A quick glance around Barnes and Noble easily confirms it: Baseball appeals warmly to sophisticates. Writers like George Will and Roger Angell have repeatedly turned their attentions to the sport, examining it to death in social, economic and political terms, constantly trying to nail down its lasting fascination, and always, somehow, failing to say what's really on their minds about it — that baseball is fun. Of course, to say "baseball is fun" is to throw one's book deal out the window; it's difficult to talk a publisher into putting out a 100,000-word book with that kind of premise. But a museum exhibition can indeed function on the Fun Principle — while still drawing, in a much less head-banging way, the necessary social, economic and political parallels. That's exactly what the American Folk Art Museum's The Perfect Game: America Looks at Baseball does so well. Baseball isn't simple. Its roots run deep for many reasons. And since it's been the game of the people for so many years, it's left its mark on millions of popular and personal artifacts — the surest sign that there's something exceedingly pleasant, and maybe even fun, about it. What's fun about The Perfect Game? The fact that the drum used by Shorty Laurice, the cigar-chomping leader of the (then) Brooklyn Dodgers Sym-Phony Band, is on display here. (The Band was famous for assaulting umpires with "Three Blind Mice" and departing pitchers battered by Snider, Hodges and Robinson with "The Worms Crawl In, The Worms Crawl Out"). What's fun is the elegant fragment of frieze from the pre-renovated Yankee Stadium, looking like a tile from a Pompeian home. What's fun are the tiny ballplayer portraits weaved by prison inmate Raymond Materson using unraveled sock and shoelace thread. What's fun is the absolutely inexplicable 1859 trophy baseball in a bottle, looking like some kind of extreme pre-modern medical device (or even better, the extraordinary "Whimsy Bottle", a ship-in-a-bottle creation containing an almost lovingly detailed Maryland State Penitentiary and its adjacent ball fields). What's fun, too, is seeing the scores of wonderful watercolors depicting the plays and players of the 1952 Yankees-Dodgers World Series (including only a moderately craggy Casey Stengel and Billy Martin's Game 7-saving catch of Jackie Robinson's pop-up with the bases loaded). Painted the very year of that World Series by Pennsylvanian Justin McCarthy, the images feel like a fresh memory; although many of the players depicted are deceased, they seem more alive here in their naively rendered forms than they do in any Associated Press photo of the time. McCarthy is one of the very few artists and craftspeople identified by name in this show of over 100 objects. The nature of folk art is often anonymous — sign painters, carvers, draftsmen and builders of various kinds often leave their mark without leaving their identities. The poignancy of that fact isn't lost here, just as the many social aspects of the game have not been ignored. But the visitor can take or leave all that. Baseball is fun, something the artists here, known or unknown, have celebrated only with their hands.
Info: Where: American Folk Art Museum, 45 West 53rd Street When: Through February 1, 2004. Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10:30am-5:30pm; Friday until 7:30pm; closed Mondays How much: $9; students and seniors, $7. Admission FREE on Friday from 5:30pm-7:30pm For more information: (212) 265-1040; www.folkartmuseum.org