COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — By now, pretty much everybody knows that the game of baseball was not invented in this little hamlet of upstate New York, along the shores of Otsego Lake.
Abner Doubleday, the mythical inventor, did not in fact invent it. Baseball had been played in nascent forms long before 1839, the year in which Doubleday supposedly but not really invented the game. Baseball’s story did not begin in a cow pasture in Cooperstown. The myth is a false tune written by tycoons like Al Spalding.
They still play footsie with the myth in Cooperstown. There is a cafe on Main Street named after Doubleday. There is of course the ballpark there — Doubleday Field — two blocks from the Hall of Fame, on the spot that used to be Elihu Phinney’s farm. There’s still a barn there, used to house maintenance equipment.
But the Hall doesn’t try to pull the wool over people’s eyes about baseball’s origins. It wouldn’t be much of a museum if it did. There’s a small display on the topic in the Hall that says, “Doubleday didn’t invent baseball; baseball invented Doubleday.”
No, baseball was not invented in Cooperstown. But it should have been.
Every summer, the village of less than 2,000 people swells exponentially with hordes of baseball fans, bearing the colors of every team in existence and even some that are no longer around. Every conversation on the street is about baseball. Every store is either selling baseball merchandise or servicing baseball fans.
The occasion, as always, is to recognize the newest members of baseball’s Hall of Fame. Every year is the same. Press conferences. A golf tournament. A parade. An afternoon of speechifying. The hanging of the plaques being in the Hall. The rhythms are familiar, like the game itself. The only thing that changes are the names of those giving the speeches.
“In a sense, he is here, and always will be,” 2018 Ford Frick Award honoree Bob Costas said of his late friend Dick Enberg. “That’s part of the beauty of the Hall of Fame. Like Dick Enberg in his category, the six we will celebrate [Sunday] become certified baseball immortals. They are eternal citizens of Cooperstown, an eternal part of the history of the game.
“Membership here isn’t for a lifetime — it’s for all time. And it’s part of baseball’s unique appeal that in some cases those enshrined here are forever linked with men they never knew: Cal Ripken with Lou Gehrig. Nolan Ryan with Walter Johnson. Hank Aaron with Babe Ruth.
“The richness of its fabric, the depth and significant unanimous of its history, the generational connections, they all set baseball apart.”
Those creating the newest links, the six Costas alluded to, are Alan Trammell, Jim Thome, Chipper Jones, Jack Morris, Vladimir Guerrero and Trevor Hoffman. That became official on Sunday, when all six made their induction speeches at the Clark Sports Center, and, afterward, had their plaques unveiled back at the Hall of Fame, four-fifths of a mile down Susquehanna Avenue.
By its very nature, baseball’s Hall of Fame induction weekend is an exercise in nostalgia. Likewise, the Hall itself is a record of the past — a preservation, recognition and celebration of things that have already happened.
This stands in stark contrast to so much of what has been written and said about baseball over the past few months. Whether it’s about pace of play or defensive shifts or the rise of strikeouts or the downtick in attendance or the furor over whether the game’s best player should pound his chest more often, it’s come to feel like the discussion has been dominated by the idea that baseball itself is unraveling.
It’s largely a matter of framing. Of course we should be open to innovation. Of course we want as many people to love the game as possible, and we have to work to make that happen. Of course we want to make sure that the on-field product is not permanently distorted by forces with unintended consequences.
But what if, just maybe, we stop delving into these truly interesting discussions with a terribly misleading question: What is wrong with baseball? Instead, how about framing it as: How do we make baseball even better? What if, just maybe, baseball is not broken? What if, in a time of record-level revenue, the game is not facing an existential crisis?
These are the kinds of questions that arise after a few days in Cooperstown, the heart of it all. Here, where the very air is thick with baseball, it’s hard to imagine that the game has any problems at all. Maybe that’s the solution. Send everybody to Cooperstown for a weekend.
Here, the game of your youth, no matter when that youth may have occurred, is alive and well. Here, in the cradle of lush green hills surrounding a picturesque lake, is baseball’s Eden, myth or no myth.
Here, in Cooperstown, the game is always good. Here, as Hall president Jeff Idelson said, “The heart of baseball beats strong every day.”
