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.

11 Comments

My one visit to the Baseball HOF took place in 1989. The Plaque section was being remodeled. It was a mess. The Plaques were hanging on plywood, it was disheartening (to say the least) seeing DiMaggio, Ruth, Gehrig and all the greats hanging on a piece of plywood like they were tools in someones garage.

The rest of the Hall more than made up for the initial impression. The memorabilia from days gone by took me back to a time to when I was a kid. Waiting for the evening paper, to scour the boxscores and see how my favorite players had done the day before. Clemente had 2 hits, Seaver struck out 10 batters, Memories…

One day is not enough to take in all the Hall has to offer.

I would like to see the old stuff you say in the 1970’s. Is it still available to see or has it been boxed up and stored away for eternity?

Jim, most of it is in storage, though some pieces–like the giant painting of Cy Young ca. 1908–went away and then came back again. It may be possible to view something in the archives, with prior request and Hall consent.

Thanks, John.

Jim

You can view every plaque in MLB Hall of Fame from the comfort of your living room: http://baseballhall.org/museum/experience/plaque-gallery

Wow! 150 trips to the HOF. They must recognize you by now! My first trip was on our honeymoon (would you believe). That should have been warning enough of what I had gotten myself into. I enjoy your articles,always. Alma

Alma, Fred was a uniquely romantic beau … though I confess that the wedding cake for my most recent marriage, last month, was adorned with T-206 baseball cards … made from spun sugar and edible.This innovation was not at my behest; my sister-in-law-to-be came up with the brainstorm as a surprise.

I just looked up that 1920 series in Wikipedia, and what surprised me was the times. Game 5, for instance, was played in 1 hour, 49 minutes. Game 7 was the longest at 1:55. Now, it’s hard to get a game in in less than 3 hours.
BTW, that game also featured the first grand slam in WS history, and the first homer hit by a pitcher.

was looking for a family vacation in Cooperstown area this year, what was farm vacation like? better than cabin on Lake Otsego?

I hesitate to take sides, as my vacation experiences in C ‘ton date back two decades or so. But who doesn’t like Lake Otsego or, as Cooper had it, Glimmerglass?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 495 other followers

%d bloggers like this: