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.