Three Days in Cooperstown

Baseball experienced another successful Hall of Fame weekend in Cooperstown, New York. (via wknight94)

Two years ago, I traveled to San Diego to see the World Baseball Classic. While I was a few months ahead of the city’s legendary Comic-Con, the convention center itself was easy to spot. Fewer than three blocks from Petco Park sat the massive edifice, a marvel of multi-functionality. No city or building is fully prepared for 150,000+ attendees to swoop in at once for three days at a time, but if anything could come close, it’s the San Diego Convention Center.

Cooperstown, New York, a town the word “apocryphal” seems nearly custom-made for, has no such building. “Cooperstown is a village,” opens the town’s Google Maps description. The total area is under two square miles, there is one stoplight on Main Street, and the year-round population is less than that of my small liberal arts alma mater. My move here, nearly two weeks ago, saw the population increase by nearly one percent.

And yet, for three days in July, this seemingly stuck-in-time slice of small-town Americana becomes baseball’s answer to San Diego’s Convention Center.

Friday, July 19 – The Con is On

“Where will they all fit?” The thought bounces through my head as I stroll up to a minimalist baseball field near the Clark Sports Center around 8:30 a.m., preparing for the first scheduled event of the weekend. It’s a familiar orientation to anyone who has attended a weekly sports camp as a child — run around and play until the counselors call you in, then break up into groups and cycle through them, learning a new skill at each spot.

The script is familiar, but the actors are anything but typical. The “PLAY Ball” camp is hosted by Ozzie Smith, with the assistance of fellow Hall of Famers. This year, three recent inductees are on hand to help: slugging corner infielder Jim Thome, relief ace Trever Hoffman, and fellow infield adept Alan Trammell. As their campers stir restlessly in the muggy morning heat, the venerated counselors tip their hands to their styles.

Thome rumbles with laughter and enthusiasm, his high-top socks somehow accentuating a still-powerful frame that launched more home runs (612) than all but seven MLB players in history. He’s swarmed rapidly by the media, greeting us all with smiles and handshakes that engulf our hands entirely. Nearly every question has little to do with Thome but rather the pinstriped legend who will be inducted Sunday, setting the trend for the weekend.

“I’d never use a good bat against Mo,” he chuckles, before being ushered onto the diamond. Hoffman and Trammell have beaten him there, both smiling and waving, but like so many of us at 8:45 in the morning, they’re just getting settled in. Smith is the star of the show, and with good reason. The event is his baby — this year marks its 18th anniversary — and provides funding for education programs at the Hall of Fame.

Roughly 60-80 attendees, ranging from pre-teens to octogenarians, file onto the field in preparation for instruction. The cost of the event is steep: $750 per person for Hall of Fame members, $1,000 for non-members. Hall of Fame membership is a mere $50 annually, so most of those assembled presumably opted for the discounted $800 cumulative rate. It’s the first of many magical moments most will never see during the weekend, unless they bring a thick wallet and know where to go.

Most of the clinic’s attendees are clad in the uniform of the team they’re here supporting. Mostly Yankees, many Mariners, and a few clumps of White Sox jerseys stand out among the crowd, with a slurry of red, white, and blue uniforms covering the rest. It is the first of many times over the weekend I am reminded of my experiences attending conventions like PAX, being amazed and overwhelmed by the dedication some attendees have to their fandom, to the point of designing elaborate outfits to cosplay their favorite characters. This unique opportunity delights fans of all ages and skill levels, with several of the campers clearly limited in their baseball ability yet beaming with delight.

Thome takes a quarter of the group to first base, Smith brings his to second, Trammell takes third, and Hoffman secures the pitcher’s mound. The children of the inductees and their friends roam the outfield, laughing as their parents teach, and Thome’s answer to a rare non-Mariano question rings in my head. “Look at my son playing out there; there’s nothing better than that.” Everyone has come to get a piece of that feeling this weekend. It’s the beginning of Baseball-Con in Cooperstown, New York.

