Koufax is one of the stars of “Chasing Dreams” at the National Museum of American Jewish History

By Sam Bush

Robinson stole home against the Yankees in the 1955 World Series.

Robinson stole home against the Yankees in the 1955 World Series.

It is sweetly ironic that a wonderful exhibit celebrating the joys of baseball and how minorities helped to make it America’s pastime is on display in Philadelphia.

After all, the Phillies were one of the last major league teams to allow an African-American on their woeful roster — John Kennedy in 1957, 10 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line when he signed with the Dodgers.

And, most notoriously, it was Phillies manager Ben Chapman who was the leader in the clubhouse of racially taunting Robinson, which got so bad even the Phils’ center fielder Richie Ashburn had to warn his manager:

“Hey Ben, cut it out, every time you yell at Robinson he just digs in and plays harder!”

Through Oct. 26, the National Museum of American Jewish History (5th and Market Streets on Independence Mall 215-923-3811) is hosting the exhibit, “Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American,” that tells what America’s pastime has meant to the country and how it broke barriers.

“It’s a story of Jews and other immigrants integrating into American society,” Ilana Blumenthal, the museum’s marketing and communications manager told the media when the exhibit opened in early May.

It’s also an inspirational – and fun – outing for families. Kids of all ages can “field” baseballs hit by the game’s greats… or put on a Sandy Koufax jersey, mount the mound and try to pitch like the Dodgers’ ace did.

Ardent baseball fans will love this exhibition. But so will average fans who appreciate the songs and stories that enliven the “old ball game.”

For this is a look at how baseball has helped define America for people who have come here from other places. Although the focus is on Jews, it’s a wonderfully inclusive saga about many “outsiders” who have made their mark on the game.

In 1920, industrialist Henry Ford wrote: “If fans want to know the trouble with American baseball, they have it in three words: too much Jew.”

Prejudice dogged all-American icons like Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg, a Jew, and Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, an Italian-American. When Greenberg joined the Detroit Tigers in 1933, some welcomed him but others called him a sheeny. And DiMaggio was also considered an outsider.

It took until April 15, 1947, for Jackie Robinson to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier.

But baseball was an American way of life. For everyone. No matter where you came from.

Stadiums around the country augmented menus in their concession stands to reflect the origins of players. Like Seattle that added an “Ichiroll” sushi to its offerings when Japanese-born Ichiro Suzuki was a Mariner there.

Throughout the exhibition, touch screens show video recollections from fans like former Philly mayor and Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell who chokes up when he recalls playing baseball as a kid on a bare field with one small patch of grass: “It was home plate.”

Several years in preparation, the exhibition offers a lively mix of 130 objects, pithy quotes, videos and interactives, baseball cards, and stories of people who changed the face of the game.

It displays treasures like Koufax’s Cy Young Award and the Sultan of Swat crown given to Hank Greenberg when, in 1938, he was two hits short of matching Babe Ruth’s single season record. Jackie Robinson’s jacket, on loan from his wife, has his name embroidered in a pocket.

“Artifacts for this exhibit came from everywhere,” Blumenthal said. “Major League Baseball is a sponsor and networks of people interested in baseball went to work. We also did a Tumblr site and asked people to post pictures of their baseball stuff.”

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