Related topics

Baseball, History and Small-Town Charm In Cooperstown

July 30, 1994

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. (AP) _ An acorn-size cork sphere is covered with red rubber and wrapped with 121 yards of gray wool, 45 yards of white wool, 53 more yards of gray, and 150 yards of cotton, coated with rubber cement, and sewn with red twine into a cover of alum-tanned leather.

Behold the major league baseball.

Every step in its construction is displayed in a glass case at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, the mother lode of trivia, memorabilia, statistics and enshrined heroes from America’s pastime.

On Sunday, about 18,000 baseball aficionados are expected to gather in a nearby natural amphitheater to witness the induction of this year’s Hall of Famers: Steve Carlton, Phil Rizzuto, Leo Durocher, and longtime New York Mets broadcaster Bob Murphy.

Induction weekend, which concludes on Monday with the Hall of Fame Game between the Philadelphia Phillies and Seattle Mariners at Doubleday Field, isn’t necessarily the best time for fans to bask in baseball history here.

″Cooperstown is rural America at its best,″ said Steven Walker, manager of the 184-year-old Cooper Inn, a few blocks from the Hall of Fame. ″Induction Weekend, it’s at its worst. It’s pretty fan-unfriendly. The crowds and media have just gotten out of hand.″

But at other times, visiting Cooperstown, 70 miles west of Albany, is like stepping into a mythical Norman Rockwell vision of Small Town, U.S.A.

Flags flutter above the immaculately maintained brick and clapboard storefronts along Main Street. The broad thoroughfare is shaded by maples and decorated with cascading red geraniums hung from every wrought-iron lamppost.

An 82-year-old mahogany sightseeing boat, the Chief Uncas, takes tourists on cruises up 9-mile-long Otsego Lake from the village marina a few blocks off Main Street. A bronze statue of James Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer gazes over the finger-shaped lake from a nearby park. The author’s father founded this village, and three of Cooper’s novels were set in the area.

It’s a wealthy town, benefiting from the philanthropy of its prominent families. The Coopers have preserved much of the land. The Clark family, heirs to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune, helped create the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Fenimore House Museum, and the Farmer’s Museum. And the Busch family of Budweiser beer fame have subsidized sports, conservation, and the Glimmerglass Opera House.

For all its museums, boutiques, historic architecture and lakeside scenery, though, Cooperstown is best known as the mecca of baseball.

Legend has it that Abner Doubleday, a West Point graduate who fired the first gun for the Union at Fort Sumter, invented the game in Elihu Phinney’s Cooperstown pasture in 1839. His cloth-stuffed, home-made ball was discovered in a farmhouse attic and is reverently displayed in the Hall of Fame museum.

That story has been disputed by historians, who point to evidence that modern baseball took shape in Hoboken, N.J., in 1846. But such quibbling does little to lessen the allure of Cooperstown for baseball’s faithful.

More than 400,000 people a year make the pilgrimage to Cooperstown. They gaze upon the 25 pieces of leather that are hand-sewn with 2,500 stitches to create the Wilson A2000 glove favored by many major-leaguers.

They see samples of the select white ash logs that are dried outdoors for 12 months, turned on computerized lathes, and hand-finished into Louisville Slugger bats in the size and weight specified by each player.

But those are just warm-ups to the real wonders here.

Life-size and startlingly realistic wood carvings of Babe Ruth and Ted Williams greet visitors in the lobby, which, like the rest of the lavishly designed museum, has the glowing shadowiness of a shrine. People take each other’s pictures beside the legendary figures.

Artifacts and photographs chronicle 150 years of baseball history on the second floor’s west wing. There’s Ty Cobb’s ripped black glove from 1926, and his bat, shoes, sliding pads and Detroit Tiger sweater. There’s the ball and bat used by Hank Aaron for his 3,000th hit. And Reggie Jackson’s batting helmet, worn when he hit his 500th home run.

In a Babe Ruth room, entered through a ballpark turnstile and bathed in golden light, the faithful can see his Yankee Stadium locker, his autographed silver cigar box, his bowling ball, and his silver crown ″King of Swat″ trophy. There’s an array of the Babe’s bats, including the one used to hit the famous ″called shot″ home run in the 1932 World Series. Ruth was at the Hall of Fame’s opening ceremony in 1939.

A movie room has props from baseball films. There’s the jersey worn by Tab Hunter in ″Damn Yankees″ and the New York Knights uniform worn by Robert Redford in ″The Natural,″ as well as his bat, Wonder Boy. There’s the cap and jersey worn by Ray Liotta in ″Field of Dreams,″ and Geena Davis’ Rockford Peaches uniform from ″A League of Their Own.″

The Ballparks Room on the third floor includes such artifacts as the cornerstones from Ebbets Field and Shibe Park. Another room holds a collection of baseball cards, including the rare Honus Wagner 1909 T-206 tobacco card, which was recalled after the non-smoking Wagner objected to it.

A room dedicated to present-day stars draws the attention of young fans. The ″Highlights of 1994″ case includes the bat used by Eddie Murray of the Cleveland Indians on April 21, when he homered from both sides of the plate for a major-league record 11th time, beating Mickey Mantle’s record of 10.

The museum - a three-story red brick building on Main Street - is bold and vibrant in design.

Its compelling exhibits give even non-fans a sense that this is about more than just a game. It’s about American heroes, nostalgia and mythology.


EDITOR’S NOTE: The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is open seven days a week year round, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Phone: 607-547-7200.

END ADV for Weekend Editions July 30-31

Update hourly