Inside Pitch Magazine, May/June 2020

Inside Interview: Erik Strohl

Bringing Baseball History to Life

Eric StrohlErik Strohl is the Vice President of Exhibitions and Collections for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. He started his work in Cooperstown as an intern in 1998 while earning a Master’s of Arts degree at the Cooperstown Graduate Program.

During his time at the Hall of Fame, Strohl has overseen the Curatorial, Exhibits, Collections, and Library departments and been responsible for the creation and management of all exhibits. He joined Inside Pitch to talk about “The Hall” and one of their most recent projects, the “Starting Nine” experience.

Inside Pitch: How did you get your start at the Hall of Fame?

Erik Strohl: I always had a fondness for history and have loved sports – baseball, football, hockey, golf, tennis, racing, whatever is on, I am into it. I actually came to Cooperstown to go to graduate school to get my Master's degree in Museum Studies, and I started as an intern at the Hall of Fame in March of 1998, simply because I always liked museums as a kid. I knew I didn't want to teach, but I always thought I would go into museums. So that's a marriage of the two things I love the most together, so I'm unbelievably fortunate.

IP: What exactly does your job entail?

ES: I'm responsible for overseeing the public-facing part of the museum. Everything that you see when you go in, all the exhibits, all the displays, all the outreach we do. I manage the process when we loan exhibits or artifacts to other museums or MLB teams, we participate in the All-Star Game every year and take about a hundred artifacts. Besides the curatorial and design departments, which work hand-in-hand, I also oversee the library.

IP: What are some of the oldest items in the Hall?

ES: We have what we believe is the oldest uniform that exists, from Baraboo, Wisconsin, circa 1865, right at the end of the Civil War. It's a full uniform with bib front jersey, pants, cap, and belt. We have some baseballs that date back to the mid to late 1850's, which are some of the oldest things in the collection. There are two rule books from 1854. And we have baseball sheet music that dates even older.

IP: What item do you think is the most significant to visitors?

ES: If I had to pick one thing, it would probably be Babe Ruth's bat to hit the 60th home run in 1927. Babe really changed the face of the game, and he was larger than life, and becoming famous in the 1920's which was a certain age of the birth of media and radio. He transcended sport. Not only is he one of the greatest baseball players of all time, he became a cultural icon. I think if you asked people to think of one baseball player throughout history that people would have name recognition for, I would think it would be Babe Ruth.

Now I'm also fond of Henry Aaron; I've met him many times and have spent time with him. His was the last exhibit I curated in 2009 before taking on more of my current role. Henry is the only other person besides Babe Ruth who has their own exhibit in the Hall of Fame. And what I said about Babe holds true for Henry, as well. He was the greatest baseball player of all time in some people's opinions, but his legacy off the field has been just as tremendous, with his Chasing the Dream Foundation. We've got both the Presidential Citizens Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest honor a civilian can receive. Henry was given both of those. I don't know what the list is for people that have been given both of those, I can't imagine it's large, if any.

IP: What exactly is the level of security you have there?

ES: Anything in the building is secured in multiple ways. We have five climate-controlled secure areas that very few staff members have access to. We have 24-hour security in the building that is present every minute of every day. And of course, everything is properly insured.

When we transport things, we often use special fine art shippers, like museums will do, or hire companies that we've got long-standing relationships with. The item will get picked up and secured, before it is transported, and when it arrives, it is received by professionals who do condition reporting to make sure it arrives there the same way it left here. It's a highly professionalized process.

IP: Tell us about the new Starting Nine program.

ES: Starting Nine is a new team-themed way to experience the Museum. Visitors will receive a lineup card featuring the nine must-see artifacts for each of the 30 teams, and find them through out the Museum. We got a grant by the state’s I LOVE NY program and help us do outreach to the public. This was definitely an effort that got all the curators thinking, "Okay, so what are these artifacts going to be for each of these teams?" The idea was that we wanted to show not just the things you'd expect to see. Of course, some of the artifacts are connected to the greatest moments or highlights of a team's history; but also may be quirky or strange things that fans can identify with. For example, for Philadelphia, we picked the Philly Phanatic mascot costume.

There are moments in a team's history that are maybe not milestones in terms of being famous for a particular event, but that stick in people's minds. So it's not a "greatest” list, it's more of a list that allows you to dig deep into the history of that team, and maybe learn something about an older Hall of Famer that modern visitors would not be aware of.

We include artifacts from our Pride and Passion exhibit, which covers the history of African Americans in baseball from the 19th century to present. So if we're talking about a Major League city that had a Negro League team, we might have an artifact that's connected to the Negro League team, as well as defunct teams like the Washington Senators or the Brooklyn Dodgers.

We tried our best to look at points of history of each team and come up with stuff that is both familiar and fun, things that may surprise lifelong fans of teams, and help educate them as well. The process took many months, but in the end I think we came up with a big, very well-rounded selection.

IP: How can fans access or see aspects of the museum if they aren’t able to visit?

ES: We officially closed on March 16th, and really soon after that, we did a landing page on the Hall of Fame website for the Safe at Home program. There, we've got all sorts of content that people can look at, including our digital collection of our artifacts and articles online. It's not comprehensive; it's part of our digitization program that we've been working on for a number of years, and will take many years yet to complete.

We have a YouTube channel, which has all sorts of videos and special content related to the Hall of Fame, including things that we have done, and programs we have put together. We have an "Online Exhibits" tab where we have some of our exhibits done in a virtual manner.

It's not the same as walking through the museum, but there are some things there that you can only find online, like Dressed to the Nines, which is the history of the baseball uniform with a searchable uniform database; Baseball Enlists, which is the history of baseball in World War Two; Picturing America's Pastime, which is basically a snapshot of 50 photos from the Hall of Fame archive of more than a quarter million. That's always a task by the way, how do you pick 50 from 250,000? That was a temporary exhibit which is actually still up at the Hall of Fame, but it's also a traveling exhibit and an online exhibit.

One of the most popular things that people have been accessing is the education curriculum.We have modules, free lesson plans for grades from three through 12 that teachers can access, and they're based on all sorts of topics that teachers would teach in school: math, social studies, science, the arts, character education. It's been very popular, which isn’t a huge surprise, with all of the virtual and long-distance learning that's going on at home.

And then we have a bunch of other kids' activity downloads that we have added: Hall of Fame bingo, word searches, create-your-own plaque and draw-your own-plaque, design-your-own-jerseys and caps, and that sort of thing. Like most museums that depend on people visiting, we had to find a different way to get our message and our material out to those people who can't go out of the house. It’s actually been very fulfilling, and we're happy that we can stay connected to people. We seem to be getting a lot of great feedback.

Of course it's a sliver of what we've got here, but it's enough to whet the appetite and once we get past all this, we'll be ready to open up and get right back at them, and hopefully people will be thinking about Cooperstown as a nice destination, too.

Cooperstown is not anywhere near anything else, it's not on the way to anything. It's a destination in-and-of itself in the middle of upstate NewYork, surrounded by lots of farms and open fields. It’s great place and we are so unbelievably fortunate. I get to deal with cool stuff all the time, andI get paid to do baseball.

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