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Deathless names and breathless photos, art and athletics, nostalgia and hero worship—they are all part of the surefire formula behind "Champions of American Sport," the first-ever Smithsonian Institution exhibit devoted to the finest athletes in the nation's history. The $300,000 collection, organized by the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, offers some 500 items commemorating 100 men and women from the 1830s to the present. They are celebrated in pictures, paintings, drawings and sculpture, not to mention bubble gum cards, sheet music and roadside billboards.
Here is Ty Cobb's bat-carrying case, the hand-tooled saddle of rodeo cowboy Larry Mahan, Bobby Hull's hockey stick and the track shoes worn by Wilma Rudolph at the 1960 Olympics. The exhibition staff tried to find stars who made popular history in addition to athletic records. Gathering material from halls of fame, publications, the collections of private artists and photographers and the dens of the athletes themselves, the organizers spared no trouble to get the real thing. A photo of three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Wilbur Shaw hangs alongside the actual 1938 Maserati that carried him to victory in 1939 and 1940.
The athlete-as-celebrity is not a new phenomenon, as the show attests. Baseball's first true idol was Mike "King" Kelly of the Boston Nationals, who played during the 1880s and inspired a popular song, Slide, Kelly, Slide. A 1926 photo shows New York honoring Gertrude Ederle with a ticker-tape parade after she became the first woman to swim the English Channel. Her time of 14 hours and 31 minutes was then a record.
The main attraction of the exhibit is the evocative photographs: Willie Mays' game-saving over-the-shoulder catch of Vic Wertz's deep fly in the 1954 World Series, a triumphant Cassius Clay towering over Sonny Liston after his first-round KO in their 1965 fight, Bobby Orr gesturing in triumph while still horizontally airborne after scoring the winning goal in the 1970 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Armchair quarterbacks may question the wisdom of including promoters and referees among America's top 100 "champions" while ignoring so many athletes. The baseball section passes over Walter Johnson, Stan Musial and Bob Gibson; auto racing lacks Mario Andretti; yachting misses Ted Turner; golf makes no mention of Sam Snead. Not only is there no Billy Kidd, no Phil Mahre—skiing itself is missing. In the forward to the 288-page catalog (Harry N. Abrams, $14.95 softbound, $35 hardback) that is a beautiful sports book in itself, historian and exhibit organizer Marc Pachter admits, "We ourselves feel the pangs of the omissions." But he and the National Portrait Gallery should be cheered for producing what amounts to a mini Hall of Fame.
The show will be at the California Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles through Feb. 28 and the American Museum of Natural History in New York April 2-June 27.
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