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National Ballpark Museum in Denver gets its chance to shine during All-Star Week

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Bruce Hellerstein wants his life’s passion to have a life of its own.

He wants to preserve baseball. To reignite, from an era long lost, the flame it once held.

Perched in the shadow of Coors Field on Blake Street, a small museum is designed to make baseball romantics swoon. Conjuring thoughts of “Field of Dreams” or Ken Burns’ “Baseball,” it evokes nostalgia at every glance.

The National Ballpark Museum is Hellerstein’s legacy.

“You live long enough, and you want to leave something that hopefully makes this world better and more interesting,” said Hellerstein, the 72-year-old founder, president and curator of the museum.

The gallery is a time capsule centered on the historic ballparks built in the early 20th century, like Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, Washington’s Griffith Stadium and Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field.

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Collections at the National Ballpark Museum in Denver

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The journey into baseball’s past starts by walking through the working turnstile from Philadelphia’s Shibe Park circa 1909, the same year construction on the Titanic began.

The walkways between exhibits can be cramped, the tight spaces akin to the classic ballparks the museum lionizes, confined to the urban constraints of the big city. Look too quickly and you’ll miss the Dan Shaughnessy column next to the iconic red seat from Fenway Park, marking a 502-foot Ted Williams home run. Don’t look high enough and you’ll miss the terracotta arches from Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field. These relics will have some more room to breathe with the museum’s forthcoming expansion.

“I like to create a very, very visual experience here,” Hellerstein said. “It's not like I come out and say, ‘I just took this from the safety deposit box, and this is Babe Ruth’s autograph.’ That does nothing for me.”

The museum reopened in late May after being shut down for more than a year.

“We had a phenomenal year before COVID,” museum manager Raelee Frazier said. “The museum never had a year like that. Like most people, it really kicked us in the pants.”

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Autographed baseballs at the National Ballpark Museum in Denver

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Frazier is a sculptor who has created molds of the hands of legendary athletes, including Ralph Kiner and John Elway. She wasn't previously a baseball enthusiast, but meeting so many visitors from around the world has won her over.

“What makes you grow into baseball, I think, is the stories that people tell me when they come into the museum,” she said. “It’s very inspiring, the stories they tell that tug at your heartstrings.”

Tens of thousands of fans will flock to the area for the 2021 MLB All-Star Game on Tuesday at Coors Field, and with the Rockies now operating at full capacity, the hope is that this is the museum’s time to shine.

The short-term prospects are promising, but for Hellerstein to realize his dream of having the museum outlive him, he has to grapple with the demographic the museum lacks most.

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Collections at the National Ballpark Museum in Denver, Colo., on Thursday, July 1, 2021. The National Ballpark Museum showcases 14 classic ballparks. Bruce “B” Hellerstein, curator, founder and president, started off showcasing his collection in his basement in the 1980s and since 2010 opened the only museum dedicated to ballparks. (Chancey Bush/ The Gazette)

“I’ve dedicated a better part of my life to sharing with the community our national pastime and to keep the torch going, and especially with youth,” he said. “I mean, fans my age can only keep going so long, and we've got to get the youth involved. That's my biggest challenge.”

Hellerstein may have found the perfect youth ambassador in Hank Turner, 11, who first came to the museum four years ago with his grandmother.

“He just lapped it up,” said Andrew Turner, Hank’s father and baseball coach. “It’s kind of the right size for little kids to be able to just work through it in a single bite, and there’s enough stuff to go back and see something different.”

Hank Turner — a Rockies fan who loves watching Trevor Story, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr. — spends four to six weeks each summer giving tours and writing his column for the museum, “Hangin’ with Hank.”

“I just kind of like to teach (museum guests) about the history of baseball and how it all started, just teaching them about the greats: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and Stan Musial and all of those people,” Hank Turner said.

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Ian Jones of Kansas holds a bat at the National Ballpark Museum on July 1 in Denver

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Children 16 and under are admitted to the museum for free, but Hellerstein knows he has work to do. He also knows there are more kids like Hank Turner out there. He knows that, with a little bit of exposure to the game, it can be as infectious as it was when he was a kid.

“Kids love this stuff a lot more than people give it credit for,” Hellerstein said. “They really, really do. I understand the world we live in. It's a different world than I grew up in, I get it. But there's a reason … I got that love and passion when I did.”

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Mile High Stadium, home of the Denver Bears, at the National Ballpark Museum in Denver, Colo., on Thursday, July 1, 2021. The National Ballpark Museum showcases 14 classic ballparks. Bruce “B” Hellerstein, curator, founder and president, started off showcasing his collection in his basement in the 1980s and since 2010 opened the only museum dedicated to ballparks. (Chancey Bush/ The Gazette)

‘It was all ball fields’

It was show-and-tell in second grade for Hellerstein, a third-generation Denverite. His classmate, Carol, told her peers about her family’s night out to a Denver Bears game.

“I never heard of it before,” Hellerstein said. “I ran home and told my parents, ‘I have got to go out there.’ And that's probably where it just all began.”

Soon thereafter, Hellerstein had his first baseball experience at a Bears game and was hooked. In a fitting bit of foreshadowing, what impressed Hellerstein most about his maiden voyage to the ball field was not the players or the intricacies of the game, it was the big Bears Stadium sign in center field.

