One of the unique qualities of the game of baseball is that the vast array of objects associated with it lends itself so easily to collecting. In fact, a baseball fan has a veritable cornucopia of choices to consider when beginning a collection. Uniforms; equipment such as bats, balls, or gloves; relics from baseball stadiums of the past; trophies and awards; sheet music of baseball songs; baseball cards and autographs; ticket stubs and World Series and All-Star Game programs; even baseball-themed jewelry – any one of these categories may yield a treasure trove of objects and evoke powerful memories for the true fan.
– Jane Forbes Clark, Chairman
The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
As every baseball collector knows, few things can parallel the powerful memories and emotions that are evoked when we hold a ball that has been signed by Ty Cobb, run our hands over the barrel of a bat once swung by Babe Ruth, or touch a jersey that had actually been worn by Lou Gehrig.
Lifelong collector Stephen Wong knows that as well as anyone. He also knows that these treasured items can do much more than simply stir memories and emotions – they can possess inspiring, life changing qualities.
On September 27, 2005, Smithsonian Books and HarperCollins Publishers will release Wong's book, Smithsonian Baseball: Inside the World's Finest Private Collections, that chronicles his two and a half year odyssey, in which Wong left the high powered corporate world to seek out twenty-one of baseball's most devoted collectors.
The result of his journey with photographer Susan Einstein, the grandniece of Albert Einstein, is a magnificent, 296-page book that features revealing stories and over 350 photographs of the very best private collections of baseball memorabilia in existence, and the men and women who have amassed them. From a rare 1848 copy of the first written rules of the game to the jersey Roger Maris wore when he hit his 61st home run of the 1961 season to break Babe Ruth's single-season home run record of 60 set back in 1927 to Mark McGwire's 1998 record-shattering home-run ball, these world-class, museum-quality collections span the entire history of our national pastime.
Serious collectors and casual fans alike are usually amazed to learn that many of baseball's most historically significant artifacts are not in the possession of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, but rather in private collections. That means that a tremendous amount of American's collective history is not available to the public to view.
That dilemma ends with the publication of Wong's book that will serve as a printed repository for the incredible memorabilia that resides in homes, offices and safety deposit boxes throughout the United States. Along with beautifully photographed images, the book also offers wonderfully rich essays that provide context to the historical background of the artifacts and highlight the passion and motivations behind each of the collectors. According to Wong, "There is also a treasure-trove of complementary information in over 350 captions which not only describe the objects and memorabilia, but also provide insight into the players or events they commemorate, or the era from which they originate. In this way, for neophytes or aficionados alike, the book offers an entertaining lens through which to view the history of the game."
"Some of the collections are all-encompassing," says Wong. "Others focus on a specific era or type of memorabilia – game-used bats, for example, or folk art, or celluloid pin-back buttons. One collection features only relics and memorabilia from the grand old ballparks of the past; another comprises items from baseball's overseas exhibition tours of the late 19th and early 20th centuries."
These collections also contain some of the most valuable vintage photographs and rare advertising displays, as well as the most comprehensive collection of World Series scorecards and programs dating back to the inaugural series in 1903. You will see significant trophies like Roy Campanella's National League MVP award from the 1955 season, and some of the finest World Series press pins in existence, along with the most sought-after baseball cards, including the famous PSA NM-MT 8 T206 Honus Wagner and the highest PSA graded set of 1915 Cracker Jacks, and a PSA Gem Mint 10 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle. The beautifully designed coffee-table book also includes what Wong has called "tips" essays in which the hobby's leading experts offer advice on collecting and authenticating artifacts, and share their ideas on how to build and organize your own game-used equipment, memorabilia or card collection.
Wong, a lifelong collector of rare and historically significant baseball artifacts, has focused his collection on the relationships that underlie the game's greatest pairings and groupings – items that represent the bonds that were formed among two or more players who went on to define an era: Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, and Frank Chance; -Dizzy and Daffy Dean; Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, and the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers, to name a few. He has served as an advisor for many of the world's top collectors, and is currently lending his expertise to an upcoming exhibition at the Chicago Historical Society, celebrating the glory days of Chicago Cubs and White Sox baseball in the early 20th century. A graduate of Stanford Law School, Wong spent ten years working in finance and investment banking and is currently an Executive Director with Goldman Sachs.
The first chapter of Wong's book, titled Genesis, highlights the Corey R. Shanus collection of 19th-Century memorabilia. From there readers are taken on an emotional journey through the amassments of the most legendary names in sports collecting – Gary Cypres, Brian Seigel, Dr. Richard Angrist, Nick Depace, Marshall Fogel, Penny Marshall, Charles Merkel, Bill DeWitt, Jr. and Bill Mastro to name a few.
The bringing together of these collecting greats can only be described as ingenious. And, as with all ingenious ideas, now that Wong's book will be published on September 27, 2005, people will most likely wonder why it had never been done before. Although the idea for the book, like all ingenious ideas, is simple enough, in order to make such a project a reality, the right person must guide it. Wong is clearly the right guy for the job as he intricately weaves his love and passion for the game into a tapestry of emotions that will consume the dedicated baseball fan and intrigue those who perhaps just catch a game or two come October.
