Special to Page 2
Pelé didn't eat donuts.
I know that, because I have his game-worn soccer shorts in my hands.
And the waist is skinny.
I can't hold the shorts long, because Ellen Roney Hughes, Ph.D, the curator of the music, sports and entertainment division at the Smithsonian Institution, seems to be getting a bit nervous. She keeps saying "fragile."
As I put the shorts down, I casually move aside a scuffed, old, dirty, beaten-up baseball.
It's signed by Babe Ruth.
I had to pick up my reading glasses off a Gale Sayers-signed, game-worn Brian Piccolo jersey to see that.
I hold, in my white-gloved hand (so I don't get any Don Barone on it), a Babe Ruth-signed ball.
|Smithsonian Photo Gallery|
|Go inside the Smithsonian's sports collection with Page 2 as we view some of the historic items housed in its back room.|
I'm in sports-collecting heaven. Ellen the curator is bent down with both her hands under mine, grimacing. For some unknown reason, she has let me go behind the scenes at the Smithsonian, backstage to where mere museum-going mortals never get to tread.
Something tells me this one-time policy is soon to change back.
* * * * *
It's so cold in Washington, D.C., I thought I saw the Washington Monument shiver. It's too cold to take pictures, so tourists run through the shadows and into "America's Museum" -- actually, a complex of 16 museums and the National Zoo. Our things, and what we did with them, to them and for them, are here.
Us Americans, behind granite and bulletproof glass.
Ruby red shoes and Archie Bunker's chair. The best dresses of the First Ladies and Seinfeld's puffy shirt.
And sports artifacts. "Probably a million documents," says Dr. Hughes. "Easily 250,000 baseball cards alone."
There are contracts, historical newspaper articles, scrapbooks kept by athletes and their families, posters, playbills, tickets.
"We also have race cars -- Richard Petty's and the Swamp Rat dragster," Dr. Hughes says. "Oh, and a couple of planes, racing planes. And a few boats."
Some of the bigger things, like the 1923 ticket booth from Yankee Stadium and the SportsCenter news desk, are kept in a 22-acre warehouse in Maryland.
And Dr. Hughes swears she knows where each and every thing is. "Except that eight-man crew boat," she laughs. "I'm still looking for it, but it's so old it might have just disintegrated. I'm hoping to find an oar."
One oar in a 22-acre haystack.
For now, we head down a back hall so long it looks like it comes to a point, at which point we turn, left. Then right, a quick left, go back, wrong hall, left again, my feet hurt, right, around old wood boxes marked "Broadway Costumes" and finally up to a door with a little window.
"We're here Don, are you all right?" I'm not, but she is; she does this every day. "Too many Krispy Kremes," I say, and she nods.
|Smithsonian Wish List|
What do you get for the Smithsonian sports curator who has everything? Well, it appears Dr. Ellen Roney Hughes doesn't have everything. Here are some individuals she would love to have some items from to add to the Smithsonian's sports collection. If you've got anything of unique interest, cough it up for history.
• Babe Didrikson Zaharias
• Bobby Jones (the golfer, not the NBA player)
• Wayne Gretzky
• Shaquille O'Neal
• Tiger Woods
• Tony Hawk
• Yao Ming
• Anything WNBA
Also, some pretty cool stuff from the Smithsonian sports exhibit is out on the road. See if it's coming to a city near you.
I've made it to the storeroom of sports. Walking four steps in, I lean on some metal to rest.
"That's Lance Armstrong's bike," she says as I remove my arm from the handlebars, "one he rode in the 2000 Tour de France."
Behind the bike, in a gray cart of the type used to move blood and needles around a hospital, lies a Roger Staubach game-worn jersey.
Trying to score some points with Jason, our "Outside the Lines" talent-booker guy, and diehard annoying Cowboy fan, I'm thinking that if I pick the jersey up, and something just "happens" to fall off, I've got his office Santa gift.
So with the creepy white gloves on, I pick it up; underneath are boxing gloves.
"Those are from Muhammad Ali. He gave them to us, said they were from Zaire," Dr. Hughes says. Ali, meet Roger the Dodger.
Not to be outdone, George Foreman sent his shorts from the fight, "G F" stitched on them. George it seems, did donuts, even back then.
As I'm mentally doing the eBay math, Dr. Hughes hands me an ice skate.
"That's from the 1980 Olympics, from the USA team."
The Miracle On Ice is in my hands. The skate looks like it has had the crap knocked out of it. It's scraped, nicked, covered with big scratches and the laces are falling apart. It looks something you'd find at Goodwill for 50 cents.
But it's a skate I sat on my couch with my wife 25 years ago and cried over.
Ellen -- I'm not calling her Dr. Hughes anymore -- has been doing her collecting of sports for over 30 years. As she pulls out a drawer she explains she looks for "seminal sports artifacts, not memorabilia -- I look for objects that transcend the game."
She shows me a pair of basketball bloomers from the turn of the century. "These were designed so women could raise their arms to take basketball shots because back then women's clothing was so restrictive they couldn't move," Ellen says. "This uniform was invented to protect their modesty while letting them be athletic."
One drawer down. Next, out come game-worn uniforms from the Negro Leagues, the Homestead Grays on top.
Next drawer, a Bob Cousy jersey lies on top of a Willie Stargell jersey, underneath which lies the Gale Sayers-signed jersey.
And Pelé's shorts.
Bob Ley's ultimate Christmas present, within reach somehow, I know Ellen could take me, so I put them down. Sorry, Bob.
We move a case over. She takes out some raggedy ball that no longer has air in it. I say something polite, trying to move on. Uh ... hold on.
"This is the ball Dr. James Naismith had in mind when he invented basketball." Excuse me, the beginning of "hoops," as the guys like to call it at ESPN? "It's called an Association Football, and this is what he was said to use when he invented basketball."
Not saying I didn't trust Ellen, but this is hoop season, and some of you hoop fans might be reading this, so I thought I better check this out. I Googled up and found, from "The Origin of Basketball" by Dr. James Naismith, the beginnings of his original 13 rules in 1891:
- I was almost ready to try the new game, but I felt that I needed a set of rules, in order that the men would have some guide. I went to my office, pulled out a scratch pad, and set to work. The rules were so clear in my mind that in less than an hour I took my copy to Miss Lyons, our stenographer, who typed the following set of thirteen rules.
The ball to be an ordinary Association football.
And Ellen has one, bought new by the Smithsonian in 1881 from a catalog, which Ellen also has. The deflated ball is one of Ellen's favorite items in the collection.
As is the trophy sitting within the shadows of the original straw-man costume from "The Wizard of Oz." On a bottom shelf is the massive silver Tiffany-designed trophy given to Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel, in 1926.
Above that, in a plain, acid-free blue box, is an Arnold Palmer golf trophy. Move over one cabinet and there is the evolution of the football helmet, from leather to plastic, from sure broken nose to face masks.
On another shelf, hundreds of baseball cards in protected binders -- tobacco cards from the turn of the century, dozens of Mickey Mantle cards, a smiling "Bob Clemente" card.
And then, in the far corner, on another bottom shelf, in the shadows, dark and alone, sits a pot. Not far from this pot are Wilma Rudolph's bronzed track shoes from the 1960 Olympics.
The pot is a Greek Amphora vase, from 510 B.C.
And on it, drawn by an unknown Greek, pictures of runners.
Athletes, 2,000 years apart, within shelves of each other.
The circle of sports, under bulletproof glass.
Don Barone is a feature producer for ESPN. You can reach him at Don.Barone@espn.com.