Pilgrimage to Cooperstown: an all-American pastime


Cooperstown, N.Y. -- Contrary to popular belief, and with apologies to the late, great Abner Doubleday, the national pastime did not begin in a cow pasture here. Nor did Mr. Doubleday invent the game.

But this small, picturesque lakeside town has become its shrine nevertheless -- the mecca for more than a quarter-million fans each year.

Cooperstown, as any baseball fanatic knows, is home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum -- at once a most likely and unlikely location for a museum dedicated to such a popular and culturally ingrained sport.

Unlikely because Cooperstown is quintessential small-town America, far removed from the nation's power and population centers, and distant not just from major-league baseball, but also from the big money and celebrity status that the game has come to represent.

Probably because the tree-shaded streets and 19th-century atmosphere of Cooperstown evoke a sense that this is the kind of town where baseball should have been invented -- a little burg not unlike many thousands of others across America, where small boys (and girls, too) still gather at ball diamonds to play out their dreams.

Those same small boys -- and, again, some girls -- can be seen trooping around Cooperstown and the museum almost any time of year, accompanied more often than not by their fathers -- men of a certain age who have come not so much to dream of the future, perhaps, as to recall the past.

The Hall of Fame and Museum is really about heroes, so it serves both sexes and all ages. But it seems to speak best to those who love the game and can recall a time when it was just that, instead of a big business where both the owners and the employees are millionaires.

My wife and I came here on a weekend with the boys -- Dave, 17, and Ben, 16, both fans and card collectors and Ben an accomplished practitioner of the sport. They breezed through the place in two hours -- with a "wow" here and a "look at this" or "did you see that?" there -- and then wanted to go find the batting cages outside town before lunch. I hadn't even made it to the third floor.

"Well, what did you guys think of the place?" I asked.

"Intellectually and spiritually challenging," joked Dave.

"Great," said Ben. "Can we go find the batting cages now?"

"What was the most interesting thing -- the thing you'll remember the most?" I asked.

"The girls," said Dave, and I don't think he was joking this time.

"Everything," said Ben. "Can we go find the batting cages now?"

So they went looking for the batting cages with their mother.

I couldn't blame them. The truth of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, as heretical as it may be, is that while you could easily spend a few days here, a few hours is quite enough, thanks. You can see only so many signed baseballs and bats, gloves, uniforms and other memorabilia, you can absorb only so many statistics, before overdosing. It's a good museum, a great museum for baseball fans, yet it is still a "museum" for a game that's "played" -- a passive look at an active sport.

To digress for just a moment, it should be noted that Cooperstown made the literary map even before baseball was )) invented. The town was founded in 1786 by William Cooper, whose son was the novelist James Fenimore Cooper, which explains why there is a Natty Bumppo's Tavern, a Leatherstocking Gallery and a Glimmerglass Restaurant in town.

Just outside town is the Fenimore House, a folk-art museum that sits on part of the old Cooper farm and was the mansion earlier in this century of Edward S. Clark, heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune. It was the Clark money, more than Abner Doubleday, that placed the museum in Cooperstown, and opened it in 1939.

Across the road, on the grounds of the old Clark estate, is yet another museum, the Farmers' Museum, which we were wise enough to visit the afternoon before we went to the Baseball Hall of Fame. (Imagine trying to get two teen-age boys from the Big City to come to a "farmers' museum" after the Hall of Fame.) The museum has a good collection of 19th-century farm implements and various restored, historic buildings moved here and arranged in a "village" where crafts and trades -- printer, (P blacksmith, tinsmith, woodcarver -- are demonstrated.

The Cardiff Giant

But the most memorable part is probably the Cardiff Giant, a bigger-than-life stone statue, secretly carved in 1868 for a Binghamton cigar manufacturer, who then dumped sulfuric acid on it to make it look old and buried it on a farm outside the town of Cardiff. A year later, in 1869, he called in workmen to dig a well and -- guess what -- they discovered a "petrified man." In less than a week, up to 500 people a day were paying 50 cents apiece to see the Cardiff Giant. The hoax was discovered before long, but the Cardiff Giant still traveled the sideshow circuit for decades, arriving at the Farmers' Museum in 1948.

