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"Legends of Baseball's Dead Ball Era (1900-1919) from the Burdick Collection" opens at the Metropolitan
Boston Team Card © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
NEW YORK, NY.- The term “dead ball era” refers to the era of American baseball when the combination of cavernous ballparks, spongy baseballs, and pitcher-friendly rules resulted in games with few home runs. Strategy was important to the sport at this time, with great value placed on individual runs, stolen bases, sacrifice bunts, and other maneuvers. Beginning July 8, the exhibition Legends of the Dead Ball Era (1900–1919) in the Collection of Jefferson R. Burdick, on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, will feature nearly 600 historical trade cards of baseball greats from the time.

A highlight of the installation, which is drawn entirely from the Metropolitan’s renowned and extensive holdings of such historical trade cards, will be a rare card from the T206 White Border series of Honus Wagner, who was a shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1900 to 1917. Other well-known players from the dead ball era whose cards will be shown include such luminaries as Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Eddie Collins, and Napoléon Lajoie, who are still among the all-time hit leaders; and the pitchers Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson, who trail only the indomitable Cy Young in career wins.

During the dead ball era, it was not unusual for a single baseball to be used for an entire game—sometimes until it unraveled. Because the path of a scuffed or damaged ball was unpredictable and a dirty ball was hard to see, it became increasingly difficult to catch or hit a ball as a game progressed.

By 1920, a series of changes in the game’s rules (as well as the rise of Babe Ruth, a power hitter) ended the dead ball era. But during the previous two decades, fans were treated to some of greatest players the game has ever seen.

All of the baseball cards on display are from the Jefferson R. Burdick collection, the largest and most comprehensive collection of American trade cards ever assembled privately in the United States. Burdick (1900–1963), an electrician by profession, deposited more than 300,000 objects at the Metropolitan between 1943 and 1963, including more than 30,000 baseball cards, for which he developed a cataloguing system that remains in use today.

The installation is organized by Freyda Spira, Assistant Curator in the Museum’s Department of Drawings and Prints.

Since 1993, in response to the overwhelming enthusiasm of collectors and fans, the Metropolitan Museum has put on display groupings of several dozen baseball cards at a time from the Burdick collection, rotating them at six-month intervals. These installations moved recently to a more prominent location within the Museum’s renovated Luce Center. For the past two years, special exhibitions of Burdick materials—like the upcoming Legends of the Dead Ball Era—have been punctuating the more standard rotations.

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