This past Opening Day the DIA opened the doors to the exhibit Play Ball!, a collection of memorabilia, baseball cards, and collectibles by Michigan based collector, E Powell Miller. At the heart of the exhibit is a complete T206 White Border Set.
The “T” stands for tobacco, in whose packages these cards, stunning colorful lithographs, were found at the turn of the 20th century. Approximately half the size of today’s standard baseball cards, they predated the collector craze. Because of that, many of them were discarded. Of those that managed to survive, many were stained or mangled. Miller’s complete, near pristine, collection, is extremely rare; his entire baseball collection is the 3rd highest rated in the country, rivaling the permanent baseball collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A point that was not lost at the exhibit’s press release, with Miller exclaiming that Detroit will beat NY. Or already has? This exhibit contains over 600 cards. While a similar exhibit at the Met contained only 300.
No doubt it’s an impressive collection, but within the context of an art museum, it raises a question: what does art have to do with it?
And perhaps a more serious tone: in a time of decreased funding to public institutions in general, and the arts specifically, how are museums shifting to stay relevant to a wide and diverse audience? And when does the shift move beyond art?
In search of answers to these questions, along with a few more lighthearted ones, we turned to Sean Thomas Blott of Bahamas Biennale, the one person we know who is both an art and baseball aficionado. That old arts vs. sports stereotype? Perhaps not totally true, but Sean is a rare—and knowledgeable—bird.
“The game is just so immersive. It’s just like with art. Once you get the bug, you get slowly dragged in. I could probably talk for hours about how much I love the game.”
CV Henriette: Tell us about your fondness for baseball.
Sean Thomas Blott: Woof! I don’t even know where to start. Baseball is my one true art escape. The game is incredibly immersive and very giving—the more energy you put in the more it gives. To start, the expansiveness of the sport is so exciting: 30 teams in the majors and each team has its own series of feeder teams also known as a farm system that has an additional 5 teams. From March to September, there can be as many as 75 games happening in the sport. It’s like finding a great new television series with 100 seasons. Hour long episodes with 20 episodes a season. Baseball uses a very dry sense of humor and loads of superstition: putting your cap inside out to rally for a hit, refusing to step on the foul chalk line, not speaking about a no hitter. Among many other things. I think it was a Budweiser commercial that encapsulates the vibe in baseball “It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.” The battle of pitcher vs. hitter can be like watching a great chess match, which, only after exclaiming this, I realize sounds really uninteresting!
Pitchers are always trying to get the upper hand. Hence, there’s also a lot of cheating with players doctoring balls to add more grip and spin—be it with pine tar, a file, sand paper, or Vaseline. Rarely is any of this called out unless it’s completely apparent. Hell, once a manager tried to sneak back into the dugout in a disguise after being ejected! It’s a game rich in tradition and linage but still pushes innovation for advancement. One thing I always loved is that every baseball is rubbed in the same mud that comes from the same family in Delaware. The mud helps remove the sheen on the leather. This was started way back when a player fouled a glossy ball into his head.
Glimmers of magic and lazy-boys that add extra spin if you sit in them. What’s not to like? Look at the way a knuckle ball can move!
The game is just so immersive. It’s just like with art. Once you get the bug, you get slowly dragged in. I could probably talk for hours about how much I love the game.
CVh: Did you collect baseball cards as a child?
STB: I did collect things as child: baseball cards, football cards, and basketball cards. Not much has changed. I just collect art now.
“You can appreciate a game for the weather, a cold beer, and being outdoors much like you can appreciate seeing an exhibition for the simple excuse to see your friends and take a stroll.”
CVh: Do you see a correlation between collecting baseball cards and collecting art? Making art and playing baseball? Watching baseball and looking at art?
STB: I think collecting baseball cards or collecting things in general is just something you are born with. I know very few people that limit their collecting to just one thing. Once it takes over it becomes a real obsession.
As much as I’d love to draw some major correlation between the game and art outside of using creative thinking, I don’t think there is one. The game is very structured. While it can be a chess match from pitch to pitch, there are still parameters one must work under. It’s mostly philosophical creativity. Not just on the field but in the front office when it comes to structuring a roster. With no salary cap, small market teams are forced to think creatively when it comes to building the team. Building a unique philosophy and approach can help a team with limited means stay competitive against a wealthier competitor.
Watching the game, however, much like appreciating a great exhibition, has a lot to do with the amount of knowledge you have about the context. You can appreciate a game for the weather, a cold beer, and being outdoors much like you can appreciate seeing an exhibition for the simple excuse to see your friends and take a stroll. If the game has a lot of excitement or if the exhibition has a lot of energy, it can be easy to absorb some of that energy. Just because you are not an art fan or a baseball fan doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy either under the proper circumstances.
CVh: What do you think about the stereotype that artists are bad at sports?
STB: There is probably a small bit truth to this, but I’d imagine that you could run out the same stereotype for nearly every non-athletic profession. There are a lot of undercover athletes in the arts and even some that excelled in college. Arts organizations like NADA have a regular basketball game, and there’s a group of us in Detroit that plays a regular basketball game. Artist like Michelle Grabner and Tyson Reeder have each made both an artist edition Soccer Ball and Basketball respectively.
CVh: Baseball card exhibit at the DIA. First things that come to mind.
STB: There is no reason baseball cards belong in an art museum.
CVh: People like to pit Detroit against NYC. You’ve run galleries in both cities. What are the pros and cons of each?