Even if it’s ailing, baseball repairs itself, given a little time and patience. At least that’s what Jack Morris says. On Friday, he was asked about the notion of baseball banning the extreme defensive shifts that have become so common in the game.
“I would rather throw to one power hitter than four guys that put the ball in play,” Morris said. “I think it will come full circle. If there’s proven data that one guy isn’t gonna hit it there, then why play him there? Once hitters take enough practice [with] putting the ball the other way, then everything will go back to normal.”
Morris had famous moments with the Blue Jays and Twins, but he’s best remembered as a member of the Detroit Tigers, for whom he won 198 games. He will wear a Tigers hat, with its old-timey “D”, on his plaque, as will longtime teammate Alan Trammell, with whom he shared the stage on Sunday.
For one day, at least, it looked like it was going to be a Detroit-dominant weekend in Cooperstown. That was on Friday, before the faithful of the Atlanta Braves arrived in full force. For whatever reason, the Michiganders turned out a little earlier.
The Friday of induction weekend is a sleepy one. The trickle of baseball tourists picks up steam as the day goes along. It’s a good day to visit the Hall itself, before the lines begin to build. Hall of Famers, new and old, arrive with their families for their stays at the carefully guarded Otesaga Resort Hotel. Main Street is blocked off, but you can walk down the sidewalks without much resistance.
Even then, nearly every conversation you overhear is about baseball.
“I don’t care what anybody says,” a man in a Braves hat says to a man in an Indians hat. “If your pitcher isn’t going seven or eight innings, you ain’t gonna win.”
His friend nods his head in agreement. These men, one would guess, are not sabermetricians. Neither is Morris, who for years seemed baffled that his 254 career wins had somehow become a point of controversy. In his day, wins were everything. By the time he hit the Hall ballot, the baseball world had begun to shift beneath his feat.
Whether or not you feel like Morris’ wins, innings and complete games render him Hall-worthy, you’d have to be a cold-hearted soul to begrudge him his enshrinement. It began at the winter meetings, where Morris could barely get through the press conference given for him and Trammell after their selection by the Veterans Committee was announced.
“Durability, consistency, wins — it’s amazing — still matter,” Morris said. “At least they do to me. But I never shy from that. That’s why we play the game.”
Morris was a combative personality as a player, particularly early in his career, and he knows it.
“When I look back and look at all the distractions with the press, negative interactions I had with them, it was because I wasn’t thinking about what they’re doing, I only thought about what I had to do,” Morris said. “And I regret that. That’s something I could’ve done different, could’ve still maintained my drive and focus without being so ornery to them.”
Whether that hurt Morris’ case during his years on the writers’ ballot is hard to say. Probably not much. He wasn’t that bad. You might think that Morris would let slip a little residual bitterness. You might think he’d even take a victory lap or two. Instead, he’s just grateful. Time has softened Morris.
Just like the game itself, those who play it are capable of growth, capable of healing.
“I wasn’t the kind of guy who would promote myself, that’s just not who I am,” Morris said. “Time showed my numbers start rising, and more and more people could see the worth of what I accomplished. And I think I appreciate it more today than I did if it was my first or second ballot.”
Morris’ speech on Sunday was emotional, but he held it together better than he did in December. He’s still a heart-on-his-sleeves guy.
“It’s just really nice to know that a lot of old people like me came out,” Morris said. “I just think this is a magical place. Every baseball fan, whether they’ve been here or not, knows what Cooperstown is. I think they get that it’s in their hearts. It’s part of their DNA.”
There are always pessimists. That, too, is part of baseball.
This year, 57 living Hall of Famers returned to Cooperstown for the festivities, a record. It’s not just the immortals who show up though. You never know who you’ll see.
On one block, Dale Murphy and Daryl Strawberry are signing autographed pictures — an Odd Couple situation if there ever was one. At various times, you might see Goose Gossage, Roberto Alomar — both Hall of Famers. You might bump into Mike Sweeney, or see Denny McLain and Darrell Evans signing stuff.
And in the back of a store along Main Street, a bitter old gambler named Pete Rose is holding court a couple of blocks from the Hall in which he has never been welcomed. Speaking to Bob Nightengale of USA Today, Rose savaged the game that made him both famous and infamous.
