Play ball! Baseball exhibits loaded with fun

Head to the Field Museum in Chicago if you love baseball, are irritated by it or couldn’t care less about the sport. There, that should cover just about everybody.

“Baseball as America,” in place until July 20, does a great job of demonstrating why the pastime is more than just a game. As exhibit text explains, “Look to baseball and you will see our ideals and our injustices, our triumphs and our struggles.”

There are powerful history lessons about how the sport and country have torn and bridged races. This is a mirror of our attitudes toward capitalism, greed, free enterprise. There are examples of how baseball has united us during tumultuous times. 

Many of the items here are from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Under glass are a lot of treasures, including the most valuable baseball trading card (Honus Wagner, 1909) and the ball used at the start of the first World Series (1903).

I was drawn to a 1960 letter to Jackie Robinson from John F. Kennedy, in which he defended his actions regarding civil liberties. Other baseball stories of racism and discrimination involve fans as well as teams, mascots as well as players.

Norman Rockwell’s famous game rain-out painting is here. So is the documentation that resulted in Pete Rose’s ejection from the sport, for gambling. Film clips range from Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” to Kevin Costner’s “Field of Dreams.”

Visitors can use computer terminals to track the stats of any Baseball Hall of Fame member, including three Wisconsin natives. This also is a place to learn how to throw a knuckleball and a fastball, plus feel and see how different the shape and weight distribution can be among the sport’s famous bats.

There’s not much of a Milwaukee presence here, but it doesn’t matter. The impact of “Baseball as America” is larger than any single team. 

Although 45 minutes was suggested as enough time to see this part of the Field Museum, I spent twice that. For more info, call (312) 922-9410 or go to www.fieldmuseum.org.

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Although the Field Museum show gives a passing nod to women in baseball, a new Rockford, Ill., exhibit makes a bigger deal about them in “Batter Up! Two Centuries of Baseball in Rockford.” The Rockford Peaches, an All-American Girls Professional Baseball League team, was the subject of the 1992 film “A League of Their Own”; items from the movie and league play are a part of this tribute.

(Of special note to exhibit organizers was the May 8 death of local resident Dottie Ferguson Key, a Rockford Peach for 10 years and best known for stealing 461 bases. Madonna played her in the movie.)

In addition, Rockford’s Forest City Baseball Club is showcased; it was a part of the first batch of major league teams. Industrial League and high school memorabilia help round out the exhibit.

There will be baseball games played with vintage equipment, rules and uniforms June 21 and 22, July 3, 12 and 26, Aug. 9 and 10. Bring a lawn chair or blanket.

The exhibit and games are at the Midway Village and Museum Center; call (815) 397-9112 or go to www.midwayvillage.com. 

Joan Sage of Midway Village says baseball is a topic that will stay in Rockford, especially after 15 hours of video interviews with Peaches are processed. “This will be a major exhibit of its own, by the time we’re done with it,” she says.

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“Chicago Sports! You Shoulda Been There” is a new exhibit at the Chicago Historical Society. It is an affectionate look at the “powerful social glue” that sports has become in this city.

Well-known sports highlights are one part of “Chicago Sports,” and there are many of them. But there also is homage paid to roller derby queens, sports announcers, the growth of the Chicago Marathon (from 4,200 to 30,000-plus runners in 25 years).

Shoeless Joe Jackson’s letter of suspension from baseball, a grateful note from Bears’ founder George Halas to quarterback Sid Luckman, Bobby Hull’s ice skates and Michael Jordan’s basketball jersey all make this a showcase of city history and character.

It’s mostly a presentation of pride and honor, but some of the more obvious historical blemishes are acknowledged, too.

Most of the excitement stays focused on pro sports; the acknowledgement of college teams, high schools and women athletes is brief; call (312) 642-4600 or go to www.chicagohistory.org.

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The worst seats in the house are a little-publicized but big draw at Miller Park in Milwaukee. 
        
The $1 Uecker Seats, named after long-time radio announcer and newly selected Baseball Hall of Fame member Bob Uecker, are sold at the Milwaukee Brewer box office about two hours before each home game. They are in sections 421 and 422, the terrace level and behind home plate.
        
The view is heavily obstructed because the seats are behind the huge posts that hold the pivot for the stadium’s retractable roof. Yet all of these 106 seats were sold during last season’s games, says the Associated Press.

It’s a limit of one ticket per person in line. The trend is to then sit wherever you can, not an especially hard maneuver so far this year. When I was at a Brewer game on Easter, it was too easy to improve elbow  room between fans.

Getting a better seat than you expect is not guaranteed, of course. 

”That’s up to the ushers,” a Brewer ticket seller told us. “People shouldn’t be paying $1 for a ticket, then sitting in $20 seats.”
       
Uh-huh. With home game attendance sometimes not much more than 10,000 so far this year, there are plenty of empty spaces, and you’d think the team would be delighted to see them filled. Even on a $1 ticket.
       
For more about the Brewers’ schedule, call (800) 933-7890 or go to www.milwaukeebrewers.com. 

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Roving camera operators are persuading Brewer fans to kiss or dance their way onto the big screen during home games, a fun exercise that the crowd seems to enjoy. Come July 23-24, filming will involve a big screen of a different kind.
      
Work on “Mr. 3,000,” a movie starring Bernie Mac as a fictitious baseball player who comes out of retirement, will make its way to Miller Park. Game and crowd scenes will be filmed when the Brewers play the Houston Astros.

Touchstone Pictures will film at other Milwaukee locations, too, in July and in August. For more about the project, call (800) 345-6947 or go to www.filmwisconsin.org.

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Minnesota spread its baseball fever this spring with the opening of “Play Ball!” at the Minnesota History Center, St. Paul. These are artifacts from 100 years and the personal collection of Fred Budde, a local resident. They have been loaned to the center for display through October.
       
For more, call (800) 657-3773 or go to www.mnhs.org. Unlike other exhibits mentioned in this column, admission to “Play Ball!” is free.