Artifacts tell the story of baseball in a pandemic
While the 2020 big league season was certainly unprecedented – the game having been played in the midst of a pandemic – the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is able to share with its visitors this unique part of the game’s history.
On the Museum’s second floor, the Whole New Ballgame exhibit has as part of its Today’s Game case a special section with nine artifacts devoted to the COVID-19 story and how it affected the National Pastime.
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Pitchers and catchers reported to Florida and Arizona per usual in early February, but as the coronavirus swept across the United States, Major League Baseball canceled Spring Training on March 12. Soon, the start of the regular season, scheduled for March 26, was delayed.
While the country struggled to contain the virus, MLB and the players union negotiated how to bring baseball back responsibly. On July 6, Commissioner Rob Manfred announced a 60-game schedule – with new rules and safety measures – that began on July 23.
“This has been an unprecedented year with the Covid-19 virus, and it has affected every aspect of our lives. Baseball, of course, has seen extreme changes due to the pandemic,” said Erik Strohl, the Hall of Fame’s Vice President of Exhibitions and Collections. “The Hall of Fame felt it was very important to document how the virus affected the game, and how we consume and interact with it as a culture.”
Among the Hall of Fame donations that comprise the coronavirus-related artifacts: A baseball from the first Summer Camp game, held July 18, between the Nationals and the Phillies; an Opening Day baseball produced for the start of a Minor League Baseball season that was cancelled on June 30; and a second base from the Angels at Oakland game on July 24, the first contest of the season to have a new rule take effect that called for games tied after nine innings to start subsequent innings with a runner on second.
Also included in the section are a trio of Opening Day artifacts: The first pitch baseball in the first big league game of the 2020 season tossed by Washington’s Max Scherzer on July 23; the bat used by San Francisco’s Hunter Pence on Opening Day to became the first designated hitter to bat in an all-National League game, a feat accomplished due to the use of a universal DH in 2020; and a media credential that allowed Los Angeles Dodgers beat writer Bill Plunkett access to Dodger Stadium for the Opening Day game against the Giants.
“You know, I don’t think there’s any certainty here,” Pence told the Bay Area News Group on July 8. I think it’s a tough decision for everyone. The owners, the higher-ups, the players, the staff, this is a challenging decision. Because everyone wants to have baseball. We all love baseball. We all want to play. It’s great. We’re just kind of in a time where nobody really knows.”
Plunkett, who previously donated a media credential issued for the Mexico Series played in Monterrey, Mexico, between the Dodgers and San Diego Padres May 4-6, 2018, recently emailed the Hall of Fame his thoughts on the start of this precarious campaign.
“Covering baseball, you get caught up in the day-to-day nature of it – there is always another game the next day. Except this time, there wasn't,” wrote Plunkett, a sportswriter with the Orange County Register since 1999. “When the sport shut down in mid-Spring Training due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was a real shock and for months we didn't know when the next game would be. When the sport finally re-started in July, we all knew this wouldn't be just another season. It would be unique, historic.”
Face coverings, a ubiquitous item in the fight against coronavirus, also play a role in the Hall of Fame’s new section, including: a Washington Nationals face mask worn by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on June 30, while testifying to a Senate health committee about the spread of COVID-19; a face mask produced by the Pittsburgh Pirates that subtlety changes its pirate’s customary bandana; and a Philadelphia Phillies facemask produced by Fanatics, Inc., a uniform company that made personal protective equipment like a number of American textile companies for frontline workers.
“From games with no fans to cancelled and abridged seasons to changes in rules, it seemed to many a game that was hard to recognize,” Strohl said. “But baseball's resiliency has mirrored that of the nation, adapting to the present circumstances in the best way it could.
“By collecting as many different items as possible to tell this story, we hope to make a record for posterity about how just one small portion of our lives was changed by these unique circumstances.”
Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum