This week, an exhibition titled “Breaking the Color Barrier in Major League Baseball” opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in conjunction with the reopening of the museum’s Luce Center and the New American Wing Galleries for Paintings, Sculpture and Decorative Arts. On display until June 17, the exhibit includes 60 baseball cards of players who moved from the Negro Leagues to the Major Leagues — all of which come from the museum’s enormous collection of cards donated by Jefferson R. Burdick. On the occasion of the exhibit’s opening, The Sports Section spoke with Freyda Spira, assistant curator of the museum’s Department of Drawings and Prints, about Burdick’s collection, protecting their Honus Wagner T206 card, and the museum’s plan for a digital archive.
The Met’s collection of baseball cards is pretty huge.
We have a holding of over 30,000 baseball cards that came in through Jefferson Burdick in the fifties, and he catalogued and organized all the cards chronologically and by series. He was an avid collector who sought to collect almost whole sets of everything that he could get his hands on, so we have quite a large collection of not only baseball cards, but other early advertising and trade material insert cards in tobacco, candy, and gum.
He was mostly interested in trade cards, generally, and baseball cards sort of fell under that umbrella of material. But he integrated them in with the other trade cards, so we have this enormous collection of baseball cards, and what we sought to do is create a rotating exhibition of these cards throughout the year, so that people have access to them — even to a small percentage of them — so they can get to see the range of materials that the Met has in terms of high and low — mass appeal as well as Rembrandt etchings.
The last time I saw the display of cards was a couple years ago, and it was sort of off in a corner. Is this exhibition in the same place? Did that change after the renovations?
We’ve changed locations because of the renovations, and we’re in a much more prominent open gallery within the Luce Center. So you walk in, and there’s a bay of computers — sort of a digital center — and we’re on the first wall when you walk in.
When this exhibit closes, will that still be the location for baseball card displays?
We’re going to remain in that place. We’ve changed it. It will no longer be hidden in the corner.
Probably the most famous card in the collection is the T206 Honus Wagner card. Do you try to display it as much as possible, or do you have to limit how often you can show it?
Right, that’s obviously the most famous. It’s the only card in the collection that we matted and framed on its own. So it’s always shown on its own. All the other cards mostly are shown in sets, or in groups, so the exhibit now, we have 60 cards, but they’re not obviously one after the other. They’re shown in groups according to their series or by player. [The Honus Wagner card] is famous and rare because it’s in really excellent condition. So we have to limit the amount of exposure it gets in order to maintain its rarity and quality. It’s only up every, I dunno, every three years, every two and a half years, because it can’t really be up more than that.
As I understand it, Burdick pasted the cards into books, right?
He did quite a lot of different things to get them into the books. Sometimes they’re put in with corners, sometimes they’re pasted, sometimes they’re just sort of tipped in. It depended really on, I think, the materials he had at hand, and how much time and energy he had. He had quite a lot of problems using his hands, so at the end he pasted a lot of things in just for expediency. I think he realized at the beginning that pasting them in wasn’t the best idea, but towards the end, I think he used it to expedite the process.
A modern collector would be shocked to hear that things were pasted into books.
We have an amazing, amazing paper conservation staff, so actually the glue that he used is very water soluble, so the cards are easily taken off the album pages. So actually it’s really not an issue. The issue was more when he stapled them in.
Only a small number of cards ever see the light of day, particularly at any given time. How are the rest of the cards stored?
They’re stored in their original albums. We have bookcases with albums. There’s a large storeroom, and all our prints and illustrated books, and our albums, and our sketchbooks, they’re all in a space that’s kept at a certain temperature, with certain airflow, and is very protected.
Are members of the public able to see them? Or are they totally off-limits?
The cards are really only available now through the rotating exhibition.
Was that always the case? I was reading that at one point, they might have been available to view in certain cases?
They were, but because of the frequency with which they were looked at, the quality of a lot of the objects were compromised. So then the decision was made that in order to maintain the collection, they would remain in our collection. We have millions of things that people don’t ever see that are in storerooms, so we maintain the baseball collection the same way in order to maintain their quality. The hope is to get them all photographed and online. It’s a project we’re working on now, so that there could be a virtual collection on the museum website.
That’s a pretty big project. How long will that take?
It’s a three-year project.
If not for Burdick’s donation, do you think the Met would have baseball cards in its collection? Do you think baseball cards would be recognized as art, if not for that donation?
Well, we have quite a variety of objects in the collection. We have Disney sketches, we have lots of things that you wouldn’t recognize as quote-unquote art. We have other kinds of cards that are in our collection. Feminist cards, celebrity cards, we have caricature cards from Hollywood. We have quite a lot of ephemera in the prints and drawings collection because one of our earlier curators — Hyatt Mayor, who was the second curator of the print collection — he was very interested in both the highs and lows of printmaking.
He was interested in culture as a whole, so in order to understand history and culture, you really have to see what’s being communicated in society, and so you have to see sort of the highest peak of art, and you have to also see sort of mass communication. So it’s all part of it. I’m not sure if baseball cards would be part of it, or such a large part, but I think that we would have this kind of early commercial printing in the collection. We have baseball cards that didn’t come in with Jefferson Burdick — that came in from other people. So we have quite a lot of it. I think it would have been included in some way. It probably wouldn’t have been as prominent.
How many baseball cards do you have from other sources? Were there other donations?
We have probably in the hundreds of other cards. We just received a small collection of baseball cards last year, as a gift, so we’re continuing to receive them. And the gift we received last year begins where Burdick left off, so it’s sort of a nice complement.
What kind of cards were in that gift?
They were several sets of Topps cards that came from the early sixties.
Is that kind of thing common?
Well, most people want us to buy their cards, but we don’t do that kind of thing. So donations are always — if it’s in a field that we have quite a representative collection of — we’re happy to take gifts. It doesn’t happen all the time, because people want to sell them. So it has to be a particular kind of person who wants to give it as a gift.