Cooperstown and the Hall of Fame

You may think that Cooperstown is just a baseball town, but it has a lot of other things going for it. Historically, it was the setting of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, including Last of the Mohicans, considered by many to be the first true American novel. Geographically, its Otsego Lake is the source of the Susquehanna River, the longest river on the American East Coast. Culturally, the Glimmerglass Opera House, one of the finest opera houses outside of New York City, is just up the road.

Financially, Cooperstown is home to the Clark family, who made their original fortune running Singer’s sewing machine business and now own much of the town. Baseball isn’t even the largest business in Cooperstown; health care is. Cooperstown’s Mary Imogene Bassett Hospital is the center of a four-hospital system that includes 23 community health centers throughout central New York. There’s much more to Cooperstown than baseball.

But you wouldn’t know it by walking downtown. Every store on Cooperstown’s Main Street features baseball; baseballs, baseball bats, baseball t-shirts. Even restaurants and book stores rely on baseball to draw people in (Eat ballpark franks here! Buy baseball books here!). The Cooperstown natives may hate it (many stay away from Main Street all summer long) but Cooperstown and baseball are synonymous.

Of course, the irony is that baseball wasn’t invented in Cooperstown, not even close. The Abner Doubleday myth was declared “official” by the Mills Commission in 1908; the Clarks purchased the “Doubleday baseball” for $5 and displayed it in a local club in 1935, and the Hall of Fame was erected in 1939. More recent revelations about baseball’s beginnings have done nothing to topple Cooperstown from its hallowed perch among baseball fans.

Still, Cooperstown refused to be known solely as the home of baseball for many years; its primary slogan was “The Village of Museums,” emphasizing its many museums other than baseball’s. (I remember when there were seven different museums in and around town.) In the 1960s and 1970s, there was only one baseball memorabilia store on Main Street (Wood’s). The local gym was located in what is now the left side of the Hall. Yes, the Baseball Hall of Fame was located in Cooperstown, but it didn’t dominate the village.

Economic progress, wanted or unwanted, seems inevitable, and downtown Cooperstown is no exception. The people who crowd Main Street in the summer are baseball fans with money; the Cooperstown winter population of 2,000 isn’t enough to support an entire downtown, even one as small as Cooperstown’s. Stores that closed on Main Street were slowly but surely replaced with baseball-related stores and, with the arrival of the Cooperstown Dreams Park in the mid 1990s, the town’s fate was sealed. As I walked down Main Street last week, there was no doubt where I was; I was visiting the “Home of Baseball.”

I’ve been to the Baseball Hall of Fame many times, and I’ve felt different emotions each time. Sometimes I’ve been fascinated by what I’ve seen; other times I’ve found it kind of boring. I have to admit that I don’t get much out of certain exhibits, such as the “Records Room” or the baseballs contributed from no-hitters. I understand why they’re included, but they don’t interest me very much.

The first time I entered the Hall’s Gallery, with plaques for every player inducted into the Hall, I spent several hours reading them and learning about the very best players in baseball history. But even that simple pleasure has lost its joy as I’ve grown old and cynical about the entire Hall of Fame voting process.

The last time I had visited the Hall of Fame, they were in the midst of a $20 million renovation (including that part of the Hall that used to be a gym), and I hadn’t been terribly impressed with the layout or the exhibits. So I wasn’t sure what I would see this time. I shouldn’t have been concerned. I’m happy to report that the renovated Hall looks great, the exhibits are entrancing and the Hall of Fame is something that even Cooperstown locals should be proud of.

The first stop in my latest visit was a multimedia presentation called The Baseball Experience. It’s not deep, but it is a lot of fun and a good way to start your tour of the Hall. I particularly liked the fact that they used Comiskey Park for their ballpark setting.

After the multimedia presentation, I walked through the best part of the Hall, a timeline history of baseball exhibits. The exhibits note famous events, teams and players and I thought most were well-balanced and on-target. My only gripe was that Hank Aaron seems to get short shrift for his accomplishments, but then I saw that they are working on a special Hank Aaron exhibit to open later this year. The Hall is evidently on top of things.

