September 22, 2017

Cooperstown Rediscovered

February 21, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

For a young boy who loves baseball, there is no cooler place to grow up than near Cooperstown, N.Y., the home of baseball. My family spent many summer weekends boating on Otsego Lake and taking in the Norman Rockwell-like atmosphere of a village that lives and breathes baseball—just like I did.

If you have a kid who loves baseball, you owe them a pilgrimage to Cooperstown. It’s a journey that could have a lasting impact on both of you.

I remember my dad taking me to the annual Hall of Fame Game in Cooperstown in 1972, giving me a chance to see my favorite team, the New York Yankees, battle the Los Angeles Dodgers. I was nine years old, in my second year of Little League and already fantasizing about one day hitting mammoth home runs in the House That Ruth Built. Other times the locale was Wrigley Field, and I was the center fielder reaching over the ivy-covered fence to save the game in the ninth inning.

Standing outside the clubhouse at famed Doubleday Field before the Hall of Fame Game, I clutched the commemorative program in my hands. I was close enough to touch my idols—Thurman Munson, Bobby Murcer, Sparky Lyle, Roy White—but was too mesmerized to ask them for their autograph as they walked past me.

For me, sitting in the Doubleday Field bleachers with an intimate crowd of 10,000 people was enough of a thrill. Surely the players understood they were playing on hallowed ground, a few hundred yards from the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. The place where Ruth and Gehrig and Cobb and Mantle and Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown were enshrined for all posterity. The place that had in its possession hundreds of thousands of old baseball cards, which put my beginner’s collection to shame.

Our visit to Cooperstown that day helped cement my lifelong love for the game. My dad was giving me the opportunity to see big-league baseball players perform in the very place where the sport got its start.

More history was made in the game, as Yankee second baseman Bernie Allen—he of the lifetime .239 batting average—slugged three home runs to become the first player to hit more than two home runs in the Hall of Fame Game. I didn’t even care that the game was largely played by backups and minor leaguers, who treated it as the exhibition game it was. Although I didn’t want my team to lose, I was rooting for the game to go into extra innings so I could soak up more action. No such luck, but I was still excited that the Yankees came away with a victory that day.

When we later returned to Cooperstown and parked at the Doubleday Field lot, I remember standing and staring over at the field, trying to recapture what it felt like to watch real baseball players pitch and hit and throw and run around the bases. I know the exhilarating feeling made me want to keep coming back to Cooperstown again and again. I’m sure I bugged my dad to play more toss and catch with me, too.

As I grew older, the trips to Cooperstown came less frequently and after college I moved away to Indiana. Nearly 20 years went by. And then an important milestone happened in 2003—my son, Brandon, reached the age to start playing T-ball. Since my parents still lived near Cooperstown, I thought it would be the perfect place to visit to teach him a little about the history of the game.

Talk about a formative moment in a person’s life. Brandon, who was five years old at the time, knew Derek Jeter’s uniform number and that’s about where his baseball knowledge began and ended.  Our trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame that year opened his eyes to all the great players who have played the game and all the great moments that have left an impression on fans of all ages.

When Brandon asked me that day who is the greatest baseball player of all time, I took him to the Babe Ruth room. I pointed out the bat and ball used for his last home run, the silver cigar box he autographed, the bat he used to hit three home runs in Game 4 of the 1926 World Series, the letter of encouragement he wrote to a young polio patient at the Boston Children’s Hospital. “Babe Ruth was larger than life,” I told him. “Babe Ruth was hitting 54 home runs in 1920 when no one else was hitting 20. He was the greatest player ever.”

Sure it was just my opinion, but it left a lasting impression on my son. Not long afterward, I overheard Brandon telling a friend that Babe Ruth was the best baseball player ever, because he hit more home runs than anyone. Someday, he’ll have his own answer at the ready when his son asks the same question. Each trip we take to Cooperstown will give him more insight to formulate that answer.

I realize now that I spent too many years away from Cooperstown, and have come to believe there is something almost mystical about the place. So we now make two or three trips each year to Cooperstown, which remains the quaint village I remember from my youth. The few streets are still lined with beautifully restored Victorian houses and shops filled with baseball memorabilia. Otsego Lake still “glimmers like glass,” just like James Fenimore Cooper described it. My wife and daughter aren’t big baseball fans, but they love other things about the village.

Brandon now knows who Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio and Cy Young are, although his friends look on with puzzlement when he starts talking about Bill Wambsganss’ unassisted triple play in the 1920 World Series.

One of my prized possessions is a picture of Brandon, my dad and I posing with Hank Aaron, who we found wandering down Main Street in Cooperstown during Induction Weekend in 2004. He didn’t have an entourage and he was extremely gracious to us. What a thrill and lasting memory for the three of us!

Baseball is still alive in Cooperstown, in the streets and the shops and the people, and most assuredly, in the Museum. When I took Brandon through the Hall of Fame Museum for the first time, I know he didn’t grasp the significance of everything he saw. The cap worn by Jackie Robinson in the 1955 World Series. Cal Ripken’s jersey during his final game. Joe DiMaggio’s uniform hanging up in his old locker. These were just objects to him until I filled in the details about their importance.

As Brandon grows older, I know he and I will always share a strong connection through baseball. We will debate the merits of the latest Yankee trade and marvel over the week’s best defensive gems on ESPN. And as long as my knees hold up, I’ll keep squatting down to be his catcher as he practices his changeup.

When dads play toss and catch with their sons, they are engaging in a time-honored tradition. You might even say the physical act of throwing the ball somehow symbolizes passing on the dream to the next generation. That’s why there’s nothing quite like playing toss and catch with your son in Cooper Park outside the Hall of Fame. Every time he catches the ball he can look over and see where the legends of the game are immortalized. While you’re at it, make sure he poses for a picture with the statues of Johnny Podres pitching to Roy Campanella—he can pretend he’s the batter standing in there for the 3-2 pitch in Game 7 of the 1955 World Series.

The Baseball Hall of Fame got it right when it came up with its latest marketing slogan: “Preserving History. Honoring Excellence. Connecting Generations.” The sport has certainly formed a connection between three generations of my family. In fact, my mom is the latest convert. She’s the one now who prods my dad to drive over to Cooperstown all the time, and she rarely misses watching a Yankees game on TV—seems she adores Derek Jeter just as much as my son does. When I was growing up, she only watched a game if I was playing in it. I bought both my parents gift memberships to the Hall of Fame and they were thrilled by it.

I never stopped being a baseball fan, but it took a trip to Cooperstown to rekindle the love I had for the game—a love that started with a glove and a ball and a dad. I was able to return the favor to my dad by taking him to the 2007 Hall of Fame Game between the Orioles and Blue Jays. We had the best time, especially watching the home run contest. It was one of the more meaningful birthday gifts I have ever given him, just a small thank you for turning me on to America’s Pastime.

It doesn’t matter whether baseball was invented in Cooperstown, and the evidence suggests it wasn’t. The game and all its history lives on there. Take a pilgrimage to Cooperstown, play toss and catch with your son in the lawn outside the Hall of Fame Museum and think of your own answer when he asks, “Who’s the greatest baseball player of all time?”

As for the Jensen men, the three of us are headed to Cooperstown for this year’s Hall of Fame Classic game, scheduled for Father’s Day. It’s gonna be a good time!

Chris Jensen is a baseball writer and SABR member from Indiana who has also been a member of the Hall of Fame since 2005. He frequently reminds his son that the Yankees stunk through most of his childhood—his son doesn’t believe him. And don’t get him started on the fact this year’s HOF inductee, Andre Dawson, has a lower career OPS+ than his boyhood hero, Roy White.

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