New Book Shows Off The Earliest Relics Of Baseball Baseball Americana: Treasures from the Library of Congress reveals early baseball artifacts housed in the world's largest collection in Washington, D.C. It includes a diary entry from 1786 with a reference to "baste ball" and photographs of female players known as "bloomer girls."
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New Book Shows Off The Earliest Relics Of Baseball

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New Book Shows Off The Earliest Relics Of Baseball

New Book Shows Off The Earliest Relics Of Baseball

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

(Soundbite of library)

BLOCK: High up in the splendid Great Hall of the Library of Congress, above the giant marble Corinthian columns, above the sculptures of Minerva and George Washington, above the many tributes to poets and artists and scientists, way up on the ceiling, you'll find, if you're looking, something quite astonishing.

Ms. SUSAN REYBURN (Co-author, "Baseball Americana: Treasures from the Library of Congress): Here in the corner, we have our - what we call our naked 19-century baseball team.

BLOCK: Yes, indeed. Nine naked men with a bat and a baseball.

Ms. REYBURN: One's holding a catcher's chest protector, another one has a catcher's mask, but that's all they're wearing. Otherwise, they're stark naked. 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.

BLOCK: So baseball Americana right there on the ceiling of the Great Hall in the Library of Congress.

Ms. REYBURN: Right there on the ceiling since 1897. It's been there since the beginning of this building.

BLOCK: And naked baseball at that.

Ms. REYBURN: Naked baseball.

BLOCK: That painting is one of the images in the new coffee table book, "Baseball Americana: Treasures from the Library of Congress." And co-author Susan Reyburn met us at the library to show us some of their remarkable archives. It's the largest baseball collection in the world: photographs, drawings, cartoons, sheet music, baseball cards and from 1786, a diary - its yellowed pages filled with a fancy, flowing script.

Ms. REYBURN: This is the earliest known written reference to baseball in America.

BLOCK: Long before Abner Doubleday's mythical invention of the game in 1839 in Cooperstown, a student at the College of New Jersey named John Rhea Smith wrote in his diary about playing baste ball, B-A-S-T-E.

Ms. REYBURN: He says: A fine day: played baste-ball, but am beaten, for I missed both catching and striking the ball.

And think about this, 1786. We've just gotten over our Revolutionary War, and already we're starting to see the national pastime showing up on a college campus.

BLOCK: Batter up.

Ms. REYBURN: Batter up is right.

(Soundbite of library)

BLOCK: Okay. We're going into the center vault here. We've come upstairs to the library's prints and photographs division.

Mr. PHIL MICHEL (Co-author, "Baseball Americana: Treasures from the Library of Congress): So I went nuts this morning. I couldn't - we were just pulling more and more.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Phil Michel is another co-author of "Baseball Americana," and he dug deep into the printed archive to pull out some favorites: giant, panoramic shots and vintage baseball cards from the early 1900s and early photos of women ballplayers.

Ms. REYBURN: And you start to see the bloomer girls. These were teams of women, often with a couple of men on the team serving as ringers, that barnstormed the country beginning about in the 1890s, and this lasted into the 1930s. And the bloomer girls' teams, as you can see in some of - we've got a couple of pictures. Here's the star bloomer girls' baseball club of Indianapolis. We have also the Boston National Bloomer Girls.

You can pick out that some of the less attractive women are actually men. And in some cases, they would appear on the field in wigs. And the idea was to try to pass themselves off. Some very famous ballplayers, including Smoky Joe Wood, Chief Bender, who went on to great Major League success, got their start as bloomer girls.

Some of these games tended to have sort of a sideshow-like character. But as time went by, it became a much more serious endeavor and a much more white-knuckle game that was being played as opposed to just a sort of a circus-like performance. And it was a huge success across the country. The fact that it lasted for 30 years or more is a testament to that.

BLOCK: And there were women, way back when, playing on men's teams. Phil Michel pulls out a glass plate negative of a determined young woman holding a bat from 1910, and with it, a newspaper account.

