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Art Review

‘The Art of Baseball’ touches all the bases

John Maggiotto

CONCORD — Baseball and literature have long been a doubleheader. Put these names in your rotation and watch the W’s pile up: Ring Lardner, Bernard Malamud, John Updike, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo.

“The Art of Baseball” reminds us that the sport and visual art have a long history of their own. It runs through Sept. 20 at the Concord Museum.

Some eminent names have work on display, including Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, William Zorach, Charles Burchfield, Guy Pène du Bois, and William Merritt Chase.

It’s true that some of these artists seem more engaged with the game than others. The squat brooding muscularity of Zorach’s 1940 bronze of a catcher does honor to the trade of Gabby Hartnett and Muddy Ruel and Carlton Fisk. In fact, one of Fisk’s masks is in a display case somewhat less than 60 feet 6 inches away from the sculpture. In the same case are a Carl Yastrzemski baseball cap, a Jim Rice bat, and a Ted Williams fielder’s glove. “The Art of Baseball” is definitely a show about function as well as form.

In a splendid example of art and life colliding, the show includes both a small Oronzo Cosentino sculpture of a first baseman reaching for a throw and a photo of Babe Ruth at a desk, talking on the phone. What’s the connection? Visible behind the Babe is the sculpture. In an even nicer touch, the sculptural figure leans to its right and Ruth to his left. George Balanchine couldn’t have balanced them any better.

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Both chronologically and stylistically, Oldenburg is as different from William Merritt Chase as Mookie Betts is from Tris Speaker. That’s as it should be. For a century and a half, baseball has been woven into the fabric of American life — a fabric that was and is nothing if not broad and varied. Representing that fabric, handsomely as well as literally, is a quilt executed around 1940 by Marion Cheever Whiteside Newton. It shows both a history of 19th-century baseball and a game between the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Giants.

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“The Art of Baseball” is relatively small, with about 60 items, but that smallness has a satisfying fullness. Other than Red Sox memorabilia, the objects are drawn from William and Mildred Gladstone’s collection of baseball art. The Red Sox items belong to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum — other than a trio of championship rings, which come courtesy of Barbara and Ted Alfond. Swollen-looking and garish, the rings are kind of hideous. Major League Baseball may want to look into banning BGH (bling growth hormone).

Noted historian and baseball fan Doris Kearns Goodwin, a Concord resident, is the show’s honorary curator. Perhaps this is the museum equivalent of throwing out a ceremonial first pitch? Goodwin appears in an introductory video, as do the Gladstones.

A Jim Rice bat.Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame

Fine art is only part of the story. Folk art and material culture figure prominently. There are baseball-themed andirons, handkerchiefs, and a weather vane. Crossed bats frame a combination mirror/hat rack from the interwar years. A baseball clock, from 1876, is a contradiction in sporting terms — baseball being a theoretically open-ended contest where duration is determined by human action rather than a designated number of minutes.

The most startling item in the show is a morbid bit of gamesmanship. In August 1892, a team in Gorham, N.H., sent a dollhouse-size coffin and the figure of a ballplayer to an opposing nine, the Island Pond Base Ball Club. An accompanying note said “as we understand you are shortly to hold services and bury your club, we send the remains free of charge in order that they may be interred at the same time and place.” There’s trash talking, and then there’s trash talking.

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THE ART OF BASEBALL

At: Concord Museum,

53 Cambridge Turnpike, Concord, through Sept. 20, 978-369-9763, www.concordmuseum.org


Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.