COOPERSTOWN–Baseball intoxication. That’s what it is when you walk through the door of 25 Main Street. The first thing you see is a gigantic painting of Cy Young, the winningest baseball pitcher of all-time. It’s like a welcome sign in the lobby as you step from the real life of the street and retreat into the storied history of the National Pastime.
It’s a little bit like the scene in “Field of Dreams” when the ghosts of players past vanish into the Iowa cornfield. Once you walk into the Hall of Fame you step into another world that glorifies the past, explains it, and makes you forget, or at least ignore, all that takes place outside of these brick walls.
Suddenly, you have inhaled a magic potion that drunkens the senses in a slight, but mesmerizing manner. Hall officials must pump something tthrough the air conditioning units that anesthetize the brain in a gentle way, a Ray Bradbury science fiction treatment like Dandelion Wine. In this building you have entered the carnival of baseball where the improbable came true and the impossible occasionally took command.
Baseball has often been described as having a romance about it and nowhere is the tug of innocent love stronger than in Cooperstown, the upstate New York village where the Hall of Fame is headquartered. The greats of the past come alive in so many ways as a visitor wanders. History, instuction, and fancy all mingle.
There are exhibits in the Hall that I find spell-binding, even if I have seen them many times before. I always pause at the Cy Young painting. It is basically life-sized. How amazing would it have been to see him capture one of his 511 victories. That would be on my time machine wish list.
In one corner of the Hall reside two phenomenally detailed statues, one of Babe Ruth, one of Ted Williams, incredibly each carved from a single block of wood by Armand LaMontagne of Rhode Island. There are no other substances in the statue. Even the shoelaces, belt buckles, you name it, are cut from that chunk of wood.
The hall of the Hall is a central point. This is where each of the plaques hang on the walls representing each member, nearly 300 in all right now. The plaques are simple in their way, with only a few lines written under the visage of each Hall of Famer, but powerful in their uniqueness and what they symbolize.
If you are in the Baseball Hall of Fame, you are characterized as one of the greats of the game. The Hall of Fame is meticulous in not rating its members. Sure, everyone knows that there is a creme de la creme. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and a handful of others reign supreme in the public mind, but everyone is equal under this roof. All of the individual plaques are the same size, made of the same material, hung in the same way.
Although they are protected behind glass, to me the artifacts that belonged to the greats who played a century or more ago is what makes it feel as if you can reach out and touch history. There is Lou Gehrig’s uniform. There is Johnny Evers’ bat, with the tape still around the handle, no doubt where he choked up.
They used to call baseball uniforms flannels and that’s because they were made of flannel. It’s difficult to imagine how hot it was playing in those outfits. Likewise, it is hard to figure out how the best fielders of the olden days ever caught anything hit their way because their gloves were so tiny compared to the leather mitts players use today.
Less frequently visited is the Bart Giamatti Research Center, aka the library. This corner of the Hall is less for the average fan and more for the aficionado with a purpose. Visits there are by appointment, but there is a treasure trove of material filed away about every single player who ever spent a moment in the majors. In all, the library houses about 17,000 files.
The Hall of Fame is not in the memorabilia business. It does not bid for items in auctions. It does not buy items. Everything on display and everything in the catacombs has been donated. Even in the news files, however, a reader may stumble across a personal oddity that helps make a player come to life.
Copies of signed personal letters are mixed in with clippings about players’ playing days. One thing you can tell–even from a photocopied signature–is whether or not guys had good penmanship. Yes, Tyrus Raymond Cobb did.