Saturday, July 20 – Nostalgia in Clarkstown

Cooperstown’s downtown is a celebration of nostalgia unlike any other. Venetian blinds are a staple of nearly every non-brick building, baseball kitsch can be found everywhere you look, and a long-standing decision to keep anything remotely resembling a dingy bar off Main Street gives “downtown” a surreal, squeaky-clean aesthetic.

In my home state of Washington, we have the town of Leavenworth, designed to resemble an idyllic Bavarian village, as well as Winthrop, maintained in the aesthetic of an Old West boomtown. Even Colonial Williamsburg endeavors to evoke a specific time period. But Cooperstown is simply targeting The Past, in a vague, rosy way. This ethos, which sets the Baseball Hall of Fame’s home apart from many museums, is facilitated by the influence of the Clark family and their unique stature over Cooperstown and the Hall itself.

Edward Cabot Clark originated the family’s immense wealth, receiving a split of the profits and ownership for the Singer Sewing Machine patent and its subsequent company after serving as the overseeing lawyer on Isaac Singer’s behalf. Immense investment in real estate holdings throughout New York state combined to form an almost inconceivable fortune at the time.

Upon his death in 1882, Clark passed on nearly $50,000,000 in real estate, as well as a vast real estate portfolio, leadership of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, and undoubtedly a sizable reserve of cash on hand. Transposed forward, Clark was a billionaire, and one who passed his unique adoration of his small hometown to his descendants.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

One of his four grandsons, Stephen Carlton Clark, was born just a month and a half before Edward Cabot Clark passed on from malarial fever. Cooperstown in 2019 is a direct reflection of the actions the younger Clark would take. Stephen founded the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Fenimore Art Museum (so named for American writer James Fenimore Cooper, whose family lent their name to Cooperstown), the Farmers’ Museum, and Bassett Hospital, which he established with his brother, Edward Severin Clark, and now serves as Columbia University’s teaching hospital.

On the banks of Otsego Lake lies the Leatherstocking Golf Course. The course runs right up against a picturesque, The Shining-style hotel, The Otesaga Resort, which goes entirely private during Induction Weekend to host returning Hall of Famers and their families. Lest you think their influence ever waned, The Otesaga was founded by Stephen Carlton Clark and Edward Severin Clark and is owned by the Clark family to this day.

Yesterday, we began at the Clark Sports Center, which doesn’t demand a detective to identify its origins, and we will return to its grounds again Sunday for the induction itself. There, we will be greeted and hosted by the last living member of the family, Jane Forbes Clark, who has served as Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Hall of Fame since 2000. If I set foot on land not owned by the family or its foundation this weekend, it was only for a moment, as they own 10,000 acres in and around the town, much of it marked by distinct black fences throughout the countryside. In Cooperstown, the sun never sets on the Clark family’s influence.

Naturally, Saturday of Induction Weekend begins with golf at Leatherstocking. Once again it’s 8:30 a.m., yet the rotation of Hall of Famers pulling up to tee off is chipper. They’re here for a reunion, with the added bonus of being feted and ferried around for 72 hours, and all that’s truly asked of them is to smile and wave every so often. Despite travel troubles and a few too many drinks the night before, which kept a few from the links, most were undeterred.

Trevor Hoffman emerges, his shoulder-length hair even more jarring than the day before. Greg Maddux teases John Smoltz for his lagging pace on the fairway, and despite his own impressive cut-fastball noted, “Nobody but Mariano could throw that cutter that way.” A fun “will they/won’t they” ensues, as the realization spreads amongst the media that Ken Griffey Jr. is potentially in the next pairing, but The Kid never show. We settle for a swaggering Wade Boggs, clad in aggressively-patterned Red Sox shorts and long socks as he hops into the passenger seat of his golf cart.

For most of the assembled press, this is the first exposure to some of the new inductees. Lee Smith and Edgar Martinez weren’t on hand, but Harold Baines, Mike Mussina, Roy Halladay’s sons, and Mariano Rivera rolled through with varying levels of uncertainty and delight. Baines seems mildly incredulous, and will remain so for most of the weekend. Perhaps he’d been on the internet at some point in the last six months and had seen the sizable outcry at his inclusion.

