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One day in 1996, an official working on behalf of Washington sports impresario Abe Pollin called Frank Ceresi, a veteran family-court judge in Arlington: Could Ceresi (who had written a column for Sports Collector’s Digest) suggest someone who might be interested in running the National Sports Gallery, a 25,000-square-foot exhibition space planned for the then-
unfinished MCI Center?
Ceresi suggested himself. He touted his lifelong interest in sports history—he’d overcome the all-too-common Mom-threw-out-all-my-baseball-cards affliction and managed to assemble a solid collection of baseball score cards dating back to the 19th century—as well as his volunteer work with the Smithsonian and some local historical societies in Virginia. Ceresi wound up getting the job, and his first order of business was to hire Carol McMains; though never a memorabilia collector, she had been his executive assistant at the court and, equally important, she was a sports fan. They’ve been partners ever since.
From December 1997 until July 2001, Ceresi and McMains—who grew up in Alexandria, Va., and Waldorf, Md., respectively—curated exhibitions of sports-history artifacts at the MCI Center, made up of items borrowed from collectors around the country. The gallery did purchase one historical object: a bat used by Babe Ruth during the 1927 season, when he hit 60 home runs. Ceresi and McMains wanted the public to be able to touch it, something no sane benefactor would have allowed. “It was one of these generational common denominators—the kids and their parents would both be interested in it because of the connection to Ruth,” Ceresi says.
When the gallery closed, largely because of low attendance, Ceresi and McMains decided to stick with sports rather than return to the more wrenching world of child-custody disputes. So they established a sports-oriented museum-consulting firm in Alexandria called FC Associates; clients include the Yogi Berra Museum in Montclair, N.J., and the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
The most recent co-production by Ceresi, 52, and McMains, 36, is Baseball in Washington, D.C., a 130-page book they bill as the first illustrated history of the national pastime as it’s been played in Washington. It includes 180 black-and-white photographs, many never before published. As editors and writers, Ceresi and McMains delighted in spotlighting not just the city’s all-time greats, such as Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson, but also its more obscure denizens. Being locals intensified their appreciation for the topic. “I was an impressionable young teen when the Senators were still in town,” says Ceresi. “We’d go to Griffith Stadium to see them play the Yankees and the Red Sox, who were the premier teams in the country.”
The book resurrects the pioneering Washington teams of the 1860s, which were among the best of the pre-major-league era. One of the city’s most prominent early players, George Wright, is said to have hit six home runs in one game, in 1867. Soon after, teams began springing up all over town. “I thought it was interesting that such an early form of the game grew right here from clerks who worked in the government,” Ceresi says.
One of the duo’s most exhilarating finds was a largely forgotten scrapbook kept by future President Rutherford B. Hayes to document the national barnstorming tour of the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings—the first all-professional baseball team. “We found it at a historical society in Ohio,” Ceresi says. “It was just one of those great experiences where you realize you’ve just found the one person who can help you.”
Of course, seven decades of Senators baseball came to an abrupt end in 1971, as owner Robert Short moved the team to Texas (where it would later come to be owned by future President George W. Bush). Now, 31 years later, Major League Baseball is inching closer to granting Washington a new team, and Ceresi and McMains can’t wait to add a new chapter to their book. The fact that baseball no longer exists in the nation’s capital is “a tragedy,” Ceresi says. “And it’s one we’re hopeful will be rectified soon.” — Louis Jacobson