Bullish on sports dreamers, doers

The Williams sisters smile in the 'Dreaming Big' exhibit.
The Williams sisters smile in the "Dreaming Big" exhibit. (Ron Driscoll/Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ron Driscoll
Globe Staff / July 13, 2008

NEW YORK - The word "courage" gets tossed around a lot in sports, often in reference to a player who makes an important shot or sinks a winning putt.

We gained a new appreciation for the term when we visited the Sports Museum of America and read about Aja Frary. When she was 15, her stepfather tried to force her to give up sports. Frary refused and left home, moving in with her grandparents. She went on to star in three sports at Seattle's Evergreen High and earned a college scholarship, eventually becoming one of the top track athletes in the country.

We also learned about a dad in California who questioned his daughter's team being booted off a field so a boys' squad could practice, and found that local facilities for girls were sorely lacking. His documenting of the inequity forced the school district to balance access to playing fields.

"You come away from a visit to the museum more impressed with the people you didn't know about than those you did know," said Jim Craig of Easton, goaltender for the 1980 US Olympic "Miracle on Ice" hockey team.

Craig, 51, an honorary trustee, helped usher the museum into its historic space in the Financial District two months ago. He also loaned the museum the flag that someone draped over him in the tumult after the US team captured the gold medal against the Soviets. The resulting photo is one of sports' iconic images.

Certainly this museum is more than a repository of artifacts, although it can claim some dandies: college football's Heisman Trophy, for which it is the new permanent home; Jesse Owens's diary from the 1936 Olympics in Berlin; the 6-iron used by astronaut Alan Shepard to hit a golf ball on the moon; even the world's most famous sports bra, worn by Brandi Chastain when she converted the penalty kick that clinched the World Cup for the US women's soccer team in 1999.

Also on display in the lobby is a faux Statue of Liberty, garbed in Red Sox robes, one of 42 such statues placed throughout the city to promote Tuesday's All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium.

But this museum shines most when it backs away from the hoopla, and shows us our heroes when they were youngsters with dreams; when it assesses the impact of an immigrant like Boston boxing champ John L. Sullivan on his community; when it shows how games helped us heal after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

"Some people would minimize sports' role in our culture," said Philip Schwalb, the museum's founder. "But my goal, going back 6 1/2 years now, is to show the power of sports to impact lives."

Schwalb's life changed in a matter of 24 hours, when he visited the Basketball Hall of Fame for the first time on Sept. 10, 2001 (his 39th birthday), and lamented the absence of an all-sports museum in the United States. The attacks the next day spurred him to pursue his goal of a museum that would celebrate all sports, and to build it in Manhattan. Sixteen months later, the Basketball Hall of Fame became the first partner.

Schwalb speaks warmly of the first athlete to join the advisory board, Celtics legend Bob Cousy. "We call Bob our patron saint," said Schwalb.

Cousy, a New York native, was also the subject of a rallying cry when the fledgling museum was trying to gain its footing.

"The mayor had given us the use of Gracie Mansion for a meeting with the deputy mayor for economic development, and we wanted noteworthy athletes to join us," said Schwalb. "We had four or five lined up, but as time went on the others kept canceling. Finally, only Cousy was left, so our slogan was 'Don't lose the Cooz.' "

Another Hall of Famer, Bill Bradley, steered the project toward Lower Manhattan, which resulted in Schwalb's group securing Liberty bonds, part of a federal initiative to revitalize the area. Just a dozen or so businesses out of some 300 applicants won approval, and that landed the museum $60 million of its required $100 million.

"When I was a kid in Orlando, playing ball in the driveway, I would pretend I was Bill Bradley," said Schwalb of the onetime New York Knick. "Imagine coming home one day to find a voice mail from him about our project."

The 19 galleries brim with the top players in the leading sports. Schwalb worked to align the museum with every important governing body and hall of fame, and he landed the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., just a month before opening.

What did those organizations have to gain? As in many sports stories, the statistics are telling.

"In the case of the Basketball Hall of Fame, they work hard, they hold special events, and they get just over 100,000 visitors a year," says Schwalb. "There must be what, 30 million basketball fans in this country? And a lot of them don't even know the Hall of Fame is in Springfield."

Schwalb estimates that an annual 7 million visitors make their way to Battery Park and its ferries to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. The museum is about 50 yards from the park, right across the street from the famous "charging bull" statue symbolic of Wall Street, a couple of blocks from Ground Zero, and at the starting point for ticker-tape parades down Broadway, the mile-long "Canyon of Heroes" leading to City Hall.

Dozens of sidewalk medallions commemorate the early parades, such as the salute to Charles Lindbergh in 1927, and Schwalb considers it great karma that the lone two markers for sports parades (golfer Bobby Jones and swimmer Gertrude Ederle) are both in front of the museum.

"We also have a photo of Jesse Owens in a convertible during his parade in 1936 that was taken directly in front of our building," said Schwalb. The museum sits at 26 Broadway and boasts a commanding presence in the historic former headquarters of John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Co.

"The building is unlike any other we could find," said Schwalb. "Its facade is 450 feet long, and you'd be hard-pressed to find another building of that length in New York City."

The biggest win-win among sports organizations has to be the partnership with the Women's Sports Foundation, which was without a permanent home before it christened the Billie Jean King International Women's Sports Center as part of the museum.

"They were determined to have a physical space for their hall of fame," said Schwalb. "For 20 years they would have an induction dinner, and they never had a place to honor the inductees."

The museum provides several interactive touches: Fans can lend the announcer's voice to some classic moments, get behind a hockey goalie's mask and see a forward bearing down on them with the puck, gauge their cycling ability, even take a shot at changing the tires like a member of a pit crew. At the final kiosk, visitors can learn more about how to visit the various halls of fame and get on their e-mail lists.

"It's better than a single hall of fame and more than a museum," said Craig. "I call it a destination for dreams."

Ron Driscoll can be reached at

If You Go

Sports Museum of America

26 Broadway, New York

888-762-8587, 212-747-0900

Open year round, Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-7 p.m., Saturday-Sunday 9-9. Adults $27, students and age 60 and older $24, 4-14 $20, under 4 free.

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