The book is clearly a labor of love – a work that gives the reader a sense that Wong has been caught up in an epiphany like the one Ray Kinsella experiences in the 1989 film Field of Dreams. Instead of giving up his farm to build a field, Wong's muse saw him turn his back on the corporate world and take off on a two-and-a-half-year odyssey that took him from coast-to-coast in a quixotic search for the collectors who have reached the same legendary status in the collecting world as the Gehrigs, Ruths, DiMaggios, Aarons, and Mantles have in the nation's ballparks.
So, just who is this man who heard the words: "If you write it, they will read"?
To answer that question SMR spoke with Wong from his home in Hong Kong :place> as he prepares for the release of his book.
SMR: As curious as you were to find out what makes big time collectors tick, we're interested in learning more about you.
SW: My parents were originally from Hong Kong . When my father was a young man he left Hong Kong for Canada to study to become a neurosurgeon. I was born in Montreal in 1967 and, when I was a baby, my family moved to the San Francisco BayArea after my father received a post as Associate Professor of Neurosurgery at Stanford University Medical School . As the years went by, my parents involved me in sports so I joined the Los Altos Little League where I became an avid 2nd baseman. I was a big Giants fan, a passionate baseball card collector, and I loved attending baseball games at Candlestick Park.
In 1982, my family moved back to Hong Kong but I continued my studies in the U.S. at The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey . From there I studied economics at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and then got my law degree from Stanford University in 1992. I have been working in Hong Kong in finance and investment banking for the past thirteen years.
SMR: So baseball was an important part of your life from the time you were very young.
SW: I have always loved baseball since I was a little boy. But, in the fall of 1982, while I was at Lawrenceville, the game became more important to me. I had been conducting research for a history paper in the basement of the school's library when I came upon some of the school's old yearbooks dating back to the late 1800s. As I was going through them I found one from around 1911 and, as I was flipping through the pages, I came across an old newspaper clipping: it was Franklin P. Adams' poem Baseball's Sad Lexicon about the trio of Joe Tinkers, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance. I was fascinated by the lilting rythm of the poem and it led me to wanting to know more about them and other old time players from the early 20th century.
I bought every book I could find on baseball. I became fascinated by its rich history and heritage and the galaxy of fascinating characters, many of whom are as popular today as they were way back then. It was then that I really began to appreciate the notion that baseball is a mosaic of America 's social progression, culture and values. Interwoven within the fabric of the game's illustrious history are characteristics that deeply reflect the very soul of America , both good and bad: the spirit of invention and ingenuity, heroism, sacrifice, greed, bigotry, compassion, greatness, and failure.
SMR: Can you describe what the game of baseball means to you?
SW: I'm a romantic when it comes to history. To me, baseball represents a constant reminder of a time from which so many of our collective blessings flow. Today, in our technologically fast-paced world, the romance of the game has become lost in the fog of progress. Baseball has become more and more corporate over the years and the game has lost some of its soul. Today there seems to be so much of a dislocation between fans and the players. The game's history provides me with a sense of the comfort of continuity and generational connectivity. It allows us all to hold on to a piece of our childhood.
SMR: Your own collection is a unique tribute to baseball's great pairings and groupings. Do you have a favorite piece?
SW: (long pause) I cannot narrow it down to one piece. It's the collection in its entirety that I enjoy... My interest in collecting was shaped by the baseball books I read and the compelling descriptions of plays and players. I yearned to become closer to the larger-than-life characters that those writers so eloquently portrayed.
As I learned more about the kinds of artifacts that were available to collect, and about where to find them, I realized that, for me, collecting the game-worn uniforms and game-used bats of these ballplayers would best enable me to forge that connection. But I also felt it was important to complement the uniforms and bats with the items that had been created to honor the players. Accordingly, I started collecting all kinds of memorabilia as well.
I decided to focus my entire collection on the profound relationships that have bonded some of baseball's most legendary "pairings": those pairings of two or more ballplayers that largely define a team's dynasty within a particular era of baseball history. I was interested in the unique bond that linked certain ballplayers to each other, a bond that could be manifested through the meter requirements of a poem (Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, and Frank Chance); through blood fraternity (Dizzy and Daffy Dean); friendship (Bobby Doerr, Ted Williams, Dominic DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky); achievement (Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams); and social integration (members of the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers).
The Collection evokesone might even say embodiesthe emotions that these teammates and peers shared throughout their entire careers, throughout the many hours they spent together on the diamond; in dugouts and locker rooms; on trolley cars, and trains, and at diners, banquets, speak-easies, bars, and hotels.
SMR: What inspired you to seek out the country's most significant baseball collectors and do a book about them?
