Cooperstown, N.Y.—It was a sensation I'd experienced while touring plantations in South Carolina and walking the Forum in Rome, that feeling that because I was standing in a certain place, I was linked intimately with the span of human history.
I stared at the bronzed images of Grover Cleveland Alexander and Tris Speaker and Mule Suttles and felt I was communing with figures from my past. I pictured Speaker playing center field only a few paces behind the shortstop. I heard the crowd murmur as an aging Alexander befuddled the mighty New York Yankees in the 1926 World Series. I grew angry that segregation kept Suttles from hitting his colossal homers off major league pitching.
You see, I began memorizing baseball statistics, collecting cards and gaping at books full of old photos long before I kissed a girl or met my best friends or heard a Beatles song for the first time. But I could never convince my parents that they wanted to drive six hours to a tiny town that wasn't near anything else so I could visit a shrine to a game they never prized.
Once I reached adulthood, I kept meaning to make the pilgrimage but never seemed to find the right weekend.
Given that, I was thrilled when my bosses asked me to drive up for the Hall of Fame Game in May.
My wife and I arrived in Cooperstown two days before we toured the museum.
The town is quite lovely, a burg of hushed streets and amiable people, framed by green foothills and Otsego Lake. You can walk the whole town in 30 minutes, and I'd heartily recommend catching a game at intimate Doubleday Field, where home runs carom off the second floors of neighborhood houses.
But as a crazed consumer of baseball history and lore, I looked forward most to the museum. The experience wasn't as uniformly magical as I anticipated.
Have you ever had the experience of returning to a meaningful place from your childhood and realizing just how small it was? I feel that way about the park behind my family's old house in Otterbein, where a Wiffle ball shot that landed in the alley was a home run. I now realize that those homers traveled about 50 feet.
I had an interesting variation of this experience in Cooperstown. I had built up the Hall so much in my childhood mind that I think I expected it to be some endless cavern of artifacts that would pull me closer and closer to the mystical heart of baseball.
To my adult eyes, however, the Hall amounted to a few rooms full of bats, jerseys and gloves, a museum way too small to present anything more than a cursory journey through the game's history.
I felt the last thing I ever wanted or expected to feel upon arriving in Cooperstown - disappointment.
That was mostly my fault, not the museum's. As one colleague said, "You probably could have found the Taj Mahal up there and still been disappointed."
There are some wonderful things about the Hall aside from the plaque gallery.
It's the best place on Earth to trace the evolution of baseball equipment. I'd read about them, but until I saw the 19th-century gloves - basically thick leather mittens with the fingertips cut off - I could not have imagined how hard fielding must have been in the game's earliest days.
The Hall could add an appealing tactile element by allowing fans to slip on early gloves or swing reproduced bats. It would be cool, for example, to heft Babe Ruth's 42-ouncer and then compare it with the thin-handled, 32-ounce piece of ash used by Barry Bonds.
I was also struck by the diminutive stature of the game's early greats. The simple, leather spikes of the 1920s looked like children's shoes compared with the sleek, black-and-orange boats worn by Willie McCovey in the 1960s.
I geeked out for the really old stuff - Honus Wagner's blue-trimmed Pittsburgh Pirates jersey and cap, the sweaters from a 1930s barnstorming tour of Japan, the brightly colored St. Louis Stars jersey worn by Negro leagues speedster Cool Papa Bell.
Speaking of Bell, I understand the Hall has made great strides in bulking up its exhibits on the Negro leagues and integration.
A few misses
But I wanted more. The Negro leagues are such a mystical portion of the game's history, and I'm not sure a young fan would come away from the Hall knowing that Josh Gibson hit balls just as far as Babe Ruth did, or that Connie Mack felt John Henry Lloyd was as great a shortstop as Wagner. They definitely wouldn't gain strong impressions of Oscar Charleston, considered the greatest player of all time by people such as Buck O'Neil and John McGraw.
While I'm complaining, I'll add that the exhibits honoring great players fall into a cap-jersey-spikes-photo sameness. There's not much to tell a young fan that Joe DiMaggio became a 1940s symbol of grace under pressure while Stan Musial summed up all that's great about Midwestern solidity.
The Hall understandably focuses on positives, but it needs a section on cheating. Gambling shaped the game's history, from the corruption of early star Hal Chase to the Black Sox scandal in 1919 to Pete Rose's sordid downfall.
What of the spitball? The pitch was a primary weapon for Hall of Famer Ed Walsh before it was banned in 1920. But if we're to believe the lore, it remained a favorite for later 300-game winners such as Gaylord Perry and Don Sutton.
And I sure didn't see much of Bonds, except in the room where lists of the game's all-time leaders are painted on the walls. There, Bonds is undeniable.
OK, back to the good stuff.
Back in time
I collected thousands of baseball cards growing up, so it was fun to see the Hall's display of famous ones. The T-206 Honus Wagner from 1909 gets the most hype because of its rarity, but I was more eager to see the sepia-toned "Old Judge" cards from the late 1880s. It's amazing how early some forms of fandom took shape.
From the theater of the absurd, my wife and I laughed as we compared notes on the Hall's case of World Series rings.
Though none could be called emblems of restraint, the Florida Marlins' ring from 2003 runs away with the prize for garishness. I think you could anchor a small boat with the thing, which features 229 diamonds and 13 rubies at a cost of $46,000. And they say it's a small-market franchise.
Old ballparks live on in Cooperstown.
There's an exploding pinwheel from atop the scoreboard at Chicago's Comiskey Park, a cornerstone from Ebbets Field and the on-deck circle from Forbes Field. A "No Lights in Wrigley Field" placard reminds fans of the game's resistance to change.
I also really liked the virtual tour of Boston's South End Grounds, which was destroyed by a fire in 1894.
The Hall of Fame's re-creation on a towering, curved screen took me to a time and place I could not have found anywhere else.
And then I entered the plaque room, where I forgot my previous gripes.
The plaques have changed tremendously over time, from dry recitations of statistics to punchy summaries of each player's career.
Consider the first line of Mickey Mantle's inscription: "Hit 536 home runs. Won league homer title and slugging crown four times."
That hardly captures a player who might have been the most physically gifted in baseball history and who became one of the iconic heroes to American boys growing up in the 1950s.
Contrast that with Jim Palmer's plaque from 16 years later: "High-kicking, smooth-throwing symbol of Baltimore's six championship teams of the 1960s, '70s and '80s."
Now that tells me something.
I also found it fascinating that some plaques perfectly captured players' visages while others bore little resemblance to their subjects.
Casey Stengel's suggests offbeat wisdom framed by flapping ears and weathered skin. Rollie Fingers' nails the twirl of his mustache.
On the other hand, Ted Williams' plaque captures neither the leathery texture of his skin nor the wit and intensity of his stare. He looks like just another friendly, moon-faced guy.
That said, I can't think of any place that unifies so much of the game's history in one room. Anyone who loves baseball as much as I do must see it.