Curator Melinda McCrary stands next to a clunky antique radio that’s perched on a classic wooden stand in the Seaver Gallery at the Richmond Museum of History. She signals for me to shut up and listen, then flips on a switch. Immediately the room fills with the voice of a sports commentator, and I am transported to the 1950s, listening to blow-by-blow accounts of the ups, downs and heartbreaks in a classic baseball game.
This subtle but powerful use of archival audio in the museum’s latest exhibit, “Semi-Pro Baseball in Richmond,” is all part of McCrary’s effort to create a three-dimensional feel. It’s a necessary step, she believes, if the museum is to attract broader and younger audiences.
“I’m trying to recreate the feel and atmosphere of baseball,” says McCrary. She notes that the archival radio files are from a Red Sox game, and that the exhibit includes a film shot at the Oakland Oaks 1918 season opening, an event full of guys in classic automobiles and baseball knickers.
“It’s not a Richmond team, but it still gives you that feel,” she says.
The exhibit focuses on the 1910-1958 period, ending the year before the Giants came from New York to San Francisco. And it’s no coincidence that the exhibit ends in the same year that major league baseball was first televised.
“Up until 1958, baseball was a community event,” McCrary says. “But then they started televising it, and people started saying, ‘Why watch amateurs, when you can watch the SF Giants?’”
During Richmond’s semi-pro heyday, local businesses put together baseball teams. These included Standard Oil, the Richmond Merchants, and the North Richmond Cubs, as evidenced by the museum’s extensive collection of photos and newspaper clippings.
“It wasn’t just white people, either,” McCrary says, pointing to a photograph taken in the early 1920s of the Pierce Street Giants, an African American team that played at a former baseball diamond at 1st Street and Macdonald Avenue.
McCrary, who spent four months researching for the show, says finding the Pierce Street Giants photograph at the Richmond Public Library helped inspire the exhibit. “The Pierce Street Giants made me want to do it,” she says.
The exhibit covers three main periods—pre-World War II, wartime, and postwar—and includes a copy of a letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, written shortly after Pearl Harbor. “It’s the ‘baseball must go on’ letter,” McCrary says.
FDR penned the original letter in early 1942, soon after the U.S entered World War 11, including the following line: “I honestly think it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.” Noting that fewer people would be unemployed and everybody would be working longer and harder than ever before, FDR continued, “And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and taking their minds off their work even more than before.”
McCrary hopes the exhibit will instill pride in Richmond’s strong baseball tradition. “We want to inspire young people. Folks think no one made it from Richmond, but they did,” she says, noting that Willie McGee, who grew up in the area and played for the Diablo Valley College made it to the St Louis Cardinals.
“And we have Pumpsie Green! He integrated the Red Sox, ” she continues, referring to Elijah Jerry Green, the Red Sox’s first black player, who now lives in El Cerrito.
Children who visit the exhibit will be able to make their own baseball cards—and take them home afterwards. “It’s a ‘draw yourself into a Richmond baseball card’ activity” McCrary says.
In recent months, McCray hunted through the museum’s textile room looking for period clothing and equipment.
“I only found two bats and one ball,” she says. “So, if you find anything in your basement, call or bring it in and I’ll put it on display.”
The Richmond Museum of History’s “Semi-Pro Baseball in Richmond” exhibit opens with a reception on Sunday April 14at 2 p.m. at 400 Nevin Avenue. Call (510) 235-7387 for more information.