With Ripken, Gwynn, town has true legends

The Baltimore Sun

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y-- --It is the pleasant nature of this quaint little upstate village that makes it so easy to overlook the disconnect between truth and legend that allowed it to become the hometown of baseball history.

If baseball wasn't invented here, it should have been.

Cooperstown is the place where fact and fiction have long been locked in a strange embrace - a town named for the family of one of America's greatest storytellers and the site where baseball supposedly began, though nobody really believes that anymore.

In a strange sort of way, that's what makes everything about this weekend seem so perfect. In an era when sports fans are struggling more than ever to decipher what's real and what's not, the legends who will enter baseball's Hall of Fame tomorrow exude a welcome air of authenticity that should renew our faith in all that's good about sports.

Cal Ripken played out his 21-year career without a whiff of impropriety. He redefined the shortstop position, rolled up the requisite career statistics and broke one of the game's most hallowed records.

Tony Gwynn was a base-hit machine, joining a pantheon of pure hitters that stretches from Ty Cobb to Ted Williams to Hall of Fame outcast Pete Rose and beyond. He also was - and remains - one of the great ambassadors of baseball.

It is harmless fun to debate the true significance of Cooperstown in the ever-evolving historical timeline of baseball, but no one who will crowd onto that field at the Clark Sports Complex tomorrow (weather permitting) has to wonder whether either of this year's Hall of Fame inductees is the real deal.

Leave those kind of questions for the walking tour. This was the boyhood home of James Fenimore Cooper, who wrote the classic early American novel The Last of the Mohicans, but even Cooperstown's literary legacy is misunderstood. The town actually is named for Cooper's father, and none of the author's memorable books was written here.

Of course, the Hall of Fame was located here in the 1930s based on the Abner Doubleday myth, which was spawned by a sketchy "investigation" by the Mills Commission, a group of prominent sportsmen appointed by National League president Abraham Mills in 1905 to determine the origin of baseball.

The commission somehow concluded that Doubleday, who would go on to become a Civil War general of some note, invented the game and laid out its specifics at Cooperstown in 1839. Never mind that Doubleday was a 20-year-old cadet at West Point at the time and never made any reference in his memoirs or in conversations with contemporaries to any involvement in the creation of the sport.

In the rush to identify baseball as a purely American game, those early baseball historians chose not to let an absence of real facts get in the way of a good story, and for that we should all be grateful.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum has made peace with history by allowing the romantic legend and the real legacy of the game to live together in Cooperstown.

If only the sport it represents could be so unconflicted.

Maybe Ripken and Gwynn can help the game and its fans take a big step back in the right direction this weekend, since each of them exemplified the best baseball has to offer.

Ripken, in particular, was known for his great sense of timing. He caught the final out of the 1983 World Series. He was the Most Valuable Player of two All-Star Games. He hit home runs in the games that tied and broke Lou Gehrig's supposedly unbreakable record for consecutive games.

Both of them made us proud. But, best of all, they never made us separate fact from fiction.


Listen to Peter Schmuck broadcasting live from Cooperstown on WBAL (1090 AM) from noon to 3 p.m. today.

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