Cooperstown: Baseball’s blast from the past

Brian Hall

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – Traveling down a one-lane highway beneath a canopy of trees in central New York, one can almost expect to hear a young kid inquire, “Are we almost there?”

Soon, the highway turns into Main Street, Cooperstown, N.Y., the birthplace of baseball.

Going down Main Street, the architecture and small-town atmosphere makes it seem one has entered a time warp into the early 20th century. The town, which prides itself on character and charms, does not have any national chains or franchises. The shops, restaurants and taverns are all locally owned.

The tiny village centers itself around the sport of baseball. Main Street is lined with shops filled with memorabilia encompassing the history of the game.

On this particular Friday night, every television in the town is tuned to the New York Yankees’ battle against the Anaheim Angels.

Around the corner is historic Doubleday Field, named after the pioneer of the game and one-time Cooperstown resident, Abner Doubleday. Further down the street is a baseball mecca, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Thousands of fans make the pilgrimage to Cooperstown every year for the induction ceremonies. This year, Hall of Fame officials estimated 23,000 people watched the free ceremony live on the grass of Clark Sports Center.

Many of those spectators hailed from the state of Minnesota to show support for one of their native sons, Dave Winfield, and an adopted son, Kirby Puckett.

“We are big fans and this is a part of history,” Toni Lyrenman said.

Lyrenman, who lives in Anoka, Minn., made the trip to Cooperstown with her husband Larry.

“I told my wife the day Kirby enters the Hall, we are headed out here,” Larry said.

Some have arrived on their own and some made the trek as part of chartered tours. Yet each is here for the same reason, to cheer once again for their heroes of the diamond. It’s as if they have been called by a higher power.

“We’re here for Puck,” Tom Collins from Edina, Minn., said. “Six of us made the trip up here. We attempted to get on with one of the tours, but that was too expensive, so we made the trip on our own.”

Forty current members of the Hall traveled to Cooperstown this year, the second largest gathering of Hall-of-Famers to ever attend an induction ceremony. The record of 46 was set at last year’s ceremony. Among those present are the first two players to have entered the Hall as Minnesota Twins: Harmon Killebrew and Rod Carew.

In a scene stolen from the Academy Awards, the current Hall-of-Famers and three of the four new inductees – Hilton Smith is being inducted posthumously – made their way into a private reception at the museum.

Similar to the red carpet walk in Hollywood, fans gathered around the entrance to the museum to get a closer look at their heroes.

Stepping out of a trolley car on his way to the reception, Puckett was greeted by chants of “Kirby, Kirby, Kirby” as the large throng of Minnesotans made their presence felt. The crowd was also boisterous upon Winfield’s arrival.

“I wasn’t nervous before I came here,” Puckett said. “But I am nervous now.”

The support of the fans is something the two former Twins have appreciated throughout the years and have always attempted to pay back.

“I had no idea I would have an effect on kids lives like I do,” Puckett said. “For a kid to shake my hand, and him to remember that for the rest of his life … It only takes me a second, and it means the world to him, so I always thought about it like that.”

The museum opened its doors in 1939, and inside history seems to reach out to visitors young and old. The Hall contains over 35,000 three-dimensional artifacts, with items ranging from a Babe Ruth game-worn cap to a ticket stub from the Metrodome the night Cal Ripken got his 3,000th hit last summer.

Perhaps the most impressive sight within the walls of the museum is the Hall of Fame gallery.

Lining the gallery walls are 253 plaques, one for every member. At the end of the gallery are the plaques of the first inductees in 1936 – Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner and Babe Ruth.

“For me to be gracing the same place, walking down the same aisle, as these guys did as a Hall-of-Famer, makes it even more special,” Puckett said, referring to his childhood heroes, Ernie Banks and Billy Williams, who are also members of the Hall.

Throughout the process, Puckett seemed to be as awestruck as the little kids whose lives he’s enriched by the extension of his hand.

 

Brian Hall welcomes comments at [email protected]