Poet Donald Hall wrote in his essay Fathers Playing Catch With Sons that “baseball is continuous, like nothing else among American things, an endless game of repeated summers, joining the long generations of all the fathers and all the sons.”
In 1984, around the time Hall wrote those words, my parents took me to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. For a baseball-obsessed kid, seeing the artifacts of players I had only read about in books was a little slice of heaven.
This summer, I made another pilgrimage to the 81-year-old brick edifice located just blocks from the shore of Otsego Lake, about a four-hour drive northwest of New York City. With my baseball-obsessed 9-year-old son.
My connection to baseball is a bit eccentric. Since the middle of high school, I have not been a particularly active fan, so I have added relatively little current baseball knowledge to my brain over the past three decades, filling it instead with the political trivia I’ve accumulated as a professional journalist. But I haven’t forgotten the old stuff — the tales and statistics of players of the 1800s, the 1920s and the 1950s, eras I experienced vicariously, and in great depth, as a bookwormish kid.
That’s a lot of what’s showcased at the hall, so I was eager to share it with my son.
Cooperstown has 2,400 year-round residents, a charming main street, a picturesque lakefront and several highly rated museums beyond the hall (notably the Fenimore Art Museum and the Farmers’ Museum). The farm-lined drive up from Oneonta offers a window onto America’s agrarian past. Indeed, this lightly populated corridor of upstate New York was one of the reasons why the idea of baseball and Cooperstown became so resonant — never mind that the story of the sport’s supposed founding, by Cooperstown resident and Union general Abner Doubleday, has entirely fallen apart.
As historians confirmed in the late 20th century, the standardization of baseball’s rules owes more to the big city than the country. And for more than 150 years, major league baseball has thrived in the nation’s biggest urban areas. But like so many aspects of this myth-infused sport, the idea that the hall is anchored in the slower, daily rhythms of small-town America makes some poetic sense.
Baseball may be a game, but the hall is a repository of history, overseen by historians, so the exhibitions linger on both serious and lighter themes throughout three winding floors of displays.
Since I last visited three decades ago, the hall has upgraded its offerings on the preintegration Negro Leagues, and also on the history of Latinos in the sport, both those who played in Latin American leagues and those who made it to the majors. Meanwhile, the exhibit on women in baseball was much richer than I had expected.
On the lighter side, the hall revels in the sport’s role in pop culture. A section on baseball in the movies features uniforms from The Bad News Bears, the New York Knights team from The Natural and the Rockford Peaches from A League of Their Own. A full showing of the classic Abbott and Costello routine “Who’s on First?” proves to be a hit for fans of all ages.
A temporary exhibit pegged to the 25th anniversary of The Simpsons’ landmark episode “Homer at the Bat,” featuring Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs, Ken Griffey Jr., Steve Sax, Ozzie Smith, José Canseco, Don Mattingly, Darryl Strawberry and Mike Scioscia in guest roles, was a winner with my son, who greeted a clip from the show with peals of laughter and eagerly posed for a picture with a man-sized cutout of Homer Simpson.
Exhibits on the 1970s take multiple opportunities to showcase the decade’s absurdity, from the teams’ hideous uniforms to the players’ questionable hairstyles to the odd pursuits such as players’ bubble-gum-blowing contests. At the same time, the 1970s exhibit eloquently illustrates the game’s first all-African-American starting lineup by mounting a 3-by-3 array of baseball cards showing the Pittsburgh Pirates who comprised it.
Smartly, the hall offers kids a scavenger hunt to keep them interested through exhibits that may be less engaging, such as typical equipment from the mid-to-late 1800s (where some of the catcher’s gear calls to mind medieval torture devices) or the room showcasing baseball in art (which features not just artists like Norman Rockwell and LeRoy Neiman, but also more surprising picks including Elaine de Kooning and Alexander Calder). Kids who locate all the answers, as my son did, qualify for a nice prize from the museum store.
My previous visits came during the heyday of Betamax and DOS-based computing, and technologically speaking, the hall has advanced by quantum leaps. The 1970s and 1980s exhibits offer large video screens with well-designed interactivity; you can scroll through a wide variety of clips to watch, including Carlton Fisk waving his homer into fair territory in the 1975 World Series, the Yankees’ Bucky Dent knocking the Red Sox out of contention in a 1978 playoff, footage of the Chicago White Sox wearing shorts for a game (stealing five bases, supposedly without a skinned knee) and the San Diego Chicken clowning on the basepaths.
Another impressive innovation is accessible in the exhibit on all-time records, essentially a paean to obscure and since-surpassed record-holders such as Ned Williamson (the single-season home run champion prior to Babe Ruth) and Sophie Kurys (the stolen base champion of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League). One interactive exhibit allows visitors to surf through all-time and active-player record-holders for a wide variety of statistics on a year-by-year basis, letting fans track the evolution of baseball’s key statistics to their heart’s content.
Exhibits on baseball’s current era offer at least a few peeks at controversial topics. Visitors will notice mentions of the performance-enhancing-drug scandals involving Mark McGwire and others, as well as indications of the supreme influence of money in the game. One exhibit features the agent’s briefing book that led to Alex Rodriguez’s earth-shattering salary deal, while another offers a club-valuation scorecard that shows that the most valuable team in 2000, the Yankees, was worth about the same as the last-ranking team just 15 years later, the Tampa Bay Rays.
The spiritual heart of any visit is a walk through the plaque room. It is baseball’s holiest shrine, and it’s as airy and quiet as any cathedral nave. Baseball fans may come to Cooperstown with deeply held team loyalties, but the plaque room, even more than the rest of the hall, is a demilitarized zone. Here, the sport, not the team, is paid homage.
The plaques are installed in order of induction of each player (or in some cases manager, owner or umpire). Prime locations are reserved for the early classes of inductees, including such luminaries as Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Cy Young. My son had heard of many of these players from the books we’ve read together, though others are more obscure, even to me. (I had literally no memory of Travis Jackson, a New York Giants Hall of Famer from 1922 to 1936.) A careful perusal of the plaques yields nuggets for generations to share and occasionally chuckle over, such as the fact, enshrined in bronze, that Joseph Michael Medwick, a star of the 1920s and 1930s, was known as “Ducky Wucky.”
During my trip, I sought out two experts for some perspective on the significance of the hall to fathers and sons. Jim Gates is director of the Hall of Fame’s library, the nation’s leading repository of baseballiana. He told me that since he has worked at the hall, his son essentially grew up inside the building. “When I think of this place, I think of the time I spent here with my son,” Gates said.
I also visited with William Simons, a professor at the State University of New York’s Oneonta campus, who, along with Gates, directs the Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture. I had communicated with Simons on some baseball research back when I was in high school in the 1980s, and I even wrote a tenure recommendation for him when I was a college student. But this was the first time we had ever met face-to-face.
As we ate dinner, Simons recounted moments he had shared with his own son at the Hall of Fame. The hall, he said, is “a portal to a familial past.” Turning to face my son, he said, “You’ll never forget this. A generation from now, you’ll do the same.”
Contact Louis Jacobson at email@example.com. Follow @loujacobson.