Cooperstown can warm coldest fan

July 28, 1995|By JOHN STEADMAN

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- If your passion for baseball suddenly has turned cold and you're estranged from the game you once loved with deep intensity, then this is the place to be. It's where a reconciliation mends the heart and the soul.

The Baseball Hall of Fame has a historical connection to America because, to start with, the man who founded the sport, Gen. Abner Doubleday, fired the first shot for the Union forces at Fort Sumpter, S.C.

Heroes of the sport live for perpetuity in its museum and hallowed gallery -- where handsome plaques line the walls as testimonials to their individual exploits.

The Hall of Fame, which has been located in this charming village on the banks of Lake Otsego since 1939, offers an experience that allows reveling in the past and wondering what new heroes will join them in the future. The players strike, which has helped drop Hall attendance 13 percent, has hurt the game, but the magic here lives on.

What sets Cooperstown apart and gives it a special identity is its country charm. It adds to the setting of the Hall of Fame as you walk tree-lined streets with lush lawns and houses with blooming flower boxes. Maybe you have seen something like this before, or at least on a Norman Rockwell magazine cover.

Most of the storefront businesses, restaurants, antique stores and souvenir shops have showcase windows packed with pictures and memorabilia of former players. In front of an attraction called The American Baseball Archives is a Babe Ruth look-alike.

He's shaking hands, signing autographs and posing for pictures. A woman named Joann Lampropoulos from Ipswich, Mass., comes up to meet him. She's laughing "because my neighbor told me before I left home that I should make sure to say hello to Babe Ruth and here he is."

The newest Babe is Willis "Buster" Gardner of Elyria, Ohio, who was the hit of the 100th birthday party the Babe Ruth Museum held this past Feb. 6 to commemorate the centennial year of Baltimore's most famous son.

All former Hall of Fame players are invited to return for what becomes a huge reunion. The players also show up to make extra money by appearing for promotions put on by the merchants.

Main Street, the last five years, was starting to look too much like an inland Coney Island. There were stands of merchandise piled high that gave it a carnival appearance. Community leaders took cognizance and passed an ordinance making the practice illegal.

Score a run for the purists and cheer them on because Cooperstown can't afford to let its picturesque past be spoiled by the emergence of the money changers.

Inside the Hall of Fame, there's no end to the displays that highlight the game's rich past. There's even the uniform worn by Sachio Kinugasa, who set the Japanese and world record for consecutive games played, 2,215, with the Hiroshima Carp.

A reference to baseball and World War II points out that the only player who was ever granted a leave to play in a major-league game was Murry Dickson of the St. Louis Cardinals, who was told that he could leave Fort Leavenworth to pitch in the 1943 World Series.

There's a display of illustrious World Series catches, marked by the actual gloves of Brooks Robinson from 1970, Willie Mays from 1954 and Al Gionfriddo from the 1947 World Series.

The box score from the longest minor-league game in history, the 33-inning marathon between Rochester and Pawtucket in 1981, shows that Cal Ripken Jr. played third base and went 2-for-11.

Not far away is the locker Lou Gehrig used as a New York Yankee when he set the record for longevity and now Ripken is close to wiping it out. Make way for the new, of course, but treasure those mighty contributors from yesteryear.

The one face and name that supercedes all others at the Hall of Fame is that of Babe Ruth, an imcomparable player in ability and personality. He has an entire room to himself and right next door is an area reserved for Henry Aaron, but it can't compare to the attention Ruth has received because of the historical impact Baltimore's greatest gift to baseball created.

Inside the exhibit is an introduction that tells visitors: "Time has obscured the deeds of many a hero, but in the measurement of Babe Ruth it is as though the clock never had ticked at all. . . ."

How fitting that Ruth is given such acclaim and the crowds that are attracted, young and old, to vicariously relive his achievements.

On Sunday, four more members will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, namely Richie Ashburn, Mike Schmidt, Leon Day and Vic Willis.

They then become a revered part of America's greatest game, which started when Doubleday in 1839 chased the cows out of a pasture and was struck with the inspiration to create a pastime that is imbedded in the fabric of the land.

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