Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Baseball's Creation Myth & How The National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum Arrived in Cooperstown

National Baseball Hall of Fame & MuseumOnce upon the time in America the quaint village of Cooperstown, New York laid claim to the title "The Birthplace of Baseball." As it turned out though that wasn't entirely accurate - or even true at all when you get right down to it - so how could a monumental mistake like that have happened?  Well, as the story goes - in 1907 A.G. Spalding, baseball’s first great pitcher who later co-founded the sporting goods company that still bears his name, decided the game of baseball needed an origin point to prove that it really was an All-American sport born and bred in the good ol' US of A and not just some European stick-and-ball hybrid knock-off though in reality, that's exactly what it was!

Abraham G. Mills - Image Credit

In order to prove his point, Spalding convened the "Mills Commission" - a blue-ribbon committee made up of a group of prominent men with expertise in the game of baseball - to investigate and analyze the origins of America's favorite pastime. Heading the committee and giving it its name was the fourth President of the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs, Abraham G. Mills who, along with six others, didn't take the investigation any further than the word of a 71-year-old mining engineer from Denver, Colorado named Abner Graves who told a story about how Abner Doubleday was the man responsible for improving on a local version of "Town Ball" that was being played in 1839 between students of the Otsego Academy and Green's Select School in Cooperstown which Doubleday attended while living in town with his uncle.

Upon receiving this nugget of news and not getting any additional or more solid evidence to go by in spite of three years time spent looking, Commissioner Mills most likely rubbed his hands in glee thinking that it didn't get much more American than for baseball to have gotten its start at the hands of a popular military general from America's Civil War in a picturesque little town at the headwaters of the Susquehanna River!  In 1908 he composed and presented the "Mills Commission Report" which set forth the commission's two chief findings: 1) that “base ball had its origins in the United States” and 2) that “the first scheme for playing it, according to the best evidence available to date, was devised by Abner Doubleday, at Cooperstown, New York, in 1839.”

Well ... had the Mills Commission bothered to investigate Mr. Graves' claim even just a little bit rather than taking at face value the story from a reportedly reputable gentleman - who had a penchant for telling tall tales like the one where he rode with the Pony Express in 1852 even though they weren't created until 1860 - they would have found out that Abner Doubleday himself never once claimed to have invented the game and he wasn't even in Cooperstown at the time of the alleged conception and birth of baseball as he was over 150 miles away attending West Point Military Academy. The commission didn't do any additional investigating though and the quaint village of Cooperstown, New York was proclaimed to be "The Birthplace of Baseball" {cue the angels singing ...♪♫♬ aaaaaahhhhhh!!! ♫♪♬}

The Knickerbocker Baseball Club - Image Credit
No matter that the creation myth that gave Cooperstown its title was just as fictional as Natty Bumppo, the hero in hometown boy and American author James Fenimore Cooper's novels, the Mills Commission had declared it to be so and that's all there was to it in spite of the fact that in reality, it turns out that instead of being born in a bucolic rural American town, baseball actually came to life across the river from noisy, crowded, over-populated Manhattan on Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey.  It was there that the New York Knickerbockers - led by Alexander Cartwright who was not a Civil War general like Abner Doubleday but a bookseller and firefighter – played the New York Nine in the first officially recorded game on June 19, 1846.   The Knickerbockers (named after the Knickerbocker Fire Engine Company) had adapted the rules of what became baseball from various - wait for it! - European stick-and-ball sports that were played throughout the country.  The team developed their own 20 rules and regulations which were eventually adopted by the other ball clubs in the area though it should be noted that developing their own rules didn't give the Knickerbockers any great advantage as they lost that very first game 23-1!

The
The "Doubleday Baseball" on display at the Hall of Fame
From that first recorded game in 1846 and the Mills Commission's findings in 1908, fast forward to 1934 where back in Ostego County, the discovery of an old baseball in a dust-covered trunk in the attic of a farmhouse in the small village of Fly Creek, about three miles away from Cooperstown, lent support to the findings of the Mills Commission. Undersized, misshapen, and obviously of the homemade variety, the ball was stuffed with cloth rather than wool and cotton yarn which comprise the guts of modern day baseballs. The find quickly became known as the "Doubleday Baseball" as the trunk was the property of Abner Graves which naturally led local historians to believe that the baseball was originally owned by Abner Doubleday. Shortly after its discovery, the baseball was purchased for $5 by one of Cooperstown's most preeminent citizens - Stephen Carlton Clark, Senior - who displayed the ball along with other baseball objects that he had obtained in a room in the Cooperstown Village Club, which was part boys club/part library and now houses the village's municipal offices.

Stephen C. Clark - Image Credit
The exhibition attracted so much public interest that Clark, along with his associate Alexander Cleveland, began to wonder if there might be sufficient interest in the establishment of a National Baseball Museum. With the support of Ford Christopher Frick, then president of the National League, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Baseball's first commissioner, and William Harridge, president of the American League, word spread and soon contributions and significant historic memorabilia started to pour in from all parts of the country.  Frick was so enthusiastic about the idea of a museum that he also suggested the addition of a Hall of Fame to honor the game's immortals which would include the first to be inducted in 1936: Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, and Ty Cobb who had earned the most votes in the election.

