Skip to main content
Original Issue

The Time to Go to Cooperstown

For a ballplayer, Cooperstown is a state of mind, an Elysian Field in which he would love to romp at some distant point in time when his spikes are worn out, his glove cracked and dried, his bat checked and splintered. But for a boy—including those who have girth now instead of muscle, and bald pates where thick hair once grew—it is a real thing of brick and wood, filled with plaques and statues and mementos by the dozen to bring back the glories of seasons past. The baseball museum at Cooperstown, N. Y. is a delight any season of the year, but the best time of all is Hall of Fame Day late in July, when the newest members are officially inducted in a happy splash of ceremony.

Everywhere you look on Hall of Fame Day there are hoys, many in baseball uniforms, more wearing baseball caps, all of them moving through the flowered town, listening, watching, savoring the excitement of being near the greatness they admire.

Casey and Ted and Old Abner Doubleday

Red Ruffing and Lloyd Waner will stand in a pleasant, tree-filled park in Cooperstown, N.Y. this Monday and, along with the late Branch Rickey, be admitted to baseball's Hall of Fame. Watching the ceremony, especially if you are willing to give or take a few innings and accept a few myths, you may come to the conclusion that Abner Doubleday did indeed invent the game there in 1839. Cooperstown does that to you.

During the course of a baseball season there are a few special times when the traditions supporting this peculiarly American game become so strong that those in attendance are momentarily silenced by the surge of nostalgia and anticipation. The first day of spring training, when a team—any team—comes out of a battered old clubhouse and jogs around the outfield, is such a time. So is Opening Day; and the moment when the public-address system announces the starting lineups for the All-Star Game; and the silent interval when the two opposing pitchers begin warming up for the first game of the World Series. To many who love baseball, Hall of Fame Day is the supreme moment of all.

It has been said of Cooperstown that you cannot walk out a door without running head on into a museum—which is fundamentally true. There are six of them in town—baseball's, the Farmers Museum, the Indian Museum, the Woodland Museum, the Carriage and Harness Museum and the Fenimore House—which is pretty good for a village of 2,500. But the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is the best known, and on Hall of Fame Day, when someone is inducted into it and a major league exhibition game is played, the town suddenly swells to 10,000.

In July 1966 Cooperstown had two remarkable men enter the village to be inducted, Ted Williams and Casey Stengel. Williams sat in a nearby motel room for two nights writing his acceptance speech, and when he gave it he thrilled and surprised the crowd. "I feel humility and pride at the greatest thing that ever happened to me," he said. Stengel, of course, got to Cooperstown a few days early and walked its streets leaning on his cane and shaking every hand in sight. On the morning of his induction he started down to the lobby of the Otesaga Hotel, and as the elevator stopped at every floor he found himself squeezed back into one of the far corners. As people boarded at each floor his voice came from the back, "Yes, yes, yes, come right in please. I'm fine and, thank you, I plan to have a pleasant day. Stayed up and wrote a little speech to give to the great fans who have come to see me. Williams and me." Between the second floor and the lobby the squeeze was a little too much for Casey. "This elevator," he said, "is about the size of the first ball park the Angels played in when they invented them in Los Angeles." Later that morning when Stengel got up to speak he folded his prepared statement and spoke as himself: "I chased the balls that Babe Ruth hit... And when I was managing in the minor leagues against Joe McCarthy's teams my players used to say that his teams were lucky and I said, 'Yeah, and they'll be lucky until 1999 if we keep playing them... I want to thank everybody for my first managerial experience at Worcester, which was last in the Eastern League, and where I met that fine fellow, George Weiss, who ran the New Haven club and who would find out whenever I was discharged and would reemploy me."

The game that accompanies the induction ceremonies draws the kids, and they drag their fathers. In 1939 each major league team sent two players to Coopers-town. Honus Wagner and Eddie Collins chose up sides, and men from rival leagues played together. Since then each league has sent a team. (This year the Cincinnati Reds will play the World Champion Baltimore Orioles.) Although the bulk of the crowd comes from neighboring areas in New York, Pennsylvania and New England, ticket requests are received from California, Puerto Rico and even South Dakota. The tickets never last long; within a few weeks after going on sale in the winter, they are all gone.

Just a few seasons back Charlie Finley, the owner of the Kansas City A's, decided that the Hall of Fame should be moved to some more convenient site (Oakland, maybe?), and nobody in baseball even bothered to argue with him. Baseball knows instinctively that its showcase must remain in small, out-of-the-way Cooperstown. As Ruffing and Waner will find out this week, when you get there it is well worth the effort.