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Dodgers exhibit puts you in Jackie Robinson's shoes Play ball: Brooklyn Historical Society encourages visitors to play a part in a chapter of New York history.


It seems the simplest of props: footprints are painted on the floor, a baseball bat is suspended by wires, home plate is just below. On the wall looms a life-size photograph of Jackie Robinson.

You, the visitor, put your feet in Robinson's footsteps and step up to the plate. You grasp the bat. Suddenly, the roar of the crowd materializes all around you, surging in intensity.

The noise becomes impossible, and you are somehow awesomely alone in front of thousands. Soon a pitcher will hurl a rock-hard sphere toward you at 90 miles an hour. This is enough, but the challenge is more than this.

You are Jackie Robinson, the first and only black man to play big-league baseball, and being crippled by a pitch in these pre-batting helmet days is not your only worry. Suddenly, a voice rises from the multitude, menacing and distinct. "Hey there, big boy," it growls ominously. "What you doin' out there on a white man's field?"

The effect is one of total involvement in a chapter of Brooklyn, N.Y., history that has been told again and again. The Brooklyn Historical Society is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Brooklyn Dodgers' single World Series triumph in 1955 with an exhibition called "Play Ball!" that aims to allow the young to experience long-ago emotions.

At the same time, the old are asked to write their own histories and interpretations in ways that then become part of the ever-changing exhibition.

"I saw Sandy Koufax pitch his first game, which I think he won, and after the game I saw him walking outside the ball park," wrote Rod Kennedy, who visited the exhibition. "I had an autograph book with many famous signatures in it, and when I asked him to sign it, he turned to the page with Babe Ruth's and Lou Gehrig's autographs on it and he said, 'I'll sign here.' "

Of the championship celebration, Leah Wolin, another visitor, wrote that she and her husband were caught in the excitement, and "walked along Flatbush until we reached the stadium and there put our hands on the place of Brooklyn's victory. It was, I'm almost sorry to say, a celebration worthy of the end of World War II," she added.

The intended message is simple: History, the kind that matters, is never over. This lesson will be repeated in other exhibitions planned at the society, ranging from life for Chinese immigrants in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn to the changing nature of the Brooklyn workplace.

Not only are the Dodgers the borough's biggest cliche, but focusing on "dem bums" amounts to wallowing, perhaps even glorifying, in the past as well.

"There's an implicit message in the good old days stuff that isn't so great," said Leslie Bedford, the society's deputy director for programs who was recently hired to develop the new exhibition strategy. "Too bad you weren't here when things were good."

But Ms. Bedford, who was the chief exhibitions' researcher at the Children's Museum of Boston, ultimately decided that the very familiarity of the Dodgers made them a good focus for her approach, which seeks to make people see new things and old things in new ways.

They Remember

Brooklyn is a place where people remember (or say they remember) Dodger players stopping by luncheonettes for ice cream after games. It is a place where people in Bedford-Stuyvesant say they remember leaning out of windows to cheer Jackie Robinson on game days.

And incontrovertibly, there is no insult in the modern history of the borough -- not the degradation of Coney Island, not the collapse of industries from brewing to shipbuilding, not anything -- that remotely rivals the indignity of losing the Dodgers after the 1957 season.

So Ms. Bedford starts with the most familiar memories, ones already well mined by the elegant institution at 128 Pierrepont St. in Brooklyn Heights, whose greatest treasure is its second-floor library.

The museum's permanent pieces on the first floor are also enticing: Already on display are such items as the "Official Crying Towel of the Dodger Sym-Phony of 1955," a group of five musical fans who serenaded umpires with "Three Blind Mice" and accompanied opposing pitchers on and off the field with hearty renditions of "The Worms Crawl In, the Worms Crawl Out." There is also an original seat from Ebbets Field.

These items find a comfortable niche in a permanent collection ranging from artifacts from the Navy Yard to Coney Island wax museums. The most charming is the original set from "The Honeymooners," supposedly in a mythical Bensonhurst, looking so very small and bare-bones, a relic from that ancient era when Madison Avenue did not require most sitcoms to be upscale.

These permanent exhibitions occupy 4,000 feet of the museum, with just 600 feet for such changing shows as the one on the Dodgers. Plans call for this ratio to be nearly reversed after the museum space is closed in the spring of 1997 for a year of remodeling.

What is to be different in these temporary exhibitions is not their challenging nature: The society has already tackled AIDS and the Crown Heights racial disturbance, among other topics. Rather, the chance for personal, hands-on involvement -- with the stress on intergenerational communication -- is the new keynote.

