The Hall of Legends
Cooperstown is a small, rural village in upstate New York, just South of Utica. The rolling hills and well-ordered farms, that surround the town, might just as easily be found in Kansas or Iowa. The turquoise blue of Lake Otesaga frames a portrait of well-ordered plenty and a visage of Americana from another age. James Fennimore Cooper, author of the “Leather Stocking” sagas, spent much of his life in the region.
It is fitting then that within the confines of this quaint village can be found a truly American Shrine, the Baseball Hall of Fame. It sits on the far end of the two blocks of picturesque 19th century era buildings that line Main Street. It lies just next to the green expanse of Cooper park with the sitting bronze statue of James Fennimore Cooper. There are no glittery portals or neon signs that trumpet the magic within the building, just a well-appointed two-story brick facade. There is a legend etched in stone, above the entrance, that reads “Baseball Hall of Fame.”
As you enter this uniquely Can/American Shrine, the anticipation begins to build. Can any tomb of the pharaohs in ancient Egypt contain more treasures than this, the house that holds the memories of Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle and dozens of other American heroes? We pay out admittance fee, like any smile faced youngster entering a ball park, and walk through the turnstiles. Immediately in front of us, in years past, was an exhibit detailing the batting exploits of Mark McGwire, the new single season home run champ (70). Exhibits featuring Sammy Sosa, who also broke the old record with 65 homers, and Roger Maris (61 homers) who held the record after capturing it from the Bambino (Babe Ruth) in 1961, are next to McGwire. We eye the bats, balls and uniforms, sultans of swat, who were voted into that years Hall of Fame Class.
In the early years of the thirties, I can read, and almost hear in my mind’s ear, the musical medley of the great double play combination of “Tinkers to Evers to Chance.” Tinkers and Evers were admitted to the Hall of Fame in one year, Chance in the year before them. The unbroken line of champions proceeds solemnly through the decades. Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Walter Johnson, Mickey Mantle, Duke Snyder, and dozens of other American Heroes call out to be noticed. The young boys and girls, and some not so young, stand quietly in rapt attention as they look upon names passed on to them from fathers and Grand Fathers. These men have been talked about at countless thousands of dinner tables throughout the nation, in the decades- long before.
Next to the displays, through a simple portal that reads “Library” sits an even grander display. The sunlight, from the two-story window at the end of the chamber, highlights the burnished-brown and coppery glint of many engraved plaques that line the wall in small alcoves of polished wood paneling. Above each of the alcoves, like a silent numerical tolling of the angelus, reads the simple inscription of the years 1936 through 2021. In each grouping, are the names and brief statistical data for those mighty warrior’s shrine, the baseball hall of fame. We are changed somehow visiting here. We have walked amidst the giants of legend and been inspired by the record and the courage of their exploits. The bronzed plaques shine outwardly with a small facial resemblance of the mighty champions. The power of their deeds and the magic of their names is undiminished even in death and the passage of many years. The chanted magic of the great baseball legend “Casey at the Bat” still thrills legions of the young acolytes who swing that heavy ashen bat on a sunny summer afternoon.
The aura of the chamber is hushed, like a church just after the service has ended and only a few of the faithful have remained with their thoughts in quiet contemplation. The memories of the many pilgrims who have trekked here from the far-flung corners of the nation are etched upon their faces. A bemused smile on this face or that one tells a million tales of a boyhood long passed and the happy memories that this quintessentially American game helped engender.
From the Hall of Heroes, we proceed through the museum slowly, trying to drink in the many memories on display. The pride of Jackie Robinson, the first Afro-American in the major leagues, is evident on the handsome and determined face of this capable warrior. He is a hero to all of America and the pride of the thousands of great athletes who slugged it out in the obscurity of the colored leagues. Satchell Paige, that monument to ageless ability, is featured there too for all to admire the enduring nature of the game. The women’s league, popularized in the movie “A League of their own,” looks out at us from a section of the wall. These courageous women, skilled athletes all, pioneered the way for generations of talented female athletes that now grace and compliment all of American Sport.
Soon, our eyes are glazed over from the many names and uniforms and memories depicted in the well-ordered exhibits of the three floors of this magical place. A facsimile of Ebbits Field blazes from a time when the “Dodgers” were the pride of Brooklyn. The mighty Yankees, in their pinstripes, Baseball’s royalty even now, are a portrait in themselves of America’s champions.
World Series rings, colorful triangular pennants, odd looking older uniforms and walls full of memorabilia compete for our attention. There are baseball cards, from a time when they came in bubble gum packages, and album covers of songs like “take me out to the ball game.” A whole mythology of statistics and records and accomplishments spins before us in a kaleidoscope of Americana. It is the collective consciousness of millions of America’s youths past and present, who can recite at will the numbers of runs batted in, homers hit, runs earned and innings pitched by the entire legion of super heroes on display.
As we make the final turn into the gift shop area, my head spins with the weight of memories that I have felt and experienced. Phrases like ”You’re out!,” “Play Ball!,” “throw the bum out” all reverberate in my mind’s ear. I feel both numb and exhilarated. We buy some souvenirs in the well-stocked gift shop and reluctantly make our way through the exit and out onto the street. It is like stepping through the glass in an “Alice in Wonderland” fable. The streets are the same. The quaint late 19th century structures look as they have for a century. Traffic flows and other pilgrims walk by and around us. But, we are different. We have been to America, like explorers inspecting the treasures of Tutankhamen in Egypt. Only these are artifacts similar to those that we had all handled in our youth. I can remember the smooth and weighty feel of an ash bat, perhaps a Louisville slugger. I can feel the white leather ball with red stitching that the fingers could turn in flight to make a pitch a slider, curve or sinker. I can feel the close and comfortable fit of the awkward leather glove, with the webbed fingers and reinforced pocket, that had grown smooth from the impact of a thousand baseballs sliding up against it. These are treasures and well-remembered implements of my youth. The sight of them conjures up a thousand long ago summer afternoons spent playing on a dusty brown surface, with a green-grass diamond and a pitching mound at its center. The loud crack of the bat and the excited chatter of team mates and spectators even now resonates within my mind’s remembered ear. All this and more race through my mind as I admire the glass encased trophies in front of me.
Even now, as I sit here remembering our visit, my mind’s ear can hear the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd, “Batter up!” “Play Ball!” They are the sounds of a much beloved and remembered America, the grace and agility of youth, the endless, sunny summer days and the yearning to hit one out of the park. Not everyone will get the chance to visit Cooperstown, this well-ordered village in upstate New York. But, if they close their mind’s eye, they can call forth the legend every time they see a young boy or girl playing baseball on a summer’s day. “Swing batter, swing” and let the eagles fly. And, maybe someday, one of these fair young faces will shine through the copper glimmer of a small plaque in a paneled alcove, in a shrine to baseball in Cooperstown, New York. And, we and the nation will be richer because of it.
Joseph Xavier Martin