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Baseball exhibit opens at National Museum of the American Sailor

When entering the baseball exhibit at the National Museum of the American Sailor, you see an old blue banner hanging on a wall, listing the Atlantic Fleet champions as early as 1907 and a few subsequent years.

On loan from Navy History and Heritage Command, the banner is more than 100 years old and the oldest piece in the exhibit, called “When Baseball Went to War.” The museum held an exhibit ribbon-cutting ceremony for about 50 Navy and community leaders June 1.

Both Markus Dohner, the museum’s exhibits specialist who designed it, and Dan Smaczny, a contracted curator, pointed to the banner as the one collection piece visitors shouldn’t miss when they visit. The two worked on the concept, that was originally developed by the Puget Sound Naval Museum, which also has a similar exhibit running right now.

While modest in size with just more than 20 pieces, it is an impressive collection that includes a photo of Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller during his days as a chief petty officer and one of Larry Doby’s Cleveland Indians baseball cards. Both spent time and played at Naval Station Great Lakes as did Johnny Mize, Mickey Cochrane and Billy Herman. Now all are enshrined members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Cochrane managed the Great Lakes team from 1942-44 and Feller was the skipper in 1945. Their combined record was 188-32 according to the exhibit.

“I wanted something from a visual standpoint that people can immerse themselves in,” Dohner said. “I want people to walk into something where they feel the spirit of walking into a baseball game.”

To that end, artificial turf is part of the motif, there is a replica locker with replica Great Lakes baseball jerseys that visitors can try on, a life-size “your face here” cutout of a batter and a catcher, and an old-fashioned first baseman’s mitt on display.

There is also a video, produced by MC2 Ryan Seelbach, that plays on a Sony television, talking about the game and its role in Navy life, both on shore and out at the fleet.

And Smaczny, who interned at the Basball Hall of Fame in 2004, began curating the exhibit in February from a model Dohner built in late 2016. Smaczny believes the exhibit reflects the the importance of the game to Navy morale during the World Wars and to the American public.

“I wanted this to show that Sailors from all walks of life play baseball in the Navy,” he said. “It is a representation of American society.”

Naval Station Great Lakes Commanding Officer Capt. James Hawkins seconded that sentiment.

“Baseball has a lot in common with the Navy,” Hawkins told the audience of Lake County (Illinois) community leaders. “The values of teamwork and success are important to baseball, and those values are parallel to the Navy.”

North Chicago Mayor Leon Rockingham Jr., retired Navy Capt. James A. Lovell and actor D.B. Sweeney, who played Shoeless Joe Jackson in the 1988 movie “Eight Men Out,” about the Chicago White Sox fixing the 1919 World Series, attended the opening.

The National Museum for the American Sailor, 610 Farragut Ave., Great Lakes, is open from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Admission is free.

More information about the exhibit is available at www.history.navy.mil/content/history/museums/nmas/news-and-events/events/exhibit-baseball.html .

To support the museum’s foundation, log onto nmasf.org .

The exhibit runs until January 2018.

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