STB: Well I haven’t run a space in New York yet, but I have a good deal of experience on the Gallery side there. New York is expensive as far as overhead and rent is concerned, but it gives you access to the center of the art world. Detroit has such low rent but goodness the shipping expenses hurt, and there are other challenges like having most of your clients/audience outside of the city.
“It might make running a gallery space much more difficult at times, but I actually get to own a gallery space and run it for a living.”
CVh: Why do you stay in Detroit?
STB: The city has a certain je ne sais quoi, and I prefer the quality and slower pace of life. It might make running a gallery space much more difficult at times, but I actually get to own a gallery space and run it for a living. The city allows some amazing opportunities to grow the business. For example, living in a Miles van der Rohe and keeping up with that Whole Foods lifestyle. Detroit gives you a lot of experiences on both sides of the income scale and carry that prospective which is something I appreciate. Please bring back Goodwells.
CVh: How hard is it to get people in Detroit to buy art?
STB: There is a line in MoneyBall, a movie about the Oakland A’s, where the GM is trying to recruit a player, Scott Hattenberg, to sign with them to play 1st base—a position he hadn’t played before. Billy Beane tells him it’s not that hard and tells Scott to ask Washington how easy it will be. He responds “It’s incredibly hard”
CVh: How hard is it to get people to visit art museums?
STB: Pretty difficult under ideal circumstances but, much like baseball, once you get the bug, you’re hooked.
“What about letting each player on the twenty-five man roster of the Tigers pick out a piece from the collection and have a blurb from them about why they chose it?”
CVh: Hypothetically speaking, a museum shows a collector’s set of baseball cards in an attempt to raise support for the museum from the suburbs, is this necessarily a bad thing?
STB: Yes. I understand that institutions need to fundraise to afford their programming and to keep the lights on. I also realize the importance of getting butts in the museum since raising the funds can be tied to attendance, but It’s disheartening to see institutions use wall space to showcase baseball cards. I don’t see how it furthers anyone’s appreciation of art or how it further educates the viewer about art. I’d imagine the type of visitor that is drawn to the museum solely to look at a baseball card collection is a bit of a hollow outcome; I would be shocked if that one trip lead to repeat visits. Gimmicks, I’m sure, need to be used to lure outside interest, but I’d hope those gimmicks could have something to do with actual art. What about letting each player on the twenty-five man roster of the Tigers pick out a piece from the collection and have a blurb from them about why they chose it? Might be hard to pull off, but I’d bet the exhibition would be more enlightening and would better serve everyone.
CVh: The DIA or the Metropolitan?
This is a very impossible question. I like the Met just due to sheer scale of their contemporary collection. It’s incredible to breathe in the presence of masterpieces I grew up looking over in books. I also love beyond words the DIA’s Lucio Fontana. The richness of its green has helped me on many a dreary winter day. Every museum has its unique treasures and gems that can evoke great emotions. I think with the amount of exposure I have to art I’ve begun to appreciate some of the odder works that can be found in smaller museums.
Attention: when someone affiliated with the DIA reads this article, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE add some lights and paint the walls white in the room containing that absolutely fantastic Haim Steinbach. It’s like I’m trying to look at it in my grandmother’s house.
CVh: The Yankees or the Mets or the Tigers? (I feel this is a question someone who knows anything about baseball would never ask.)
STB: It’s so hard to pick. I’m extremely interested in a few players on each team: Mets’ pitcher Noah Syndergaard has to be one of the most gifted pitchers as far a repeatar and pitch movement is concerned; I also enjoy the Tigers’ closer Shane Greene, and the Yankees have some incredibly talent hurlers; Robertson, Severino, Chapman, and Sonny Gray. That said, all three of the teams have serious management flaws that make them all unlikeable in their own way.
The Tigers had a payroll far above there market size, which burned down the farm system and handed out some awful contracts (looking at you, Dave Dombrowski). The Mets’ owners got ripped off by Bernie Madoff and didn’t spend enough for a team in their size market. It’s also easy to hate the Yankees now, but in the past they were extremely flawed. For a brief stretch the Yankees weren’t developing their own players and would just sign the best free agents. Typically, free agents are older, so while you can technically buy top talent, those contracts come when the player is on the decline and the team is forced to spend more to compensate the aging roster. The Yankees have the best minor league system, spend the most on player development, hire the best analytics staff, and have the money to out-spend anyone for a free agent. It’s going it be a really long time before the Yankees are horrible—such a smart organization with unlimited resources. I’m just glad my beloved Brewers are in the National League. Shout out to all the smaller market teams! Go Brewers!
CVh: Favorite baseball player of all time. Why?
STB: Hard to pick one. I loved Alex Rodriguez growing up, but, as I became a more serious fan, I started to love a good pitcher. Brian Shouse was a LOOGY (Left-handed One Out GuY), basically a left-handed relief pitcher brought in to get one out against a left-handed batter. I always loved how specific that task was. One year with Milwaukee Shouse came in and I believe pitched 2 innings and threw some 40 pitches. Typically, a LOOGY throws 3-9 pitches and is only asked to get one out. He was great—getting out of the game without allowing any runs. In the postgame interview he was absolutely gassed. I remember it was in Minnesota at the Metrodome. It was so exciting to get that type of performance. I named my oldest plant, a Ficus that’s now 5′ tall, after him since he was such an interesting part of the Brewers first playoff in my lifetime.