If the Dodgers show is a clue, the approach will not be glitzy. As you enter, you pass a black-and-white photo mural of Ebbets Field. It is made of photocopies pasted together, but looks better than this suggests. The first stop is an arched "hall" that leads to the "field."

This is the "locker room," complete with uniforms and catcher's equipment for children to try on -- that is, if they can wrest the stuff away from their fathers. Inspiration comes from a life-size photo of Robinson putting his spikes on.

1955 banner

Then comes the piece de resistance, the 1955 World Championship banner. It had gone to Los Angeles with the hated traitors, been stolen back by patriotic Brooklynites, then followed a circuitous path.

Peter O'Malley, the owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, was kind enough to return it last year, a gesture the society chose not to see as empty. Indeed, an impressive display of the banner in a place of prominence in the permanent collection is in the works.

Suddenly, you realize you're in a ballpark, though a very, very tiny one. The floor of the exhibition area is carpeted with Astroturf and has three bases in addition to the home plate where you pretend to be Robinson. The third base is the original one from Ebbets Field; it is enclosed in a plastic case.

In one corner is the "WBHS" studio, a child-size radio booth where children can play the part of radio sportscaster and re-create old baseball games.

This harks back to the days sportscasters were fed information by telegraph, then used sound effects to transport listeners, the way a young sportscaster named Ronald Reagan covered Chicago Cubs games for a Des Moines, Iowa, station.

Umpire sounds? Call out "Strike three, yeeer out!" A happy crowd? Cup your hands over your mouth and whisper, "Raaaah-raaaah." An angry crowd? Get up close to the mike and say "rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb" very quickly. Bat striking ball? Gently hit the bamboo with the mallet.

There is a xylophone to make a jingle for your own station, and an old-time Wheaties commercial to read, if you have nothing of your own to advertise.

There is a time line depicting the history of both Brooklyn baseball and the borough itself. The baseball chronology says that in 1960 Ebbets Field was demolished to become an apartment building, and a sign was posted: "No Baseball Playing Allowed."

The Brooklyn countdown relates that in 1884, P. T. Barnum tested the year-old Brooklyn Bridge by sending a herd of 20 elephants across. In 1977, "Saturday Night Fever," starring John Travolta, was filmed on location in Bay Ridge.

Visitors are then invited to write pieces of their own history on the same time line. Reads one: "John Connelly came from Limerick, Ireland, before the Statue of Liberty Arrived."

Efforts are made to direct instruction to different age groups. In particular, Robinson's significance is explained in one level of signs for children, and just beneath for adults in a more sophisticated manner.

For example, the children's sign describes Robinson's history in the old Negro League, while the adult commentary -- in smaller letters -- puts these leagues in the context of such autonomous black organizations as the Nation of Islam.

Ira Glasser, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, tells of the hero's relevance to the struggle for civil rights. "The way Jackie Robinson danced off third base, we tried to live," he said.

Book collection

There is much more, though the simplest stuff seems the most popular. A collection of books about Brooklyn and its sports legends draws browsers of all ages.

An area is set aside for children to draw on, with pencils and crayons provided. In a bathroom, Count Basie plays "Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?" and "Let's Keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn," among other tunes. The songs make you smile if you can hum past the empty feeling.

A battered old catcher's mitt offers a lesson in fate, as seen from an Ebbets Field vantage. It belonged to Mickey Owen, who wore it when he made the error that cost the Dodgers game No. 4 of the 1941 World Series to the Yankees, who then led 3 games to 1, and went on to win the whole enchilada.

It is this sad, sad game that is played over a sound system, not loudly, but again and again. Nothing else. A visitor begged Ms. Bedford to stop it. She almost did, then reconsidered. "Losing is part of the Dodger tradition," she said.

If you go

"Play Ball!" -- an interactive exhibition with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Jackie Robinson as its centerpiece -- will be on view through May at the Brooklyn Historical Society, 128 Pierrepont St., Brooklyn Heights. Hours: Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Admission: $2.50; $1 for children and senior citizens. Information: (718) 624-0890.

The Dodgers are also the subject of one of five permanent displays at the society; the others are devoted to Coney Island, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Brooklyn Bridge and Brooklynites.

Issues touched upon in the "Play Ball!" exhibition are the inspiration for several events. Stories from the glory days of Brooklyn in the 1940s and 1950s are to be told Feb. 22 at 1 p.m. by George Accola; free with museum admission. "Winter Sunday Fun," activities for families based on "Play Ball!" and other museum shows, is to take place from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. every Sunday in February and March; free with museum admission.

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