Do you have exhibits that focus on major players or is it more teams and eras?
Shieber: It’s rare that we do players. We do have a room that’s devoted to Babe Ruth and we’re currently working on an exhibit about Hank Aaron. Both of those are permanent exhibits. We have sections of exhibits that focus on individuals. We’ll use a theme that’s non-human-specific, like ballparks or the World Series or the timeline, and obviously individuals show up there. People hit the ball, field the ball, throw the ball, so we are always talking about individuals, but not in a large way, other than Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron.
Collectors Weekly: Can you tell us a little bit about the baseball card gallery?
Shieber: That exhibit is actually fairly old. It’s been around quite a while and we plan to change it in the future. It doesn’t have a whole lot of interpretative text. It’s mostly a display of lots of baseball cards, going well back into the 19th century up through to the 1970s and early ‘80s, but that’s pretty much where it stops. Card collecting has changed over the last 25 to 30 years. It’s become much more of a collectible for collecting’s sake and not so much an activity done by kids to learn about baseball, to find their favorite player, and to trade with friends. When we do an exhibit on that, we will address the fact that the world of collecting has changed things a lot.
(Images in this article courtesy Pat Kelly of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.)