January 22nd, 2012

My Favorite Place

Living in the Hudson Valley, I am equidistant between the two places in America I love most: New York City and Cooperstown. My first visit to the latter was in 1974, following the publication of my first book.  In the years since, I think I must have made another 150 trips there—sometimes for research, sometimes to see old friends, sometimes to attend to some piece of business with Hall of Fame officials. Sometimes I made a weekend visit to Cooperstown with my family. Once we spent a whole week there, living on a farm as an experimental summer holiday; another week was spent in a cabin on Lake Otsego. I took my two older sons to their first nighttime at the movies, Ghostbusters at Smalley’s Theater on Main Street. There was the fabulous Farmer’s Museum and the serene museum of the New York State Historical Association. But always the focal point of any trip to the village that James Fenimore Cooper’s father founded was, as you may imagine, the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Until the 1970s, the museum was a much less organized, more down-home sort of place—like a local historical society. Strange items long since consigned to the archives were then on display—an antique pitching machine, a display of baseball board games, a capitol building constructed from miniature wooden bats and balls, an 1870s cigar-store baseball figure known as “Joe Wood.” Horizontal display cases were filled with disparate items united by an indiscernible logic. It was a quirky and charming place then, even if navigating it was a challenge, like solving a puzzle, or taking up a scavenger hunt.

But make no mistake—the new museum is vastly better, and the proof of that is on display every day. Just watch the watchers. A child enraptured by an image of Albert Pujols will be gently pulled away by his father to see a statue and hear a story of Roberto Clemente. A grandfather will proudly regale his family with tales of seeing DiMaggio and Williams, in the years before anyone thought there could be a Jackie. You can see people’s eyes light up as they come across an artifact that holds special magic for them: a game ball (“I was there!”) or a battered glove (“That’s the kind of glove I used to wear—imagine Derek Jeter trying to make a play with that!”).

Long ago now, though the memory remains vivid—sometime in the 1980s, I figure, and it must have been for an Induction Weekend—I was walking through the museum for the umpteenth time, revisiting my favorite exhibits and being surprised by what I had previously overlooked. Walking through the timeline section a few yards ahead was a little old man accompanied by a couple of gents not much younger than he. The fellow paused at a photographic blowup of the unassisted triple play that Cleveland’s Bill Wambsganss had pulled off in Game 5 of the 1920 World Series. And as he started telling a story about the men portrayed in the panorama, I realized who he was: Joe Sewell, the Indians’ shortstop who had the best seat in the house to see that singular play, and who himself was portrayed in the photo, to the right of Wambsganss.

I kept a respectful distance behind Sewell and his party, but I hung on his every word, shaken to think that here I was, listening to the man who had been called up from the minors to replace Ray Chapman at shortstop a month after his fatal beaning in August. Here was Joe Sewell, born in the previous century, standing in front of that grainy blowup, saying that Wamby could have tossed him the ball, it would have been so easy, but then it wouldn’t have made history, would it?

For a delicious moment, I was a part of that extended history (“I was there!”) with Joe Sewell on October 10, 1920, and some sixty years later. And I realized that the enormous pleasure of that moment—the reliving of history in a highly personal way—is what defines the Baseball Hall of Fame experience and keeps me coming back for more.