Why did it take me nearly 43 years to get to Cooperstown? I’m not really sure.
For a while it was because I was a kid, and I don’t think it occurred to me that the Baseball Hall of Fame was somewhere you could actually go, even though I must have read approximately eleventy-billion Baseball Digest stories about it between 1976 and 1981. Perhaps I thought you had to have a special invite, or it was some kind of Valhalla whose gates where undetectable to any but the elect.
Later it was because my peregrinations took me far from New York, and for those years I am excused.
More recently (a once-small period of time that’s somehow grown to 17 years) it’s because I was busy, or had some other lame excuse — among them that though I knew Cooperstown was in New York, I couldn’t quite figure out where in New York it was, other than far away. Between growing up on Long Island and living in Brooklyn, my sense of upstate geography is laughably bad: There are suburbs, and the place cops live, and, uh, Albany, and then Buffalo, and then you’re in Canada. Right?
Well no, not really, but setting out last Friday, I wasn’t much more clued-in than that. (For the record, it was Emily who decided we were going and set things in motion — just as it was Emily who later bought Joshua a shirt with the names of all the Mets inducted into the Hall of Fame and then immediately put tape over ALOMAR. I am not worthy of this woman.)
Where is Cooperstown, anyway? I asked Emily.
It’s near Oneonta, she said.
It’s kind of near Binghamton, she said.
She shook her head and gave up.
For the record, Cooperstown is near Oneonta and is kind of near Binghamton, though it’s also kind of near Albany and Utica and Syracuse and other places that are perfectly well known to people who haven’t been conditioned to think Vesey Street and the St. Lawrence River are more or less at the same latitude. It’s smack in the middle of New York State, on the shores of Otsego Lake, which inspired native son James Fenimore Cooper to wax prolix about Glimmerglass. (Tip: In Cooperstown, do not ask of Cooper, “Isn’t that the writer Mark Twain savaged that time?”)
It is in fact a long drive from New York City to Cooperstown, but a striking one that takes you through rolling hills (and some minor mountains), amazingly fertile-looking farmland and other vistas that will make you reconsider your urban horizons. And it’s a lovely town — quaint would be a good word for it, if that word hadn’t been turned into a pejorative. It’s small and pretty and people are nice there, all of which are things to be envied. And if you’re a baseball fan, well, you’ll wonder why other towns aren’t like this one. Main Street must have the highest number of baseball-card shops per capita in the galaxy; passing by the seventh or eighth, I was mildly bummed that I now only shop for cards digitally and own everything I need. (If some Main Street shop specializes in Al Schmelz cards created from a cache of secret photos, well, the joke’s on me.) And at least half the people you see are wearing baseball garb, happily advertising their allegiances.
The Hall of Fame itself is surprisingly small — it’s across the street from the post office, with about as many parking places as a medium-sized bank in a small town. When it’s time to open, a woman in a satin jacket unlocks doors one by one, taking her time to do so, and when you walk up to the desk the admissions guys pause their long-running conversation and say hi to you. I don’t know what I was expecting — laser beams? satellite lots and shuttle buses? amusement-park queues? — but I’m glad those things were missing.
To folks who aren’t baseball fans, the Hall of Fame must be boring to the point of numbing. There are cases full of faded baseball uniforms, and old vaguely cowpie-looking gloves, and tobacco-colored balls, and thick bats that look like clubs, and semi-mummified shoes. (As well as newer things: white balls, interstellar-looking helmets, shoes in sizes you didn’t know humans wore.) But if you’re a baseball fan, these mundane objects are practically holy relics. Walter Johnson wore that uniform. That glove was on Willie Mays’s hand when he caught Vic Wertz’s drive. It’s pretty fantastic to be in a place where gasping “it’s Ty Cobb’s shoes” is perfectly normal and even praiseworthy behavior.
The Mets are a presence — Tom Seaver’s glove and spikes, ’69 and ’86 World Series rings, and random things such as an Al Shirley baseball card amid a slew of random issues. (“Al Shirley is in the Hall of Fame!” I tweeted somewhat meanly.) And you’ll find other unexpected bits of Metsiness, none more startling than the top Eric Bruntlett was wearing when he turned that game-ending triple play against us. (The video plays, somewhat cruelly, on a loop over one of Bruntlett’s shoulders.) Sadly, the most-notable item in the locker full of contemporary Mets stuff (every team has one) is a T@m G!@vin# uniform. I turned away from that one in disgust, refusing to even snap it with my phone.
Then there are the plaques, of course — they occupy the center of the building, in niches and nooks. This is where you linger, and tell your kids stories, and reach out to rub the names and faces of the greats. It’s interesting to see which players’ features have been rubbed shiny by excited or respectful hands, and which ones are still dark. There’s an odd power to the fact that each player’s biography and accomplishments are boiled down to to one paragraph — I say odd because every Hall of Famer is a generation worth of feats and reputation, and that single paragraph should feel like short shrift. Somehow it’s the opposite: What’s written suggests much more, like the visible part of an iceberg hints at what’s below.
Joshua and I strolled among the plaques for a good hour or so. He wanted his picture taken with the Negro Leaguers he knows from We Are the Ship, a request I happily indulged; I pointed out the Hall of Famers who’d been Mets, took tons of snapshots, and alternated between respectful nods (Ruth, Lajoie, Wee Willie Keeler, Jimmy Foxx, Cobb, Mantle), affectionate rubs (Gehrig, Aaron, Walter Johnson, Gary Carter, Gwynn, Brett, Bill Veeck, Mays, Satchel) and moments of contemplation (Seaver, Mathewson, Teddy Ballgame, John McGraw, Casey, Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson).
As with the rest of the Hall of Fame, the plaque gallery is human-sized and friendly rather than awe-inspiring. Which is nice, and better at forging a sense of connection that something larger and grander would have been. Plus I was making my own connections. I was listening to the Mets and the Braves as I strolled (if you can’t do that here, where can you?) and Kirk Nieuwenhuis collected his first big-league hit as I directed Joshua’s gaze to Carlton Fisk’s plaque. If you’re thinking that must have been nice, yes it was. The game goes on, an endless ribbon of small milestones to be enjoyed and remembered, and that was the perfect place to mark that little moment.
Cooperstown isn’t where baseball was invented, of course — that was ancient Egypt, or England, or innumerable town squares and farm fields, or all of the above. The Abner Doubleday story is laughable, a grab at glory made when the game was still raw and rough and slightly disreputable, and the Hall of Fame wisely mentions it in passing with the curatorial equivalent of an averted gaze. But Cooperstown sure as heck feels like where baseball — or at least the Ken Burnsian ideal of it we exalt in our heads — could have been invented. The day after our Hall of Fame visit, Joshua and his grandfather and I strolled over to a little park next to the Hall, so he could practice his fielding and throwing and hitting before Little League starts. Yep, three generations with a bat and a ball and gloves — we were our own Norman Rockwell painting, and happy to be it.
After a while I started to find my groove in terms of pitches over the plate and Joshua started to hit with authority, and for a moment I was worried my kid might break a window in the Hall of Fame, and then I kind of hoped he would. (I mean, c’mon — how mad could they really be?) We were a little too far away for that, but if you’re thinking that must have been nice, yes it was. The game goes on, an endless ribbon of small milestones to be enjoyed and remembered, and that was the perfect place to mark that little moment.