As visitors enter the main gallery at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., idle chatter quickly dies to a reverent whisper. The light streaming in from upper-level windows casts an almost heavenly aura around the bronze plaques of the 254 baseball legends enshrined there.
There is no stained glass or steeple, but make no mistake: To baseball fans, this is a sacred place, the resting place of the gods.
Hundreds of Oriole fans are expected to make the pilgrimage to Cooperstown this summer as Eddie Murray joins this pantheon of baseball immortality July 27. (Oriole fans likely will return in droves again in 2007, the first year Cal Ripken is eligible for induction.)
What those visitors will find -- in addition to a celebration of baseball -- is a charming lakefront town tucked amid rolling hills and farms in the shadow of the Adirondack Mountains. They'll find a sleepy, one-stoplight village seemingly frozen in a time before franchise restaurants, chain hotels and interstates.
Even someone who wouldn't know Eddie Murray from Eddie Munster can find plenty to do in Coo-perstown, from a working farm museum to quaint Main Street shops and gorgeous Otsego Lake, nicknamed "Glimmerglass" by Cooperstown's most famous resident, author
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James Fenimore Cooper.
Of course, the Hall of Fame is the main reason Cooperstown's population of 2,000 swells to as much as 20 times that in midsummer.
And how did this blip on the map land baseball's crown jewel of a museum? Cooperstown is where Abner Doubleday, then a 20-year-old West Point cadet, allegedly invented the game in a cow pasture in 1839. Doubleday's role in the game's origin has long been the subject of vigorous debate -- many of the rules he ostensibly created were already being used in a game called "town ball" -- but the discovery of the first known baseball near Cooperstown in the 1930s bolstered Doubleday's case.
The ball -- known as the Doubleday Baseball -- was purchased by Cooperstown philanthropist Stephen Clark, who wanted to display it along with other early baseball artifacts. He teamed with Ford Frick, then the president of the National League, to establish the museum, which opened in 1939 as part of baseball's centennial celebration.
The three-story, red-brick museum, on the east end of Main Street, has expanded several times and now occupies some 60,000 square feet. Visitors this summer will get something akin to an obstructed-view seat, however -- roughly one-third of the museum will be closed as part of a two-year renovation.
Defying national tourism trends, attendance at the Hall of Fame was up 6 percent last year, to about 352,000 visitors, according to spokesman Brad Horn.
Fathers and sons are a common sight at the hall, as are fans in uniform -- or at least in the jersey of a favorite player.
Danette Johnson, 34, a Mount Airy native who now lives in Buckhannon, W.Va., was sporting a Cal Ripken jersey as she toured the hall recently with her husband, Steve.
"There is just so much here. Every possible record, every period of the game is represented," she said, adding that she'll be back for Ripken's induction.
Horn recommends about three hours for a thorough visit. But baseball zealots could spend much more time savoring the nostalgia that drips from the old wool uniforms, extinct-stadium seats and primitive gloves that look more suited to gardening than catching a line drive.
The logical starting point is the marble-columned Hall of Fame Gallery, which features the plaques of all 254 inductees.
"That's the best of the best," said Richard Gilbert of Newfields, N.H., visiting with his father and 11-year-old son.
A display case at the front of the gallery is reserved for the most recent inductees. Early next month, artifacts from Murray and fellow 2003 inductee Gary Carter will replace those of 2002 honoree Ozzie Smith.
Walking from the gallery to the Bullpen Theater -- where kids will love the daily trivia contests and multimedia presentations -- you'll see enlargements of some of baseball's most cherished documents, including the original contract creating the World Series in 1903 and President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Green Light" letter to commissioner Kenesaw Landis urging baseball to continue during World War II.
(That letter, the Doubleday Baseball and some 500 other hall artifacts are on their first road trip; they are part of a 10-city, four-year "Baseball as America" traveling exhibit. The exhibit will begin a four-month stay at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington next April.)
The Hall of Fame library, tucked in a back corner of the first floor, is easy to miss but worth a stop. The library's treasures include the contract finalizing Babe Ruth's sale from the Red Sox to the Yankees and files on anyone who ever played in a major league game.