With baseball's 100th birthday looming on the horizon in three years' time, plans were announced in March of 1936 for 27 days' worth of celebrations in 1939 in Cooperstown that would tie the game's Centennial in with the opening of a new museum and Hall of Fame. Though the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, the nationwide party was sponsored in part by a $100,000 grant from the major leagues in an effort to try to draw people back to the ballparks and would also include Doubleday Field, Cooperstown's full-fledged ballpark which had been built in 1923 on the pasture that was the site of the legendary 1839 Abner Doubleday game, .

National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, NY

Financed in part by Stephen Clark who used $44,000 of his own money to help convert the village's gym to a museum and who became its first president (serving for 21 years), the new National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum opened on June 12, 1939 throwing its doors open to a crowd of 10,000 fans who had made the pilgrimage to Cooperstown to celebrate the official dedication of what could really only be described as a shrine to America's Favorite Pastime.

Fans packed onto Main Street and watched as the eleven living members of the first class of 25 immortals inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame - including Babe Ruth and Cy Young - strode up the front steps of the new one-room museum while a band played “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”  After the heads of the American, National and minor leagues severed the red, white and blue ribbons that stretched across the building’s entrance,  the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum was officially declared open to the public and has been the mecca of baseball fans both old and young alike ever since.

National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum Main Entrance

Meanwhile, in an attempt to set the record straight, in 1953 Congress declared Alexander Cartwright and not Abner Doubleday to have been the person to officially invent the game but regardless of the fact that Cooperstown never really was the "Birthplace of Baseball" but simply the dream of a group of men who really wanted it to be, baseball is still king in Cooperstown and I couldn't think of a better place for it to be as the village is still everything that baseball was when it first got its start all those years ago. There's no glitz and glamour, no towering stadiums with room for 50,000+ fans who practically have to mortgage their house to afford decent seats and a hot dog or two, no gigantic parking garages where you walk around for hours trying to remember where you put your car  ... Nope, it's small-town America at its best where it's easy to believe that dreams really do come true and that you can make it to the Big Show through hard work, determination, and maybe even a little bit of luck.

Casey Stemgel artwork in the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum The Ball Player, 1886, by Jonathan Scott Hartley

National Baseball Hall of Fame & MuseumAt the three-story red brick building which stands dedicated to the Boys (and Girls) of Summer, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s mission is to preserve history, honor excellence and connect generations which it does brilliantly across three floors of exhibits that tell the story of the game and its history through the use of thousands of artifacts from the game's past, video clips, audio clips, and historic images. Visitors can test their knowledge or expand it through interactive computer and hands-on displays or if you're a serious researcher, spend some time in the Giamatti Research Center in the National Baseball Library.

Founded in 1939 as part of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, the National Baseball Library is by far the largest repository of baseball information in the world containing over 2.5 million items which are housed in climate-controlled areas and maintained by a professional staff using state-of-the-art archival techniques. Some of those items include the box scores of every professional baseball game ever played, the complete collections of Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News, and Sporting Life, and over 100,000 autographs. The library's photo collection contains more than 500,000 historic images of players, teams, ballparks and other baseball subjects while the film, video and recorded sound archive contains more than 10,000 hours of footage dating back to the late 19th century including an extensive collection of Hollywood movies featuring baseball.

National Baseball Hall of Fame & MuseumOpen seven days a week year-round with the exceptions of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day, summer hours are from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. from Memorial Day Weekend through the day before Labor Day, and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. the rest of the year. Admission prices are $23 for adults (13 and over), $15 for seniors (65 and over) and $12 for juniors (ages 7-12). Those holding current memberships in the VFW, Disabled American Veterans American Legion or AMVets organizations are admitted for $12. Hall of Fame members, active or retired card-carrying military personnel, and children under six years of age are admitted free. Admission rates are subject to change so be sure to check out the website where you can also purchase your tickets online.

Renovated seven times since first opening its doors in 1939, the last renovation of the Hall of Fame in 2005 added 10,000 additional square feet of exhibition space along with better accessibility for those with special needs, up-to-date and more interactive technology along with a more consistent environment for the preservation of the collections. Upon completion of the three-year, $20-million renovation, the museum held a re-dedication ceremony on July 29, 2005 in which thirty-eight Hall of Fame members were present to cut the ribbon and welcome guests to the new and improved museum. Currently, the Hall of Fame welcomes over 300,000 visitors annually.


Visits to the Baseball Hall of Fame are self-guided so you can take your time as you make your way through the many exhibits or even leave for a bit and come back later in the day to continue your tour - just be sure to get your hand-stamped! The best way to start your visit is on the second floor in the Grandstand Theater where the 13-minute digital multi-media presentation the "Baseball Experience" will have you singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” by the time it’s over – literally! From there you can visit The Cooperstown Room which tells the story of baseball's origins and Cooperstown's place in the game's history (including a chance to view the "Doubleday Baseball") before continuing on to explore the museum's three floors chock-full of exhibits which include "Diamond Dreams: Women in Baseball," "Baseball at the Movies," "Sacred Ground," "Babe Ruth: His Life and Legend" and so much more.

