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One of the defining dilemmas of a visit to a major American city is which one to see first: the art museum? Or a Major League Baseball game? Have them both, says the Baker Museum.

Two exhibits that opened on Saturday, October 16 do just that. “Baseball Heroes: Works from the Jay H. Baker Collection” is a deeply loving look at one of its premier teams, the New York Yankees, from the collection of Naples resident Jay Baker, the president and CEO of the direction that launched the Kohl’s department. store C.

“Love in All Forms” shares the collection of Patty and Jay Baker, with Patty, the former arts major, holding the base of expertise in this area. The two are at the museum named for their philanthropy until May 15. (Details are in the accompanying information box.)

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You won’t miss the vendor call stadium music – “Getcher red-hots!” and “Hey!” – or the Acoustiguide helmet to talk about art while you walk. That’s because there’s food at Heidi’s Café next to the museum, and trained guides run daily tours.

‘Hero of Baseball’

Jay Baker holds some of his collection’s most treasured pieces close to his heart.

It was an uplifting moment to watch an ailing Babe Ruth walk to home plate to bid farewell to an emotional, standing crowd at Yankee Stadium. Nathaniel Fein’s austere photography, which is part of this collection, captured it. Baker lived it.

He was 14 and still remembers that match, watching Ruth’s hesitant pace from his perch on the upper deck.

"Babe Ruth bows out," June 13, 1948. Nathaniel Fein (American, 1914-2000).  Jay H. Baker Collection

“Since I was 6, I’ve been a Yankees fan,” Baker recalled. “I’ve been a fan all my life.” It is from the time when New York fielded three professional baseball teams: the Brooklyn Dodgers, the New York Giants and the Yankees.

“I’ve never known a Giants fan,” he mused. “You were either a Dodgers fan or a Yankees fan. And I was a Yankees fan.” It helped that his older sister had standing orders from her parents to take her little brother and his friend to Yankees games. (“I don’t know if she liked baseball,” he admitted. “My mom told her to take us to baseball games.”)

Even after business took him to St. Louis for a year and Milwaukee for 14 years, the Yankees were still Baker’s team. Collecting their memories came naturally. He’s always been a collector, he says. But at first, what he amassed was “a hodgepodge.”

“I had a little basketball, a little football. But mostly baseball cards. I had about five or six Mickey Mantle rookie cards because I loved him so much,” he recalled. Baker also bought stamps and comics, the latter because their 10-cent price was right.

“I didn’t have a lot of money, so I collected whatever I could,” he said. By the time he went to college, he owned the first 100 issues of Superman, Batman, and Captain Marvel. “I had an amazing collection that today would be worth a ton of money.”

But he returned during the university vacation to find the lost cards. “My mother threw them all out.” And the comics were gone. “My mother threw all that away too,” he lamented.

The next time he started collecting seriously, it was at the instigation of his wife. During a vacation season in Milwaukee, Patty presented him with an option.

“She said you were just working. Retailers are crazy. I was putting a lot of hours into it. She said you needed a hobby,” he recalled. And she presented him with two baseballs signed by Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, and asked him to choose. He could not.

“I said, ‘I want them both.’ I still have those. And that’s what started my collection, and my bride really did that.”

Eventually, Jay narrowed his collection to just the Yankees, and then to the players he considered their best: Mantle, Ruth, Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio. He then added Derek Jeter because he was a favorite.

It has been said, he says, by the National Baseball Hall of Fame that he has the best Yankee collection there is. Visitors to the Baker Museum will see some of its most prestigious pieces:

  • Ruth’s earliest known in-game bat
  • Mantle’s first signed professional contract
  • The jersey worn by Jeter on his Yankees debut in 1995.
  • The contract transferring Ruth from the Boston Red Sox to the Yankees, resulting in the legendary “Curse of the Bambino”
  • The uniform worn by Don Larsen when he pitched the only perfect game to date in a World Series

Collecting in such a targeted way has also put Baker in touch with the families of the players whose items he collects. He met the Mantle family and DiMaggio’s nieces.

Crown of the Sultan of Swat by Mickey Mantle, 1956. Jay H. Baker Collection.

He has a ring, a watch or a pendant from each of those years. He has balls signed by the team from almost every year the Yankees have played at Yankee Stadium.

