A Hall of a trip to Cooperstown

By Danny Gallagher
Canadian Baseball Network

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – Driving toward this simplistic, serene town passing small hamlets along the way reminded my wife and I of driving into my hometown of Douglas, Ont. Northwest of Ottawa.

Grassy fields, cattle grazing on pasture, large, round bales of hay and rows and rows of corn. Like near Douglas, secondary country roads are narrow and speed limits are lower. There is even a McDonald’s attached to a country store out in the middle of nowhere not far from here.

In upstate New York on Highway 28 north located off I-90, you pass through hamlets like Mohawk, Richilieu Springs and Exeter before you hit Cooperstown. Like the Bonnechere River in Douglas, we pass by beautiful Schuyler Lake. If you don’t watch closely, you might miss Exit 30 that takes you toward a toll booth and Hgh No. 28 and eventually Cooperstown.

Heading west on I-90, there is a sign saying Cooperstown but heading east on I-90, there is no mention of Cooperstown, just Herkimer. So on our first try to Cooperstown, we got bottled up and had to turn around and take another swing at it.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, the municipality of Cooperstown, the town’s Chamber of Commerce and the state of New York might want to combine forces and erect billboards on I-90, mentioning that the fabled hall is up the road and that you take Exit 30. On the other hand, getting there on your own is a journey nicely done.

“There are no billboards on the thruway announcing the Hall of Fame. That’s one of the charms of Cooperstown -- you really have to find your way to this pastoral little town in upstate N.Y.,’’ said Matt Kelly, a communications specialist for the hall. “In some sense it can feel like an accomplishment to out-of-state visitors that they’ve found their way there.’’

So true.

Anyway, we reach Cooperstown, we head downtown to Main St, which is chock full of baseball memorabilia shops, two bookstores and of course, the 60,000 square foot hall of fame museum which includes umpteen exhibits and over 39,000 artifacts that will keep you looking for hours.

Just reading the plaques of the more than inductees is a treasure and would take hours. The story behind the plaques tells us that Matthews International of Pittsburgh has the exclusive contract since 1983 of producing the plaques. From the original clay to the final touch-ups, Matthews has it all good.

“The feedback we get from visitors on their favorite parts of the Museum are certainly wide-ranging, but perhaps the most popular spots are the plaque gallery and the Today’s Game exhibit,’’ Kelly said. “The hall of Fame and museum is really three things in one: a Hall of Fame, a historical museum and an educational institution. The plaque gallery is truly the ‘Hall of Fame’, featuring 310 plaques that tell the story of the men and women who have shaped the history of baseball. Many will tell us that the gallery is sort of like a ‘cathedral’ for them -- we’ve even had folks do weddings there.

“And I think the coolest part is that our returning Hall of Famers are still in awe when they come into the gallery. When Hank Aaron takes time to look up and read a plaque and says, ‘That’s cool,’ you know it’s cool.’’

We were especially interested in seeing the plaques of Expo greats Gary Carter and Andre Dawson and Blue Jay icons Roberto Alomar and Pat Gillick. Then we went looking for the plaque of Ferguson Jenkins, the Chatham, Ont. native, who is the only Canadian with a plaque in the hall.

On top of the plaque paying tribute to Gillick, the museum also pays homage to him in a display case that zeroes in on the importance of scouts and how much they meant to him.

“As baseball executive and future Hall of Famer Pat Gillick rose through the ranks, the former scout kept in mind the value his colleagues brought to a franchise,’’ the notation read. “As the general manager of the new Toronto Blue Jays, Gillick emphasized scouting to build World Series winners in 1992 and 1993. He successfully repeated his scouts-oriented focus in Baltimore and Seattle, then again when he brought another World Series victory to Philadelphia in 2008.’’

We were disappointed that the Expos have no exhibit of their own, not surprisingly since they no longer exist, although I was told the museum is undergoing changes and the deceased franchise may get some attention down the road. Each of the current 30 teams have their display. Actually, the Blue Jays have at least two displays that I saw, one of which is in Today’s Game collection.

“Today’s Game features 30 lockers -- one for each team -- that contain artifacts from today’s current stars. Obviously, for an Angels’ fan to watch last month’s all-star game and then come to Cooperstown and see his bat from that game on display is a big kick for them,’’ Kelly said. “We get fans from every corner of the country, including lots of Blue Jays and Expos fans. And everyone is represented in that room. Today’s Game shows that history is still very much connected to the current iteration of the game.

“If you went in a time machine and landed in Hoboken, N.J. for example, in 1855, you would see gentleman playing a game in the fields that you could instantly recognize as baseball. So today’s stars are playing the same game and simply passing along the torch.’’ 

In the Viva Baseball section which explores the Caribbean Basin celebration of Passion, Flair and Joy in the Game, we see Nicaraguan-born Expo Dennis Martinez’s uniform top donated by the Expos in honour of his perfect game July 28, 1991. Martinez was the first Latino pitcher to throw a perfect game A deft, classy touch is an accompanying ticket from that game donated by a chap by the name of Philip Lingren.

As we move along, we notice a citation that indicates former Expo coach Ozzie Virgil was the first Dominican Republic native to play in the majors. How’s that for trivia?