In any case, until the ceremony itself, the most unlikely inductee of the six was understandably subdued. Known for being similarly restrained in his career, Mussina is, by contrast, a ball of energy, while Rivera is his typically collected self. By the time they cast off for the links, the sounds of Main Street coming to life can be heard from the course a few blocks away.

Dale Carnegie said, “A person’s name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language.” There’s a degree of truth to it. Hearing your own name jumps out in conversation in a crowded room. The feeling, in my experience, is not limited to my own name. If I hear “Seattle” mentioned when I’m away from my hometown, my ears prick up. Other binding agents of my self-identity evoke a similar reaction including, naturally, the word “baseball.”

For anyone sharing that tendency, Cooperstown is sensory overload in the highest order. There is not an inch of Main Street untouched by the game, its museum, and the family behind it all. Autograph shops, uniform outfitters, and bat companies are par for the course, but even the lone stylish bar on the block and the long-standing bakery are bursting with baseball-themed items.

Cookies from Schneider’s bakery.

On any other day, it is mildly surreal, but for this weekend the experience is heightened beyond compare. Tents line each block, shading A- thru D-list celebrities with varying degrees of relevance to baseball. Stroll on one sidewalk and you’ll find Darryl Strawberry, Jack Morris, David Justice, and Lou Piniella chuckling amongst themselves as they amiably sign autographs for paying customers.

Traffic has been closed off in all directions, so you can casually cross the street to find Brooks Robinson inside a shop. Zig-zag through the town square to find actor John Kinsella of Field of Dreams fame, kiddie corner to WWE legend Jimmy “The Mouth of the South” Hart.

Each storefront has its own pitch. For some, eye-catching signs; for others, a herald on the doorstep, announcing loudly to the masses which legendary baseballer sits inside, air-conditioned and ready to meet them (for a price). The Big Red Machine is well-represented and clearly beloved, but other stars, too, have their moments. Andre Dawson stands in the doorway of one card shop, chatting patiently with those who recognized him and many who did not. Rivera holds court deep in the back of a different shop, while outside, Piniella’s distinctive gravelly tone can be heard above the din, rebuffing a well-wisher who notes the Mariners could use him back in Seattle. “No, no, they don’t need me, they need better players!”

It’s the fantasy of a child of the 1970s and ’80s, but as someone born beyond both decades, the charm is no less intoxicating. Milling about in the thousands are tourists, fanatics, entrepreneurs, and, every so often, full-time residents, either trying futilely to go about their normal day or pushing hard to turn this anomalous weekend into a financial boon. The town sets the stage, and the people file in to perform their roles.

For 72 hours, it is a celebration of the game and its players, albeit mostly in the past tense. From mid-morning until 11 p.m. or so, the town is abuzz with excitement. Four backs out of five bear a player’s jersey. A plurality are pinstriped, as on Friday, but the rainbow includes every shade (okay, mostly red, white, and blue — get more creative, team rebranders!) MLB contains.

Beyond the U.S., even, many attendees proudly don the colors of their national team. Many a Panamanian flag can be seen held aloft throughout the streets, and the unmistakable “PR” logo of Puerto Rico bobs through the crowd on the hats of smiling faces as often as the logo of any other team. “For Edgar, and for Mariano as well!” cheers a quartet of young men, all wearing various shades of custom “Martinez” Puerto Rico shirseys. They’d soon be found leading an assortment of fans in song near the Hall of Fame’s front steps.

Just as hearing our name or seeing something we love piques our interest, bonds are most easily built on commonalities relative to their frequency. For instance, seeing a fellow person wearing a t-shirt from your high school or college might not even register nearby the campus, but seeing the same outfit in a foreign country almost assuredly will spark a conversation. The sensation of Induction Weekend is to suddenly be emboldened to strike up that excited greeting with nearly every stranger on the street. They are here for the same reason you and 55,000 others have made the pilgrimage – to celebrate greatness.

Sunday, July 21 – Seasons of Love

The biggest day of the year in Cooperstown is the first one in days that many folks get to sleep in for. After days of clinics and speeches and mayhem and a sniper-guarded parade, the induction itself is rather straightforward. On the rolling hills beyond the Clark Sports Center, the crowds assemble. The earlier the better, of course, for securing a spot with a view, but unless you are an honored guest or a core media member, you’ll be spending most of your time with eyes on the massive video board.

