"WANT TO see Lincoln's handball?" asks Ellen Hughes, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution, while rummaging through the archives—closed to the public—on the fourth floor of the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. "It's like a yard sale in here," she says with a sigh, digging past Jack LaLanne's jumpsuit, Sonja Henie's figure skates and Carl Yastrzemski's batting helmet while I lean, agog, on a metal filing cabinet, over which is draped a pair of ancient red briefs, evidently left over from a staff Christmas party.
"Those," says Hughes, "are Superman's trunks. George Reeves wore them on the TV series."
The Smithsonian is often called "the nation's attic," but the phrase is loathed by those who work there. "Have you ever seen a nice attic?" asks curator Marvette Perez, to which Hughes adds, "I prefer to think of us as the nation's memory?
Hughes is custodian of the nation's sports memory, but at the moment she looks less curator than coroner—pulling open a morgue-sized drawer to reveal a mannequin, in repose, wearing Bill Baker's 1980 USA Olympic hockey jersey.
Immediately beneath it in the drawer, also on a mannequin in repose, is a home Bulls jersey Michael Jordan wore in the '96 NBA finals. In this dim warren Baker and Jordan ride out eternity as bunkmates. History has turned them, quite literally, into strange bedfellows.
Hughes's official title is Cultural Historian for Sport, Leisure and Popular Culture, and artifacts from all these disciplines are warehoused together. Stepping into this cool, humidity-controlled chamber, then, is like stepping into the addled brain of the average American. A revered terry-cloth robe (worn by Muhammad Ali in Zaire) is steps away from an exalted felt amphibian (Kermit the Frog), who is strapped in a box in the seated position.
"Poor Kermit," says Hughes, passing by. "He looks like he's in the electric chair."
One seminal pair of American icons (the black Chuck Taylors worn by Bob Cousy) are shelved near another seminal pair of American icons—two lengths of polished wood, connected by a hinge, that make a whip-crack sound when clapped together. "This," says show business curator Dwight Bowers, "is a slapstick, which gave slapstick comedy its name." Two weeks ago, while touring the archive, actor Mike Myers said to the slapstick, "Without you, there's no me."
And it's true, for these objects connect humans across the centuries, like a chain of paper dolls linked at the wrist. When Hughes at last produces Honest Abe's handball, the leather orb—brown, with four stitched seams—looks more like Lincoln's Hacky Sack. Says Hughes, "Lincoln was playing with this in an alley, with his fellow lawyers in Springfield, while waiting to hear if he had received the presidential nomination." At this, my jaw falls open, and must be closed manually.
Like a gentle thief in latex gloves, Hughes rifles through a drawer in what might be a dresser. Except that the folded shirts she removes are Pel�'s New York Cosmos jersey, Bill Bradley's Princeton basketball top and Althea Gibson's Fred Perry tennis shirt, in which she won Wimbledon. Here is the white towel thrown into the ring by Max Schmeling's corner during his second fight with Joe Louis in 1938; the softball skirt worn by Betsy (Sock 'Em) Jochum of the South Bend Blue Sox of the Ail-American Girls Professional League; and a belt so gaudy it would make Liberace blanch: It was presented to John L. Sullivan on July 4, 1887, by the mayor of Boston.