When the wedding invitation arrived in my email box among all the junk destined for quick erasure, it immediately caught my attention. The daughter of one of our dearest friends from our Houston years was getting married. Even though we hadn’t seen Leah for many years, the opportunity to reconnect with her and her whole family was very attractive. But there was another draw that clinched the deal for us: the wedding venue was Cooperstown, NY. You know what that means: THE BASEBALL HALL OF FAME!
Why Cooperstown? Although her father Max was an ardent baseball fan, imagining all through his childhood that he would one day play second base for his hometown Tigers, the odds were that Leah did not share that passion. It turned out that as a medical student at Columbia, she had accepted a fellowship at a health service in Cooperstown serving low- income clients in the area where her groom-to-be would also be working. Both of them developed a deep attachment to the area, which is, at once, beautiful and racked with the kind of hidden rural poverty that was likely to be invisible to occasional tourists.
I immediately checked the website of the Baseball Hall of Fame and was delighted to discover that they opened at 9 on Sunday morning, which gave us enough margin to schedule a leisurely visit and still be ready for the 4:30 wedding ceremony, even allowing time for a restorative nap in between. I did my best to remember that the real purpose of the trip was the wedding, but I was really excited at the prospect of visiting the shrine to my lifelong love of baseball. So, I bought two tickets online, uncertain about what kind of crowd we would be contending with.
Early Sunday morning, after a horrendous Best Western breakfast, featuring something falsely identified as eggs, we made the four-mile pilgrimage to our destination. The street leading to the building was lined with baseball-themed shops selling things like bats you could have inscribed with your name or memorabilia of questionable origin. Every restaurant and business has a baseball- related name, honoring the major economic engine driving the town, just as everything in Hannibal, Missouri is called The Mark Twain… or The Tom Sawyer…
The building itself was unprepossessing from the outside. It didn’t look large enough to engage us for the 3+ hours we spent there. Much of the first floor is given over to the original purpose of the institution – honoring the players who are voted in every year since the early 70’s. One side of the hall is organized by year of selection, the other side alphabetically. You wouldn’t think a bunch of bronze plaques would be so engaging and evoke so much emotion, but the inscribed names sent us back to our childhood memories of each player. I even knew something about the exploits of honorees who played in an earlier era from my insatiable reading of baseball books in my school library and my local branch of the Brooklyn Public Library.
I have to stop here to honor my wife Rosellen who was as engaged by the museum as I was. Growing up with two older brothers, she was surrounded by baseball from the start. She claims to have known the batting averages of all American League players – the league was smaller then – at some point, and her first long-form writing at age 12 was a “novel” about Mickey Mantle. As we wandered among the plaques, she was as quick as I was to announce “Look, here’s Rollie Fingers with his moustache” or “There’s Minnie Minoso – played for so many decades.”
Each name was not just a tribute to an extremely talented player. It was also an evocation of our childhoods, when baseball reigned supreme as the National Pastime. I’m still glued to my TV watching each playoff contest, despite the fact that I have no skin in the game, since my Cubs tanked in the final weeks of the season. I’m aware that most younger folks have not followed behind. They are put off by baseball’s slow pace and therefore miss all the subtleties of this profoundly complex game.
I came to the museum with the ridiculous assumption that it would consist mostly of cases displaying balls, bats and gloves associated with landmarks in the sports history – Pete Rose’s 3,000th hit, Hank Aaron’s 715th home run, Nolan Ryan’s 7th no hitter – but it was so much more. Recently, a friend had asked a group of us to name our favorite baseball movie. Although I picked The Natural, the consensus winner was Bull Durham, which was a close second for me. The museum had a full exhibit on baseball movies, including a wall chart of the hundreds of movies with baseball themes that have been released since the beginning of the film history.
And speaking of movies, the high moment for both Rosellen and me was a 16-minute movie about the history of the game and its high moments. To enter the theater, you walked up a ramp so reminiscent for me of the ramps you traversed inside Ebbets Field before you arrived at the magical view of the lush outfield grass and the home team adorned in its blinding white uniforms. We were not the only ones who exited with tears clouding our visions.
Throughout the museum there were stunning films and videos – Tim Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants caught toward the end of his pitching delivery which seemed physiologically impossible, and which probably contributed to a premature end to his career; George Brett being restrained from attacking the umpire after his home run was nullified because of excessive pine tar on his bat; the opposing teams posing before the start of a game in 1878.
There were so many other exhibits that erased my original image of dusty display cabinets: tributes to famous announcers and reporters; displays of major league ballparks before their demolition; tributes to women in baseball; the Negro Leagues and the long-delayed integration of the major leagues; the emergence of Latino players, including Roberto Clemente, who are so central to the sport. We worried about whether there would be an honest acknowledgement of the drug scandals that called into question the validity of key record-setting performances, but there it was on the third and final floor of the museum.
At first it felt funny to be doing another museum posting so soon after my piece on The Museum of African American History and Culture. Was this one trivial in comparison? I came away thinking that, on the contrary, so much important history of the civil rights struggles and the integration of Blacks into the mainstream of American culture was represented here in ways that so many of our citizens can understand and celebrate. This was as good a museum experience as any I’ve had, even if it might not be viewed as “significant” as the D.C. temple tribute to Black history.
Oh, yes. And then there was the wedding.