SW: Being as that I have always been so enamored with baseball literature, I have always wanted to write a book about baseball. In late 2002, I left my investment banking job after 6 years. I was completely burned out, SARS was hitting Hong Kong, and the war was going on in Iraq . My own life was at loose ends. One evening in January 2003, I remember going into my bedroom to cheer myself up with some red wine, Duke Ellington and baseball. I picked up a copy of Lawrence S. Ritter's book The Glory of Their Times : The Story of Baseball Told By the Men Who Played It and while reading the preface, I became inspired to do something similar to what he did between 1961 and 1966, when he searched out old time players and chronicled their stories. I felt it was time that I took my own baseball journey to replenish my spirits. So I drafted a business plan to visit and revel with people who felt the same way I did about baseball. People who are deeply passionate about the game and have spent the lion's share of their lives collecting things pertaining to the game's history. The breadth of the items that are out there in personal collections is staggering and I wanted to see them for myself and share them, along with the emotions they bring about, with readers who would have no other way to see these artifacts. . I wanted to share various segments of baseball history through the objects in the collections . . . I felt this would be a more entertaining way to appreciate the game's rich heritage.
SMR: Other than the obvious love of baseball, did you find a thread of commonality with these legendary collectors?
SW: Each and every collector is deeply passionate, not just about baseball, but about its history. They all take great pride in helping preserve the artifacts that commemorate the national pastime. I found that they each had a great appreciation and respect for what the game embodies and that they were truly privileged to have the opportunity to preserve and enjoy the fabulous relics. Most of them approach collecting as a family endeavor, finding great joy in sharing their collections with their children.
SMR: During your journey you learned so much about the hobby's "heavyweight" collectors. What did you learn about yourself?
SW: I learned that nothing is impossible if you put your heart and soul into it. I never imagined that I would ever have had the privilege of writing a book of this magnitude for the Smithsonian Institution and HarperCollins Publishers. There is unspeakable joy in creating something incredible from nothing and seeing it come to fruition. I always dreamed about doing something like that on my own. This book proved, to me, that I am capable of doing that.
SMR: Did setting out on this journey and writing this book change you in any way?
SW: I've become a more balanced person. I have a better perspective on life. I was always confident in my abilities, but not necessarily outside the "corporate" environment where you are surrounded by so much infrastructure. There were many, many lonely days and nights where I faced my constraints and anxieties as a first-time author. Finishing this book has given me a great sense of accomplishment and an inner-strength that I never experienced before.
SMR: Through your two and a half year journey you certainly put together a fabulous collection of memories. Anything in particular that stands out?
SW: (laughing) EVERYTHING! Really, just everything stood out. But there was one night I do especially remember. My photographer, Susan, and I were in Clarksdale , Mississippi , doing a story on Charlie Merkel's fabulous vintage baseball card collection. Charlie and his wife Donna invited us out for dinner and we were thinking 'what kind of restaurant would there be in this little town?' Anyway, we ended up going to what was a very nice restaurant and as I was looking over the menu when someone came up from behind me and put their hand on my shoulder, and this deep baritone voice said "Nei hou ma" which is "hello" in Cantonese. When I turned around I was shocked to see that it was Morgan Freeman.
I found out that he was from Mississippi and that he owned the restaurant. In little-known Clarksdale, Mississippi , we met a Hollywood legend! Besides that, the trip was all about serendipity. On many occasions, Susan and I felt that a higher power was guiding us on our odyssey. It was grueling – twenty-one cities and towns – loading and unloading heavy photo equipment – long drives – in and out of airports and hotels. It was very draining, both physically and mentally. This project was a big undertaking – Herculean! After it was over, Susan put together a photo album of our journey, some of the photos of which are featured in this article. I think when I put the journey in perspective the most rewarding thing was spending time with the collectors and their families – really getting to know them. They were all very gracious and hospitable. Being with people who share your passion is just a slice of heaven.
SMR: What about the actual items. Was there any specific piece that had an especially profound impact on you?
SW: It's hard to say any one thing but if you pin me down I will say I remember getting goose bumps on three occasions. The first came when I held a ball that was used in a game between the New York Knickerbockers and the Gotham Club of New York in 1853 from the Corey R. Shanus collection. That ball was actually used before baseball became an organized sport. It had been touched by people who were essentially the pioneers of the game—before baseball was a professional sport.
The second thing that moved me was holding Shoeless Joe Jackson's game-used bat from Dr. Richard Angrist's collection. It is the only fully, factory documented Jackson :place> :City> gamer in existence. There are just not words to describe what it was like to hold that bat. The third thing was holding Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson's jerseys from Nick Depace's collection. There were remnants of bloodstains on the shoulder of Jackie's jersey. Touching and feeling those magnificent garments are as close as we will ever be able to get to these legends of the game. That is the thing you have to remember about the items in these collections. They are tied to real people or real facilities.
What I tried to do in this book was to get behind the objects to the real people – the players and the collectors who value these things. I want this book to have an appeal to people who are not necessarily baseball fanatics or collectors. I want the casual fan to also be able to share in the passion and the emotions we collectors appreciate.
*Smithsonian Baseball: Inside the World's Finest Private Collections is a Smithsonian Book published by HarperCollins Publishers. The book, destined to become a collectible in its own right, retails for $29.95 and will be available in bookstores on September 27, 2005. Pre-release orders can be made at Amazon.com
Photos Courtesy Stephen Wong and HarperCollins Publishers
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