“I probably would have been kicked out of every game by the third or fourth inning,” Rose told Nightengale. “If I was a pitcher you couldn’t pitch inside. I don’t know who these geniuses are who keep wanting to change these rules in baseball. Fans, every once in a while, like a fight at the ballpark. Instead of helping somebody up, kick dirt on him.”
Baseball has never forgiven Rose for his transgressions and he, in turn, will likely fight the game until the day he dies. But baseball fans are forgiving, by and large. A superficial scan of internet forums will tell you this about Rose: There are many more fans who want Rose in the Hall than not.
Outside of the Cooperstown Inn on Friday night, a young couple were walking down the sidewalk and talking excitedly. They had patiently endured a long line, in which they waited to meet Rose, at the back of the store in which he was holding court. Neither of the two could possibly have been old enough to have seen him play.
“That was so amazing,” the young man said.
“I know,” the young woman said. “It was way better than I even expected.”
“He’s just so cool,” the young man said.
“Really cool,” the young woman said.
Baseball is a drama. A great drama. No sport does it better. No sport is better able to establish its stakes, while giving you just enough time to ponder them and weigh the options. Some of that is surely due to the lack of a clock, which leaves all possibilities open.
Generally speaking, Hall of Fame weekend is highly ritualistic. Drama, if it exists, is mild. Last year, there was some question of whether Bud Selig would be booed when he was introduced. He wasn’t, really, on that day. However, as he passed through the crowd during Saturday’s Legends Parade this year, the reception was a little more emphatically negative.
Baseball’s most dramatic moments live forever here. Every room you walk into in the Hall has videos of these moments. Costas, during his acceptance speech on Saturday, described some of these vividly, including an amazing story about Kirk Gibson’s home run in the 1988 World Series.
Still, there was drama around this year’s events, provided by Chipper Jones and his wife Taylor, who is in her final days of pregnancy.
“I’m batting leadoff,” Jones said on Saturday. He was referring to his speech on Sunday. He was the first to speak, knowing that Taylor could go into labor at any moment.
“I’m going to be a little nervous,” Jones said. “The speech is one thing, but being nervous about your wife going into labor on Induction Sunday … that’s a whole other different kind of nervous.”
Sunday arrived and Jones delivered a pretty solid Hall speech, not showing any anxiety about the impending expansion of his family, which already included six sons. In fact, he was downright jovial in his folksy way.
“Smoltzie pitched like his hair was on fire,” Jones said. “Makes sense, looking at him now.”
Jones was speaking of his former teammate, John Smoltz, who was sitting with the other Hall of Famers on the stage. Smoltz, if you didn’t realize it, is now mostly bald.
Jones made it through his speech with no interruption, and posed for pictures after, just as scheduled. He was still around for the post-ceremony press conference, saying that Taylor got along just fine, though she did have to move to the shade. The baby wait would continue.
As for the new arrival of the Jones clan, they already know that it will be another boy. Number seven. They decided to name him Cooper.
Baseball is about parades. Every World Series champion has one. When the Cubs celebrated their victory in 2016, the entire city seemed to turn blue. Even the lions outside of the Art Institute of Chicago were wearing Cubs hats.
In comparison, the Legends Parade is more modest. A marching band comes out to lead off and plays “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Then one by one, the Hall of Famers on hand ride down Main Street in the back of pickup trucks. They go in reverse order of their date of induction, with the oldest players going first, after the new media inductees, and the newbies going last.
Main Street is jammed on both sides. Children stand on tables to get a better look. Depending on where you stand, you’ll have an entirely different experience. In a sign of the changed times, up on the rooftops, a pair of snipers kept close watch on the proceedings.
One man, who spoke in a heavy drawl, was a Braves fan, making his first trip to Cooperstown. His wife and adult daughter were with him. The man, likely in his late 50s, gradually morphed from reserved and dignified to certifiably giddy as the greats passed. At one point, as he half laughed and half cried with joy, his daughter asked him if he was having fun.
“There’s a little boy in every man that loves baseball,” he said. He said those words.
