03 August 2013

Baseball's heart and soul lives in Cooperstown

by Pat Rupp

While the morning papers and television talking heads were agonizing over what type of punishment Alex Rodriguez would receive for his latest performance-enhancing drug (PED) incident, the author of this blog was in upstate New York checking out the more positive side of baseball at the sport's national museum in Cooperstown.

The arrival in the quaint little village of 2100 came a a day after the 2013 Hall of Fame induction ceremony that according to locals was the least attended celebration there in recent memory.

The low turnout was apparently not indicative of a drop in interest in the sport or the selection process but rather due to the fact the three inductees received their just rewards posthumously. Apparently listening to acceptance speeches by great grandchildren of the honorees wasn't a big draw.

The lack of buzz for the 2013 induction didn't dampen the spirits of the hundreds of visitors to the Hall this lazy, sunny Wednesday, however. From infants to the elderly and everywhere in between they wandered the four floors of exhibits, re-living old memories and making new ones.

One could take a self-guided tour of the museum that traced the history of the national pastime from its alleged invention by local resident Abner Doubleday to today's pennant races that were kept current on a hand-made tote board located outside the front doors.

The chronological grind proved too much for this visitor's random-scattered needs, so he took off on his own serpentine journey. There were too many memorable stops on the trip to relate in such a short space, but here are a few of the more interesting ones.

*Hero worship: Every red-blooded American boy has a sports hero or two growing up and mine was Mickey Mantle. The Mick, who despite poor health and a few questionable off-the-field habits, was one of the greatest of all time and is given his due at the Hall.

*Home Run Heaven: The Hall devoted extended space to exhibits of home run kings Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron that featured interesting multi-media presentations about the two sluggers and their very different contributions to the game. Though PED scandal-plagued Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens and others of their ilk were featured in other exhibits,the  two legitimate long ball legends got the most attention.

*A Game of Records: One section of the museum is devoted entirely to game, season and career records and, man, are there a lot of them. Did you know that Fernando Tatis of the St. Louis Cardinals hit two grand slam home runs in one inning against the Dodgers in 1999? Me neither.

*The Negro Leagues: Today's players (and fans) probably don't realize the long journey black players made to get to the Major Leagues. The story started decades before Jackie Robinson first donned a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform in 1947 and is not one of the sport's (or the nation's) finest hours.

*Those $#@&* baseball cards: Like most young boys of the 1950's I spent a good share of my disposable nickels and dimes buying, trading and collecting baseball cards. By the time I reached my teens, I had amassed a couple of thousand of the little cardboard rectangles. Unfortunately, that was also about the time I deemed myself too old and worldly for such nonsense and gave them all away.

That collection would now be worth thousands of dollars and much to my chagrin, many of those same cards were on display behind bulletproof glass in Cooperstown. There is no justice.

*A Shrine within a Shrine: The last stop on my personal trip through the Hall was a visit to the actual room where the plaques of the 300-plus members adorn the walls. The atmosphere in the room felt much like that of a European cathedral. Silence and reverence ruled the day.

I found the respective plaques of Mantle, Ruth and Aaron as well as familiar locals like Kirby Puckett, Bert Blyleven, Rod Carew, Winfield and Paul Molitor. Pretty impressive.

*Odds and Ends: Want to see Yogi Berra's 1955 American League MVP award? How about the uniforms of the Rockford Peaches of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League of the 1940's and 50's and the subject of the movie "A League of Their Own"?  A souvenir Minnesota Twins straw hat from the 1965 series with the Dodgers? They're all in Cooperstown.

Note: One of the souvenirs not available was the infamous bloody sock won by Curt Schilling in the 2004 World Series. Seems the ex-Red Sox pitcher had loaned the relic to the Hall only to take it back to sell (for $93,000) after his video game business went belly-up earlier this year. Apparently, not everything in baseball is sacred.

The "tour" of the facility lasted almost five hours and truth be told, would have lasted longer had it not been for the impending 9:00 p.m closing time.

If you are a baseball fan and haven't started to make out your bucket list, Cooperstown wouldn't be a bad place to start.