Larry Moore of Baseball in the Berkshires, left, and John DeRosa with a display of old Drury High baseball uniforms.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — A new exhibit on Main Street this summer threads the legacy of the national pastime with the long history it has in Berkshire County.
"One Country, One Game: A Celebration of Baseball," part of the 25th anniversary of the New England Collegiate Baseball League, looks at the county's most famous players from Frank Grant to Mark Belanger to the artistic expressions of the Negro League to Drury High baseball team's Taiwan tour in 1978.
"Baseball is like one of those threads that tie our community together in a million ways and those threads are very easy to trace out into the larger fabric of American culture," said Dan Wallis, a former exhibit designer for the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and whose The Square Office design studio is curating the exhibit.
The 10-week exhibit will have a grand opening on July 5 but there will be a soft opening on Sunday, Father's Day, for a sneak peek with a ribbon cutting at 2:30 p.m. On July 17, one of the Boston Red Sox World Series trophies will be on display.
John DeRosa, president of the NECBL since 2010 and former president of the league's North Adams SteepleCats, said the idea had grown out of discussions on how to mark the college league's anniversary.
"I think we all settled on the idea we should celebrate baseball, we should celebrate its history, we should look at its diversity," he said on Friday, standing between banners of Frank Grant and Jack Chesbro. "It all made sense ... I quickly learned that baseball is the common denominator that can cut across any divide — generational, social economic — and bring communities together."
Baseball's local history can be traced back more than two centuries, based on Pittsfield's 1791 law forbidding the playing of the game too close to meeting house because of broken windows. More recently, the county's two cities offer seasonable baseball through two college leagues: SteepleCats at Joe Wolfe Field and the Futures Collegiate Baseball League's Pittsfield Suns at historic Wahconah Park.
But the area has also had an impact on baseball at the national level as well.
"As of today, we have about 137 minor league baseball players that were born or brought up here, 40 Major Leaguers, two Hall of Famers. It's just amazing," said Larry Moore, a founder of the Baseball in the Berkshires Museum in Lanesborough. He said the group started with 280 artifacts and now has more than 1,200. "Everyday we turn somewhere else and somebody brings us something or we find out just how spreading this history is."
The show is being sponsored by the league with support from the Partnership for North Adams, the Baseball in the Berkshires museum, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum of Kansas City, Mo., and the Boston Red Sox. The major presentation sponsor is Berkshire Bank and First Hartford Realty, owner of the L-shaped mall, is donating the space.
Wallis' transformation of the former Sleepy's retail space on Main Street is being helped with technical and support staff assistance of Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, donated cases from the Clark Art Institute, where Wallis had done "Through Shen-Kan: Sterling Clark in China" in 2012. A number of other groups have provided information, such as the North Adams Historical Society, or donations. DeRosa said about $70,000 to $75,000 has been received to support the show.
A major coup for the show was getting the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum's traveling exhibit "Shades of Greatness," a collection of art curated the Kansas City, Mo., museum. It's only been in Massachusetts once before, about five years ago at Northeastern.
What does Negro Leagues have to do with the Berkshires? Well, there's Frank Grant, considered the best Negro Leagues player in the 19th century. Grant was born in Pittsfield and raised in Williamstown, where he and his brother Clarence played on a team with kids whose fathers taught at Williams.
One of the boys who played with Grant was invited along on Albert Spalding's World Tour team in 1888 by Cap Anson, a bigot who would later raise a stink preventing Grant from moving up to the Major Leagues.
"There's this weird cycle that was decades in the making," Wallis said. "Somebody who played with Frank and his brother Clarence wound up being on the same team with the guy who said those guys can't play anymore."
Grant would join the Cuban X team that would later play against another hometown hero and fellow Hall of Famer John "Jack" Chesbro, who Wallis said would throw the opening pitch for what would become the New York Yankees.
"It's, again and again, being in the middle of this wonderful confluence of not just sports but something that ties to much larger culture and the ability to put historical narrative against artistic expression on segregation, especially something that's so key to a native story, has been fantastic," he said.
"It just tells you how rich Berkshire County baseball is and that when you view the national pastime, you really need to view it through the nation in regional connections," DeRosa said.
In addition to the exhibit, the SteepleCats are working with local youth and through a reading program, "Cub Club," at the North Adams Public Library being sponsored through a grant by Shine Wire Co.
"Baseball is more than just watching the game, baseball is about family and community," said Allen Hall, president of the SteepleCats. "From the SteepleCats standpoint and the NECBL standpoint, this is one more thing in becoming part of the community."
The 'Cats arrive in late spring and are hosted by local families during their training and summer season. They participate in a number of community events and with the schools that are still in session. On Friday, they were at the Pownal and Stamford elementary schools in Vermont.
"These are great college athletes who come to our area and by their presence, enrich and ennoble our community," DeRosa said. "They make a difference. They serve as role models to our kids. Some of our kids have never been to a Major League ballpark or had a chance to meet an athlete of that caliber."
He said the exhibit space was not only a celebration of NECBL and baseball but a launching point to connect the team members with the community.
"I think this is great for New England and I think this is great for our community and I hope lots of folks will come through here this summer and understand the rich history of baseball, its diversity and how really baseball is a microcosm and a reflection of how our communities react when you strip away everything else," DeRosa said.
Wallis said the story of baseball in the Berkshire doesn't end with this exhibit. Just since they started putting it together, they've gotten more items, including stories of the LaFesta Baseball Exchange brought in by founder George Canales.
"If there are people out there who really have a great story about a great uncle who played for a factory team or what have you, come in and talk to us and make this bigger," he said.
Admission to the exhibit is $5, with children under age 16 free. The exhibit will be open Wednesdays through Sunday, noon to six through the summer.
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