Despite thunderstorms Friday night and oppressive mugginess Saturday, only a few distant rumbles  interrupted the 82-degrees-and-clear Sunday sky. My press pass grants me the immense privilege of a folding chair, but any degree of protection from the heat is in my own hands. (No matter how much time elapses between that Sunday and your reading this article, my farmer’s burn-turned-tan will persist.)

From there, I watch, amidst swarms of fans, as the weekend’s exercise in pomp, circumstance, and nostalgia reaches its crescendo. If you’ve never heard 55,000 people singing along to “Centerfield” by John Fogerty, you’ve never heard the true voice of the baseball fandom. Only after that choral masterpiece does Jane Forbes Clark emerge to welcome us all to the moment at last.

What followed was a straw poll of popularity for the record 58 Hall of Famers who took the stage to welcome the six newest to their ranks. One by one, the retirees ambled out, accompanied by a highlight reel and MLB Network’s Brian Kenny extolling their accomplishments.

Whether there was rhyme or reason to the order is anyone’s guess — Randy Johnson was followed by Rickey Henderson in a delightful juxtaposition of what an equal amount of self-confidence looks like compressed into a 5-foot-9 frame or stretched to 6-foot-10. Despite a veritable who’s who of players who rebuffed and defeated the teams of many in attendance time and time again, the atmosphere is one of communal appreciation.

Some cheers rise above others, of course. Boggs, fully morphed into a Big Lebowski body double, draws healthy cheers from the local crowd. Frank Thomas receives a standing ovation from the White Sox contingent, and Griffey Jr. elicits uproarious excitement despite a video mixup that previewed Reggie Jackson.

No greater cheer erupts, though, than the thunderous applause for 85-year-old Hank Aaron, who is assisted to his seat by — who else — an eager-to-help Thome. Only one Hall of Famer — Bud Selig — earns clear boos from the crowd. Introduced last are the new inductees, perhaps priming Rob Manfred for a more generous welcome.

Even Bernie Williams’ bizarre electric guitar National Anthem cannot rob the ceremony of its poignancy. One by one the new inductees rise to speak, and players who have been restrained in large part to stat lines and sound bytes for many in attendance blossom into fully realized characters. Their paths to Cooperstown, easily mapped on paper, become three-dimensional stories with unique hues.

Mussina, described by long-time manager Joe Torre as “beige,” does not dismiss the disappointments of his career. An ace often reduced to second fiddle in the latter half of his career, even on his Hall of Fame induction day he is the second-most interesting man on stage to most Yankees fans. Orioles fans are supportive but outnumbered. Understandably, “Moose” takes time to consider the almosts that had defined his career to many.

I never won a Cy Young, never won a World Series, never had a no-hitter, never won 300 games, never got 3,000 strikeouts. Maybe I was saving up from all those ‘almost’ achievements to finally get here today.”

Unbound by Mussina’s stoicism, Brandy Halladay gives an impassioned speech on her late husband’s behalf. She speaks of the kindness in the baseball community and how, despite her nerves, she and her sons have been made to feel welcome all weekend. She speaks of Roy Halladay as a person who loved to pitch in the limelight but shied away from it off the field. Fittingly, she tells of her husband as a person and a pitcher, but addresses the truth of the situation, the sport, and the Hall of Fame as a whole.

We all struggle, but with hard work, humility and dedication, imperfect people still can have perfect moments.”

In the crowd, applause rises, family members translating for their non-English speaking relatives, and tens of thousands of heads nod back. The message is loud and clear.

Baines draws a difficult lot in following Halladay’s speech, but the most unlikely man on the stage focuses his attention on those closest to him. Baines hails from St. Michaels, Maryland, a town barely half the size of Cooperstown itself. It’s where Baines grew up, maintained his home, and resides to this day. By the sound that arises when he first begins to thank the pillars of his community, the entire town must be in attendance.

