Home Sweet Home
by Robert Nishihara
The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown was built on a lie.
From the scratchy, ardently entrepreneurial recesses of Albert Spalding's mind sprang a myth about Abner Doubleday, the small town of Cooperstown in upstate New York, and the origin of baseball. The fact that Doubleday likely had never even been to Cooperstown and the even more likely fact that he didn't know a baseball from a kumquat at the time he was supposed to have been inventing the national pastime seemed not to bother Spalding much, if at all. Indeed, Spalding also ignored the much more plausible scenario (and the significant accompanying evidence) pointing to a volunteer New York City fireman named Alexander Cartwright inventing the game in a park called the Elysian Fields located next to the Hudson River in Hoboken, New Jersey and, instead, anointed Cooperstown as the "Home of Baseball."
Thus, in 1939, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum was opened to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of Doubleday's supposed advent of the game.
However, in the ensuing sixty-plus years since the opening of the Hall of Fame, a remarkable thing has happened. The town of Cooperstown has managed to erase Spalding's myth and create its own wonderful reality. It has come to truly earn the title of the "Home of Baseball", and in so doing has somehow managed to distill the very essence of the game within its city limits. Baseball fans who travel to this sleepy lakeside hamlet are likely to feel the game radiating through its streets and hanging palpably yet invitingly in the air.
How has Cooperstown managed to complete this amazing metamorphosis? It is at once a remarkably simple concept and largely daunting task. Cooperstown genuinely respects the game of baseball and celebrates the difficulty of playing the game at its highest level. Though this may not sound like a particularly difficult thing to achieve, the key phrase here is "genuine respect". And in achieving this authenticity, Cooperstown has freed itself from many of the traps into which other places have fallen. By this, I mean that the game itself is placed above the somewhat narrow partisan leanings of individual cities that champion their own teams and star players over the rest of the teams and players in the sport. That is, exceptional skill of the game is celebrated in Cooperstown regardless of team uniform. It is a recognition of greatness that is color blind, gender blind, and geographically indifferent.
Thus, while touring through the National Baseball Museum, a visitor is treated to a seemingly unending wealth of artifacts from the game's storied history. And the breadth of this collection very nearly matches its depth. In a matter of moments, one can go from looking at Lou Gehrig's Yankee Stadium locker (complete with uniform, cleats, and bats) to one of Negro League great Cool Papa Bell's jerseys to game used gloves and uniforms from the A-A GPBL Women's professional league of the 1940's and 50's.
And this respect for the sport also extends to resisting the temptation of crass commercialization. Indeed, even among the variety of shops that line Cooperstown's Main Street, there is extra care taken to see that the integrity of the game is not sacrificed at the altar of commerce.
Hence, the Cooperstown Bat Company, which has a store on Main Street, does not make cheap, souvenir trinkets aimed at turning a quick buck. Instead, they produce high quality, hand turned bats using choice cuts of white ash. The theory, I suppose, being that making a cheap bat is not only impractical for actual use but also insulting to the craft of making one of the primary instruments of the sport. The ironically named Doubleday Field, which is located in the center of town, just to the side of Main Street, is blissfully devoid of flashy high-tech accessories. It is, instead, simply an immaculately groomed baseball diamond with a simple scoreboard and an old fashioned grandstand where the focus of attention is rightfully placed on the players and the playing field. In Mickey's Place, a grand memorabilia shop, one can find inexpensive but handsome looking baseball cards celebrating the career achievements of long retired players right alongside the cards of current star players. The National Pastime, another impressive memorabilia store and located nearly opposite of Mickey's Place, deals strictly in items having to do with past legendary players. Authentic-looking, handcrafted replica jerseys for a myriad of star players like Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, Japanese HR king Sadaharu Oh, and Josh Gibson are available for sale.
Given the current problems that plague Major League Baseball these days, it is of solace to know that the place where the game bestows its greatest honor on its greatest players continues to remain above the fray. The shiny bronze plaques that hang in the Hall of Fame seem somehow immune to the pedestrian tug-of-war roiling in the baseball world outside. These plaques, these individual markers of enduring excellence, capture a snapshot of a player at the epoch of his baseball life. The likeness of each player etched onto each of the plaques never ages. These enduring images celebrate each man at the height of his greatness in the sport.
Thus, Lou Gehrig remains youthful and strong. Ted Williams peers out from beneath his Red Sox cap with confidence and concentration. Jackie Robinson wears his Brooklyn cap with fierce determination.
In the quiet, sunlit room where the plaques are displayed, the cumulative effect of all of these images is mesmerizing. It is as if an amalgam of all of the players honored swirls around that room. A Mays basket catch. Ruth's trademark uppercut swing. Bob Gibson's intimidating follow through. DiMaggio's grace at the plate and in the field. All of these timeless icons of the sport fill this single room, and the resulting experience is both humbling and awe-inspiring. The sheer size of the game then becomes apparent and dwarfs the concept that any one individual can somehow exert his will over it. Hence, Bud Selig and Don Fehr become much less ominous figures to fans who have visited the Hall of Fame. In the grand scheme of the game and its long history, all of Selig and Fehr's collective bluster and brass become akin to the buzz of mosquitoes.
Perhaps, that is Cooperstown's greatest strength. It has the ability to reduce would-be baseball Machiavellians like Selig and Fehr to mere wrinkles in the storied fabric of the sport, wrinkles that are hardly noticeable when the game of baseball is celebrated in the way that Cooperstown has come to celebrate it.
Though Albert Spalding may have originally been misguided in his focus on Cooperstown and its relationship to the origin of baseball, this small town in upstate New York has truly embraced the game of baseball in a very special way, and I cannot think of a more fitting place for the sport to call its home.
Home sweet home, indeed.
Leave feedback on our message board.