Neil Scherer, a New Yorker, was visiting Waterbury last summer to work on a project at the Mattatuck Museum when he asked the museum’s curator, Cynthia Roznoy: “Are we in Yankee territory or Red Sox territory?”
“This is the dividing line,” Roznoy said. (Residents of other Connecticut towns might claim that distinction, but she was “in the ballpark.”)
“Why don’t you do a show about the rivalry?” Scherer asked.
A few days later Roznoy told Scherer her staff had agreed the show should be done. She added: “You’re going to be the curator.”
Scherer didn’t have much time; the exhibit had to open by the spring of 2017, in conjunction with the new baseball season and the renewal of that storied rivalry. But Scherer had a good head start, since he already had some amazing artifacts in his collection.
The result, Yankees or Red Sox: America’s Greatest Rivalry, is on view through Nov. 12.
Scherer, 57, an attorney and art dealer as well as a sports fan, says about 90 percent of what’s in the exhibit is from his own collection. The rest is on loan.
Because I am a Yankees fan, I was highly motivated to make the drive to Waterbury. Scherer, a lifelong Yankees fan who grew up in Mount Vernon and now lives in New York City, was eager to come to Connecticut and show me around.
I was surprised to see him wearing a Mets cap. “I figured I had to be somewhat diplomatic,” he explains. He also notes that some of the materials on hand are Mets-related. (Red Sox fans might remember their team played the Mets in the World Series in 1986. Look! There’s Bill Buckner trying to field that ground ball!)
Although there has been plenty of bad blood between Yankees and Red Sox fans through the years, Scherer tells me, “I’m a Yankee fan but not a Red Sox hater.”
Mindful of the current political atmosphere, Scherer adds: “In a country so polarized, if I can get Yankee and Red Sox fans together here, maybe there’s hope for us otherwise.”
Scherer admits his exhibit is “top heavy on Yankee stuff. When you win 27 world championships, you have a right to that.” He claims Red Sox fans who have seen the exhibit understand this and are mollified because “there’s a lot of stuff for them, too.”
Where to begin? Well, it so happens the first large display you come across is a remembrance, with original artifacts, of the American League East tiebreaker game between the Yankees and Red Sox on Oct. 2, 1978.
Here you can see a ticket to that game, the autograph of every Red Sox and Yankees player on a 1978 baseball card, a little piece of Fenway Park’s “green monster,” a button with an obscene message about the Yankees and a written recollection by the Yanks’ Bucky Dent about his historic home run. Dent concludes it: “I became forever known as ‘Bucky F’n Dent.’ ”
If that’s not enough fun, you can watch him hit that homer on a big screen running a continuous loop of highlights from the rivalry. And you can see Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez, amid the intense Game 3 in the 2003 American League Championship Series, grab Yankees coach Don Zimmer (age 72) by his head and throw him to the ground. (There are also moments from the 2004 ALCS that I found too painful to watch.)
“I was at Game 7 of that series,” Scherer recalls. “By the 7th inning most of the Yankees fans had left because they couldn’t stand it. But I stayed until the end. Many of the Red Sox fans were crying and saying, ‘I wish my grandfather was alive to see this.’ I sent my ticket from that game, framed, to a Red Sox fan and he said it was the greatest gift he had ever received. That got me to thinking about telling stories through sports artifacts.”
Scherer’s method is to assemble those original items together on a sports-display collage. With pride and excitement, he shows me the display commemorating Mickey Mantle’s 18 World Series home runs, still the record. It contains autographs of every pitcher who gave up those homers.
Equally impressive: the collage of Joe DiMaggio’s record 56-game hitting streak in 1941. Scherer gathered the autograph of every pitcher who gave up those hits (including Bob Feller and Lefty Grove) and a scorecard of the game when the streak was stopped.
And here’s a collage of Don Larsen’s perfect game for the Yanks in the 1956 World Series: a full (unused!) game ticket, a scorecard from that game, signed by Ed Sullivan, photos and the Daily News sports page (“Zero Hero!”), and a commemorative plate signed by Larsen and Yogi Berra, who famously jumped into Larsen’s arms after the final pitch.
“We want to put you into the game,” Scherer tells me.
Scherer says the exhibit is for art lovers and history buffs as well as sports fans. He points to a black-and-white painting by Adam Port showing Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech; you won’t believe you’re not looking at the award-winning photo.
In a nod to Waterbury and its significance to baseball history, Scherer has included a display case honoring the four guys from that city who made it to the big leagues: Jimmy Piersall, Roger Connor, Johnny Moore and George “Candy” LaChance.
OK, Red Sox fans, this one’s for you: a collage for the first 100 years of Fenway Park, 1912-2012: a brick from the park, a base (“I won’t tell you how I got that base but it truly is a stolen base,” Scherer confides) and a copy of the sales agreement that sent Babe Ruth to the Yankees.
“This really is part of our American culture,” Scherer says.