A look at Seattle Art Museum's new exhibition, "Our National Game," with the help of an 8-year-old baseball player and SAM's curator of American art.
I know a lot about art, but I don’t know much about baseball, so when I was asked to write a preview of the exhibition “Our National Game,” opening Saturday at the Seattle Art Museum, I thought I would, ahem, cover my bases and talk with some experts.
Patricia Junker, SAM’s curator of American art, and Max Carreiro, an 8-year-old baseball player, shared their thoughts about how baseball plays out in the art on view.
The small exhibition came together, Junker said, out of her desire to showcase three important baseball-themed works residing in private collections here in Seattle: Douglas Tilden’s “Our National Game (The Ball Player),” modeled in 1888-89; Normal Rockwell’s “The Dugout” of 1948; and Jacob Lawrence’s “The Long Stretch” of 1949, which Junker has paired with another Lawrence painting, “Strike.” Junker surrounded these key works of art with some pretty phenomenal photographs and prints — including a rare team portrait that includes the great player Josh Gibson — in order to “amplify an understanding of our national game, how baseball reflects collective identity, ethnic identity, and American identity around the world.”
In addition to noticing how different the uniforms and equipment used to be, my young friend Max and I talked about the different choices the artists made when presenting baseball.
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Max thought that Tilden’s bronze sculpture shows the determination and energy needed to play baseball, because “he looks serious and active in play.”
According to Junker, Tilden made this sculpture in Paris, after the Civil War, when a lot of people were contemplating what it meant to be American. I asked Max why the artist might have chosen this particular subject and he replied, “Maybe because a lot of people played baseball.” (This is very true; there was a huge surge of interest in the game in the 1870s and ’80s.)
We also noticed that there was no team logo or player’s name. Max thought that the artist did this intentionally, “maybe because there were a lot of teams and he didn’t want to choose, to be fair. And he didn’t want people fighting.”
Looking at Rockwell’s “The Dugout,” Max and I agreed that it shows another side of baseball. Seeing the resigned faces of the team and the jeering faces of the crowd, Max said, “Sometimes people get disappointed in baseball.” But we thought that the painting was funny, too. I mentioned that Rockwell created a lot of humorous images about American life after World War II. Max thought he might have done this “so that maybe there wouldn’t be another war. So people could laugh.”
Moving on to the paintings by Lawrence, Junker noted that the paintings were directly inspired by the racial integration of Major League Baseball when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. Observing that “The Long Stretch” features an exciting moment shared by a black player and a white player, Max said, “The African-American player is running and this guy’s trying to get him out. Even though they’re different, they’re both kind of the same. They’re both wearing white uniforms, they both have hats on, and they both have cleats on.”
Baseball’s capacity to showcase individualism within the unifying forces of teamwork, fair play, and fan support was a major factor in explaining why baseball became our national game.
Max summed it up perfectly when he said, “Baseball is fun. I like playing different positions because people hit the ball in different places. And I like the teamwork because if it was just one-person baseball, it would be kind of hard.”