PSS

PULTENEY STREET SURVEY - Spring 2020

Wong

The National Pastime

by Andrew Wickenden '09

This summer, on the heels of the Washington Nationals World Series win, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. will present one of the most ambitious exhibitions to date, “Baseball: America’s Home Run.” Stephen Wong ’89, a life-long collector and one of the world’s foremost authorities on baseball history and its artifacts, is an honorary senior advisor and major lender to the exhibition. Wong has generously shared items from his private collection — many of the game’s most historically significant uniforms and other treasured collectibles — for this exhibition, which opens its three-year run on June 27.


Baseball has been a fixture of American life for nearly as long as the country has existed, and yet “Baseball: America’s Home Run” is the “first major baseball exhibition the Smithsonian has ever put on,” says Stephen Wong ’89.

The author of Smithsonian Baseball: Inside the World’s Finest Private Collections (2005) and Game Worn: Baseball Treasures from the Game’s Greatest Heroes and Moments (2016), Wong has spent decades studying baseball history, collecting and documenting rare memorabilia and organizing important baseball-themed exhibits around the country. The Smithsonian’s, however, is special — and worth the wait.

“There hasn’t been an exhibition of this magnitude ever,” explains Wong, who has been working for two years with the museum’s curator and administrators to craft the exhibit’s themes and script. “This is the biggest and most important project of my lifelong journey of baseball collecting. Writing the books was a huge privilege and something I’ll cherish my entire life, but to put together a museum project of this magnitude, to work with the Smithsonian and the special people there, and lend items from my collection — this is the absolute pinnacle for me.”

As chairman of investment banking for Hong Kong at Goldman Sachs, and co-head of the bank’s real estate group for Asia Pacific ex Japan, Wong says “it’s important to have passion and hobbies in life outside of work and family life. You raise a family, have your day job, it’s a mad scramble to be successful, but it’s really important to have that balance and that’s what baseball and this journey has done for me.”

Wong has always been a die-hard baseball fan. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, he collected baseball cards as a kid and went to Giants games at Candlestick Park. When a friend showed him a 1959 Topps baseball card of Roger Maris, issued before Maris’s longstanding single-season homerun record with the Yankees in 1961, Wong had an important early glimpse of the magic of rare memorabilia, “the aesthetics and nostalgia” aspect of collecting.

Later, while researching a high school history paper, he happened upon Franklin Pierce Adams’ poem, “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon,” bemoaning a double play by the early 20th century Chicago Cubs (Adams was a rabid New York Giants fan). Tracing the origins of that poem, which Wong can now recite from memory, led him to Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times, revered as one of the pivotal works of baseball historiography.

Ritter’s book was not only “the genesis of my foray into learning about baseball history,” Wong says, but the template for his own first book. In the early 1960s, Ritter traveled the country interviewing the aging great ball players of the first two decades of the 20th century. In the same spirit, Wong traveled to 21 of the most renowned private collections in the world, compiling stories and photographs of baseball’s rarest artifacts.

“No one had showcased these beautiful pieces of Americana for the public to appreciate,” Wong says. “I felt strongly and passionately about the artifacts that commemorate baseball and its heritage, and wanted to share that with the country.”

Since then, he has written a follow-up, Game Worn, which studies and features the hobby’s most coveted game-worn uniforms and the stories of the players who wore them. But like his books, the Smithsonian exhibit isn’t just about the artifacts and “it goes well beyond commemorating a sport — it goes to the notion of commemorating the soul of America and baseball’s pivotal role in that,” says Wong, who has lent upwards of 60 pieces from his own collection that commemorate the history of the game and the nation.

The exhibit features the Brooklyn Dodgers road uniform Jackie Robinson wore throughout his second season with the Dodgers (1948); the New York Yankees team jacket Lou Gehrig wore at Briggs Stadium in Detroit on May 2, 1939, when he took himself out of the lineup after playing 2,130 consecutive games (a major league record that stood until Cal Ripken broke it in 1995); and the bat Babe Ruth used during the 1920 season, when he “singlehandedly saved baseball,” Wong says, after the tragic 1919 World Series Black Sox scandal drove fans from the stadiums and nearly ruined the game.

French-American historian Jacque Barzun once wrote, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” From baseball’s early beginnings in the 19th century to the Civil Rights movement and beyond, Wong says “when you go to this exhibition, you not only will appreciate the artifacts commemorating America’s most sacred sport, but also a kaleidoscope of American life.”

stamp

The Smithsonian's blockbuster exhibition on baseball at the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. explores America’s national pastime. Featuring artifacts and stamps commemorating great players and historic moments, such as the Babe Ruth stamp shown above, and drawing on original artwork and archival material from around the globe, the exhibition approaches the story from a unique, worldwide perspective. The display of stamps and mail will be complemented by rare artifacts loaned by other Smithsonian Institution museums, the National Baseball Hall of Fame, law enforcement agencies and private collectors, including Stephen Wong.

postalmuseum.si.edu/upcoming-exhibitions

 

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