In April, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Postal Museum opened a new exhibit, “Baseball: America’s Home Run,” which features artifacts representing all eras and facets of the American pastime.
Nearly 300 people attended the VIP opening, including the son of Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Fame right fielder Roberto Clemente and two grandchildren of Hall of Fame second baseman and civil rights defender. Brooklyn Dodgers fame, Jackie Robinson.
Rubbing shoulders with all the celebrities and descendants was a man few would recognize, Stephen Tsi Chuen Wong, a Hong Kong-based Goldman Sachs executive and honorary adviser to the show.
“The opportunity to collaborate with someone as creative as Stephen is one of the rewards of being a museum curator.”
Wong played a pivotal role in bringing the exhibition to fruition. He helped develop the exhibit’s themes and storyline, wrote blog posts and recorded videos for the museum’s website, recruited sponsors and sourced artifacts, more than 50 of which were borrowed from his own collection.
These items include bats and uniforms worn by Robinson, Clemente, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and other baseball luminaries, as well as unique items such as home plate from the last game played at New York’s historic Polo Grounds.
“The opportunity to collaborate with someone as creative as Stephen is one of the rewards of being a museum curator,” says Daniel Piazza, who has chaired the Postal Museum’s philately department since 2014. truly nurtured each other’s passions – his for baseball, mine for stamps and postal history – to produce a landmark exhibition in both fields.”
From a single card to a sprawling exhibition
The show, the Smithsonian’s first major exhibition on baseball, officially took four years to develop, but its genesis actually dates back more than four decades.
One day in the mid-1970s, when he was about 9 years old and living in Los Altos Hills, California, Wong received an urgent call from a friend, David Guslani, who had something “really important.” to show him. Intrigued, Wong ran to his friend’s house, where he was able to see and hold a 1959 Roger Maris baseball card.
Maris was the man who, in 1961, broke Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record. Wong was hooked. “It was one of those times when the seas parted,” Wong said. Before long, he had started collecting baseball cards, handing out nickels, dimes and even whole dollars for cards featuring players like Hank Aaron and Willie Mays.
Sure, plenty of kids his age do the same, but the seas parted twice for Wong. While doing research at his prep school in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, he began leafing through a collection of yearbooks dating back to the late 19th century.
“When I got to the directories around 1910, I found a newspaper clipping stuck between the pages that looked like it had been there for decades,” he says. “It was all yellow and brittle, and it was the poem ‘Baseball’s Sad Lexicon’.”
Dead-Ball Era brings the game to life
Written in 1910, this eight-line poem describes a double play played by Chicago Cubs infielders Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance, which Wong had never heard of. “I knew it had to do with baseball because of the title, but I really had no idea who Tinker, Evers and Chance were,” he says.
“Collecting became a way for me to connect with the players and events I had read about.”
Intrigued, he rushed over and bought a copy of Lawrence Ritter’s “The Glory of Their Times,” an oral history of baseball’s dead-ball era (roughly the first two decades of the 20th century). He also read other baseball books and began collecting physical items related to what he read, including scorecards and advertisements featuring baseball players.
“Collecting became a way for me to connect with the players and events I had read about,” he says.
Through college, law school, and a job at Morgan Stanley in Hong Kong, Wong continued to expand her collection. “It evolved into higher things when I didn’t have to mop up my dad,” he says.
Six years into his career, Wong felt exhausted, in part due to the stress caused by the SARS epidemic, and quit his job. As he tried to figure out what to do next, he rediscovered “The Glory of Their Time”.
Inspired, he decided to write his own book, modeled on previous work but focusing on major private collections of baseball memorabilia. He gained support from several major collectors, wrote a proposal, and submitted it to Smithsonian Books in 2003. It was quickly accepted, in part because Smithsonian Institute Press director Don Fehr was a huge baseball fan. .
Writing the book, “Smithsonian Baseball: Inside the World’s Finest Private Collections,” took Wong two and a half years to write, six months of which he spent traveling across America with photographer Susan Einstein to document 21 world-class collections. He returned to the corporate world in 2005 but never left baseball.
Still collecting after all these years
Over the years, however, his approach to collecting has changed. Instead of acquiring to expand his collection, he began in the late 1990s to focus on bats and uniforms used in the game, relishing the direct connection between an artifact and an iconic player. “It was the uniform he wore when playing home or away games,” he says. “I just felt the historical significance of that was almost unparalleled.”
Today, he focuses on artifacts with thematic links. For example, it could display a uniform and bat used by Washington Senators outfielder Goose Goslin alongside a panoramic photo of the 1933 team and a scorecard from a 1932 game.
“I like the idea of combining artifacts in a very symmetrical way that really showcases the beauty of these objects but also shows the diversity of artifacts that commemorate baseball history,” he says.
This approach is evident in the exhibition at the National Postal Museum. Given its setting, the exhibit includes hundreds of postage stamps, but they are all on display along with related artifacts. Take Jackie Robinson, for example. Visitors can view a stamp honoring Major League Baseball’s first black player, the original stamp artwork, the road uniform that appears on the stamp, an autographed baseball, and a program and ticket from a game of 1947 at Ebbets Field, home of the Dodgers before the team. moved to Los Angeles.
Other exhibitions are in preparation
Wong is also increasingly committed to sharing his hobby with the public. He published two other books with Smithsonian Books and helped organize exhibitions in museums across the country.
“I consider it an extreme privilege to be able to own these artifacts and preserve them,” he says. “Rather than being locked up in Hong Kong, I want them to be shared with the public so other people in the public can enjoy them.”
And the public is grateful. “The exhibit received excellent reviews from everyone who visited in person, as well as those who visited our virtual exhibit,” said museum director Elliot Gruber. “This exhibit is unique, telling incredible stories with unique and rarely seen artifacts.”
After the Smithsonian exhibit opened, Wong’s aunt, Marie Lam, posted a congratulatory note on her Facebook page. “So proud of you. Bringing a childhood pastime to this level in the heart of the Nation’s Capital,” she wrote.
Indeed, he’s come a long way since the day he first saw that 1959 Roger Maris baseball card.