“When you just focus on yourself, you can do things like that,” he said. That would be his advice to the novice collector. The other tip: Keep looking for the right additions: “I’m still looking for stuff.”

First, maybe it would be to have a real appreciation for what you collect. And Baker does. One of the indelible two: seeing a tie at the end of the season, with Allie Reynolds pitching for the Yankees against the Boston Red Sox, on September 28, 1951.

And he still remembers the rainy day of June 13, 1948, when Ruth appeared at home plate to say goodbye. Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob Feller, who would later enter the Baseball Hall of Fame, emerged from the dugout with a bat the baseball legend relied on during his speech. Ruth, suffering from throat cancer, will die a little over two months later.

“It was amazing to see Babe Ruth in person,” he said.

“I saw some very good matches.”

“Love in all its Forms”

Before Patty Baker could afford great art, she bought postcards of it.

“If I couldn’t afford to buy real works of art, I always had the beauty of art around me in the postcards,” she explained. “I still have the postcards I collected on trips and museums.”

What she was learning then, and on a practical level as a guide at the Milwaukee Art Museum, resulted in the collection of the Baker Museum.

Specializing in art history and theater, Patty was interested in both. And she was determined to instill some of that appreciation in her husband.

“My whole life changed when I met her. I love art more and I love theater more,” Jay agreed.

“One thing about our collection: we both have to like it or it doesn’t fit in the house,” Patty Baker shared with a laugh. The first one they bought together was an Alexandre Minguet, a 20th century painter of French origin: “We loved the color, the liveliness of it.

Their choices have since reflected a preference for works dating from the 19th century. There’s Impressionism — in fact, a Monet. A sculpture by Henry Moore, the mechanical art of Fernand Léger, a Magritte and Matisse are in the game. But when asked about a favorite, Patty talked about the work of Tamara de Lempicka.

And de Lempicka was a sought-after Art Deco artist with a life as arresting as her portraits – she married a lawyer, then a baron and had her ashes scattered on the Popocatépetl volcano. She used an elegant style on her luminescent, shadow-framed female faces that project a mixture of inaccessibility and allure.

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“We’ve loved it for years and years and never thought we’d own one. Now we have three. One was in the family and they didn’t know they had it,” said she declared. Visitors will see at least one. The couple own “Portrait of Mrs. Bush,” one of the artist’s best-known works, with its angular lines, flash of red dress and piercing green eyes.

They brought in consultants, but Patty Baker said the two largely made their own decisions. They bought works by Milton Avery and Moore’s Madonna and Child is one of their favourites: “It’s really beautiful. It’s really dramatic.

“It’s a beautiful collection. We’re very happy with it, and we were lucky enough to be able to put it together,” she said.

The couple gave the Baker Museum staff free rein in their choices, “because we like to share,” she said. The things the staff chose, she said, reflected art “that people would linger on” and could work as a flow. The title was his inspiration.

“We’ve both been involved with the museum since the day it started,” Jay Baker added. “So it’s very exciting for us to have our collections there.”

Harriet Howard Heithaus covers arts and entertainment for the Naples Daily News/naplesnews.com. Contact her at 239-213-6091.

‘Hero of Baseball’

“Love in all its Forms”

Or: Third Floor, The Baker Museum, 5833 Pelican Bay Blvd., Naples

Admission: Adults $10, full-time student with ID and active military with ID $5, admission to SNAP benefits with SNAP EBT card $1 (see “Museums for All” page on the ‘Artis—Naples for details); 17 and under free

Good to know: There is a bag policy at Artis—Naples that requires bags to be no larger than 14 x 6 x 4 inches; in addition, admission to the museum is free from 6pm to 9pm on the last Wednesday of each month during the season for its Art After Hours; the next one is October 27

Additional programming: See artisnaples.org or call the box office, 239-597-1900, for ticket prices

  • “The Music of Baseball”; 8:00 p.m. Saturday, November 12. Special show by the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra with Radu Paponiu, conductor. Hayes Room
  • “How I Learned to Love Baseball and American History, in That Order”; 10 a.m. Thursday, January 20. Lecture by Jonathan Eig, author of “The Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig”. Exclusive event space
  • “Flashing the Leather: Baseball and Contemporary Art.: 10 a.m. Wednesday, February 16. Lecture by Aaron Levi Garvey, Independent Curator. Signature Event Space