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On View: Craft and Folk Art Museum's baseball exhibit celebrates timeless game

Gary Cypres showcases part of his huge collection of memorabilia in 'Baseball: The All-American Game.'

June 01, 2012|By David Davis, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • An Old Gold advertisement, artist unknown, chromolithograph, circa 1920s.
An Old Gold advertisement, artist unknown, chromolithograph, circa 1920s. (Craft and Folk Art Museum )

Over the past 25 years, super collector Gary Cypres has amassed so much sports memorabilia that he opened an eponymous, 30,000-square-foot museum in downtown Los Angeles. The breadth of his collection — from 18th century tennis rackets to 21st century sports-movie posters — sets Cypres apart from one-sport or one-era specialists.

The national pastime is Cypres' passion, and the Bronx-born businessman has curated a new exhibit of hardball holdings titled "Baseball: The All-American Game" at the Craft and Folk Art Museum. Some of the objects were included in "The Perfect Game: America Looks at Baseball" at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City in 2003.

The current show, which takes up an entire floor of the museum, demonstrates how baseball resonates within our collective imagination and how it shaped the work of folk artists beginning in the 19th century. How else to explain the Al Simmons Quilt, hand-sewn in the 1930s by an admirer of the Hall of Fame outfielder? Or the two-seat bench fashioned from baseball bats and the Mission-style headboard carved with players' faces?

Amid the baseball-themed pillows, fans, weather vanes, paintings, posters, drawings and dioramas, the impromptu creativity of Ray Materson stands out. While imprisoned for armed robbery, Materson took up embroidery to pass the time and, he has said, to avoid further trouble. He gathered shoelaces and threads from unraveled socks to craft miniature tapestries of Major League players. Each one took Materson about 50 hours; they look like trading cards.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is Cypres' assortment of games, including early board games, penny arcade games and roulette games. County fairs were rife with ball-toss contests and the like: Two imposing steel figures, battery-mates from an arcade game that was a victim of the Great Depression, blur the line between modernist sculpture and "amusement device."

Other ephemera connect the sport with its commercial side. Tobacco interests were among the first companies to recognize the value of star athletes' endorsements, and Cypres devotes much space to smoking and smokeless advertisement signage: the Dean brothers, Dizzy and Daffy, pitch for Beech-Nut chew during the 1930s, while an Old Gold cigarette poster reads, "Boy, What a Hit!"

"Baseball" represents a mere morsel of Cypres' holdings from his by-invitation-only Sports Museum of Los Angeles. Perhaps that accounts for the one glaring error in the exhibit: the lack of artwork representing "other" folks, including Latinos and Asian and African Americans. Alison Saar's "Bat Boyz," a contemporary woodcarving of Negro League figures, is a compelling if lonesome exception.

Still, this unadulterated celebration of baseball reminds us of the game's eternal delights, of the giddy sensation we experience whenever we encounter the luscious outfield of Dodger Stadium. As Willie Stargell, the noted Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman and dugout philosopher, put it: "The man said 'Play ball!,' not 'Work ball!'"

Davis is the author of "Showdown at Shepherd's Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze."

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