How Baseball Put Its Stamp on the American Psyche

An exhibition at the National Postal Museum examines the history of the nation’s favorite pastime

Jackie Robinson smiling in a locker room
Jackie Robinson, seen savoring a 1956 win over Pittsburgh, debuted in the major leagues on April 15, 1947, as Brooklyn’s first baseman. Art Daley/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Some of my earliest memories are of sitting next to my grandfather, watching Jackie Robinson play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. I was too young to know what the Dodgers were, who Robinson was, or why my grandfather was glued to the television. But I knew this moment meant something special to him.

In the following years, I began to understand what had kept his eyes on that screen, though my team was the Yankees. I played baseball diligently growing up, but I was never great. Still, like my grandfather and like millions of other Americans, I fell in love with the sport. The strength and patience required to step up to the plate, waiting for the pitch to come. The grace and skill of the outfielders, sprinting and diving through that vast green expanse. The courage of folks like Robinson, Brooklyn Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella and Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe, who changed the face of the sport. Decades later, when I had the opportunity to work with Jackie Robinson-related collections at the National Museum of American History, I felt that I was honoring my grandfather’s passion.

a portait of Jackie Robinson as a Brooklyn Dodger
Born in Cairo, Georgia, Jackie Robinson transformed professional sports in 1947 by becoming the first African American player in Major League Baseball. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

This spring, the Smithsonian is celebrating the start of the baseball season with “Baseball: America’s Home Run,” opening at the National Postal Museum (NPM) in April. Featuring hundreds of U.S. and international stamps commemorating great players and historic moments, the exhibition approaches the story from a unique global perspective. “America’s Home Run” explores the origins of the sport in the early 19th century; baseball’s rise in worldwide popularity throughout the 20th century; and the sport’s most storied fields and the communities that call them home. Importantly, because 2022 marks the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson integrating Major League Baseball, the exhibition will detail both baseball’s history of segregation and how the sport enabled people of color, immigrant groups and other disenfranchised communities to claim their Americanness and their equality.

For generations, baseball has been an expression of national identity. I am so proud that NPM can enrich our understanding of baseball by helping casual observers and die-hard fans alike learn something new. And, like so many around the country, I can’t wait to watch this season once it begins.

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