Some local contributions to the MCI National Sports Gallery, a new museum set in the rafters of a basketball and hockey arena in a town baseball abandoned decades ago, remind us how swell it would be if only the boys of summer returned.
Not that the gallery, inside the MCI Center in Chinatown, was built only for George Will. There are enough Playstationlike playthings to enthrall Generation ADD visitors, even those who don’t cotton to our national pastime. You can shoot H-O-R-S-E with a digitized Chris Webber, take slap shots at a virtual goalie, or play quarterback and throw down-and-outs to generic receivers on big video screens. But if arcade games aren’t your thing, the gallery also flaunts hundreds of analog displays that showcase sportscentric snippets of Americana every bit as compelling and enlightening as what you’d find a few blocks to the south on the federally funded museum row, where Smithsonian curators have long conspired to deny the very existence of athletics in our society.
The inaugural exhibits include a hilariously loud ring robe worn by Rocky Marciano just before he retired as the one and only undefeated heavyweight champion in boxing history, a Muhammad Ali photo spread featuring shots of the Greatest with young Beatles and an old Elvis, and the tattered, incredibly low-tech canvas (!) sneakers Larry Bird wore during the Boston Celtics’ 1986 championship run. There are also skates from Gordie Howe, a sullied Jim Brown Browns jersey, and the ball used the night Wilt Chamberlain bagged his 25,000th…er, point.
But the baseball pieces, which have been allotted the most space in the 25,000-square-foot museum, steal the show. The gallery’s gatherers must have looked far and wide to find a Honus Wagner baseball card, the Hope Diamond of sports collectibles. This particular Wagner card, a Lilliputian 1909 version that would bring in $700,000 or more on the collector market, was once owned by Wayne Gretzky and the former owner of the Los Angeles Kings, Bruce McNall, but they auctioned it off when McNall went to jail for tax evasion.
Another invaluable baseball artifact was dug up in the gallery’s own back yard. Kevin Keating, an Alexandria resident and self-described memorabilia hound, forked over what is believed to be the only autographed Shoeless Joe Jackson bat in existence. Jackson, for anybody in need of a baseball history lesson, was one of eight players banned for life after being implicated in the Black Sox scandal of 1919. What makes the bat so special is that Jackson, along with being one of the most proficient batters in the game’s history, was illiterate, and legend holds that he signed a confession regarding the throwing of the World Series with only an X.
“Jackson carried a piece of paper with his name on it around with him, and when he wanted to sign something he had to take out that paper and trace from it,” Keating says. “That was a feat for him, and that’s why there are so few Jackson signatures.”
The Jackson signature is one of “over 100,000” autographs in Keating’s collection, which started with the Willie Mays his dad brought home 28 years ago and now includes the John Hancocks of every member of baseball’s Hall of Fame. Keating, 38, declined to divulge how he procured the signed bat or how much he paid, other than to say it was from “the Jackson family.” (According to Keating, Jackson signatures are so rare and valuable that lawsuits have been filed against the South Carolina town where he died in hopes of wresting control of his signed last will and testament from local recordkeepers.)
Keating is just one of several locals whose wares are now on display at the gallery. Manassas native Wilmer Fields’ contributions wouldn’t fetch six figures on the collector market, but then again, he didn’t have to pay a dime to procure his memorabilia. Fields, 75, provided the trophy he got as a member of the 1940 Homestead Grays for winning the Negro Leagues championship and a signed bat he played with in 1952 while with the Toronto Maple Leafs, a minor-league team owned by a Canadian entrepreneur by the name of Jack Kent Cooke.
The Grays’ championship trophy, cut in the shape of an oversize baseball, doubles as an AM radio and has survived the several trips Fields made to Central America to play ball in integrated winter leagues.
“It looks beat up, but the radio still works,” laughs Fields, a retiree from D.C.’s department of corrections who is still active in the Negro Leagues Players Association.
Another Alexandrian, John Holway, contributed Negro League keepsakes that came his way as a young fan, not as a player. Holway, 68, loaned the gallery souvenir yearbooks from 1945 and 1946, the latter with soon-to-be-departing superstar Jackie Robinson on the cover. Holway picked up the yearbooks while watching Homestead Grays games at Griffith Stadium.
“Not many white kids went to see the Homestead Grays play,” recalls Holway, who is white. “But I loved baseball, and I wanted to see Satchel Paige pitch. As a baseball fan, I remember thinking, ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if everybody played against each other, so I could see if Buck Leonard was better than Charlie Keller?’ But as a kid, I never thought things would change.”
“To get to Griffith, I’d take a segregated bus from Alexandria, where all the blacks were in back and whites up front, and then after I got out of Virginia and into D.C., I’d catch an integrated trolley up to the stadium. Looking back now, I see my ride to the games as symbolic, because baseball was making that same kind of transition, from segregated to integrated, right at that same time.
“Then, I just accepted that things were as they were.”
Holway grew up to write several books on the negro leagues and is now compiling an encyclopedia on the confederations, which were all pillaged during the gold rush that commenced when Robinson was brought up by the Brooklyn Dodgers for the 1947 season.
Neither Fields nor Holway has yet been to the gallery, but both plan to visit soon.
“As soon as somebody gives me a ride, I’ll go,” Fields says.
Keating has made the trip, and though he’s not sure he likes having his precious slice of reality share billing with virtual reality, he’s delighted that the MCI Center at least gave the salon idea a chance.
“I’m sure the collector/purist may think an arcade atmosphere is no place for the Jackson bat or the more serious displays they have at the gallery,” Keating says. “But if the purpose of the gallery is to perpetuate the prominence of sports in our society, well, then juxtaposing the historical documents and the interactive technologies is a necessary thing. We don’t teach history anymore like it was taught historically, do we? And, well, I’m sure the Smithsonian couldn’t have done any better.”Dave McKenna
The MCI National Sports Gallery is open from 10 a.m.- 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 10-6 Sunday. Admission is $4-9. For information call (202) 661-5133.