For those of you who have been regular readers of the "National Treasures" column, you have a pretty good idea that we generally confine our "treasure hunt" to items that are vintage, classic and extremely rare. In fact, many of you have communicated with me expressing how much you enjoy reading about artifacts that are not only "museum quality" but also represent a significant moment in sports. For this column I would like to feature two "national treasures", one that is so scarce that it actually represents a momentous time in our history and the second is truly a museum piece. Let me first tell you about a signed baseball that the
National Sports Gallery
now has on display.
A Ball for the Ages
In early October of 1957 fans of our national pastime were enjoying a classic World Championship series between the Milwaukee Braves and the New York Yankees. For those of you with long memories, you will remember that the upstart Braves, backed by strong pitchers such as Warren Spahn and Lou Burdette, and batsmen Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews, nipped the mighty Yankees four games to three to take the crown. I was a typical eight-year-old baby boomer who lived and breathed baseball and can still recall the thrill of hearing on my transistor radio announcers call games that featured the great Braves battlers against Yankee superstars such as Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle and others.
Even though I followed each play on the radio, I still loved to read every word in the morning paper and rehash the statistics that I had already memorized from the previous day's game. On the morning of October 5, 1957 as I rushed to find the sports page, my senses were momentarily jarred as I began to read the day's lead story that, oddly, was not about baseball but was about an event that seemed, well . . . surreal. Unbeknownst to me, I was reading about an event that historians today consider the birth of the Space Age.
Specifically, on October 5, 1957, as the sportswriters regaled the exploits of Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron, who both hit gargantuan home runs the previous day, the newspaper headline announced that Russia (then known as the Evil Empire) successfully launched a space ship that traveled into the great beyond with the weird name of "Sputnik." I must admit, as much as I was enthralled with the World Series, even a day that featured the exploits of both Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle paled in comparison to the momentous change that the birth of the space age brought.
The reaction to the launch of Sputnik in this country was immediate - we in the United States would embark on a series of activities that would lead us into what became known as a "space race" with the Russians. The dizzying and at times perilous "space age" competition spawned previously undreamed of technological advances as the dueling nations quickly catapulted at first simple hardware and then actual chimpanzees into space. The space race itself became a national commitment, some say obsession, as pledged by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. The early stages of the race culminated in 1961 when NASA established three programs, Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, that would pave the way for man himself to one day walk on the moon!
Two years later part of the programs three "teams" of men were selected to represent the United States in the space race. Those men, heroes all, would become known as the thirty original astronauts. Each of the men came with their own individual stories but they all were quite simply the best of our country's former fighter pilots and hot shot airmen with smarts to boot . . . in fact, most were engineers and all graduated from college. The crew was announced amid great fanfare and they quickly settled in Houston, Texas, the location of NASA Headquarters.
Shortly thereafter, thanks to a serendipitous meeting at the Houston ballpark, the worlds of baseball and our space pioneers crossed paths. As the astronauts settled
into their new life, all thirty men were taken on a "field trip" to enjoy major league baseball and see the local professional team then known as the Houston Colt 45's. It seems that the wife of the Colts manager Harry Craft found herself sitting near the "space rookies" and had the foresight to ask each of the country's newfound celebrities to sign a nice clean baseball for posterity. Luckily for us, they all complied and a unique melding of two embodiments of the American spirit - baseball and the Space Age - occurred!
Thanks to the generosity of Corey Shanus, an extraordinary collector of unusual baseball artifacts, the MCI National Sports Gallery is showcasing a baseball boldly signed by all thirty of the original astronauts. We have been fortunate to have showcased many fine and unique historical sports items in the past two years but this is one of the few that can justifiably and without hesitation be called one-of-a-kind! Of the thirty astronauts who signed the orb, ten are deceased and six passed away more than 30 years ago!
