Pilgrimage to Cooperstown: an all-American pastime

October 03, 1993|By Mike Shoup | Mike Shoup,Knight-Ridder News Service

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.

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