"Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American" at Skirball Cultural Center

Hank Greenberg hitting a third-inning homer against the Philadelphia Phillies, April 29, 1947. Donated by Corbis.
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Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American celebrates the sport as a unifying force in American life and the remarkable players who achieved so much more than batting averages and stolen bases. Now on view through Oct. 30, 2016 at the Skirball Cultural Center, Chasing Dreams is the first large-scale exhibition to illustrate America’s national pastime as a pathway for American Jews and other immigrant and minority communities - including Italians, Asians, Latinos and African Americans - to become American.

Photo of Jackie Robinson signing autographs, from "Chasing Dreams" at Skirball Cultural Center
Jackie Robinson signing autographs on the first day of spring training with the Brooklyn Dodgers, March 6, 1948. Donated by Corbis.

From Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax to Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Fernando Valenzuela and Ichiro Suzuki, these players didn’t just play the game - they changed it. For generations of American Jews and other minorities, they served as athletic, cultural and ethical role models. Through more than 130 original objects - including game-worn uniforms, films and historic footage, awards, baseball cards, and signed memorabilia - the exhibition pays tribute to these major league game changers and, just as importantly, the community of fans they inspired.

Chasing Dreams weaves together baseball history with stories of immigration and integration into American life,” explains Robert Kirschner, Skirball Museum Director. "It illustrates what it is about the game that has resonated so deeply with diverse immigrants and minorities since the nineteenth century - whether on the field or in the stands - helping them to navigate American culture, connect to the nation’s collective values and traditions, and feel at home in American society. We hope that it will deepen our visitors’ appreciation of the role that baseball has played in furthering equality and social justice.”

Fernando Valenzuela’s warm-up jacket from "Chasing Dreams" at Skirball Cultural Center
Fernando Valenzuela’s warm-up jacket. Courtesy of the Baseball Reliquary. Photo by Robert Wedemeyer.

Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American was organized by the National Museum of American Jewish History, in Philadelphia, PA. For its presentation at the Skirball, the exhibition is augmented by an array of rare Dodger memorabilia. Erin Clancey, Skirball Chief Curator, explains, “In addition to the Koufax items that will come from the original exhibition, it was important that we add even more treasured objects relating to our hometown heroes, such as the warm-up jacket of Dodger Fernando Valenzuela, the Mexican American pitcher who became a transnational sensation when he threw a 2-0 shutout against the Houston Astros on opening day 1981. His unique pitching style and charisma made him an instant celebrity.”

Sandy Koufax after pitching a perfect game, his fourth career no-hitter, on Sept. 9th, 1965
Sandy Koufax after pitching a perfect game, his fourth career no-hitter. | Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Dodgers

Other rarely displayed Dodger artifacts include game balls signed by Sandy Koufax after his four no-hitters (including his 1965 perfect game) and a 1960s era model of Dodger Stadium, which owner Walter O’Malley kept in his office until his passing in 1979. Also on view are signed jerseys from pitcher Chan Ho Park (the first player from South Korea to play Major League Baseball) and Hideo Nomo, the pioneering Japanese pitcher whose historic signing opened the door for more than 50 players born in Japan to play in Major League Baseball.

Gallery Walkthrough

Organized into four key sections, the exhibition explores baseball’s legends and myths, its heroes and flops, its struggles and its moments of triumph. In addition to its superstars, Chasing Dreams spotlights baseball’s extended family of vendors, team owners, minor leaguers, amateur players, scouts, broadcasters, journalists, novelists - and especially fans. Beginning with the Civil War era and continuing to the present day, the exhibition looks at how baseball has served as an arena in which values, identity, race, and ethnicity have been projected, contested, and occasionally solidified.

INTRODUCTION

Ewer presented to Barney Dreyfuss, from "Chasing Dreams" at Skirball Cultural Center
Ewer presented to Barney Dreyfuss in celebration of his twenty-fifth anniversary as owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, 1924. Courtesy of the Dreyfuss Family, Winston-Salem, NC.

The Introduction establishes the exhibition’s principal themes and immerses visitors in the early history of the game and its key figures. These include 19th-century player Lipman Pike; Broadway actress Helen Dauvray, after whom the championship Dauvray Cup was named; and Barney Dreyfuss, co-inventor of the World Series.

SHAPING IDENTITY

Photo of Hank Greenberg and Joe DiMaggio from "Chasing Dreams" at Skirball Cultural Center
Hank Greenberg and Joe DiMaggio. Donated by Corbis.

Using baseball as a lens through which to learn and understand the values of a rapidly changing nation, Shaping Identity profiles players such as Hank Greenberg and Joe DiMaggio, who demonstrated their mettle on the field while distinguishing themselves with their blend of patriotism and cultural pride. Also highlighted in this section are Moe Berg, who was not only a Major League Baseball (MLB) catcher, but also a spy for the United States government; and Thelma “Tiby” Eisen of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, who proved that women could play at a competitive level.

