A Journey through Cooperstown

In the 2011 film ‘Moneyball’, the movie begins with the following Mickey Mantle quote:

“It’s unbelievable what you don’t know about a game you’ve played all your life”

It’s with that in mind that my comrade Brett Guido and I recently journeyed to Cooperstown, NY. Our agenda was to visit the ghosts of baseball and take in the game’s cherished history: a history that is safely kept inside the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

When we arrived from Philadelphia after a few hours in the car, we were surprised by how small Cooperstown was. It’s a small lake town loaded with Americana charm and a sprawling number of colonial style homes.

With a population of 1,800 it’s basically the size of Parkston, Freeman, or Canton, South Dakota.

As we made our initial drive down main street, we found the Baseball Hall of Fame on our right, directly across the street from the Cooperstown Post Office:

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There are no chain Applebees in the Cooperstown city limits. There’s no Target, no Outback Steakhouse, and unfortunately for us: no Metropolitan Grill (we tried to get reservations and looked up the location–it doesn’t exist). Cooperstown is just good ‘ol locally-owned mom and pop hospitality.

After checking into our hotel–which was literally one block away from the Museum, we didn’t waste much time heading over.  We may have drank a Coors Light first.

We purchased tickets and entered. From there our baseball journey began as we were greeted by statues of Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, and Roberto Clemente:

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Next to them is an inscription titled ‘Character and Courage’:

“Becoming a Hall of Famer takes more than just a great baseball career. Off-the-field challenges–and how those challenges are met–reveal an inner character that serves men and women throughout their lives. The life experiences of Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, and Roberto Clemente stand out above all. Each faced personal and social obstacles with strength and dignity that set an example of character and courage for all others to follow.”

They all started off playing a boys game: not only unbelievably skilled enough to make it to the big leagues, but skilled enough to flourish. The grit to play through pain. Play through mental aches.

Or in the case of Robinson: play through racial turmoil and hatred and bigotry beyond our comprehension. But instead of spitting and fighting back, Jackie Robinson used the hatred and bigotry as a fuel for his game. And with that fuel, lit a fire in his play that no one in the history of baseball has played with before or since. At least not in our modern age, and certainly not anyone who is white. A competitive rage that is far beyond that of the possessed and controlled rage of a Jordan or Jeter or Brady. And it’s safe to say they would likely admit that as well.

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I’d always heard that Pee Wee Reese played a vital role in leading and voicing his acceptance for Robinson to the league and to his Dodger teammates. He was brave enough to stand up and make his acceptance of Robinson known.

It’s wonderful that the Hall notes their character strengths on their plaques in Cooperstown.

It’s 2019, and we still need more guys like Pee Wee Reese:

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Basically any moment you can think of, dating back to the inception of baseball: has been saved, recorded, framed, labeled, noted, verified, stamped, certified, and illuminated forever under spotlights.

You name it:

Lou Gehrig’s personal keychain complete with his house keys, Babe Ruth hand-written postcards, Babe Ruth bats, Pee Wee Reese’s game-worn cleats, Stan Musial’s locker, Hank Aaron’s locker, Joe DiMaggio’s jersey, George Brett’s pine-tar bat, the hats Nolan Ryan wore for all seven of his no-hitters. Floors and floors of every artifact you can think of. It’s truly remarkable and overwhelming at the same time.

Barry Bond’s record-setting 756th home run ball?

That’s there, complete with a branded asterisk courtesy of owner Marc Ecko. Ecko purchased the ball and cut out the asterisk to emphasize “this unforgettable moment in sports history in popular culture”:

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There’s a great photograph of Christy Mathewson that captures what he really looked like in 1910. Staring at this face, I couldn’t help but think of the great moment in the film Dead Poets Society where Robin Williams’ character has his students stop to admire old photographs they have passed thousands of times without stopping to take notice:

“Seize the day! Seize the day, boys!”

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Another photograph that stood out to me was this one of a young Frank Robinson, which defines the sheer strength and physicality of him in uniform. Frank truly must’ve been an intimidating and imposing presence:

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Another highlight for me was seeing the details of the uniforms. More specifically, the labels and tags. This one is hard to see, but it’s easy to note the jersey size:

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What these uniforms did more than anything was bring to life and personify the person who wore it. The names of baseball lore are now seemingly mythical figures in the minds of anyone that loves the game. But seeing these uniforms behind glass allowed one to visualize the person that wore it.

For example: Joe Dimaggio’s jersey was broad from shoulder to shoulder when seeing it up close:

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You can sit in Hank Aarons locker, as well as view each of his home run baseballs leading up to and breaking Babe Ruth’s career home run record.

His game-worn uniform from his historic record breaking home run on April 8, 1974 was upright and stunning:

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When you enter the great hall that bares the plaques of the Lords of Baseball is an essay that includes the question:

Why Cooperstown?

“In 1908, sporting goods magnate A.G. Spalding announced the verdict of a special historical commission that has been formed to determine the origins of baseball: “the first scheme for playing (the game) according to the best evidence obtainable to date, was devised by Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown, NY, in 1839.” In 1935, local philanthropist Stephen C. Clark sought to capitalize in the commission’s findings by building a baseball museum in the games alleged birthplace. With the help of Ford Frick, President of the National League, Clark succeeded. Today, historians agree that Doubleday had nothing to do with baseball’s beginnings, but Cooperstown remains the spiritual home of the National Pastime.”

The overwhelming gratitude of the voices in a :15 minute film available at the beginning of a Hall Of Fame visit sets the tone for an emotional experience. Clips of past and recent Hall Of Fame inductees, including a memorable one from Greg Maddux saying he’s been retired for nearly twenty years, but still thinks about the game in almost every instance of his life. It gave a Field Of Dreams-like feeling, and was at the beginning of the tour.

The game today may not be to our country what it was in, say, 1955. But as I’ve grown older it’s become nothing short of a poetic art form to me. That’s what the Cooperstown visit helped solidify.

Baseball is the closest thing to a time machine we have in our lives, and I’m glad I was finally able to enter it. The ghosts of baseballs past exist: and are all alive and well in Cooperstown, NY.

Enshrined in the Hall Of Fame are the heroes of our fathers fathers fathers. Heroes like Stan Musial: who was the favorite player of a great family friend, the late Bill VanLeur.

 

 

This one’s for Bill:

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Author: Joe Janssen

Born in South Dakota in the late 1900's

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