Dead Ball at the Met
Tucked away in the furthest reaches of its American wing, the Metropolitan Museum currently has a nifty little show on view. “Legends of the Dead Ball Era,” an exhibit of early-issue baseball cards, quietly opened in July as part of a wider push to celebrate this year’s All Star Game at Citi Field in Queens. It’s also the latest in a string of card shows sponsored by the Met over the last year. “Legends” follows directly on the heels of “A Sport for Every Girl,” which featured cards of women athletes from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Before that, the museum hosted a remarkable show celebrating the first black players to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball.
As the title of this most recent exhibit indicates, the cards on display date from the so-called “dead ball era,” a period when home runs were rarely hit, and when the small-change tactics of today’s game—bunting, stealing, and working bases on balls—were the chief engines of run production. It was also an era when unusually colorful and capable players like Shoeless Joe Jackson, Cy Young, Christy Mathewson and the heinous Ty Cobb roamed the diamond. In short, the Dead Era was also the first of the game’s great eras. It’s these players, and dozens of others that history has forgotten, whose cards currently grace the museum walls.
What the Met has chosen to exhibit for this show represents no more than a sliver of its total collection. The museum houses some 30,000 cards, an assortment widely considered second only in size and scope to that stored at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. The museum’s holding includes some treasures: gorgeous tobacco and confectionary cards dating as far back as the 1880s, the marvelous Cracker Jack series cards with their blood red backgrounds, and, most famously, the rarest card on earth—a T-206 Honus Wagner, the Holy Grail of baseball card collecting. More astonishing still, the collection represents the life’s work of a single man.