He later would explain his slight inclination to mumbling and lowered gaze as an effort to keep from crying – seeing the full assembled crowd would have been too much. Instead, Baines speaks wistfully of his father, his hero, who passed away two years prior. That longing turns to pride as he talks about his children and grandchildren, who bring him joy in the good-hearted people they’d become. In the video introducing him, Carlton Fisk had teased Baines for his soft-spoken nature, recalling an anecdote when Baines ended a long extra-inning game with a walk-off homer then answered a reporter’s question on whether he got all of the pitch by simply deadpanning, “Evidently.” “Mr. Evidently,” he became from then on, but he didn’t have to say anything more.

Fourth is Martinez, the pride of Seattle and Puerto Rico. He has been retired for 15 years, giving him a perspective more akin to Baines and Smith than Mussina or Rivera. Despite a penchant for emotionality when speaking of his family, Martinez is efficient, deferential, and funny, noting how glad he was Lee Smith retired before he had to face him often, and how he’d give all his achievements up to have another shot at Mariano in the playoffs, when he’d used a sinker (“I didn’t even know you had a sinker!”) to retire him in one of the Mariners four playoff runs in their history.

As with each man on stage, Edgar thanks his family, but the clear delight and amusement on the faces of his children and wife upstage even his thorough, thoughtful remarks. As he concludes in Spanish with a message to his home of Maguayo, Puerto Rico, the camera cuts to a group of attendees with a massive Puerto Rican flag. It quickly cuts away, but not before the message inscribed upon it is clearly legible: #RickyRenuncia. Even in Cooperstown, the real world cannot by fully forgotten.

The setup role goes to Lee Smith, who kicks things off by joking that he’d promised Ozzie Smith he’d use his “Caucasian voice” for the speech. Like the other four living inductees on stage, he’d grown up in a small town before the game brought him to the big city. Discovered by legendary scout Buck O’Neill, Smith abandoned the game entirely for a year in the minors after the Cubs told him they intended to convert him to a reliever. Smith cites another man on stage – Billy Williams – for pulling him back in, presciently informing him the game was changing and relief pitchers were soon going to see their importance grow immensely. And 478 saves later, Smith was happy, and Williams was right.

At last, it seems, it was time for the closer. But first, to the surprise of many assembled, Bernie Williams and his guitar re-emerge. He plays a haunting, somber rendition of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” interspersed with a bit of “Enter Sandman” flavor, before at last Rivera takes the podium.

The first five speeches by and large stuck to the Hall of Fame’s suggested time limit, but Mo improvises early and often. “Why do I always have to be last?” he wonders with a smile, before extolling the virtues of his faith, his family, his teammates, and Yankees fans. Despite a well-established deadpan attitude that endeared him to the buttoned-up Yankees mantra, Rivera endears the masses today with moments of bravado and even suggestiveness. He apologizes to his kids for not being around often, in particular to his son Mariano. “Mariano, you were born in October. I was busy.”

A surprising source for the most ribald moment of the afternoon, Rivera thanks his parents for putting in a little something extra the day (or night) they got together to conceive him. The greatest reliever in MLB history is still impassioned about the times he struggled, however, and brings the afternoon back to what makes each of the stories so remarkable. He recalls going to bed crying in the minor leagues, in a foreign country, unable to speak the language, cut off from his teammates and family. He endeavored the next day to learn English and beseeched his teammates to teach him, no matter how poorly he spoke. The following day, Martinez would tell a similar story.

As a young guy, it was a tough challenge to communicate, especially as a more reserved person, to cross the language barrier, especially in (the) minors. Amazing to me to now give a speech to 50,000 people. But it took a lot of work.”

Their pathways were disparate, but the finish line was the same. For all in attendance, it was five hours in the sun to celebrate decades of love and entertainment. Imperfect people, but a perfect moment.

References & Resources


John Trupin is the Deputy Managing Editor for Lookout Landing, where he writes baseball analysis, history, and the like. He has had the tune to "99 Luftballoons" stuck in his head intermittently ever since he wrote about a 25-man roster composed entirely of Dan Vogelbach clones.
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2 years ago

Wonderful piece. Makes me want to attend one year in the future.

Barney Coolio
2 years ago

So, for $50 I can be a “member of the Hall of Fame”? Sold!