I couldn't help thinking he'd make a fine first baseman, which brings us back to Main Street in Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

All the famous names are here: Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Joe DiMaggio, Alexander Cartwright.

Alexander Cartwright?

The museum gives its due to claims that Doubleday invented the game, noting that a commission in 1907 reported "the first scheme for playing baseball, according to the best evidence obtainable to date, was devised by Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1839." But Alexander Cartwright, a New ++ York City fireman, is credited with creating the first set of playing rules -- including such basic stuff as the number of innings, the number of players on a team and the length of the baselines -- and forming the first organized team. And Cartwright, not Doubleday, is in the Hall of Fame.

Kids do love this place, but it takes men -- and women -- of a certain age to really appreciate it.

"We were fortunate to live in an era that will never come again," said Hank Silverman, a furniture salesman who grew up in Brooklyn and was touring the museum with his wife, Gail.

"You had to have lived it day by day," said Mr. Silverman, 57, a fan of the old Brooklyn Dodgers. "There was a thrill inside your body. People ate, drank and died baseball. Three teams in town [the Giants, the Dodgers and the Yankees], and they were blood enemies. For big games, they even had the radios on in the schools."

And not just for the Dodgers.

"In our family, you only talked about the Yankees," said Mrs. Silverman, a piano teacher and the mother of three. "So, can you imagine: a Dodger fan marrying a Yankee fan? Raising three little Mets?"

Although we'd grown up in different worlds -- I on a small farm 200 miles and at least one light-year west of Brooklyn -- the Silvermans and I shared a love for that baseball era that made conversation easy. Our memories included not just the greats -- Jackie at second and Pee Wee at short, the Duke in center and Campy behind the plate -- but also the lesser-knowns and near-forgottens -- the great pinch hitter George "Shotgun" Shuba, for example -- and even Ralph Branca, who -- the world may forgive but never forget -- served up the home run ball to Bobby Thomson that gave the Giants the pennant in '51.

It's all recalled here, not just with the Hall of Fame, but with a film presentation, with video displays, with replicas of ballparks, with baseball cards and with seemingly endless displays that evoke the great players and the great moments of the game.

Phillies fans suffering through the agonies and ecstasies of the 1993 season can take themselves back to another pennant drive more than 40 years ago (1950, to be exact), when a guy named Robin Roberts was throwing fastballs past a lot of hitters, and another young fellow named Richie Ashburn was --ing around center field. Mr. Roberts made the Hall of Fame. Mr. Ashburn never did, but because he later turned to sportscasting, he's known to a new generation of fans who wouldn't know Robin Roberts from Bobby Shantz.

There's an exhibit on women in baseball. There's another on the old Negro Leagues that recalls the relatively recent past when segregation barred blacks from the major leagues and reviews the post-World War II integration of the majors, led by Jackie Robinson, playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Reminders of the past

For the legions of unfortunate fans whose memories include only a team called the Los Angeles Dodgers, this museum reminds us that the Brooklyn Dodgers captured seven National League titles (but, painfully, only one World Series) in the 10 years between 1947 and 1956.

And for those equally sad souls who know Phil Rizzuto only for his "Money Store" ads on television, this museum also recalls Mr. Rizzuto the shortstop, and other men named Whitey Ford, Billy Martin, Allie Reynolds and a couple of sluggers named Maris and Mantle. And a New York Yankee dynasty that accounted for 15 American League pennants in 18 years.

Mr. Silverman and I -- men of a certain age -- talked of that Yankee-Dodger rivalry, and a few of its greatest moments.

"Being a Dodger fan meant a lot of heartbreak, didn't it?" he asked.

"Yeah, because the Yankees always won," said his wife.

IF YOU GO . . .

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is open seven days a week, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Hours are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. May 1 to Oct. 31 and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. the rest of the year. Admission is $8 for adults and $3 for children ages 7 to 12.

More information: For an excellent local guide that includes accommodations listings, call the Cooperstown Chamber of Commerce, (607) 547-9983. Be persistent; the line is often busy.

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