Baseball’s Hall of Fame is 50
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. (AP) _ Connie Mack was solemn, Eddie Collins was awed and Grover Cleveland Alexander was philosophical.
Ty Cobb was combative. He intentionally showed up late so he wouldn’t have to be photographed with another irascible sort he was feuding with, Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Landis.
Babe Ruth didn’t bother to wear a necktie, but he kept a fun-loving smile on his face and stole the show.
Such was the scene on June 12, 1939, when baseball dedicated its new Hall of Fame. In the half century starting with that day, 204 men have been enshrined in one of the most endearing institutions in American sport.
Thanks to the hall, the tiny upstate New York village of Cooperstown, which held at best a tenuous claim to being the place where Abner Doubleday invented baseball, is now virtually synonymous with the sport. Kids dream of being among the more than 300,000 people who visit the hall each year to see the balls, gloves and other artifacts of famed players; players dream of the immortality of enshrinement.
Billy Williams, the Chicago Cubs’ great, said he ran the emotional gamut from wide-eyed kid to grizzled major league veteran on the day of his induction into the hall in 1987.
″You recall the days when you made your first slide and had your first glove and when you first picked up a bat,″ he said. ″You remember all the people along the way.″
And when inductees reach the podium on enshrinement day, Williams said, they realize the enormity of what they’ve accomplished.
″The people come and they cheer after you’re done talking, but they want to hear what you have to say,″ Williams said. ″They’ve seen you in front of 40,000 or 50,000 people, but now they want to see the reaction of that player. It hits you when you approach that podium. It’s a nervous feeling. It’s a joyous feeling. Some have cried. Some have smiled. I guess it brings out the little boy in you.″
It’s not easy to get to Cooperstown, either for inductees or visitors.
″There’s an old joke about how far Cooperstown is from New York City: four hours or two centuries,″ said James Vlasich, an associate professor of history at Southern Utah State College who’s written a manuscript about the origins of the hall.
″You have to expect to get off an airplane, then drive for a while and then you have to take a horse and buggy,″ said Early Wynn, who won 300 games pitching for three American League teams and was inducted into the hall in 1972. ″But it’s worth it once you get there.″
Indeed, much of the charm of Cooperstown is that it is off the beaten path. Located deep in New York’s hilly Leatherstocking Region, Cooperstown overlooks placid Otsego Lake. The lake was known as Glimmerglas to the most famous resident of Cooperstown, author James Fenimore Cooper, who wrote many of his ground-breaking American novels there in the 1820s and 1830s.
A century later, Cooperstown was more backwater than bucolic gem. About all the place had going for it was its reputation, not supported by much hard evidence, of being where Doubleday laid out the first modern baseball diamond in 1839.
Doubleday Field was established in Cooperstown to commemorate that event, which many historians and baseball fans doubt ever took place. While still insisting that the game did indeed originate in Cooperstown, there’s been something of a softening in recent years by the defenders of the village’s right to claim the sport as its own.
Hall of Fame spokesman William Guilfoile said the question of whether Doubleday actually invented the sport here is largely ″irrelevent.″
″Baseball undoubtedly originated at about that time in a rural setting,″ he said. ″We think Cooperstown is at least an acceptable symbolic site for the origins of the sport.″
In 1934, two men hit upon the idea of setting up a museum in Cooperstown to honor baseball and the 100th anniversary of the sport. Not coincidentally, Alexander Cleland and Stephen Clark hoped the museum would become a tourist attraction to boost the local economy.
Clark was an heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune whose family had long lived in Cooperstown and Cleland, a one-time chimney sweep from Glasgow, Scotland, was a social worker in charge of doling out the Clark family largess to help immigrants and other poor.
According to Vlasich, Cleland and Clark were an unlikely pair to establish a cherished American institution.
″Neither one of these guys were baseball fans,″ Vlasich said, ″but both were businessmen with a sense of history.″
They got others interested in the idea, including National League President Ford Frick, whom Vlasich said is the one who resurrected an idea pushed years before by former major leaguer and sportswriter Sam Crane to have major league owners ″enshrine″ baseball greats in some sort of museum.
Frick was able to get the baseball establishment and press behind the idea of the hall and by 1936, balloting was held for the first group of inductees into the new baseball Hall of Fame.
Cobb, not Ruth, was the top vote getter of that first group of five inductees into the Hall of Fame. Others who received the necessary 75 percent of the first induction vote were shortstop Honus Wagner and pitchers Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson.
Also in 1936, the baseball museum opened in the Cooperstown village library. The next year, plans were announced for construction of a new building to house the memorabilia, a building that stands as one wing of the Hall of Fame today.
By June 12, 1939, 25 men had been voted into the new baseball shrine, ranging from the sport’s primordial figures such as Alexander Cartright Jr. - whom some feel has a better claim than Doubleday to having invented the game - to 20th century heroes Tris Speaker, Napoleon Lajoie and George Sisler.
Dedication of the hall put Cooperstown back on the map. A 10-car special train was chartered from New York City to carry many of the greats of the game to the first induction ceremonies. The train, which had to negotiate a weed- covered section of abandoned track, was the first to have pulled into Cooperstown in at least five years.
The baseball greats mingled with local residents and baseball fans for a time on the streets of Cooperstown, had lunch at a nearby inn and assembled at the hall for the ceremonies.
Mack was the first to be introduced to the crowd. Rarely at a loss for words, on this day the great manager could only haltingly say a few remarks of thanks into the NBC radio microphones.
Lajoie told the fans that if they were having as good a time as he was, they were having the time of their lives. Collins said, ″I’d feel glad to be the bat boy for a team like this.″
Alexander acknowledged the alcohol problems he’d had in his life. He wondered aloud what his pitching record would have looked like had he had teammates like the new inductees behind him.
Ruth urged the youngsters in the crowd to excel in baseball so they might one day stand on the same podium.
The crowd and the inductees then headed to Doubleday Field, where a pickup game involving major league players, including future Hall-of-Famers Hank Greenberg and Arky Vaughan, was staged. Ruth suited up and came up to pinch hit, but popped out to catcher Arndt Jorgens of the Yankees.
″It was worth the trip alone to hear the crowd beg Jorgens to drop it,″ The Associated Press wrote of that pop.
When asked after the game why he didn’t get a fat pitch to swat out of Doubleday Field, Ruth said he had ″but I can’t hit the floor with my bat.″
Ruth had one other complaint that day: ″My arm got terribly tired writing so many autographs. I didn’t know there were so many people who didn’t have my signature.″
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