The Sports Museum, the Hub’s crown jewel of hardball history and all the other sports we love, has been tucked away neatly in the halls of TD Garden for nearly 20 years.
If you haven’t visited, make sure to go, if only for that rare respite from the incessant barrage of hot takes and updates, the important and the inane, that force feed our insatiable appetite for sports. It’s a safe haven from the cacophony, a serene place to think, and that’s important in a city where most of us think we know everything about sports.
“People who grow up here, I think sports is part of the way they define themselves,” Rusty Sullivan, the Museum’s executive director, mused the other day. “We live through our teams . . . the character and the work ethic and the championships, certainly. Sports are pretty damn important around here. Are sports important in places like Cleveland and Detroit and San Diego? Sure. But I think sports are on a pedestal around here.”
The Sports Museum is celebrating its 40th birthday this year. Founded in 1977 as a 501(c)(3) organization, it was the brainchild of Vic Caliri, who taught psychology at the then-Southeastern Mass. University, and Mathew Sgan, who worked in SMU admissions. Ten years later, it opened for business.
“The farm opened before the crops were harvested,” said curator Dick Johnson, who became the Museum’s first employee in 1982. “We had to clear the field and plant seeds first. It took those 10 years to acquire items and create the first displays.”
Johnson was there when the doors finally swung open in 1987 in a quirky little bandbox of a building along the Charles River, the Herter Center in Brighton. It shifted to the Cambridgeside Galleria four years later, and in 1999, at the invitation of then-Garden president Rich Krezwick, moved to its permanent digs on Causeway Street.
“It’s like talking about the Patriots’ home fields, right?” said Johnson, noting the team’s nomadic stops around Boston before moving to Foxborough at the start of the 1970s. “We feel privileged to be here at the Garden. North Station, right downtown . . . we’re on Main Street now and couldn’t be happier.”
None of it happens, added Sullivan, without the largesse of the Garden, title sponsor New Balance, and the likes of Iron Mountain, the Highland Street Foundation, and the Yawkey Foundation. The annual budget, according to Sullivan, is approximately $1.4 million, which supports seven full-time employees and the Museum’s two hallmark community outreach programs, “Stand Strong” and “Boston vs. Bullies.”
“People are often dazzled by what we have on display,” said Sullivan, who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1991, only to leave corporate law in 2005 to become the Museum’s executive director. “But that’s not enough to carry the day fund-raising. Funders want to know you are giving back to the community, and helping kids. We think we’ve built the programs, and continue to deliver them to help kids. When you do all that, people will support you.”
“Stand Strong,” with its emphasis on building leadership skills in teenagers, rolled out 10 years ago in communities such as Charlestown, Roxbury, and South Boston. “Boston vs. Bullies,” aimed at curbing all forms of bullying, started up about five years ago.
“A lot of museums are very inward facing,” said Sullivan. “They have their exhibits. They have their collection. They wait for people to come to them. A lot of people come see us, and visit our exhibits, but we are really going out to where the kids are . . . we are outward facing . . . delivering our programs in the field, in the trenches. It’s our formula.”
Caliri, who grew up in Mattapan and went to Hyde Park High, pitched for Boston University in the early 1950s.
“Ernie Roberts once wrote about me in the Globe,” said Caliri, 85, who now lives in Easton. “He said I was the only pitcher at BU who, after the game, iced down both arms — one for pitching, and one for waving the outfielders back.”
Caliri played on Terrier teams with the legendary Harry Agganis and his batterymate was Tommy Gastall, who went on to catch for the Orioles, only to die when the plane he piloted crashed into Chesapeake Bay in September 1956.
By the mid-’70s, Caliri and Sgan were formulating plans for the Museum. When Sgan moved away in the early ’80s, recalled Caliri, his workload was nearly insurmountable and funding difficult to find.
“Everyone loved the idea of a sports museum,” said Caliri. “But when you tried to get money, forget it.”
The only staffer at the time was Johnson, the curator, working as an unpaid intern. With no money on hand, and a staff of one, Caliri felt he was out of options.
“I called Dick and said, ‘Dick, I’m going to close it up,’ ’’ recalled Caliri. “He said, ‘Oh, no, don’t do that!’ And I said, ‘Well, Dick, we’ve got no money.’ But he stayed at the [Herter Center], I conveyed to him things we needed to do.”
Input from Dave Cowens, the ex-Celtics great, then really provided a booster shot, his visibility and personality helping engage interest and fuel donations. But without Johnson willing to hang in, said Caliri, the museum would have folded before the doors ever opened.
“I was exhausted, so I went out to pasture,” said Caliri. “Dick was the guy, 100 percent. He saved the whole damn thing.”
In the 40 years since the Museum was founded, the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics, and Bruins have combined for 13 championships. We’ve witnessed the work it took to win. Tour the Museum, and you’ll see the work, and devotion, it takes to preserve those memories.