SPRINGFIELD — Admittedly, the historians at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum know a heckuva lot more about the Civil War, the polarizing forces of the 1860s and the 16th president of the United States, than they do about baseball.
But a baseball “story” was among the five remaining ideas a museum committee had pared from a list of 125 to display in the facility's Illinois Gallery at a brainstorming session.
“As long as you make it about the Cubs, I'll help,” one participant said, according to Samuel Wheeler, state historian.
“Oh, no. The Cardinals,” someone else said.
Clearly, the museum — like a large chunk of the Midwest — has experienced a “house divided” problem that only Lincoln could fully have appreciated, albeit in Cubbie blue and Cardinal red rather than blue and gray.
That was the genesis of the Cubs vs. Cardinals: The Rivalry exhibit, which is on display through the end of the year. In addition to photo montages of both teams lining the walls, it features memorabilia from jerseys, bats and stadium seats to interactives such as trivia stations. The stations tally Cubs and Cardinal fans' correct answers (termed runs) to multiple-choice questions.
(Cub fans have been dominating, but as one Cardinal fan noted: “It's still early in the season.”)
Cub faithful can pose with a blowup of the famous Cubs' Series-clinching “mound pile” photo from Nov. 2. Cardinal fans can blend in with the 2011 Redbird champions in another oversized view of their champagne-soaked locker room scene.
The “sound track” for the gallery includes John Fogerty's “Centerfield” (“Put me in coach ...”) as well as Cubs announcers Pat Hughes and Len Kasper and the Cardinals' Jack Buck and Mike Shannon with memorable calls in addition to other tunes.
Wheeler told a recent Evening with the Creators throng that he used the most essential tool any historian has these days — Google — to contact Paula Homan, curator of the Cardinals Hall of Fame Museum, about his “crazy idea.” She referred him to St. Louis native Tom Shieber, curator of the National Baseball Hall of Fame collection in Cooperstown, who would provide 60 artifacts on loan.
Wheeler ultimately attended last winter's Cubs Convention with newfound frenemy Lydia Wahlke, Cubs vice president/general counsel, who agrees with him that it wouldn't be a rivalry worth mentioning if it weren't for the fans.
“There is a different energy … like in a playoff game … when the red T-shirts invade,” she said. “Any player will tell you it means more when they're playing the Cardinals. Game 4 of the NLDS (a 6-4 Cubs victory) was most satisfying because of who it was against.”
The comment might have hit a nerve with Homan, who later noted: “We have won more World Series (eight to three).”
But Wahlke replied: We have more wins (1,213 to 1,161 with 19 ties) against you.”
The banter belied the good-natured camaraderie the two camps enjoy despite the tribe mentality. Wheeler was surprised at all the blended families he has encountered, citing elderly twin brothers he met at the exhibit's opening.
“One was a Cardinal fan and the other a Cub,” he noted. They explained that “mom was a Cub fan and dad a Cardinal fan.”
"Trash Talkers" Wahlke and Homan both contributed to a display titled Women in the Front Office, which teamed Margaret Donahue, baseball's first female executive outside of ownership, with Helene Britton, the Cardinals owner from 1911-1916.
Chris Britton, a relative, brought photos to Homan from a family archive that also included Stanley Robison's will leaving the club to his niece.
“That's the magic of an exhibit,” Wheeler said. “Sometimes a thing like that just walks in.”
Donahue, hired by Bill Veeck Sr., retired as a vice president in 1958 after 40 years with the Cubs, rising from secretary. “You did not move a player if you worked for the Cubs without talking to Miss Margaret,” Wahlke said, citing Donahue's success in putting some cracks in a glass ceiling.
Aside from Cooperstown, all of the displays, except for one, came from the two teams and a handful of private collections.
The lone exception was the 1871 contract between Cubs great Cap Anson and the Rockford Forest Citys. It is the only artifact from the Springfield presidential library's files (legend has it that Anson was on his way to Chicago with team officials to celebrate when they saw flames and smoke from the Great Chicago Fire and returned to Rockford).
Wheeler's favorite display is the jersey Stan Musial (“the greatest Cardinal who ever played”) wore in 1946 when the Hall of Fame outfielder won the Most Valuable Player award for leading the Cards to a World Series victory on his return from World War II.
Wahlke and Shieber had hoped to land a walk-off home run of a display by acquiring Gabby Hartnett's “homer in the gloamin'” bat and ball that paved the way for the 1938 team's National League championship, but a local museum could not part with it.
Shieber noted in answering a guest's question that the three components of any epic rivalry (such as the Giants vs. Dodgers and Yankees vs. Red Sox as well) are proximity, competition and history.
The Cardinals vs. Cubs wars (dubbed “The I-55 Series” in George Castle's book) have been more than 100 years in the making and have spanned the Gashouse Gang to Joe Maddon's pennant clinchers. A particularly competitive stretch came during the Depression Era when the Cubs represented the National League in the World Series in 1929, '32, '35 and '38.
“Two teams competing at a high level,” said Shieber. “That's what makes for a great rivalry.”
It also makes for some great memories.
That's why Shieber, a proponent of Memory Walls, is most pleased with the Post-It note feature of the exhibit, making visitors part of the displays through their recollections of fun times at Wrigley and Busch Stadium or just rooting for their favorite teams.
“I've been blown away by some,” Wheeler said. “Some little kids, before they can even write, are drawing pictures of themselves playing baseball or catch with their dad.”
But a volunteer, recounting what one Cubs fan told him she had posted, might have captured how love of the game unites both sets of visitors.
She said she had put aside $4,000 to see the sights in London, England, but she wound up using it all on World Series tickets.
“It was money well-spent,” he quoted her.