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Picturesque Cooperstown is perfect setting for baseball's soul

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Rochester Business Journal
July 25, 2014

The myth that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in 1839 and that Cooperstown is the game’s birthplace was debunked decades ago. Heck, as local historian Priscilla Astifan and my fellow members of the Rochester Baseball Historical Society are quick to point out, baseball was being played in the Flower City at Mumford’s Meadow, near High Falls on the banks of the Genesee River, at least 14 years before Doubleday purportedly marked off his first diamond in a Cooperstown cow pasture.

Unlike basketball, which originated with James Naismith putting up a peach basket on a barn in Springfield, Mass., and devising rules for a new game, baseball wasn’t invented by a single individual. It evolved from several different games over time.

Friend, baseball fanatic and former Episcopal bishop Jack McKelvey says baseball’s roots can be traced to biblical times. “It’s referred to in the first line of the Bible,” he has told me on several occasions, tongue in cheek. “You know, it starts with the sentence, ‘In the big inning …’”

While Cooperstown might not be baseball’s birthplace, it clearly is the repository of the game’s history and soul. So what if Doubleday, a Cooperstown resident and decorated Civil War general who fought at Gettysburg, had absolutely nothing to do with “inventing” the game?

If you’re going to start a myth—and mythical stories are a huge part of baseball lore—you couldn’t have chosen a better setting than this bucolic, frozen-in-time, one-traffic-light village nestled at the foot of the Catskill and Adirondack mountains. The misguided commission that created the apocryphal Doubleday story wound up doing Cooperstown an enormous favor. The “Birthplace of Baseball” designation in 1907 set in motion the process that led to the opening of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum 32 years later.

The first induction class—boasting immortals such as Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner and Walter Johnson—was enshrined on June 12, 1939, as 20,000 tourists stuffed Main Street, swelling the village’s population tenfold. Not surprisingly, the star of stars on this day was Ruth, who was mobbed by autograph seekers once the ceremonies concluded and continued to be besieged a few hours later at an exhibition game down the block at the newly constructed Doubleday Field. Although the New York Yankees slugger had retired four years earlier, he remained baseball’s towering figure.

“This was like the old days,” he said. “My arm got terribly tired writing so many autographs. I didn’t know there were so many people who didn’t have my signature.”

To ensure the national focus would be on Cooperstown that day, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis decreed that no big-league games be scheduled. A story in the New York Times described the gala as “this town’s biggest moment since Gen. James Clinton blew up the dam across the mouth of Otsego Lake in 1779.” A reporter for United Press International went a step further, writing that “this quiet, lazy hamlet in Upstate New York has never seen a day like this.”

No, it had not. And from that day forward the village immortalized in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales would never be the same. The national publicity the newly minted museum received as a result of the festivities was a huge boon. Over time, the Hall and Cooperstown would become national and international tourist attractions, drawing more than 300,000 visitors annually.

Sunday afternoon the tradition continues when the Hall celebrates its 75th anniversary with six new members, including former Atlanta Braves aces Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine and Yankees manager Joe Torre. If the weather cooperates, more than 50,000 people could gather for the induction ceremonies at the Clark Sports Center on a huge field on the outskirts of town, a three-hour drive southeast of Rochester.

Yours truly will be there, soaking in what has become the best day of the baseball calendar. I’ve been making pilgrimages to Cooperstown since my father first took me when I was 10. I’ve witnessed the Hall’s growth into a world-class museum that tells the story not only of baseball but of America. Each visit brings with it a new discovery when I browse as many of the 40,000 artifacts as I can.

There are Rochester connections throughout—from the Hall of Fame plaques of former Red Wings Cal Ripken Jr. and Stan Musial, to an 1860 color lithograph of the Live Oak Base Ball Club Polka, to the score sheet from the longest game in baseball history, a 33-inning marathon between the Wings and Pawtucket Red Sox in 1981. I hope to check out the renovated Ruth exhibit, listen to Abbott and Costello’s hilarious “Who’s On First?” video and lay eyes on the No. 1/8th jersey worn by the midget, Eddie Gaedel, in his only major league at-bat with the old St. Louis Browns.

I’ll take a stroll down crowded Main Street past the shops and restaurants, featuring names such as The Seventh Inning Stretch, Batter Up and Extra Innings. I’ll probably stop in at Mickey’s Place, whose window display includes bats and balls and a sign reading: “We have the baseball cards your mother threw out.” I’ll also walk the less crowded side streets, because I love looking at the ancient oak and maple trees and the Victorian-era houses with the rocking chairs and hanging plants on the porches.

It is sure to be a bustling day, a great day for the Hall, which, like many museums, has struggled in recent years. Sadly, a lack of appreciation for history, coupled with rising gas prices, the off-the-beaten path location of Cooperstown and baseball’s challenges appealing to a high-speed-Internet, instant-gratification generation, have resulted in declining attendance. But like a hitter emerging from a slump, the Hall has made a powerful comeback.

The 75th-anniversary celebration—which has featured the opening of the revised Ruth exhibit, a visit by the president and a special birthday celebration—has brought a spike in attendance. And the appeal of this year’s induction class, as well as the upcoming concert featuring Paul Simon and the Boston Pops, should help make this one of the best-attended years in the museum’s history. I plan to do my part.

Some flock to Jerusalem or Sedona or the Himalayas in search of spiritual restoration. I head to Cooperstown. At this time of the year, I’m like Susan Sarandon’s character in the movie “Bull Durham.” I worship at the Church of Baseball.

Award-winning sports columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak has been covering induction ceremonies at the Baseball Hall of Fame since 1978.

7/18/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.



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