Along the way, there is also a room dedicated to Babe Ruth, another that focuses on the Negro Leagues and one dedicated to women in baseball. All three rooms are interesting and well-done.

On the third floor, there is a great section on baseball parks. The virtual “tour” of Boston’s old South End Park was fantastic, and I look forward to seeing more parks included in that exhibit. There is also a section dedicated to postseason play and a running tape of Abbot and Costello’s Who’s on First, one of the greatest comedy routines of all time.

On the first floor, in addition to the Hall of Fame Gallery and the museum store, there is an excellent baseball art exhibit. One side includes most of the classics that you’d expect to see, including some Norman Rockwells, and the other side is a real joy, a great variety of art inspired by the Negro Leagues entitled “Shades of Glory.” One of the enigmas of baseball history is that its institutionalized segregation is a source of both tremendous shame and wonderful inspiration. Much of the art in this exhibit manages to poignantly capture both perspectives.

When you visit, be sure to walk back to the Research Library behind the Gallery and visit the media-related exhbits. I don’t think they’ve changed lately, but they’re entertaining.

The Hall of Fame puts a lot of emphasis on education; there is an Education Gallery on the third floor, apparently built for lectures, and we saw several guided tours of school-age kids while we were there. So I was shocked when one of the tour guides claimed that Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees to finance a play! Can we please put this myth to rest, particularly at the actual Baseball Hall of Fame itself?? As Rob Neyer says in his Big Book of Baseball Blunders:

And finally, a few words about the demonization of Harry Frazee. It’s often been written that Frazee sold Ruth in order to finance a Broadway production of a silly musical called No, No, Nanette. It’s often been written that Frazee was a failure not only in baseball but also in his theatrical pursuits, and that he died in 1929 a poor man.

As Glenn Stout has ably demonstrated in various places—including in a long 2005 essay in Eysian Fields Quarterly—none of those things written about Frazee are true. Frazee was not in financial trouble when he traded Ruth. He simply thought the Yankees were offering a fair price for a player who’d become a huge headache. Frazee did not use the Yankees’ money to finance No, No, Nanette, which wasn’t put into production until 1925. Frazee did not die penniless…

Are you listening Hall of Fame? Stop polluting the minds of poor, innocent children.

Other Points of Interest

I was only there for a couple of days, so I didn’t get a chance to sample everything Cooperstown has to offer. I did visit the Fenimore House, with its American art and Grandma Moses exhibits. I heard the Farmers’ Museum has a new hand-crafted carousel (good for the kids) and I’ve always liked the Farmers’ Museum. I still haven’t been to Hyde Hall; maybe next time.

The Cooperstown Diner, a little place that seats maybe 20 people if they all hold their breath, has a three-inch thick burger unlike any burger I’ve ever eaten. The Doubleday Cafe is also a great spot for lunch or dinner, and there’s a very nice bistro on Hoffman’s Lane (across from the Hall and next to the Post Office) with fine food. I highly recommend all three.

There are so many good baseball memorabilia stores on Main Street that I won’t recommend any particular one. But I did find a rare and used bookstore that had a great selection of baseball books as well as a huge inventory of other types of rare books. It’s off the street a bit, just a few shops before the bakery. Ah, the bakery…

Finally, no Cooperstown/baseball article is really complete without mentioning the Cooperstown Dreams Park. The Dreams Park opened in the 1990′s and was an immediate success. The idea is simple: teams come in from all over the world and play baseball for a week. The facilities are first-rate and the operation is well-run. Tellingly, Cooperstown wouldn’t allow construction of the Park in Cooperstown proper, so the Park is located several miles south of the village.

Several motels have also risen alongside the Park as well as fast-food places (which are outlawed in Cooperstown), a testament to how successful the Park has been. It expanded to 96 teams this winter and they are already filled to capacity for the year. On weekends, Cooperstown and the Hall are particularly crowded by the Park kids and their parents.

Like most baseball-related endeavors, Cooperstown natives have mixed feelings about the Dreams Park. But its vision, operation and success have meant a lot to the village and its economy. Congratulations on a great job.

References & Resources
In case you can’t make it to Cooperstown, the Hall of Fame also has a fine website.

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