One of these days, I’m going to end up on the TV show Hoarders, grizzled and bleary eyed, sitting in front of a pile of plastic souvenir sundae baseball helmets. I’ll have that distant, agonized look in my eyes that people on that show get, my wife Sheila will be crying in the corner, my kids will be screaming at me to wake up from this nightmare, and I’ll be saying something like, “I know no one understands, but the collection just wasn’t complete without that 1997 Tampa Bay Devil Rays helmet.”
My entire life, I have collected—everything from typical items like baseball cards and ticket stubs to odder things like lost pet flyers and yard sale signs. (This past Christmas, my seven-year-old son inherited my decades-old collection of the first 62 Choose Your Own Adventure books, pictured here.) I have always had a tendency to be what I think of as “goal-oriented,” and what my wife thinks of as “obsessive-compulsive.” When I focus on one of these collections, it’s hard for me to think about much else, such as family or hygiene.
Recently, I have been scouring eBay for the plastic souvenir sundae helmets they sell at Major League Baseball games. At first glance, you might think, “There are 30 teams, so there are 30 helmets. That’s not so bad.” But when you think about the fact that many teams have changed logos and colors several times (the Arizona Diamondbacks do it about every six months), and many have alternate identities, the possibilities are limitless. (It makes me twitch when I think that I have to wait several months before I can get my hands on the new helmets that the Miami Marlins, Toronto Blue Jays, and Baltimore Orioles will be selling in the 2012 season.)
People who write about the psychology of collecting say that collectors do what they do for a connection to the past, to rekindle fond memories, and to achieve a sense of completion, among other reasons. An article on the website HorizonLines.org cites author Kim A. Herzinger on the subject:
Collecting is a means by which one relieves a basic sense of incompletion brought on by unfulfilled childhood needs. It functions as a form of wish fulfillment, which eases deep-rooted uncertainties and existential dread.
I did not realize that I was easing existential dread when I ordered that retro Milwaukee Brewers helmet on eBay, but if that’s all it takes, then I’m in good shape. These helmets appeal to me as a designer because I like logos. They appeal to me as a baseball fan for obvious reasons. They appeal to me as a consumer because they are plastic junk. And they appeal to me as a childish knucklehead because it’s fun to see how high I can stack them.
With all of this as background, I had resigned myself to the fact that I’m crazy until I read Tim Merriman’s recent post on the NAI blog, “The Collector Within Each of Us.” Tim writes about the importance of properly interpreting museum collections—telling stories and making connections rather than simply displaying a bunch of stuff. It made me realize that the small space my wife has allowed me in our kitchen cabinets for my helmets is my own personal baseball museum.
The helmets are conversation pieces when we have guests. The blue Expos helmet prompts stories about when, as newlyweds, Sheila and I moved to Montreal; the Cubs helmet almost always leads to stories about the time Shea and I ditched our respective wives and children in Chicago to make a pilgrimage to Wrigley field; and yes, that 1997 Tampa Bay Devil Rays helmet that’s going to get me featured on Hoarders prompts stories about time spent with friends in St. Petersburg.
And because the whole point of the tiny baseball museum in my kitchen—as it should be with all interpretive sites—is to be relevant to my visitors, I make it a point to serve ice cream to my guests in their favorite team’s helmet (and if they don’t have a favorite team, then I don’t want them in my house).
In anticipation of Shea’s next visit, I have a Yankees helmet at the ready, which I procured on a visit to the old Yankee Stadium in the late 1990s. And I have some stories to tell about that day.