Skip to main content
Original Issue

The day when all the sentiment stands still

In Cooperstown on Hall of Fame day, baseball wallows in nostalgia, but at the game's legendary place of origin, the corn tastes just fine

Dizzy Dean got to the ball field late, and when he made his entrance every one turned to look. The fans cheered and applauded as he walked across toward the dugout, but the old ballplayers who were standing around in groups talking hooted and laughed and kidded him about his weight. Frank Frisch stuck out his stomach and patted it with both hands, like Santa Claus, and pointed at Dean. The crowd tittered and Dean threw his head back and laughed. A man stuck a tiny, half-sized baseball at Dean and asked him to autograph it. Dean took it and then turned toward Lefty Grove and held up the little ball. "Hey, Lefty," he shouted, "looka this. That's the way it used to look when we threw it, didn't it? Small as a pea." Grove, white haired and wearing glasses, grinned and nodded, but Frisch and Jimmy Foxx, the old hitters, roared in mock protest.

It was alumni day in Cooperstown, the day each year when new members are inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame. Two major league teams make a long detour from the mainstream of big-league ball to play each other in an exhibition game at this remote village in the hills of central New York state, and oldtime players, baseball officials and a surprising number of fans make their way there to join in the festivities. For those who run baseball and for those whose affection for the game goes far beyond a casual interest, Hall of Fame day is a ceremonial rite, one of the important moments of the baseball year.

In baseball, Cooperstown is a state of mind. When people say that Warren Spahn will be in Cooperstown someday, they do not mean that one of these years he will drive through it on his way to Oneonta. Nor do they mean only that Spahn's hawk-nosed visage will be cast in bronze and hung on a wall in the Baseball Museum, which was opened in Cooperstown in 1939. They mean that Spahn is one of baseball's unforgettable performers and that someday he will be officially recognized as such.

But Cooperstown is a geographical reality, too, and when state of mind and reality coalesce, like something suddenly coming into focus in a camera, the impact is startling. When Dean and Grove and Frisch and Foxx, and the Milwaukee Braves and the Boston Red Sox (who played the Hall of Fame game this year) suddenly appear in Cooperstown, all the flap and nonsense about baseball—all the teary breast-beating that wraps third base in with the flag, blueberry pie and Mom—seems absolutely correct.

Cooperstown has a population of 2,500 people, less than one-fifth that of—well—Oneonta. Yet there in Cooperstown last week was Henry Aaron flicking a home run over the fence in deep left center. There was Carl Yastrzemski, the American League's leading hitter, ripping a base hit through the middle. And there, in the shallow stands and bleachers that line three sides of Doubleday Field, were 9,875 people, though the day was drizzly and ugly and a raging thunderstorm the night before had drenched the village. The game was not scheduled to start until 2 o'clock but by one the stands were overflowing with people. Beyond the left-field fence kids hung from the branches of trees, and behind the bleachers in right, in the backyards of houses adjacent to the ball park, gray-haired ladies sat on folding chairs on the flat roofs of sheds and garages. And they stayed there for the whole game.

There was a picnic quality, a Sunday afternoon game-for-a-barrel-of-beer feeling. Cooperstown is a museum town; it lives on nostalgia. It fosters the legend of Abner Doubleday and the fiction of James Fenimore Cooper. Its famous Farmers' Museum is a re-creation of life in the 1830s. Fenimore House has a collection of Early American art. The Woodland Museum brings you back to the woods. The Indian Museum gives you the Indian. In this environment of the charm of yesterday, baseball fits like an old fielder's glove. The classic family group wandering through the Baseball Museum consists of a 40-year-old man in a sports shirt, a 12-year-old boy in a baseball cap and a 35-year-old woman bringing up the rear, like an Indian squaw. The father points to a bronze plaque and says, with awe, "Carl Hubbell. King Carl. The old Mealticket. What a pitcher." The son looks at the plaque in wonder. The woman nods her head patiently as her husband turns to her and explains, "Honey, this guy once struck out five men in a row in the All-Star Game. Five in a row—Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Simmons and Cronin."

In Cooperstown on Hall of Fame day there is a flavor and excitement that is almost tangible. This year sawhorses were put across Main Street in the morning to shut off auto traffic on the block between Pioneer Street and Fair Street, the block where the Baseball Museum is. A wooden platform had been built outside the main entrance to the museum, and in front of it, extending across the sidewalk and past the trees along the street, was a wooden barricade. Ceremonies to induct the four new members of the Hall of Fame were to begin at 10:30 in the morning. By 9 o'clock people were beginning to mill around in front of the platform, and for the next hour a constant flow of people moved along Main Street toward the museum.

A crowd on Main Street

The street was jammed from one side to the other when the ceremonies started and Ford Frick began to introduce members of the Hall of Fame who were present on the platform: Grove and Foxx and Frisch and Bill Dickey and Charlie Gehringer and a half dozen others. The crowd was lively and attentive, a marvelous audience for the day. When Frick lowered his voice reverently as he spoke of Eppa Rixey and John Clarkson, new members of the Hall who were dead, the crowd looked properly solemn. When his voice lifted as he introduced Sam Rice and Elmer Flick, the other new inductees, the crowd cheered.

Of all the heroes, they loved Elmer Flick the best. Introduced as "perennially youthful," the 87-year-old Flick had to be helped to his feet, more or less propped on his cane and gently guided to the microphone. An eddy of embarrassment went through the crowd but the old man dispelled it with a grin. "I don't know how youthful I am," he said cheerfully. "You see my cane and how I walk. But I feel good today. I feel good. This is the biggest day I ever had."

The crowd murmured, as though in disbelief. Here was a man who had been a major league star, who had batted against Cy Young and Walter Johnson, who had won the batting championship of the American League. Surely he had had bigger days.

But Elmer Flick said, "Truthfully, it is." And the crowd cheered, because it is a rare and warm thing to be part of it on an occasion like this, when at the age of 87 a man has his biggest day.