SLOUCHING TOWARDS COOPERSTOWN, PT. 1

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[Greetings to Readers from Big League Stew on Yahoo!]

I started wondering when I would be baseball-savvy enough to appreciate a trip to Cooperstown since around the middle of the 2007 season. It was tentatively on the books for 2008, and I started actively campaigning for this trip in 2009 once we were done with baseball and almost through nursing our heartbreak. At the end of January, I put my foot down, and we picked a weekend. Plans were made.

We left on a Saturday morning at 6:30am, heading up 87, and then meandering through rolling snowy countryside. When we pulled into town, TBF promptly made the wrong turn, only for us to then realize that you can’t really get lost, and two turns later, we were on Main Street…where every other store has the word “baseball” in the name or is selling something to do with baseball.

It was like taking a 7 year old through the gates of Disneyland for the first time. The almost-sugar rush, the sense of anticipation, the need to rush right in and experience it all at once.

I was astounded that the street in front of the Hall had plenty of parking available. I mean, I knew it would be less crowded, but I had no conception that “less crowded” was going to translate into “you will have parts of the place all to yourself for extended periods of time.” We parked on the street, and abandoning any need for coffee I might have expressed earlier, walked up the stairs and opened the door. As soon as we walked inside, I knew there was no way I would be disappointed, that this wasn’t some bogus Rock and Roll Hall of Fame commercial endeavor, just from the entrance hallway. I don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t been there so I’ll just leave it by saying that they manage to induce the right level of solemnity and tribute and appreciation as you walk in the door. If your heart doesn’t pound a little or you don’t get goosebumps, you’re probably in the wrong place.

Our AAA cards got us a $1.25 discount (hey), and a blue baseball handstamp guaranteed us repeat admission for the rest of the day. Maps in hand, we were determined to be focused and were about to head up to the second floor when a statue of a familiar figure distracted me: Buck O’Neil.

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The Buck O’Neil (Non)Consolation Prize (as I refer to it) is one of the first things that will greet you once you’re past the ticket booths. My interest in Buck began, of course, with the Joe Posnanski book, and combined with a long-standing joint interest on the part of TBF and myself to visit the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City (which of course we got the chance to do in the summer of 08). Buck got robbed. Period. I’ll leave it at that.

There’s a theater at the top of the stairs, which advertised showing a film called “The Baseball Experience” every 30 minutes, and assuming that it was an introduction to the Hall, I made the point that we should hang around for 10 minutes and wait for the next showing. The waiting area for the theater is the “Cooperstown Room,” an exhibits that explains why the Hall is in Cooperstown, and the history of the Hall there. (I’m just realizing now that we never made it back there to finish the exhibits!) Not long after we started, the theater opened up for the next movie showing. Unfortunately, the movie wasn’t an introduction to the Hall; it’s billed as “placing baseball as part of the American experience” or something like that and it was the kind of thing that you might show to someone who didn’t really understand the attraction of baseball. It was kind of vague and not particularly satisfying – but that’s the only part of the Hall of Fame I can say that about.

Then, the fun began. We started walking through the exhibits. You start with the 19th century, and then move into the rooms that group exhibits by years: 1900-1930, 1930-1970, 1970-2000, and then a room for the present day. We were just finishing up the 19th Century exhibit when a docent came by and told us that they were doing a special presentation of some artifacts from the collection, over near the Negro Leagues exhibit. When I saw it on the events board downstairs, I had assumed that this presentation was a video, but when we followed the docent, I soon realized that this was an in person presentation of real, live artifacts, not behind glass, sitting on a table a few feet away from us. Since it was Black History Month, the Hall was highlighting items to commemorate that event.

On the table were the following:

  1. A Pittsburgh Crawfords jersey
  2. A pair of cleats
  3. A Dodgers jersey with the number 42
  4. A cracked baseball bat

The docent then proceeded to explain, in painstaking and engaging detail, the history behind each of the items. The jersey was from one of the legendary Pittsburgh Negro Leagues teams. He explained that the reason that there isn’t a lot of Negro Leagues memorabilia is because the players used everything until it broke or worn out, and then it was thrown away. (My assumption had been that no one kept anything because they didn’t think anyone would care about it.)

The cleats seemed like normal cleats, until he picked them up and brought them over to me and TBF (randomly selected because we were probably the people acting bright eyed and bushy tailed). He held up the heel, where the number 44 was displayed. Then he flipped them over, and showed us 714-715-716 written in magic marker on the bottom.
“Do you know who these belonged to?”
“Henry Aaron,” answered TBF, while I was still standing there sputtering at the thought that RIGHT IN FRONT OF US WERE THE SHOES THAT HANK AARON WORE WHEN HE BROKE BABE RUTH’S HOME RUN RECORD.

