Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Some thoughts on Cooperstown

I visited the Baseball Hall of Fame last week for the first time. I was there ostensibly to work (I was researching Roger Angell's papers in the Bart Giamati Research Center, in the Hall library) but of course I was thrilled to explore the exhibitions on my off hours. But I did so skeptically and with a deep fear of sentimentality—or what the anti-nostalgic Angell himself calls "goo." I discovered that the Hall's physical modesty is its virtue. Because the building housing the Hall is relatively small (history here) there's little room for bombast and for overdoing things. Yes, I cringed at the phrase "Sacred Ground" at the so-named exhibit of ballparks, on the third floor, being able to conjure any number of genuine sacred grounds, spiritual or otherwise, and the central Hall of Fame Gallery is sacramentally back-lit with natural light (a boy to his father, overheard: "Dad, this is like church." The lad wasn't pleased). But overall, the Hall exudes a pleasantly. and surprisingly, lo-fi vibe, as if, hysterical as it is to imagine, the site was hurting for funds. To me, the impression is more of a museum on a fine college campus than an official institution devoted to a $36 billion industry.

This reserve is due in no small part to the anti-sprawl unique to tiny Cooperstown, population 1,852. One afternoon in Cooley's, a bar on Pioneer Street, a few rabid regulars regaled me of Jane Forbes Clark's gobbling up of nearby properties in town, and in the course of the conversation Clark, granddaughter of Hall founder Stephen Carlton Clark and current chairman of the Board of Directors, took on the role of hero-villain.
          "She's a trip," one young woman said, laughing loudly.
          "Well...," the old-timer next to her murmured doubtfully, staring into his beer.

Yet, the village of Cooperstown is pretty much set; it's not going to get any bigger, bordered by modest homes in neighborhoods to the west, south, and east, and tranquil Otsego Lake to the north, and this tucked-into-the-mountains feel is both cozy and a happy guard against civic overreach, a kind of Natural conservatism, apt for a conservative game. The Hall itself has grown over the decades, of course, but barring a Manhattan-style vertical leap, it's unlikely that it will get much larger than it is, and so we have a quaint red-brick building—a nice reflection of the several blocks of low-slung, low-key storefronts along Main—the modest size of which I wasn't quite prepared for when I saw it for the first time, despite the hundreds of images of it I've seen. Inside in the main hall, I gawked at several plaques and, upstairs, dug seeing Mantle's bat, Nolan Ryan's no-hitter hats, and Yogi's glove, a fireworks pinwheel from old Comiskey Park, a rescued metal turnstile form the old Polo Grounds, a cornerstone from Ebbett's Field, a gallery devoted to fabulous baseball photographs, the digitally-generated aerial fly-through of long-gone ballparks, the many video screens highlighting epochal plays and moments, and all the rest, but rarely did the hall feel to me overly-gushy or golden-tinted, especially while encountering thoughtful, candid, and well-stocked exhibits dedicated to the history of African Americans, Latinos, and women in the game ("Pride and Passion," "¡Viva baseball!," and "Diamond Dreams," respectively) and, surprisingly, the frank acknowledgement of the game's business woes and recent PED scandals. And yes, there is an interactive kiosk regarding Pete Rose's banishment from the Hall. Plenty of unexpected sunlight on the game's more troubling aspects.

Hall of Fame Gallery

The Big Hurt's plaque, the first I headed to.

Johnny Podres rears back...

...and lets it fly (to Roy Campanella). Sculpture Garden.

Manual standings board. Main Street.

Luckily, Chris Sale couldn't get to this one.

"Exploding scoreboard" pinwheel from old Comiskey Park.

Cornerstone, rescued in 1960.

Polo Grounds turnstile

An even greater surprise to me was Doubleday Field a few blocks from the hall, tucked off of the side of Main, another opportunity for Field of Dreams, "Hallowed Ground"-style schmaltz that the Hall and town have happily avoided. The field, built in 1920 and renovated a couple times since, is gorgeously cozy and laid-back, and not a little dumpy. One's free to wander in and out. Long, paint-peeling wooden benches, a white church steeple poking up beyond the left field wall, weeds growing through the metal bleachers: heaven. One the day of my first visit, a local Cooperstown team of kids was playing a team from Massachusetts, a smattering of fans, mostly families, out to see. The next day, the place was empty, and I sat and talked to my wife on the phone and watched idly as preparations were being made for that weekend's Induction Ceremonies (which, I acknowledge, I was glad to miss—where does everyone fit in this tiny hamlet?). The humility of Doubleday Field is a nice complement to the Hall itself, and keeps things in perspective, easy to savor watching a field full of kids play ball in a nearly-century old park. Out in the far center field bleachers, a couple of shambling kids had hopped the admission gates and sat watching in the sun, a blissed-out silhouette borrowed from any decade.

The Hall's self-proclaimed mission is to preserve history, honor excellence, and connect generations. I won't use this space to weigh in on the Hall's myriad voting issues—we have the great Jay Jaffe, among others, for those debates—but on the first and last score, the Hall's doing a terrific job. During my visit, I found it virtually impossible to believe that baseball is suffering from dwindling interest among kids. In Cooperstown, kids are everywhere, their enthusiasm and energy matched in the faces, if not in the thicker, road-weary bodies, of their parents. (One amusing thing I noticed was the bright-eyed, slack-jawed look on just about every man, and many women, there; those seeing the Hall for the first time couldn't wipe the childlike looks of joy off their faces; I'm sure I looked the same.) Yes, the Hall of Fame is a self-selecting and small sample size, but if my three-day visit was any indication, there are many, many boys and girls who will stick around the game for years to come. Not every visit was so pleasant. In the middle of Sal's, a pizza place on Main, a boy clutching a newly-bought bat was fighting back tears as his parents and some kind strangers murmured their support. He hadn't played well that day, or anyway his team lost. Cheers of "Get 'em tomorrow, kid!" didn't seem to help much—it never does—and the kid trudged out behind his family, his head down, sniffling. Tough stuff, and timeless.


Unsurprisingly, my visit to the Hall inspired by own fight against sentimentality:
Ultimately the richness and funky pleasures of the game and its crazy, fascinating history outweigh any excess earnestness, for me, anyway. Each minute I was at the National Baseball Hall of Fame I was grateful that the owners haven't decided to pull up roots and move to a sprawling, gleaming, many-acre campus surrounded by miles of parking lots and smelling of millions of dollars. On my second night in town I had a very enjoyable hang with baseball fan, author, and Cooperstown mayor Jeff Katz. Over a couple of rounds we talked about the game, the Hall, the town, and rock and roll. As we said our goodbyes kitty corner from the Hall, near the local public library where Katz had parked, he said, "Look at that," gesturing to the Hall in the late-dusk light. "No other sport has a hall of fame that people talk about and debate 365 days a year." I agreed. Yeah, it's pretty perfect, I said. Though baseball is an enormous business run by men and women whose primary interest always will be to satisfy stockholders and fatten the bottom line, this is a game, also, that brings deep and irrational pleasures, joys, and heartaches to millions. The Hall of Fame in its charming and unassuming way reminded me of that at every turn.

"Sandlot Boy," sculpture outside Doubleday Field.

Main Street, Cooperstown.

Main Street, Cooperstown. Looking west.

No comments: