Old stuff. Junk. Taken piece by piece, that is what the bulk of the sports-related memorabilia at the National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. might seem to some. Ticket stubs and pancake-flat baseball mitts, leather helmets and dog-eared periodicals, things that might have been heaved into the trash were it not for the pack-rat nature of their owners. But, oh, what wonderful junk it is. Here is the speed-skating suit worn by Eric Heiden in the 1980 Winter Olympics (below left); over there a pair of Muhammad Ali's boxing gloves. They share equal space with Frisbees and baseball cards, pennants and wooden skis, for the 7,000-piece Smithsonian collection reflects the interweaving of sport with the American fabric—from the elegant acorn-tipped wooden skates (circa 1780) pictured below to the evolution of the football face mask. "We're not a Hall of Fame," says curator Carl Scheele, who started the sports collection in 1977. "We're interested in the history of American life, from everyday people right across the board."
Not all of the Smithsonian artifacts are red, white and blue. This jersey, for example, was worn by England's 25-year-old Roger Bannister during his epic 1954 race in Vancouver against Australia's John Landy. At the time, he and Landy were the only sub-four-minute milers in history. Everything came up roses for Bannister. He won the duel in 3:58.8 and in December was named SI's first Sportsman of the Year.
The gear of a grand old game (clockwise from left): Roberto Clemente's batting helmet; Lou Brock's shoes? Larry Doby's road jersey; Rick Dempsey's shin guard; Thurman Munson's face mask; Enos Slaughter's cap; Stan Musial's bat; Sandy Koufax's glove. Other bits of history: a cap from the 1910 Princeton University freshman team; a 1905 catcher's mitt; a fielding glove of the late 1890s; a cap of the Kansas City Royals of the Negro Leagues; numerous game balls and autographed balls. The silk-smooth southpaw from Harvard (bottom left) came as a premium with tobacco, cookies or candy.
An unheralded saddle bronc rider named Don Bell, who spent 20 years hoofing it from one rodeo to the next, put the weather in this leather. The silver spurs were made by a friend of Bell's, Hohmer Roark, a top rodeo cowboy of the '30s, whose skills as a craftsman emerged after he was sentenced to life in prison. The lasso belonged to rodeo performer Frank Dean, who learned rope tricks from a man who spun yarns even better than loops, Will Rogers.
Before bubble gum had even been invented, sporting cards were offered as premiums with everything from sacks of flour to loaves of bread. Between 1910 and '15, packages of Pan Handle Scrap chewing tobacco included cards of champion women swimmers demonstrating difficult strokes and fetching poses. Here, Rose Pitonof depicts the breaststroke, while comely Annette Kellermann, the Aussie credited with taking the skirt off women's swimwear, flashes her Million Dollar Mermaid smile.
John L. Sullivan's gold and diamond belt was given to him by the citizens of Boston, not on Independence Day, as the inscription suggests, but on Aug. 8,1887. After John L. lost his title in 1892, legend has it that he indulged his passion for pub-crawling by buying drinks with diamonds he had chipped out of his belt. Today, all the gems are paste. Other souvenirs of the sweet science:, a piece of rope from the ring of the first Tunney-Dempsey fight; the gloves Jack Dempsey wore in his second title defense, Dec. 14, 1920; and the towel thrown in by Max Schmeling's manager after Joe Louis beat the German on June 22,1938.
Court keepsake: the ribbon worn by Chris Evert in 1973, her first year in professional tennis. "Ever since the '20s, sports have influenced fashion-plus fours, baseball jackets, letter sweaters," says the Smithsonian's Ellen Hughes, Scheele's partner in assembling the collection. The ribbon rests on a racket used by Evert in '78, the year she won her fourth U.S. Open title.