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It's America's game'

Baseball's hall of fame celebrates its diamond anniversary

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July 14th, 2014
fans at Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
fans at Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Walking through the streets of historic Cooperstown, N.Y., it feels as though the crown jewel of The National Pastime has been sitting on Main Street from the very beginnings of this resort town, founded in 1786.

But the truth is, 75 years ago the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum didn’t exist. It took the pushing of city philanthropist Stephen C. Clark and then-National League President Ford C. Frick to create it, and the rest is, well, history.

This year, to celebrate its diamond anniversary, the hall is remembering that day on June 12, 1939, when the doors opened for the first time with events throughout the year.

The hall of fame is a collections-based institution with more than 40,000 three-dimensional items and 3 million documents. Every year, the archivists and preservationists agree to take in around 400 artifacts, but they receive, and turn down, many more than that.

“It’s our obligation to present the story of baseball,” says Brad Horn, vice president of communications and education. “It’s really about connecting the timeline of baseball through the presentation of memories.”

Generations of fans

As many as 3,000 visitors a day come to the hall in peak season, and it’s quite common to see multiple generations of baseball fans coming to enjoy the memories together. It’s not unique to Cooperstown, but Horn says it’s no accident either. The passing down of the love and history of baseball is fostered and nurtured here.

“The game has its history and within that history is the sharing of heroes and moments,” Horn says. “For instance, you see the display about Cal Ripken, and you have memories that will trigger other stories that your father has passing it to your son.”

Echoing the point, on this day in the gallery of plaques, Terry McKinney, Sr., was visiting the hall for the first time with his son Terry, Jr., and grandson Ryne. The McKinneys are from Houston but lived in Chicago for many years and love the Cubs. They made the pilgrimage to Cooperstown and—fittingly—were huddled next to the plaque of their hero, Cubs great Ryne Sandberg.

Terry, Sr., says the magic of Cooperstown is simple.

“It’s America. It’s America’s game,” he says. “I grew up playing baseball; they did too. It’s a family thing. It’s part of our life.

“These are a bunch of guys who came from no means and really made something of themselves," he adds. "It’s a dream. Every kid wants to do this. That’s what makes it special.”

Hall of famers

There are 306 hall of famers represented by plaques in the oak-lined Hall of Fame Plaque Gallery. Of those honoring the game’s greatest players, managers, umpires and executives, 211 are former major leaguers. Figuring that more than 15,000 have played major league baseball in its history, the hall of fame represents the best 1% of those ever to play the game, the best of the best.

This year’s hall of fame class includes pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine; hitter Frank Thomas; and managers Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa, and Joe Torre. They officially joined the hall during induction weekend, July 25-28.

Horn, who worked for the Texas Rangers before coming to Cooperstown, has little trouble when asked about his favorite artifacts in the hall: The display highlighting the caps that Nolan Ryan wore during his seven no-hitters. Earlier this season, Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum threw his second career no-hitter. Ryan had five more in his illustrious career.

“The items that resonate to me most are the iconic records, the marks without peer,” Horn says.

And how about the strangest item in Cooperstown? 

“The last piece of wood ever chopped by Cy Young,” he replies. Young, a pitcher from 1890 to 1911, still holds the record for most career wins with 511. “He was a noted outdoorsman and it came with his estate. That claim has never been discounted, so it stays here.”

With all this great baseball memorabilia and history, a kid might be overwhelmed, but not grandson Ryne McKinney. This trip of a lifetime would also include a visit to Yankee Stadium for a game between the Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays.

The 10-year-old summed it up nicely for his dad and grandfather, and the thousands of others who visit each year: “This is the best trip ever. Just pure awesome.”

 

Why is the baseball hall of fame in Cooperstown?

As baseball became the National Pastime in the last half of the nineteenth century, a commission was formed to determine the genesis of the game. The Spalding Commission, a board created by sporting goods magnate and former player A.G. Spalding, determined in 1907 that baseball was invented in Cooperstown, N.Y.

The findings were based mostly on a witness account of a mining engineer, Abner Graves, who said that Abner Doubleday, a decorated Union Army officer who directed the first shot from Fort Sumter at the start of the Civil War, invented baseball in 1839 in Cooperstown. 

Thirty years later, as the supposed 100-year anniversary of baseball’s creation approached, Cooperstown philanthropist Stephen C. Clarke asked friend and National League president Ford C. Frick to support the establishment of a Baseball Hall of Fame in his town.

In the years since, the Doubleday myth has been exposed. Doubleday himself was at West Point in 1839, and historians have traced the game to other locations in New York and New Jersey and other creators like 1938 inductee Alexander Cartwright.

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