Babe Ruth's Uniform on display at the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum Washington Nationals Display at the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum
Boston Red Sox Display at  the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum
Era of Change at  the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum
Entrance to the Hall of Fame Gallery at  the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum

A highlight for baseball lovers of all ages is the Hall of Fame Plaque Gallery on the first floor which houses the bronze plaques of the (as of this writing) 312 baseball greats who have been elected to receive the game's highest achievement of being immortalized in the gallery.  While you're there looking for the plaques of your favorite Hall of Famers, be sure to take a look at the amazing life-size wooden sculptures of Babe Ruth and Ted Williams carved by self-taught Rhode Island artist/sculptor/craftsman Armand LaMontagne.  Made completely from wood, you'll swear that you're looking at cloth, leather, and other materials and that these guys are going to take a swing at some unseen baseball coming towards them as they're simply just that realistic.

Babe Ruth sculpture by Sculptor Armand LaMontagne of Sciatuate, Rhode Island in the Hall of Fame Gallery Ted Williams sculpture by Sculptor Armand LaMontagne of Sciatuate, Rhode Island in the Hall of Fame Gallery
The First Class of Inductees in 1936 at the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum
Looking at plaques in the Hall of Fame Gallery at  the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum

If you're looking for something a little more in-depth and special, the Baseball Hall of Fame offers VIP ExperiencesExtra Inning Overnights, and even a Custom Tour Experience which includes a private artifact spotlight featuring items currently not on display in the Museum followed by a brief guided tour of the Museum highlighting your favorite team. To see what sort of events might be coming up during a time that you're thinking of visiting, be sure to check out the museum's Events page on their website and if you'd like some help and/or ideas when it comes to planning a trip, there are even Hall of Fame Travel Packages available with a wide variety of options from which to chose.

Bronze sculpture of Leroy
Baseball at the Movies Exhibit at the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum
Character and Courage Exhibit at the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum

At the end of your tour, don't forget to take a turn through the museum's gift shop where you can find all sorts of MLB gear and clothing, books, postcards, knick-knacks, and other souvenirs to remind you of your visit. If you forgot something, not to worry - it's all available online!

Gift Store at the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum

WPA Plaque at Doubleday FieldBefore or after your visit to the Hall of Fame, be sure sure to take a walk the two blocks down to see Doubleday Field located on the former farm field of Cooperstown printer Elihu Phinney. Used for baseball since 1920, a wooden grandstand was built in 1924 that was later replaced with a steel and concrete grandstand that was built by the Works Project Administration (WPA) in 1939 - the same year the Hall of Fame opened. From 1940 to 2008 Doubleday Field hosted the annual Hall of Fame game which was originally a contest between two "old-timer" teams but later became an exhibition game between two major league squads. Over the years several games were canceled due to rain and one to war restrictions. Major League Baseball announced that the final Hall of Fame Game would be played on June 16, 2008 between the Chicago Cubs and San Diego Padres citing "the inherent challenges" of scheduling teams in the modern day as the reason for ending the annual contest but as luck in baseball would sometimes have it, the game was rained out.

Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, New York
Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, New York
Doubleday Ballpark, Cooperstown, NY
Bleachers at Doubleday Field

Since 2009, Doubleday Field has been the site of the Hall of Fame Classic - an exhibition game involving Hall of Famers and other retired MLB players. The game was originally played on Father's Day weekend but in recent years was moved to the Saturday before Memorial Day. In addition to the Classic, today Doubleday Field is used primarily for amateur and American Legion ball as well as a variety of other tournaments. For more information, be sure to check out their Facebook page and see what sort of events may be happening at one of the country's original fields of dreams.

Sunday morning ballgame at Doubleday Field
Baseball Game at Doubleday Field
Baseball Game at Doubleday Field
Baseball Game at Doubleday Field

As a final note, something to keep in mind when planning your trip to Cooperstown and the National Baseball Hall of Fame - there's not a heck of a lot of parking in the village and what is there is very strictly enforced, During summer months, a limited amount of all-day and hourly parking is available for a fee in Doubleday Field Parking Lot but if you aren't staying nearby and can walk to the Main Street area, it's highly advisable to take advantage of the free parking areas and ride the Cooperstown Trolley System which will bring you to the museums, Main Street shopping, and other points of interest in the village. In operation from late May through Labor Day, trolleys run daily from 8:30 a.m, to 9:00 p.m. and cost $2.00 per person. Tickets can be used for unlimited rides on a given day so it's really a great deal and saves a lot of parking headaches.

For more information to help plan your trip to wander around Cooperstown, be sure to visit This Is Cooperstown where you'll find all you need to know about events, lodging, dining, and more!

Copyright © The Distracted Wanderer/Linda Orlomoski. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from The Distracted Wanderer/Linda Orlomoski is strictly prohibited.

 

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