Beyond the Outfield in Cooperstown

Hall of Fame induction weekend in this lakefront New York town is a spectacle not to be missed. But the village that baseball made famous has plenty of other activities to offer visitors

January 14, 2007|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,[sun reporter]

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — It's snowing!"

Coming down the stairs for breakfast at the Cooper Inn, two boys were distracted from the bagels and cornflakes by the sight of snow -- finally! -- falling in great white clumps. They were thrilled, but I was worried: If the roads were coated with snow, how would I ever fill a long weekend in Cooperstown?

The Baseball Hall of Fame is lovely, but one can only spend so much time there. After a while, all the Yankees memorabilia begins to taunt you, as if maybe you'd be having a better time if you'd only chosen the right team to root for as a child. (I grew up an Orioles fan, and, despite the team's best efforts to shake me, haven't quite kicked the habit.)

FOR THE RECORD - An article about Cooperstown, N.Y., in the Travel section Sunday included incorrect flight information about getting there. Direct flights are available from Baltimore to Albany on Southwest Airlines. THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR

But I needn't have worried. As it turns out, Cooperstown is about a lot more than baseball. On my first full day in town -- after a continental breakfast on tables set with white linens at the quaint and historic Cooper Inn -- I never made it to the eastern end of Main Street, where the Hall of Fame occupies a sprawling brick complex.

It was not for lack of trying. I started off down the tree-lined Main Street, the snow swirling and the light poles wrapped in seasonal greens and topped with wreaths, and was soon distracted by a farmers' market. In a large, old garage, its doors swung open to the elements, more than a dozen merchants sold everything from handknit baby hats to wood cutout roosters to creamy Dutch Girl Cheese from nearby Madison, N.Y.

My first stop, though, was the table set up by Perry Owen, "the British Baker," who sold homemade Welsh cookies, lemon tartlets, mince pies and pumpkin snowdonia squares. Owen, 75, a Welshman who came to the area 27 years ago to work for Procter & Gamble, now makes baked goods from British recipes to sell exclusively at the market.

"The most important thing about selling at the farmers' market is it's not very often that customers can actually talk to the guy who made the stuff," Owen says. "They can ask about me about the recipes, and I teach them how to say `Good morning' in Welsh."

The market is open Saturdays from May to December, and stands next to Doubleday Field, a 9,000-seat stadium that is home to the annual Hall of Fame game. Before leaving the market, I sampled the granola from Blue Stone Farm - packed with English walnuts, sunflower seeds, coconut, dried cranberries, raisins and other delicious items that combined for the best granola I've ever tasted. I bought a bag and, as soon as I had left the market, ripped it open and ate it with my fingers.

There were few people on the street to notice. In winter, Cooperstown is reclaimed by its 2,000 residents - retirees, staff from the local hospital, and employees of Bassett Healthcare (which includes the large regional hospital) and the state university's biological field station. In the evenings, some of them gather at the Doubleday Cafe on Main Street.

And so I found myself at the bar there one night, a doctor still in his scrubs on my right and Carl Good on my left. Good, 69, lived most of his life in Princeton, N.J., as an engineer. But in 2002, his wife, Pam, on one of her annual trips to Cooperstown to see the Glimmerglass Opera, happened upon a circa-1820 Federal-style house for sale. It was yellow clapboard, with window boxes and old pine floors, and it looked out onto Ostego Lake.

Within 45 minutes, she was in a lawyer's office drawing up a contract for the house. Then she called her husband.

"He was as calm as a cucumber," Pam Good said. "And I said, `We'll just spend summers here, you can have a boat, and the house needs nothing.'"

She was right on one of the counts: Her husband keeps two boats that he sails on the lake. As it turned out, the house needed some work (starting from the top - a new roof) and the couple spent more than just summers there. By 2003, they had sold their house in Princeton and moved full-time to Cooperstown. Carl, who had never set foot in the town before 2002, now wouldn't think of leaving.

"I don't think you could drag him out, unless it was feet-first," said his wife.

Fan influx

Residents say they don't mind the crush of visitors that comes every summer, especially on induction weekend. The Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum gets about 325,000 visitors each year, 70 percent of them between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

This year's induction ceremony, to be held July 29, is expected to be among the biggest in the hall's history. Until now, the highest attendance was in 1999, when about 50,000 people saw Nolan Ryan and George Brett inducted. But with fan favorites Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn entering this year, the town is bracing for a deluge far exceeding last year's crowd of 11,000.

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