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A "Not-Really-A-Fan" Looks at Cooperstown

My wife spent her childhood at Shea Stadium, arriving early enough to watch the ball players arrive, leaving when they departed long after the game. My father's collection of baseball cards from the 1930s and 40s could probably have put my kids through college, if I'd been smart enough to take it when it was offered to me. And my son can talk Red Sox trivia with his friends for hours at a time.

In this baseball family, I'm rather a misfit. I don't go nuts for it, but I enjoy a good ball game, and saw a bunch of 1969 Met games at Shea, thanks to a promotion run by Borden's Milk: turn in a few coupons from the carton and get to see a game for free. At one of those games, I even got Tom Seaver's autograph. It was early in the season, and I had to look him up in the program, by his number. Later in the season, I tried to get in on the day when he got within one pitch of a perfect game , but we had a flat tire and the park was sold out; we got back to the Bronx in time to watch the whole thing on TV. The autograph disappeared years ago.

Later, I turned on the TV for several games in the Mets-Astros playoffs of 1986, some of the best baseball I've ever seen, and watched again as both the Mets and the Red Sox played disappointingly in the World Series. And living in Massachusetts, a/k/a Red Sox Nation, I watched most of the 2003 and 2004 World Series and watched the Sox make their amazing postseason comeback.

But baseball is not in my blood. Somehow, my wife and I have never been to a major league game together in 26 years. And we never made the pilgrimage to Cooperstown, only 3-1/2 hours from our home.

We still haven't been to Fenway, Shea, or Yankee Stadium together, but this summer, we had to drive to Ohio. Cooperstown was almost on the way, and we finally made the slight detour to spend two days exploring the Baseball Hall of Fame. It turned out to be an auspicious time, as the museum had just completed its latest major expansion and renovation.

And it was fun. I may not be a rabid baseball fan, but I am a student of history and culture. And baseball is completely wrapped up in American culture, and Cooperstown—which makes a somewhat dubious claim (by its own admission) that it's where the game was invented—has lots of history, inside and outside the Hall of Fame grounds.

Cooperstown is a small, pretty village utterly dominated by baseball. In addition to the Hall of Fame, there are at least three bat shops, a baseball wax museum, countless souvenir shops...and streets jammed with fans of all ages in their favorite teams' regalia. And, of course, Doubleday Field, where that mythical first game may or may not have been played, and which is still heavily used.

Doubleday Field is about a block from the Hall, and has been spruced up into an attractive small ballpark. On a hot day, we sat in the shade along the third-base line and watched a Little League game from seats we could never afforded in a big league park. We could actually hear the players' conversations and the umps' calls.

The Hall of Fame is an extensive museum. Its vast collections cover the early days, the superstars of the 1930s (and other eras) including a large exhibit on Babe Ruth, a nice roundup covering the women's pro teams of World War II (popular since its first, much smaller version in 1988, and a direct inspiration for the movie, "A League of Their Own"), the integration of the Major Leagues by Jackie Robinson and subsequent decade when players of color became dominant, the notorious Black Sox scandal of thrown games in 1919, pictures of the great old ballparks, on up to the present: a large case of 2004 World Series souvenirs, including Curt Schilling's infamous bloody sock.

And there are plenty of videos and audios to keep the multimedia generation happy, as well as exhibits that strive to establish links between today's Little League players and the possibility that some of them will be tomorrow's superstars.

The actual inductee area is, oddly enough, one of the quietest parts of the museum. The crowds are relatively thin here, and each player, in order by year of induction, has a simple plaque, carved with the player's head including his team cap A very brief description of how the player earned his way in, and that's it—but there are, of course, a whole lot of these plaques: 260 as of the summer of 2005, of whom 195 were Major League players.

Still, this room is not where the fans focus. Instead, they go for the artifacts. Thousands of balls, bats, uniform components, ballpark ephemera from ticket stubs to pieces of concrete, contracts, correspondence, and on and on and on it goes. The collection has come a long way from its humble beginnings, based around the handmade baseball reputed to be Abner Doubleday's from the first game in 1839. 100 years later in 1939, when the Hall first opened, The Sporting News's reporter, Dan Daniel, wrote, "The museum is disappointing. To be sure, the proposition is new and the committee is combing the country for memorabilia of the game, but the collection is much too meager."

He would not have that complaint today; now, the issue is finding time to see it all. I recommend two full days just for the public exhibits; if you're a serious researcher who wants to go more in-depth, the museum also includes a library of 2.6 million baseball documents, including a file on every Major League player in history, half a million photos, 12,000 hours of sound and movie recordings, and a research center that fields 60,000 queries a year, from famous authors (e.g., George Plimpton, George Will) to unknown students working on school projects. Baseball officials and professional journalists use this resource, as well.

Just to give a few examples:*

  • The glove Roger Clemens wore in the first game he struck out 20 batters
  • The ball Hank Aaron smacked for his 700th home run
  • Sandy Koufax's 1863 Cy Young Award
  • Pete Rose's bat for his 4000th hit
  • The rarest and most valuable baseball card in existence, a Honus Wagner T206 from 1910 (one was recently sold on eBay for over $1 million)
  • The last pair of spikes Ty Cobb ever wore on a baseball field
  • Various items used in baseball movies over the years
  • The original 1912 cornerstone laid at Ebbets Field (opened with a sledgehammer to remove the time capsule within)
  • Even a baseball taken into space by Cooperstown native astronaut Hoot Gibson

    Dining out choices are limited. There are a number of fancy, pricy restaurants, and lots of burger-and-dog joints or ice cream parlors--and almost nothing in midrange. We settled happily on Danny's Market, on Main Street a block or so uphill from the Hall of Fame, where we found well-made and very generous sandwiches in the $7 range--but that was all we found that was more than baseball stadium food and less than the white-linen bistros. In addition to the deli counter, Danny's also offers a wide selection of gourmet foods and a home-baked bakery.

    Amazingly, there is no national chain presence in town. They've been relegated to Route 28 south of town proper. Which, given the dense crowds of tourists, is an astounding feat.

    Other things to see and do in and around Cooperstown, founded by the father of novelist James Fenimore Cooper, include the Farmers Museum and Fenimore Art Museum, across the street from each other about a mile from the town center. The former is an 1840s village; the latter boasts many artifacts related to the novelist as well as an extensive collection of Native American art. As it took all the time we had just to go through the Hall of Fame itself, we didn't sample either one, but parked in their shaded parking lot and took a trolley downtown. Other possibilities include boat rides on Ostego Lake, a Belgian-style brewery, assorted wineries, and a spin to nearby Oneonta for the Soccer Hall of Fame (see related story).

    *This is a partial list from many others listed in Memories and Dreams magazine, Summer 2005, published by the Hall of Fame for its Friends group and generously included in the press packet I received.

    Shel Horowitz, Editor of Global Travel Review, won an Apex Award for his most recent book, Principled Profit: Marketing that Puts People First. He's the founder of the international grassroots Business Ethics Pledge campaign..

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