Jews account for a mere 170 of 18,174 athletes who have played in the major leagues (through the 2013 season, according to baseball-reference.com). So it’s not surprising that the new exhibit “Chasing Dreams: Baseball & Becoming American” at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia provides a reason to kvell.
While it may not have the grandeur of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in terms of the number of items on display, to paraphrase from a famous line in the 1952 film Pat and Mike, what’s there is choice.
The NMAJH exhibit includes more than 130 original artifacts — including an omer counter made from baseball bats —on loan from proud collectors. There are also films and historic game footage, innovative media interactives, a “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” listening station, an interactive game which allows users to be virtual outfielders, and a database of American Jewish ballplayers from Lipman Pike, the first Jewish professional ballplayer, to those who made their debut last season. The program is complemented by a companion coffee-table book and a dedicated microsite (chasingdreams.nmajh.org).
“Chasing Dreams” is mostly, although not exclusively, Jewish. A section of the museum honors players such as Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Juan Marichal, and Ichiro Suzuki. The museum-goer will notice the word “Jewish” is not even included in the title.
John Thorn, the official historian for Major League Baseball, served as a consultant for the exhibit and explained the decision. It all boiled down to “[t]he challenge of acceptance,” he said. “The challenge of being formerly persecuted in a way that Jews are not today, but that other minorities are. The challenge is how… do you become more of the same as other Americans, but retain your distinctiveness, your difference?”
“The overarching questions for all minorities is who’s in, who’s out, who gets to decide? And other minorities may be grappling with these issues more than Jews today. The great experiment is how you gets birds of a feather who do not flock together to share the same nest,” said Thorn, who was born to Polish Jews in a displaced persons camp in 1947.
“The story of American Jewish life has been a journey to becoming American. That said, one of the things that was really important to us in this exhibition was to contextualize that kind of Jewish experience of finding their way into the American mainstream with the experiences of other minority communities and baseball provides an amazing venue for that,” said Josh Perelman, cocurator of the exhibition in a phone interview with NJ Jewish News. “Baseball has generally been a sport that’s rather open to the participation of a variety of minority communities except for the period of segregation in which skin color prevented both African Americans and also dark skinned Caribbean and Latino players from participating. Nevertheless, that, too, is part of the American Jewish story and that, too, is part of baseball, and that too is part of the story of our pluralistic nation.”
In addition to the exhibit on baseball, the museum will hold a number of programs including lectures and a film series, “Chasing Dreams” runs through the end of the regular baseball season at the end of September and will then tour across the country.
For more on “Chasing Dreams,” including photos, videos, and audio interviews, visit njjewishnews.com/kaplanskorner.