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Baseball memorabilia at Karpeles Manuscript Museum

The world's first baseball card.

The Church of Baseball

Key original documents in the matter of the “Curse of the Bambino” are currently on display at the Karpeles Manuscript Museum on Porter Avenue.

Such as Babe Ruth’s last contract with the Boston Red Sox, for 1918, which is also the last year the Red Sox won the World Series prior to the ensuing 85-year drought. Ruth is designated on the contract as a pitcher and outfielder. (He was the winning pitcher in two games of the World Series that year, versus the Chicago Cubs.)

His total compensation for the year was $5,000. The Red Sox traded him because he was so hard to handle. Sox owner Harry Frazee called him “one of the most selfish and inconsiderate men that ever wore a baseball uniform.”

And his first contract with the Yankees, which wasn’t until the year 1922. He went to the Yankees in 1919, but apparently played for them at first under terms of the Red Sox contract. The 1922 contract is for total compensation of $52,000.

By 1930 he was up to $80,000—the year a reporter at the signing pointed out that that was more than president of the United States earned, and Ruth retorted, “I had a better year than he did.” In fact, he had a much better year than President Herbert Hoover, a notable event of whose previous year was the stock market crash, setting off the Great Depression.

By 1932 the Depression touched even the Babe. He was offered just $50,000. He refused to sign, but Yankees’ owner Jacob Ruppert wouldn’t budge, either. Eventually, they agreed to a “compromise” of $52,000. That contract is on display, signed by Ruth, Ruppert, and as witness, Yankees’ Manager Jos. V. McCarthy.

Also on display, Ruth’s final baseball contract, with the National League Boston Braves, for $25,000 a year for three years, of which he played less than one full season before quitting baseball for good. That contract was signed in 1935. The Yankees had released him the previous year. What Ruth had wanted to do was manage the Yankees, but Ruppert wouldn’t consider it, but instead offered him the management of the Newark Bears, the Yankee’s top farm club at the time. Ruth declined to descend to the minors. He went with the Braves on the basis of insincere suggestions from the Braves that he could ultimately manage that team. When he saw that that wasn’t going to happen, he walked.

Also, various documents relating to baseball in early times. A letter on the invention of the catcher’s mitt by the supposed inventor, Joseph B. Gunson. The letter is from 1939. The mitt was introduced apparently in the mid-1880s. And Gunson assures his addressee that pitchers “threw just as hard [then] as they do today,” that is, in 1939—when, as he notes, the distance between pitcher and batter in the mid-1880s was 50 feet, versus 60 feet six inches today.

How did they do it? A copy of the National Association of Base-Ball Players’ Rules and Regulations from the 1860s has a diagram of a diamond with 90-foot baselines, and 45 feet from pitcher to batter, that also indicates the catcher’s position, about 30 to 40 feet behind home plate. So the ball would have bounced once or twice, losing some mustard. Still, you’d hardly want to have to catch the thing barehanded. For a whole game, and game after game.

The mask was introduced by James Tyng, a catcher on the Harvard team, in a game against Yale in the 1870s (so apparently before the mitt). Tyng is shown in several Harvard team photos. Handsome and debonair-looking, apparently he wanted to stay that way.

There’s a baseball from the 1830s, shriveled and blackened with age. Reminiscent of an Egyptian mummy. Or alternatively of a necrotic orange, sliced into four quarters then stitched back together again, so that two straight circumferential lines of stitches cross at the top and the bottom. An unpleasant-looking little object you’d recoil to touch. As opposed to the supremely tactile present-day ball of complementary hour-glass forms of handsome tanned leather and single meandering (Moebius-like) red thread seam. Central beauty feature of the beauty game.

The baseball documents and memorabilia are on display through August.

jack foran

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