Online Feature: Hero worship

Ed Sealover
July/August 2018

It’s easy for hero-worshipping visitors to gawk from the moment they walk into History Colorado Center’s first-ever public exhibit of baseball memorabilia collected by a local attorney. Among the near-sacred artifacts: the uniform that New York Yankees great Joe DiMaggio wore in the World Series during his swansong season of 1951. Then there’s a small, unexpected addition: a receipt for two dozen roses that DiMaggio sent to ex-wife Marilyn Monroe, as she recovered from surgery. The combination of the two items is intentional.

“With these kinds of exhibits, it’s hard to get visitors past the hero worship of what people did on the field,” said Jason Hanson, chief creative officer for History Colorado Center, who advises visitors to appreciate not just the symbols of their celebrity, such as a bat or jersey, but also their private, more human memorabilia—such as DiMaggio’s receipt.

First up is the ball hurled by Don Larsen in the only perfect game in World Series history. The unexpected detail: a long-forgotten New York Post sportswriter retrieved it from a ball bag and procured signatures from both Larsen and losing pitcher Sal Maglie.

Next is a display of bats used by the greatest hitters in the history of the game—from Wee Willie Keeler up to Ken Griffey Jr.—arranged to mimic the swing of another great, Lou Gehrig. The unexpected: the cracked bat that the superstitious Hall of Famer Ty Cobb nailed together so he could keep using it during his last truly great year, 1925.

Why so many bats? In the early 1990s, when most collectors focused on baseball cards and signed balls, Marshall Fogel, a 77-year-old retired Denver attorney, began accumulating what he calls the “weapon” of the sport.

“I was a lousy baseball player, so the best I figured I could do was collect the greats,” he said.

Fogel spent 29 years building his collection, showing it only to friends and to groups who won charity auctions. He hopes a philanthropist will buy the collection and give it a home in a public museum.

In one display case at History Colorado Center sits a glove with its own story to tell. Los Angeles Dodgers legend Sandy Koufax personalized it for an umpire he respected—but who felt sheepish about taking a gift from a pitcher whose accuracy he had to judge.

Within another display you see the uniform and bat of color-barrier breaker Jackie Robinson, and alongside them, a poem written by Robinson, describing his belief in human goodness in the face of unrelenting bigotry.

Fogel’s collection is arranged not just to accentuate greatness but also disgrace. Just beyond the hallway of heroes is a case displaying a bat used by Shoeless Joe Jackson and a ticket to Game One of the 1919 World Series, which Jackson and seven of his teammates sabotaged. Next to it: a bat, jersey, and glove from all-time batting leader Pete Rose, banned from the sport for betting on games he played in and managed. And a jersey worn by Mark McGwire at the 1998 All-Star Game at Coors Field reminds observers of the time when he was known the home-run king, before he became the notorious cheater who used steroids to gain his power.

“I love this case, and I know not everybody will think that way,” Hanson said. “But the question you have to ask yourself is: Which of your misdeeds will disqualify your achievements?”

No baseball exhibit in Colorado is complete without retelling 25 years of hometown Rockies highlights. And this exhibit delivers. Among the few artifacts not from Fogel’s collection: the champagne bottles from the Rockies’ playoff wins in 2007—the year that the team appeared in the World Series.

Ed Sealover is a tourism reporter at the Denver Business Journal.