Cooperstown is family heaven Home run: Exhibits and memorabilia at National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum draw cheers.


COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Matt thought he had arrived in heaven. Baseball heaven, that is. Everywhere he looked were stores selling baseball cards, bats, mitts, team posters, jackets and enough memorabilia to satisfy even the most discerning collector.

Everywhere I looked were grinning boys and their equally happy dads, deep in conversation about a certain player's batting average, the value of his rookie card or the merits of one bat over another. Most were decked out in caps and shirts emblazoned with major-league teams' logos.

For those who love baseball -- and in my experience that includes most boys and their dads, as well as growing numbers of girls and moms -- there's nothing to compare with a visit to Cooperstown. The hamlet in central New York state, 185 miles from New York City, is home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Some 370,000 fans, many children and parents among them, make the pilgrimage each year.

As the playoffs get under way this week, there's no better time to consider a trip to Cooperstown. (Call the Hall of Fame at [607] 547-7200.) Not only can families immerse themselves in baseball lore, they can also enjoy a weekend in the country.

Watch apple cider made the old-fashioned way in a water-powered mill at the Fly Creek Cider Mill, where the apple pie is first-rate. Visit the working blacksmith or the schoolhouse at the Farmers Museum, a living-history museum overseen by the New York State Historical Association. The site has been a working farm since 1813, when James Fenimore Cooper raised sheep for their wool; now it gives a glimpse into the life families would have lived here 150 years ago.

Across the road, the Fenimore House Museum and its new American Indian Wing overlooking Otsego Lake offer an excellent collection of American folk art and Native American art. (Call for program information at [607] 547-1400; call the cider mill at [607] 547-9692.)

Instead of a motel, here's a chance to try something different with the children and opt for a bed-and-breakfast. Many in the Cooperstown vicinity welcome families, are reasonably priced and can give all of you a sense of a different way of life. We stayed at Clausen Farms Bed and Breakfast Inn, a short drive on a country road from Cooperstown in the tiny town of Sharon Springs. There our gang could climb up to a tower in a big old house, race through the fields (there are 80 acres), bowl with old-fashioned pins and feed the llamas. (Call [518] 284-2527; for other family-friendly spots and a Cooperstown Visitors' Guide, call the Chamber of Commerce at [607] 547-9983.)

Of course, these other diversions were very nice, but 11-year-old Matt, whose Little League team won last summer's division championship, reminded us that the purpose of our visit was baseball.

First stop: the Cooperstown Bat Company so Matt could order a personalized Little League Bat. (Grown-up fans might opt for a collector bat; call [607] 547-2415 to see if the children can watch how bats are made.)

Then on to the Hall of Fame. Once we parked the minivan, Matt and his dad acted as if they were walking on hallowed ground. After all, this was where baseball began, when, according to legend, Abner Doubleday chased the cows out of Elihu Phiney's cow pasture one afternoon in 1839 and invented the game. We walked that very field.

"You just don't get it!" Matt said, shaking his head, as he went off to study Babe Ruth's bat, Willie Mays' glove, Mickey Mantle's uniform and thousands of other articles, from early baseball cards to scuffed cleats, bases and scout reports on young prospects and later greats, including Sandy Koufax. ("A very good prospect," the scout had written in 1954.)

Daily, more items are added to the Hall of Fame's 25,000-plus pieces of baseball history. Officials say they are waiting for something from Baltimore Oriole Cal Ripken Jr. to commemorate his recent record-breaking feat.

Matt was particularly drawn to the exhibit of Today's Stars that showcased some of the players he often watches: Chicago White Sox Frank Thomas' bat; a ball thrown by Dodger pitcher Hideo Nomo, who is only the second Japanese player to be part of an American major league team.

Matt's dad, meanwhile, could have spent all day amid the glass cases, looking at a life-sized wood carving of the Bambino; Ty Cobb's sliding pads; the locker used by both Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle; Jackie Robinson's warm-up jacket. There are exhibits about the history of the game, the evolution of uniforms and cards, and displays on the Negro League, umpires and baseball's scouts.

Be advised, though, that young children and many girls -- even ones who have spent many Saturdays on the baseball diamond themselves -- might not get that excited here. Reggie, in fact, was ready to leave after she took in the Women in Baseball exhibit that showcased the Rockford Peaches, the women's professional team from the '40s that was made famous by the film "A League of Their Own."

Four-year-old Melanie was begging to go outside to play -- or at least to the gift shop -- as soon as she'd seen the well-done 13-minute multimedia presentation about baseball. There's not much here that's interactive or designed for young children.

Reggie left Cooperstown happy with a T-shirt that says, "It's a woman's game too." Matt, meanwhile, has been out every chance he gets honing his baseball skills with his new bat and well-broken-in mitt.

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