The local minor-league club was Hellerstein’s entry into baseball, and it was the cathedrals of Major League Baseball that generated the fervor he maintains more than a half-century later. His first big league game was in Kansas City, Mo., to see the Athletics. The first of the 14 classic stadiums he visited was Cincinnati’s Crosley Field. It was 1968, the year Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench won the National League Rookie of the Year award.

“I fell in love with Crosley Field, just fell in love with that place,” Hellerstein said, “and I still have dreams about her. That's my first love affair, and it's still going.”

Turning his hobby and passion into something tactile happened at a personal-growth seminar he went to when he was 30.

“‘Picture your perfect paradise,’ and no mountains, no oceans — it was all ball fields,” Hellerstein said. “The old ball fields.”

In 1985, with an unfinished basement and an itch he’d been trying to scratch for years, Hellerstein created the bones of the National Ballpark Museum in his Denver home. The floor was painted like a baseball field, and the first pieces placed were the 14 seats from the classic ballparks, the same ones lining the southwest wall in the Blake Street location today.

The basement museum did not bring in scores of patrons like the LoDo one does now, but it remained an escape and point of pride for Hellerstein until he got serious about opening a real museum in a dedicated space.

“My wife didn't want to encourage people coming over — for obvious reasons, in your personal residence,” Hellerstein said. “It turned out we really never had anybody come by, which is fine.”

In 1999, Hellerstein obtained 501(c)(3) status for the museum as a nonprofit corporation. While scouting locations in 2009, a realtor found the Coors Field-adjacent spot.

“I walked in the side door, and all I said to the realtors (was), ‘Where do you want me to sign?’” Hellerstein said. “I didn't want to negotiate one penny. I wanted this place.”

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Collections at the National Ballpark Museum in Denver, Colo., on Thursday, July 1, 2021. The National Ballpark Museum showcases 14 classic ballparks. Bruce “B” Hellerstein, curator, founder and president, started off showcasing his collection in his basement in the 1980’s and since 2010 opened the only museum dedicated to ballparks. (Chancey Bush/ The Gazette)

The white whale

Every couple months, Michael Heffner would get a call from one of his longtime, loyal clients.

“So, anything new on the Yankees piece?”

It was Hellerstein.

Heffner — president of New Jersey-based Lelands, one of the world’s largest sports auction houses — would tell him the owner was not willing to sell. This went on for decades.

“People say this all the time about people, but in this case, it’s genuine: He’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet,” said Heffner, who has known Hellerstein for more than 30 years. “He’d give you the shirt off his back. He cares about his collection, but he cares as much about others as he does himself. He’s a bit neurotic at times when it comes to collecting, but find me a collector who’s not neurotic and a little nuts, and I’ll be amazed.”

The item that caused such tenacity in Hellerstein was a piece of the original copper facade (the iconic white, scalloped arches that circled the top of the grandstand) from Yankee Stadium when it opened in 1923. There are only two large pieces known to exist, and Hellerstein owned one 30 years ago.

“I got it for, at the time, peanuts compared to what it’s worth (now),” he said.

Then, as Hellerstein’s collection started piling up, he said his former wife worried about the family's finances, prompting him to sell the piece as a gesture of compromise.

“To appease her, I wanted to show I’m not taking advantage financially, so I’ll sell it,” Hellerstein said. “And I got good money for it, but not nearly what it’s worth now. I’ve never, ever regretted anything in my life more than that.”

So goes life as a collector: euphoria and devastation, savvy business moves and ill-advised emotional decisions, short-term satisfaction and long-term regret.

“It does get heated,” Heffner said. “I know a lot of people, they set their limits in their heads, and they might set their limit at $5,000, and next thing you know, they’re bidding $10,000.”

Most collectors are wealthy, remain anonymous and keep their treasures private. Hellerstein is constantly buying and selling to even out the budget. If he wants something new, he will sell off some of his collection to offset the price. This makes for a constant reshuffling of items and rearranging of displays in the museum, but it also means a patron will see something new upon a return visit.

One of Hellerstein’s most prized treasures is an Ebbets Field usher’s cap, displayed in a glass case beneath the light fixtures from the Brooklyn Dodgers’ former stadium.

“It’s worth a lot, and I think to myself, ‘Why am I keeping this cap when I could be getting all this other neat stuff?’” Hellerstein said. “So I’d sell it because I needed the money. Then I’d say, ‘What an idiot,’ then I’d repurchase it — back and forth with the same party pretty much. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. So I finally decided, ‘That’s it. It ain’t going again. I’ve worked too hard for this.’”

Last year, Heffner finally heard a different answer from the owner of the Yankee Stadium facade piece. He called to say he was thinning out some of his collection. After years of calls, torment and disappointment, it was available.

“He’s willing to sell, and this is the price,” Heffner called to tell Hellerstein.

“Yes, period,” answered Hellerstein, who now proudly has it behind glass in the Yankee Stadium section of the museum.

“His persistence certainly paid off, and I think he was the happiest man on the face of the earth,” Heffner said.

It’s the love of the game that keeps Hellerstein going. Defensive shifts, pitcher usage, player salaries and all the trappings of the modern game have led to some disillusionment. But as soon as he starts talking about baseball, that childlike wonder radiates from his ear-to-ear smile. It’s as if he’s back in second grade all those years ago, experiencing that Denver Bears game for the first time.

“It's the greatest game ever — always will be and always has been,” he said.

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