John McGrath

John McGrath: Baseball history alive and well in Tacoma exhibit

Alexander Cartwright, among the founding fathers of baseball — he called it “Base Ball” — is believed to have established such fundamental precepts as 90 feet between the bases, three strikes and the batter’s out, and nine players per team.

But because baseball is a hit-and-miss endeavor, it’s inevitable that one of its pioneers had his share of misses.

First team to score 21 times wins? Uh, seriously, Alex?

Any hit landing beyond the outfield wall is foul? (This sounds sillier than it was. The fences were so deep during baseball’s natal period that nobody was capable of going yard, anyway.)

A ball fielded on one hop is worth an out?

That rule was changed largely because of a letter sent from the secretary of the Excelsior Baseball Club of Brooklyn to Cartwright’s Knickerbockers club in 1859. Excelsior offered to play a friendly game using the same “caught on the fly” rules we recognize today.

The Knickerbockers obliged, and the game was such a success — some 3,000 fans showed up to watch Excelsior win, 26-22 — that the one-bounce out was discontinued a few years later.

The Excelsior club’s letter is part of an early baseball collection on display through July 31 at the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum, across the street from the Wright Park conservatory. It features several of the contracts signed by Babe Ruth, who made his big league debut with the Boston Red Sox 100 years ago this past Friday.

Ruth, as you probably know, was an exceptional left-handed pitcher until converting into a full-time outfielder after his trade to the New York Yankees following Boston’s 1918 World Series title. As you also probably know, the deal was associated with a Red Sox championship drought that lasted 86 years.

What you might not know is that Ruth’s legal signature, “George Herman Ruth,” was as flamboyant as he was. Ruth tended to scrawl a nondescript “Babe Ruth” on the baseballs he autographed, but on three-year contracts that paid him $50,000 a season (and more precisely, $8,666.66 per month), the Babe’s cursive skills rivaled those of John Hancock’s.

Aside from the Ruth contracts, the Karpeles museum collection includes what might be the first baseball card. The player seen on the front of the 1866 card is catcher Dave Birdsall, captain of the Union of Morrisania club who three years later was chosen to compete for the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first professional baseball team.

Dave Birdsall, by the way, is not identified on the card as Dave Birdsall. He is identified as “The Old Man,” a nickname acquired because he was the more sullen of a battery duo with Union pitcher Charley Pabor, whose nickname was “The Old Woman in The Red Cap.”

The 1921 agreement responsible for installing Kenesaw Mountain Landis as MLB’s first commissioner can be seen under an information placard that poses the question: “Most Important Document in Baseball History?”

Speaking of baseball history, Japan’s fascination with the game apparently dates to the 1860s. A 78-page Japanese children’s book, with woodblock illustrations of boys playing baseball, is part of the eclectic collection assembled by David Karpeles, a real-estate mogul whose 12-museum chain extends from Buffalo to Santa Barbara, California.

Exhibits, all free of charge, alternate from one museum to the other every three months. Karpeles’ more prized personal acquisitions are Pope Lucius III’s proclamation of the Holy Crusade and the musical notes to Handel’s “Messiah,” copied in longhand by Beethoven.

“We see ourselves as a kind a mini-Smithsonian,” Tom Jutilla, director of the Tacoma branch, said Friday. “When you’re finished looking through the baseball exhibit, I’ll show you a few other things we’ve collected.”

Jutilla showed me written correspondence from Helen Keller, who used a block of wood behind the paper so she could feel the raised letters, and a logbook from the RMS Carpathia (the ship that rescued the survivors of the Titanic), and Joseph Stalin’s 1902 arrest record for civil disobedience, and the short letter Richard Nixon submitted to U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on Aug. 9, 1974.

“Dear Mr. Secretary:

“I hereby resign the office of president of the United States.


“Richard Nixon.”

Nixon’s signature is not as florid as the one George Herman Ruth used on contracts, but then, to borrow from Ruth’s justification for earning $5,000 more than President Herbert Hoover did in 1930, the Babe was having a better year.

The Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum, at 407 S. G St., is open from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. Admission is free. For further information, call 253-383-2575.

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