OVERCOMING ADVERSITY

Photo of Ichiro Suzuki from "Chasing Dreams" at Skirball Cultural Center
Ichiro Suzuki. KeithAllisonPhoto.com.

Baseball has long been intertwined with the history of racial, ethnic, and gender integration. Beginning with Jackie Robinson’s debut, Overcoming Adversity includes notable barrier-breakers such as Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Ichiro Suzuki, and Justine Siegal, the first woman to pitch major league batting practice. Special attention is paid to Sandy Koufax, whose unparalleled athleticism yielded millions of flashbulb memories and whose decision not to pitch the first game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur unexpectedly made him a hero.

FAMILY AND COMMUNITY

The final section, Family and Community, underscores how baseball has impacted communities, shaped relationships within families, and established new, personal meanings for generations of fans - whether in Little League, at summer camp, or through ballpark concessions. This section features fan memorabilia and an illustrated timeline of notable events in baseball history.

The gallery also provides opportunities for interactive fun. Visitors can stare down baseball’s heaviest hitters in “Catching History,” a simulation game created specifically for the exhibition in which they “field” balls and learn facts and trivia for every play. An interactive, touchscreen database entitled “People of the Game” provides encyclopedic information on approximately 200 Jews in the major leagues - each represented by a baseball card, along with biographical and statistical data - plus the opportunity to build one’s own virtual “dream team.” Finally, a major interactive station invites visitors to don a reproduction Sandy Koufax jersey, step onto the mound, and try their hand at pitching like the indomitable Dodger ace.

Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American is now on view at the Skirball Cultural Center through Oct. 30, 2016. For more information, visit the Skirball website.

 

Related Exhibition: "The Art of Ben Sakoguchi"

Ben Sakoguchi, "Banda de Hermanos Brand," 2008. Acrylic on canvas.
Ben Sakoguchi, "Banda de Hermanos Brand," 2008. Acrylic on canvas.

Chasing Dreams will be complemented by the companion exhibition The Unauthorized History of Baseball in 100-Odd Paintings: The Art of Ben Sakoguchi, featuring the work of renowned Los Angeles artist Ben Sakoguchi (b. 1938). Through a series of colorful, captivating, and often provocative paintings, the artist portrays true stories of baseball players and communities that have been overlooked, forgotten, or misrepresented. It will be on view through Sept. 4, 2016.

Fascinated by the graphic design of orange crate labels of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Sakoguchi has used their detailed, small format as a creative template. The labels’ romanticized vision of the California landscape has provided a playful visual language with which he can address serious themes. The orange crate label format is also a nod to his father, a Japanese immigrant who owned a grocery store. Though he and his family were incarcerated along with more than 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II, the artist’s father was a great believer in the “American Dream”and a dedicated fan of baseball.

More than 150 paintings are grouped into themes ranging from “High Jinks” and “Steroids” to “Segregated Baseball” and “Global Baseball.” Throughout the series, Sakoguchi illuminates the many challenges minority groups have faced, both on and off the field, while also satirizing some of the more absurd episodes in baseball history, from Pete Rose posing in underwear ads to players’ flamboyant hairstyles and mustaches.

 

Public Programs

Hamilton "Ham" Porter in "The Sandlot"
Hamilton "Ham" Porter | Photo courtesy of "The Sandlot," Facebook

During the run of the two exhibitions, the Skirball will present several related public programs, including outdoor screenings of baseball favorites from recent decades, such as The Sandlot and Field of Dreams, as well as Tuesday matinees of 1940s and 1950s baseball classics, such as The Stratton Story and Take Me Out to the Ballgame.

At a special UnCabaret comedy night hosted by Beth Lapides, baseball and sports will be the inspiration for original works to be performed by comedic talents such as Erin Foley and the Sklar Brothers (line-up subject to change). Especially designed for families, the Family Dugout will offer children and adult museumgoers a relaxing place to spend time together and share baseball memories. At the Skirball’s annual summertime museum sleepover, baseball-inspired activities and an after-hours visit to Chasing Dreams will keep families busy overnight.

More than 25 gallery tours have been booked this spring for local students in Grades 5–12; more field trips will be scheduled in September and October. During their visit to the gallery, the students will explore baseball as a platform for civil rights and social change.

May 19: Inside Baseball with Larry King and Tommy Lasorda

On Thursday, May 19, join media icon and baseball enthusiast Larry King and legendary Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda for a dynamic and expansive conversation about baseball in L.A. King, author of the book Why I Love Baseball and a Dodgers fan since both the team and he called Brooklyn home, and Lasorda, who led the Dodgers to the World Series twice during his career, will share their passion for the sport and recall some of their favorite memories of baseball’s greatest legends. A Q&A follows the program. Tickets are now on sale at the Skirball Center website.