SHANKSVILLE, Pa. (AP)
In the weeks following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, most Americans were looking for cues on how to react and when life might return to normal. For many people, America's pastime of baseball helped to mend a fractured country.
Nine students at Washington & Jefferson College spent this past semester curating a small museum exhibit explaining baseball's role in the healing process after 9/11 - along with the sport's overall importance to the country - that is now on display for the next two months at the Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville.
The exhibit at the memorial's learning center walks visitors through the days after the terrorist attacks that killed 2,977 people, including 40 passengers and crew members on United Flight 93 that crashed in an abandoned strip mine in Somerset County. The focal point of the exhibit is the signed baseball former President George W. Bush used to throw out the first pitch before Game 3 of the 2001 World Series in New York City less than two months after the terrorist attacks.
"We wanted to get (the ball) here because it was such a monumental moment of his presidency," said Caden Meier, a junior history major from Canonsburg.
But like any museum exhibit, one artifact alone couldn't tell the whole story.
Steve Clark, superintendent of the Flight 93 Memorial, first talked with several W&J students in December 2016 when assistant history professor David Kieran brought his class to meet him. One student, Abby Cunningham, who graduated last year, told Clark at the time she was working on a project to understand Major League Baseball's role in helping to calm a worried nation after 9/11.
"It triggered something," Clark said.
He called Kieran the next morning and they began planning how a future class could put together an exhibit that would be on display at the memorial's learning center. Kieran spent the next year putting together the four-credit course and nine students - enough to field a baseball team - began the class this past semester.
Clark stressed the exhibit would need three or four "high-value objects that would draw" people, but he never imagined the professional product the students would eventually produce.
"They took a unique concept and turned it into something inspiring," he said.
While Kieran created the class, Clark set the "ground rules" for the exhibit, which included a $5,000 budget and the May 5 opening date. The students and Kieran then ran with the concept, overcoming stumbling blocks along the way, including how to secure Bush's historic baseball.
Jonathan Cadez, a senior history major from Cecil Township, contacted the Bush Presidential Library in Dallas in February inquiring about borrowing the baseball. The insurance policy alone on the ball would cost nearly $20,000, which would blow the budget.
In the meantime, the class then began searching for other items that could still be poignant reminders of the days after the attacks. The students contacted former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani to request he loan the World Series windbreaker he wore to a game, which now hangs in the gallery. There is also a blue FDNY hat similar to what the New York Mets wore while playing against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park in the first baseball game six days after the attack.
Late last month, the Bush library agreed to cover the costs to transport the ball and insure its safety. The ball arrived at the memorial on a recent Monday.
Cadez said it was tough to describe his emotions when they learned the presidential library would cover the ball's expenses so it could be included in the exhibit.
"It was an amazing feeling to get something that was so important to the country in the aftermath of Sept. 11," Cadez said.
Bush, wearing a bulletproof vest under his jacket for that World Series pitch, threw a strike right down the middle with the ball. Clark said Bush is aware of the project and helped to ensure the baseball found its way to the exhibit.
"The guy kinda likes baseball a little bit," Clark said of Bush, who played baseball in college and later owned the Texas Rangers.
Clark called the exhibit a "grand slam" that will impress the thousands of visitors who come to the Flight 93 Memorial while it remains on display most weekends until July 4.
"You guys really did far exceed my expectations," Clark told the students. "You really have created something that will be with you forever."
Kieran wanted the exhibit to be student-run and offer a "meaningful impact" on people who visited the memorial. The students were careful to understand the power of the memorial, but also that it is more than just about Flight 93 and 9/11.
"That was something they grasped from the beginning," he said. "The seriousness of purpose from the very beginning to know they were creating something at a place that is very meaningful to people in this country. It had to rise to that."
But the entire exhibit isn't just about 9/11 and the aftermath. It also acknowledges baseball's importance during the Civil War, along with Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier and how during World War II the federal government requested Louisville Slugger to produce rifle stocks out of its wood supply rather than baseball bats.
"This is a professional exhibit, an exhibit that any museum would be proud to have," Kieran said.
Like many students involved in the project, Shannon Boehm was only 4 when the attacks occurred. Now an adult, the junior history major from Natrona Heights has learned more about the emotions swirling around the country at the time and how America's pastime helped a troubled nation.
"It was challenging, but rewarding," Boehm said. "I really was able to string it together. The scope of the things that happened. The impact baseball had on the country. It was pivotal."