What was remarkable was the huge exhibit space accorded Aaron. Chasing the Dream is the name behind the display adorning the walls. He finished with 755 lifetime homers. Look at photos of him as a minor-leaguer and in his major-league run. When 49 previous inductees were introduced July 26 prior to the enshrinement of Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Craig Biggio and John Smoltz, the majestic Aaron received the longest ovation. Quite fitting. Not forgotten in the Aaron display is his philanthropic deeds.

Also stunning is the display space given the Bambino Babe Ruth, who held the home run record of 714 until Hammerin’ Hank passed him. The love all of us have for that No. 3 in pinstripes will never wane, will it? You can watch video of him and listen to him talk. Remarkable stuff, all stunning, this video and audio from yesteryear. Enough to give you goose bumps.

Even betting man Pete Rose is granted space in the museum because he’s the all-time hits leader at 4,256. Nice to see. Actually, I was surprised, considering Charlie Hustle has been banned from hall of fame media voting since his betting woes were exposed and after he was issued a lifetime ban by Major League Baseball. There is a photo of him in his mop of shaggy hair waving after he broke Ty Cobb’s long standing record of 4,191 hits. Bet he wishes he had all of that hair now instead of a receding hairline.

I noticed three life-sized statues together in one section called Character and Courage. I moved in closer and recognized the sculptured faces of Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente. Hey, for baseball fanatics like me, this is all wonderful. The sculptor is Stanley Bleifeld.

Gehrig was the son of German immigrants, who became a Yankee superstar until he was felled in 1941 by a disease that bears his name today. Robinson, the son of a sharecropper, was the first black player in the majors in 1947 after spending the 1946 season in Triple-A with the Montreal Royals. Clemente, born to farm workers in Puerto Rico, shone not just on the field but off the field. He was killed in a plane crash in 1972 while delivering relief goods to earthquake-stricken Nicaragua.

Your fix for old ballparks is met, too, in a section called Sacred Ground. Autumn Glory looks at the playoffs and World Series. One for the Books explores baseball’s records and the stories behind them. Pride and Passion: the African-American Baseball Experience gives you insight into some of the superstars but also gives credit to little-known stars. Taking the Field: the 19th Century needs no explanation. You will even see the oldest known baseball jersey.

A grim reminder of how cold and racist baseball and society were years ago is met head on when you run across a door that says Colored Only.

Don’t forget Scribes and Mikemen of the Game. Pictures and bios of both Dave Van Horne former voice of the Montreal Expos and now the Florida Marlins, and the late Tom Cheek, former Blue Jays voice can be seen as both are former winner of the Ford C. Frick award.

Toronto Sun baseball columnist and Canadian Baseball Network curator Bob Elliott is also in this section as a J.G. Taylor Spink award winner for meritorious service to baseball writing. His photo and bio can be seen. He’s the first Canadian Spink winner and it may be awhile before anyone else gains such an honour.

Visit the Grandstand Theatre for The Baseball Experience which comprises a 13-minute digital multi-media presentation. Who’s on First will allow you to see rings and other artifacts from championship teams over the years.  Another group unforgotten can be seen in Diamonds Dreams: Women in Baseball.

Before you leave the premises, don’t forget to check out the Cooperstown Room, Doubleday Field, the Bart Giamatti Research Centre and the museum bookstore, not to mention the gift shop where you can purchase mementoes such as stickers and postcards. So much to see and hear in this most wonderful of sports shrines.

If you have a quenching thirst for purchasing antique photos of your favorite player from yesteryear, the hall people will look after you with a dizzying array of some 250,000 photos that document more than 150 years of baseball history. The images show subjects as individuals, interacting in groups and posed for team portraits. The collection is built entirely through donations – which is quite commendable. $25 plus $6.95 for shipping gets you an inexpensive 8-by-10 photo.

One such photo caught my attention: one of Ruth and Gehrig posed with members of California’s Fresno Athletic Club on a barnstorming tour following the 1927 World Series. You will be surprised at the most popular photo that is ordered.

“Our most popular is the famous photograph of Jackie Robinson entering the Dodgers’ locker room,’’ said photo archivist Jenny Ambrose. “This photograph is also currently on display in our Picturing America’s Pastime exhibition.’’

The photo shows Robinson in a Montreal uniform opening the door to the Dodgers’ clubhouse on the day Brooklyn and GM Branch Rickey purchased his contract April 10, 1947, making him the first black in modern history to join a major-league club. The keepsake photo was snapped by William C. Greene and was donated to the hall by the New York World-Telegram.

“There is no extra charge for shipping to Canada,’’ Ambrose said. “We do try to keep our prices reasonable. We consider this part of the way we provide additional access to photographs held in trust by us for the public. We love to have images from our collection given as gifts or displayed in the homes of baseball fans.

“About a fifth of our rights and reproductions business comes from personal orders. Our photographs are also widely used by authors, publishers, documentary film makers, the media and professional baseball clubs in books, magazines, film, online publications, web sites and social media venues.’’

The hall of fame is a non-profit organization run by president Jeff Idelson and a host of others, including Jane Forbes Clark, the widely respected chairman of the board of directors. So if you haven’t been there, it’s a must-see place, especially on induction weekend like I did last month.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is located at 25 Main St. in Cooperstown.  It’s open each day from 9 a.m.-9 p.m. through Sept. 6. From September to May, the hours are 9-5. Admission is $23 for adults, $15 for seniors and $12 for veterans and children.

Danny Gallagher1 Comment