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The last item was the worn, cracked bat. Now, keep in mind, that this was a 20 minute presentation, and it wasn’t just “here’s something cool. this is what it is.” They worked very, very hard to place everything in context. So the docent began his tale of the bat by continuing his saga of the injustice of the Negro Leagues players, and mentions Satchel Paige, and his incredible longevity and seemingly endless energy, and how the bat in hand was used by Ted Williams when Satchel Paige was pitching against him, and the dents in the bat and the reason that the bat was cracked was not at the result of hitting baseballs, but were because Satchel Paige struck out Ted Williams and he went back to the dugout and smacked the bat against something that wasn’t a baseball. (Satchel’s reaction was reportedly something along the lines of, “He’s got to expect to be struck out once in a while.” Of course, as the docent explained, Ted Williams would later stand on the steps of the Hall at his induction in 1966 and call out the injustice that the Negro Leagues players weren’t in the Hall of Fame, the first player to do so. The docent said he often wondered if this incident wasn’t figuring in his mind at the time.

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So this was all wonderful, incredible stuff, but then THEY INVITED US TO TAKE PICTURES, and not only that, the security guard OFFERED TO HOLD THE ITEMS AT ANGLES MORE CONDUCIVE TO PICTURE-TAKING. No seriously. This is where I need to point out that the Hall of Fame has the most photograph-friendly policy I have ever, ever experienced at any museum or historical site in the US, ever. You are allowed to bring cameras and video cameras. You are allowed to use flash. There is nothing you can’t take a picture of. You can get close to the exhibits, you can put your nose up against the plexiglass, you can get your photo taken next to Joe DiMaggio’s locker. (I won’t go into how I would have loved to have my photo taken next to Tom Seaver’s locker, except for the small detail of the fact that THE METS AUCTIONED IT OFF TO THE HIGHEST BIDDER, because we have already gone there and done that.)

Once I was done taking photos, we returned to the exhibit. We viewed the Babe Ruth exhibit while Jeter-t-shirt-wearing rug rats ran around our ankles (really, not kidding). It would be inconceivable to me to come here and not be entranced by the history around this man:

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We skipped the history section of the Negro Leagues exhibit, since we had just been to the Negro Leagues Museum this past summer, went instead to the artifacts, which included hate mail received by both Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron (even if you’ve seen photos of it, seeing the copies up close and in person will give you chills), and more happily, Cool Papa Bell’s sunglasses:

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Particularly telling was this copy of a newspaper ad to the Yankees:

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Then we moved on to the rest of the chronological exhibit, covering 1900-1930, and then moving on to 1930-1970. There was just – so much. I just decided to take photos of what interested me or what attracted me or what seemed neat. The low light made it a challenge, and some photos just plain didn’t come out because they were too blurry (you can’t use a flash because everything’s behind glass). But I enjoyed seeing things like Shoeless Joe’s glove. Hank Greenberg memorabilia. A case of Brooklyn Dodgers relics. Lots of heavy metal from a fellow named Ralph whom we’re all well acquainted with.

When we reached the end of 1930, we decided it was time for a break, so we headed out to lunch – but not before hitting the gift shop. As you might imagine, it is a little overwhelming, and then your head stops whirling and you realize that you’ve seen all of it before in some fashion, down to the baseball gnomes sitting in carefully aligned boxes. I didn’t much like any of the t-shirts, and TBF didn’t much like any of the hats, but we figured we’d come back again later and sort through it in some more detail.

We then went out to Main Street, looking for a place to eat. Of course, this is complicated by the fact that your brain is on baseball overload, and you’re now walking down a street where every second store is baseball-themed. Disappointingly, there’s not much you can’t get online or at home; maybe if you came from a small town, you wouldn’t have access to all of this stuff, but we didn’t see anywhere that had a thoughtful selection of carefully chosen items. It was the usual firehose of Yankees crap and Red Sox crap and oh, here are some other teams.

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Completely randomly, we chose the Doubleday Cafe for lunch, just because the menu seemed fine. The food was excellent, but it wasn’t until we sat down that I realized that this was the place that had the t-shirts that Brilliant Reader LadyMet told me about that read: “Cooperstown: a drinking town with a baseball problem.” This became my official “I have been to the HOF” purchase.

We walked out of the cafe and that’s when TBF started looking for the bookstore he had told me about, “A used bookstore with ALL BASEBALL BOOKS,” which is the kind of place I needed to find as soon as possible. It wasn’t all baseball books, but several bookcases full, and there were enough to keep us there for a while (when I said, “I just want a peek, we can come back tomorrow when there’s more time” – famous last words), and I had to forcibly restrain myself from buying only two things (a Roger Angell first edition and a 1985 Mets Yearbook for research purposes).

Then, we went back to the Hall, for Part II.

[be sure to take a look at the full Flickr set from the trip.]

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