Making a pitch for history

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Making a pitch for history

Choi Ho-wang will never forget the spring of 1982. As a 13-year-old, he dreamed of being Korea’s Babe Ruth someday, even though he had suffered from cerebral infantile paralysis, which limited his movements. Nothing made him happier than playing and watching baseball, and he avidly followed the American teams.
In 1982, the year Korea got its own baseball league, he finally had a team of his own in the Sammi Super Stars, Incheon’s home team.
He and his friends soon started to take turns in gathering news clippings about their team, while playing baseball after school almost every day. He leapt at the opportunity to become a member of the Little Super Stars, even though the boys’ club had a entrance fee of 5,000 won (equivalent to today’s $10).
Unfortunately, his devotion wasn’t shared by everyone. In a string of defeats, the Sammi Super Stars always broke records but of the wrong kind, such as having the lowest-scoring game and the first no-hit, no-run game. As time went by, fewer friends showed up for games.
In 1985, the Sammi Super Stars broke up, disappearing from the people’s memory. Incheon soon had a new home team, the Chungbo Pintos, but Mr. Choi couldn’t warm up to the smiling horse logo ― it had to be a Superman at the plate. But by that time, the Superman was gone.
Decades later, the Superman is ready for a comeback, thanks to Mr. Choi’s devotion to the team and to the sport.
With more than 40,000 items, ranging from photographs to newspaper clippings, Mr. Choi, now 35, is planning to start a museum devoted to baseball on Jeju Island early next year. He says he has already chosen a potential site but is now raising funds and support to get the museum off the ground.

Keeping a promise
Mr. Choi now runs motels on Jeju island, but his business card identifies him first as the head of the Korean Disabled Baseball Organization. He never gave up his love for the sport, even after he abandoned the dream of being the nation’s No. 1 slugger. His teacher had told him to quit, saying baseball wasn’t for the disabled.
He was, however, happy for his friend Song Jeong-su, who became a pitcher in the pro league. Mr. Song made a successful debut as a pitcher for the OB Bears in 1991.
During a physical checkup before a trade to the Hanhwa Eagles, Mr. Song was found to have gastric cancer. He died in 1994. Before his death, he told his best friend to take good care of the Sammi Super Stars’ legacy.
Mr. Choi is doing his best to keep his promise to his friend with this new museum. He has been to baseball museums all over the country, only to be disappointed at the incomplete collections.
On a recent weekday, Mr. Choi was found in his old hometown, carrying the ragged bag with the old Super Stars logo. Full of photo albums and fragile articles that date from 1982, the bag is his No. 1 treasure. Most of the items came from his friend Mr. Song.
The collection, which is devoted to both the Super Stars and Korean baseball history, includes many rare and valuable photographs, including that of the first baseball team in Korea, named the YMCA Baseball Team, which was established in 1905 during the Japanese colonial rule.
Black-and-white photographs show the name of the first Super Stars coach, Park Hyung-sik, displayed in an Irish ballpark to honor his home-run accomplishments.
Another photo depicts the U.S. major league team St. Louis Cardinals exchanging a pennant with a Korean amateur baseball team during the Korean War.
Despite the impressive array of items, Mr. Choi refuses to be called a collector. Instead, he sees himself as a mere fan.
“I just happened to have a collection this large because I loved playing and watching baseball,” he says.
He’s most proud of his connection, however distant, to his cousin, major leaguer Choi Hee-seop, although Big Choi hardly knows him.

The good old days
Support for the Super Stars might have fallen off in the mid-1980s, but the team still has its fans who have never forgotten the team, even after all these years.
Last year, a novel, “The Last Fan Club of the Sammi Super Stars” was well received. Mr. Choi, of course, made sure to read the book.
“It was like reading my biography,” Mr. Choi says with a shy smile, “I survived all these years as a diehard Super Stars fan.”
He remembers how on weekend home games, he and Mr. Song were always at the Incheon Ballpark, shouting “Way to go, Super Stars!” at the top of the lungs.
Sometimes the young Mr. Choi got lucky and was able to shake hands with his heroes and get their autographs. Afterward, he could not sleep as he fingered the autographed ball by his pillow.
In keeping with its Superman logo, the Super Stars had a mascot girl donned in a kitschy Wonder Woman outfit, complete with a fake golden crown. Mr. Choi still remembers how the Super Stars made their entrance, with Wonder Woman in the lead.
Mr. Choi isn’t alone in recalling the past glory of the Super Stars. Walking on the street with the bag, a few passers-by smile at him and talk to him. Their conversations always end with the phrase, “Yes, those were the good old days.”
He criticizes the Korea Baseball Organization for its apparent lack of interest in its history.
“I have contacted many old-time players, which turned out to be much harder than I thought. The organization must at least keep the records of the senior players.”
That is why Mr. Choi took the responsibility of preserving history. “This is a token of my appreciation for the Sammi Super Stars,” Mr. Choi says. “I am proud to be the last fan of the Sammi Super Stars players, who were not necessarily the best but did their best on the ground.”

by Chun Su-jin
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