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New Book Shows Off The Earliest Relics Of Baseball

Dec 16, 2009 (All Things Considered)

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In the Library of Congress' Great Hall — above the giant marble Corinthian columns, the sculptures of Minerva and George Washington, and tributes to poets, artists and scientists — there is something quite astonishing.

It's a photo of a 19th century baseball team. And of the nine men, one holds a catcher's chest protector and another has a catcher's mask, but otherwise, they're stark naked.

The painting, which has been on the library's ceiling since 1897, is one of the images in the new coffee-table book Baseball Americana: Treasures from the Library of Congress.

"It's a way of looking at the athlete, the modern American athlete in baseball, as if he was this heroic classical competitor in ancient Greece," Susan Reyburn, a co-author of the book, tells NPR's Melissa Block.

Reyburn and another co-author, Phil Michel, recently showed NPR some of the Library of Congress' remarkable archive of photographs, drawings, cartoons, sheet music, baseball cards and newspaper articles — the largest baseball collection in the world.

That collection includes a diary from 1786 that contains one of the earliest written references to baseball in America.

"A fine day play baste ball in the campus but am beaten for I miss both catching and striking the Ball," wrote John Rhea Smith, a student at the College of New Jersey, later Princeton. His reference came shortly after the Revolutionary War — and long before Abner Doubleday "invented" the game in 1839 in Cooperstown, N.Y., as the popular myth goes.

Bloomer Girls

Michel's favorites from the printed archive include giant panoramic shots and vintage baseball cards from the early 1900s, as well as early photos of female ballplayers, also known as "bloomer girls."

Teams of women — with a couple of men as ringers — barnstormed the country beginning in the 1890s and into the 1930s, says Reyburn.

"You can pick out some of the less attractive women, [who] are actually men. And in some cases, they would appear on field in wigs," she says. "And the idea was to try to pass themselves off. Some very famous players, including Smoky Joe Wood, [Rogers Hornsby] — who went on to great Major League success — got their start as bloomer girls."

Some of the games tended to have a sideshow-like character, Reyburn says, but as time went on, they developed into more of a "white-knuckle game that was being played, as opposed to a circus-like performance. And it was a huge success across the country."

In addition, there were women who played on men's teams — like Myrtle Rowe, an 18-year-old who signed to play first base for the semiprofessional Antler Athletic Club in New Kensington, Pa.

A glass-plate negative from 1910 shows Rowe holding a bat. She played in a blouse and a skirt down to her ankles.

The Library of Congress also has images of Jackie Mitchell, who at 17 years old struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition game in the 1930s.

"After this happened, the commissioner of baseball was not pleased, found this to be a very embarrassing thing. [He] banned her and women from the game," says Reyburn. "That was the end of women in Major League Baseball."

'Aha' Moments

Reyburn says it was "delightful to see" that women were playing organized baseball from the mid-19th century on. "And we have the documentation to show it."

Michel says his "aha" moment came when he found a photograph of Babe Ruth lying on the field with people huddled around him.

"He had been running down a foul ball [and] crashed into the side of cement stands. ... It just seemed such a real journalistic moment rather than mythic views you tend to see of Babe Ruth," Michel says.

Ruth was revived and went on to not only finish the game, but play the second game of a double-header. But the photograph captured a moment that showed that legendary players are "actual hard-working guys who got dirty, had character and color in their faces, and made plays crashing into walls," says Michel. "I thought it was wonderful."

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