Cooperstown belongs in Hall of Fame along with baseball stars who reside there

John Steadman

July 30, 1993|By John Steadman

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Whether a clarion of enthusiasm or a hard-bitten cynic, every follower of baseball, the grandest game of all, should be compelled to make the pilgrimage.

It's to this pristine setting in the foothills of the Catskills, on the shores of Lake Otsego, where the Seneca and Mohawk Indians once played, that the sport traces its birthright.

The cradle of baseball has been established as Cooperstown, the place where Abner Doubleday chased the cows out of Elihu Phinney's pasture on an afternoon in 1839, and had the #i inspiration to invent a sport that stands irrefutably as our national pastime. The Hall of Fame commemorates the deeds of the most accomplished players of the past and where their achievements are set in lasting bronze and a museum offers an immediate association with such deities of the past as Babe, Kiki, Pee Wee, Satchel and Pie.

When baseball, early in this century, was trying to confirm its roots, there was a strong case for Hoboken, N.J., but a seven-man committee, after three years of weighing the evidence, decided in 1907 that Cooperstown was the prime location for its beginning. Obviously, the site-selection group scored points for natural aesthetics.

Cooperstown was, indeed, blessed with enormous beauty. The village, with only one sto-light, at Main and Chestnut streets, was named for the father of author James Fenimore Cooper. Current population is 2,180; 10 years ago it was 2,342. It's the only place where the jail, under-used of course, has beds of flowers dotting its landscape, giving it the appearance of a bed-and-breakfast inn.

The compact Cooperstown community has the brightness of a newly minted penny but a strong touch of holding to tradition. There's nothing garish about Cooperstown. It's the embodiment a Norman Rockwell cover and, when you walk by the Tunnicliff Hotel -- founded in 1802, even before baseball -- you expect to see Grandma Moses knitting in a rocking chair.

Actually, the Tunnicliff is part of a story shared with us by the late Sid Keener, a retired St. Louis sports editor who was director emeritus of the Hall of Fame. It concerns Ty Cobb, who got the most Hall of Fame votes in the initial class of 1936 (named on 222 of the 226 ballots), when he returned for a later-life visit.

"We looked for Ty to attend a ceremony we had scheduled and he wasn't there," recalled Keener. "Someone found him sitting FTC on the porch of the Tunnicliff and crying like a baby. We asked him what was wrong? He said he realized he was getting old and hadn't been as kind as he might have been. Obviously, Ty regretted he had carried his win-at-any cost competitive attitude to what many felt was the extreme."

The Hall of Fame memorabilia is so extensive that only a small percentage can be exhibited. The rest is stored in a warehouse. Displays are diverse, everything from seats lifted intact out of Ebbets Field, to the mitt Dale Long used when he was a left-handed catcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, to Stan Musial's uniform and the first baseman's mitt worn by Lou Gehrig and even one by his predecessor, Wally Pipp.

One of the oldest trophies is the Temple Cup, won three times by the Baltimore Orioles in 1894 to '96. The Old Orioles are represented by such famous names as Wee Willie Keeler, Hughie Jennings and John McGraw; the International League Orioles by Babe Ruth and Lefty Grove. In all, 22 men with Orioles ties are Hall of Fame members.

And, as of Sunday afternoon, when Reggie Jackson is inducted, the Orioles total will go to 23. That doesn't include announcer Chuck Thompson, who will be placed in the broadcasting wing of the Hall of Fame. From the point of provincialism, Maryland has native sons Frank "Home Run" Baker, Jimmie Foxx, Judy Johnson, Al Kaline, Ruth and Grove listed on the elite roll of baseball immortals.

There's every conceivable memento, including placards of barnstorming games, music about baseball, historic picture cards, bats, catcher's masks, balls from no-hit games, lockers, caps and pictures of presidents, going back to 1910 when William Howard Taft became the first chief executive to make the ceremonial opening pitch.

A visit to Cooperstown is exciting but also evokes a relaxed state of mind. It brings to life the stories and anecdotes fathers told their sons about Ty and Babe and Rabbit.

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