June 17th, 2013

A New Baseball Discovery

Beloit's Middle College, built 1847

Beloit’s Middle College, built 1847

Baseball fever, catch it. When I am not thinking about the game, it can pop up insistently, reasserting its central position in my life. Let me tell you what happened to me just the other day.

I spent this past weekend in Wisconsin, at a reunion of the Beloit College class of 1968 (as well as many others ranging, in five-year intervals, from 1948 to 2003). I had been invited to give a talk, in the building where I had taken all of the courses that would run through my later life.

I had drafted most of the speech at home but left the finishing touches for my arrival on campus late Thursday afternoon. I checked into the Beloit Inn, tired from my flight to O’Hare and the drive from there to Beloit, just across the Illinois line. I unpacked and within an hour or so had added a few bits, mostly biographical. I figured my fellow Beloiters might wish to know how the mouthy kid they may have remembered came to devote four decades to documenting a children’s game. I wrote this: 

And after my Beloit years—as an English Lit major influenced by such titans of yore as Bink Noll, Bernie Morrissey, and Bob Ray—and a doctoral stint at Washington University in St. Louis, I came back to baseball. Or maybe I had never left it. As the chronically awful New York Mets marched toward an improbable championship in 1969, I found myself increasingly distracted from my dissertation on 17th century poet George Herbert, from which I turned away with more delight than guilt. 

George Herbert, The Temple, 1633

George Herbert, The Temple, 1633

The path was a twisty one, from flipping baseball cards against the stoop in the Bronx in 1953 to serving as MLB’s official historian 60 years later … and yet with the benefit of hindsight I can make it out as practically linear. It is good to be an old boy, continuing to care about so many of the same things that animated one’s youth.

Completing the speech, I thought to have an early dinner, minus the search for exotic cuisine. The hotel shared space with a steak joint (Merrill and Houston’s, named for an iron works founded in 1858) so I walked in—only to have my jaw drop. Perhaps four feet from my face was a gorgeous, seven-foot long, wood-type broadside printed in colors, promoting an upcoming event: the First Wisconsin Base Ball Tournament, commencing at Beloit on September 3, 1867. I knew nothing about this tournament (although I do now, from some rapid newspaper research in neighboring Janesville’s Gazette) and I certainly had not seen this ghostly vestige.

The entry to the restaurant was dim and I could not back away enough to get a clear image with my cellphone camera, but I managed a shot for reference value, at least. I figured I would follow up.

The waitress told me that she thought the poster was an original, on loan from the Beloit Historical Society (BHS), which had provided the nostalgically decorated steakhouse with a few three-dimensional objects as well as scores of photographic facsimiles. I raced through a very good dinner so that I could get back to my room and check the web; I needed to know if the BHS had a physical location and contact information. I located a BHS newsletter—“Confluence,” from Fall 2004—that noted the broadside’s acquisition but provided no particulars.

Beloit Historical Society, Lincoln Center

Beloit Historical Society, Lincoln Center

At noon the following day, as the BHS opened its doors, I called. Dwight Alton—the Facilities Manager and a professional photographer to boot—told me that he was certain the restaurant’s version was a copy and that the Society possessed the only original. It was on display at one of the Society’s buildings—the Lincoln Center, an archive and exhibition space so named because it formerly housed the Lincoln Junior High School. If I wished, I could see the original broadside that afternoon.

Beloit College alumni activities had just begun to percolate, but this choice was easy. The archives were in West Beloit, only a mile and a half from the hotel. Dwight even offered to shoot  a high-resolution image that he would transfer to a thumb drive.

At the door I was greeted not only by Dwight but also by Paul Kerr, the Executive Director. He told me that the broadside had resided undisturbed for a century in the attic of an elderly woman from South Beloit and that it had been there since long before her time. It arrived at the BHS in crumpled and bent form, folded over several times—yet it remained intact. Conservation efforts had restored it to a nearly pristine state, and because the broadside had slumbered in the dark all those years, the colors had seemed to lose none of their vibrancy. Dwight Alton’s photograph appears here courtesy of the Beloit Historical Society, its size and resolution somewhat reduced for the web.

First Annual State Base Ball Tournament, Beloit, Wisconsin 1867. Courtesy Beloit Historical Society.

First Annual State Base Ball Tournament, Beloit, Wisconsin 1867. Courtesy Beloit Historical Society.

Paul asked me if I believed the broadside was important or had monetary value. I assured him of both, and that the artistic value alone would incite appeal. We both recognized, however, that such thoughts were academic, because as a nonprofit organization dating to 1910, the BHS would never test the auction waters with an item of such strong Beloit relevance.

In a way, that’s too bad; I think I have an idea of what price this might fetch and I’ll never have that notion validated. The Society’s acquisition, casually displayed in facsimile for restaurant patrons who rush by it on their way to dinner, is the oldest surviving baseball broadside in existence.

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