Mr. MICHEL: Ms. Myrtle Rowe, 18 years old, has signed to cover first base for the Antler Athletic Club of New Kensington, a semi-professional team. This is Ms. Rowe's third year with Antlers, and both fielding and batting averages are said to have ranked towards the top of the semi-professionals in this neighborhood. The girl plays in a uniform of the club, her costume being a short sleeve, loose-fitting blouse and a short skirt. Short, of course, being a relative term.

BLOCK: Being almost down to her ankles, yes. I was fascinated to read about Myrtle Rowe in this book. You've got this incredible picture of her, and she was playing with the men. The amazing thing, she's 18 in this picture - it was taken in 1910. She's already been playing with the team for three years.

Ms. REYBURN: That's right.

BLOCK: She was playing semi-pro ball...

Ms. REYBURN: As a teenager...

BLOCK: At age 15.

Ms. REYBURN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. We also have images of Jackie Mitchell, who in the 1930s struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition game. She got her start as a teenager.

BLOCK: You mentioned Jackie Mitchell, and you have the picture there of her shaking hands with the two men she had struck out.

Ms. REYBURN: Right. The Yankees were in Chattanooga after spring training, were on their way back to New York, had this exhibition game scheduled. She was 17. And the first two batters that she faces, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, struck out both. After this happened, the commissioner of baseball was not pleased, found this to be a very embarrassing thing, banned her and women from the game. And, so, that was the end of women in Major League Baseball.

BLOCK: Now, when you were working on "Baseball Americana," did you have a moment where you sort of felt like, wow, I really understand this game in a different way now.

Ms. REYBURN: Seeing the role of women in baseball as participants - and not just in backyard baseball, but in organized baseball from such an early time -seeing pictures of women's college teams going back to the 1860s, immediately after the Civil War, seeing so many organized teams playing each other early on, way before "A League of Their Own," you know, which was the All-American Girls Professional Baseball team, that wasn't founded until 1943 in response to men leaving the major leagues for service in World War II, but that women from the mid-19th century on were playing an organized game. I thought that was delightful to see that and that we had a lot of documentation to show it.

BLOCK: And Phil, was there an ah-ha moment for you, just something that really caught you off-guard, took you by surprise?

Mr. MICHEL: There was one particular picture we found. It showed Babe Ruth lying on the field near the stands. So the act of discovery and learning what happened during the particular play, he had been running down a foul ball, crashed into the side of the cement stands and was laying passed out, prone, and in the scene, you can see the fans looking over, concerned. And it just seemed such a real journalistic moment rather than these mythic views you tended to see of Babe Ruth, even in film footage, where he's trotting across bases after hitting a home run.

It just felt very real and pure and documentary in a way that - not just by putting the players up on pedestals as heroes, but as actual hard-working guys who got dirty, had character and color in their faces and made plays crashing into walls. I thought it was wonderful.

BLOCK: And knocked themselves out literally.

Mr. MICHEL: Knocked themselves out, yeah.

BLOCK: You have this image in the book, and you tell the story about what happened next - he was revived.

Mr. MICHEL: He was revived. He not only finished that game, he went on to play the second game of the double-header. So they tried to talk him out of continuing on, but forward he went.

BLOCK: No stopping the Bambino.

Mr. MICHEL: No stopping the Bambino.

BLOCK: Phil Michel and Susan Reyburn, thanks to you both.

Ms. REYBURN: Thank you. This has been a pleasure.

Mr. MICHEL: Thanks, Melissa.

BLOCK: Phil Michel and Susan Reyburn are two of the co-authors of the book "Baseball Americana: Treasures from the Library of Congress." You can see images of the bloomer girls, Myrtle Rowe and the (unintelligible) Babe Ruth at

(Soundbite of song, "There Used to be a Ballpark")

Mr. FRANK SINATRA (Singer): (Singing) Yes, there used to be a ballpark right here.

SIEGEL: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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