After admiring the signatures on the baseball, I wondered whether or not the astronauts were actually fans of our national pastime. Though thousands of articles have been written about the space program, precious little is "out there" regarding the connection between baseball and the astronauts. After several dead ends, I was
fortunate enough to come across Mike Gentry at the LBJ Space Center in Houston, Texas. Through Mike's help, I have discovered that there is a fairly rich connection between the astronauts and baseball.
As Mike pointed out, baseball had its major league origins in Houston about the same time the NASA site was being constructed near Clear Lake, Texas. Thus, there began a fairly close relationship between the Houston ball club and the men who would one day become space travelers. In fact, as you can see from photos, Neil Armstrong, the first man who walked on the moon, recently visited the Astrodome in Houston. Mike also uncovered the fact that the original astronauts assembled a baseball team and called themselves . . . you guessed it, the Astros!
If you are visiting our nation's capital this summer, please come and visit for this baseball is one item you will never forget. After all, what better way to feature the signatures of these thirty American heroes than on a baseball, an artifact in the shape of the globe around which they were trained to orbit? As you gaze at the ball you will see all of the familiar names from Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, and John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, to Gus Grissom, who was amongst the "chosen seven" who flew an Apollo mission, and Ed White, who died with his buddy Grissom in a spacecraft fire in 1967 and who has been called by some as being the greatest pilot of them all.
19th Century Football Sculpture
Our second "national treasure" is an artifact that is the antithesis of the "ball for the ages." I decided to highlight this very unique item that is a beautiful museum quality art piece that happens to have a sports connection. Further, since the "space baseball" harkens imagery of the future, let's temporarily dip into the distant past.
Almost 175 years ago a young man by the name of John Rogers was born and raised in the Boston, Massachusetts area. To give you an idea of the times in which he lived, young John spent his formative years as a mechanic's apprentice learning his craft at the knee of old timers who lived through the Revolutionary War era and the spectacular changes that this country went through during the late 1700's and early 1800's.
It seems that young John was quite good with his hands and possessed a flair with the mechanical aspects of putting things together. He quickly became a talented apprentice but during his spare time he sculpted figures of men, events and scenes from our American landscape. By the time of the Civil War, Rogers had turned his hobby into his vocation and became a full time sculptor. He began to produce patina glazed plaster statues based on subjects of everyday life . . . from the ever-popular Shakespeare plays to the great Civil War itself.
These fine sculptured pieces became known as "Rogers Groupings" and they became the rage of the day. People began to collect these items and they became quite in demand! Of all the "Groupings" of multiple figures that Rogers created, quite naturally the one that I am most interested in is the only sports-related Rogers piece that I know of - that of three football players, in full regalia, tackling a fourth runner during a football game. Thanks to Steve Rotman, one of our museum benefactors, we are able to feature the football artifact. It is one of the earliest football related artifacts in existence and proudly stands as a testament to Rogers and the game itself.
I can't help but wonder about the four galloping men as I gaze at the piece. Who were they? To identify the three rugged gentlemen in the "Rogers Grouping," I called upon George Mechling who is one of the foremost experts on John Rogers in the country. George set the stage for me as he described the football piece.
It seems that the grouping was patented in the early 1890's just as the game of football was beginning to catch on as a national sport. Interestingly, three of Rogers' own sons - all of whom attended Yale University - posed for sketches done as the three tacklers along with one William Herbert Corbin, Captain of Yale's unbeaten 1888 football team. Corbin was, by all accounts, a great center and quite a team leader. I'll say this . . . he must have been pretty tough as you can see from the sculpture, since the players wore no pads and, in fact, no helmets! As I admire Rogers' work, I can vividly see why some have referred to him as being the Norman Rockwell of his time. After all, he took the simple pleasure of playing a game and, through his artistic talent, helped the viewer visualize the game itself. For those of you who want to learn more about John Rogers and view some of his other art pieces, I would strongly recommend you contact George Mechling at
K&G Enterprises. His work phone number is (828) 227-3600.