Next to the Braves fan was a contingent of Padres fans, much younger, who were drinking beers from the Cooperstown Distillery right behind them. They had traversed the country to celebrate the induction of Trevor Hoffman and, apparently, to critique the wives who rode with their Hall of Fame husbands. Their trip was the longest and on Sunday, Hoffman said he noticed.
“I was overwhelmed by the number of people that were in attendance,” Hoffman said. “We had a little bit of San Diego weather, so I think they were a little more at home. To travel as far as they did, and the masses, to not just support me but the Padre organization and the brand and what we are about, it really says a lot about our community in San Diego.”
Back in the parade, Gaylord Perry passed.
“Gaylord!” the Braves fan said, then telling his daughter. “He pitched for several teams.”
“The Padres!” one of Padres bros said. “He played for the Padres!”
Perry waved to both sides of the street, then suddenly stuck the tips of the fingers of his right hand in his mouth. With a sly look on his face, he held the wet fingers out at the crowd, which roared. He was, of course, alluding to his reputation for throwing spitballs.
“Did you see that?” the Braves fan said to no one in particular. He was laughing so hard he had to wipe a tear from his eye.
Johnny Bench stood up and started dancing. Rollie Fingers twirled his mustache. They’ve been in a lot of these parades by now. For Hoffman and the other first-timers, it was all new. They are now part of the timeless ritual. Everything has changed, though for a Hall of Famer, Hoffman still does not consider himself famous.
“Shoot, people don’t even know me right now, to be honest with you,” Hoffman said. “Two-thirds of the country were asleep when I would come into most of my ballgames. So it’s nice to introduce myself as Trevor Hoffman, I’m one of your newest inductees into the Hall of Fame.”
Baseball is made rich by connections, personal and professional, family and friends. As Costas said, the links are not just between those Hall of Famers still with us. The connective tissues spread in every direction and all through time. Because of its long history and sprawling coast-to-coast network of minor-league affiliates, baseball has a communal feeling that no other sport can match.
“It’s a feeling like no other,” Thome said. “When I walked in late February down the hall, and you read those names, it gives you chills. To know your name will be with those greats, talk about being proud. When you see Bench, Aaron, Mays, it’s as good a feeling as you could ever get.”
Costas described listening to Waite Hoyt call Reds games back in the early 1960s, when he’d listen on the radio in his father’s car. Hoyt would talk about his old Yankee teammates — Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and the like. The history of the game always seems to be no more than one or two relationships removed from those who still work in today.
While Jones waited near him, likely thinking as much about his wife and baby as his speech, Thome’s daughter, Lila, took the stage and in a soaring voice sang the national anthem, as Thome wiped away a tear. She killed it.
“I got emotional right from the start,” Thome said. “To watch her sing, she sang beautifully. For the Hall of Fame to give here the opportunity to do that was amazing.”
Somewhere in the crowd, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. watched his father speak. When Vlad Jr. left Cooperstown, it was to go to Buffalo, where he’d just been promoted for play Triple-A ball, one step away from the majors. Earlier in the day, Vlady Jr., as his father calls him, sent him a video he’d made to mark the occasion, made all the more special because the induction date this year happened to fall on Father’s Day in the Dominican Republic.
“I found a video that Vlady Jr. recorded for me for Father’s Day as a surprise,” Vlady Sr. said, via an interpreter. “People around me were thinking I was going to cry because they saw it before me and they cried. It meant a lot.”
Also in the crowd was pitching great Pedro Martinez, Vlady Jr.’s godfather.
Jones’ father was there as well, watching his son join his own boyhood idol, Mickey Mantle, as one of the immortals.
“Chill bumps on chill bumps,” Jones said. “We walked through the gallery [Thursday] with my dad and my mom. My kids and my dad walked up to Mickey Mantle’s plaque. He touched it and he had to turn away. He was welling up with tears.
“If he gets that choked up for Mickey Mantle, what do you think it’s going to be when he goes up and puts his hand on his son’s plaque?”
But it’s more than the families of those who played. It’s even more about the families and friends who flock here that never spent a moment in professional baseball. People who plan their visits months or even years in advance. Or two buddies from Detroit who drove in at the last minute because there was a cancellation at a campground. Both are retired but were as excited as school children.
These are the people who wait, and usually pay for, all of those autographs. They fill up the hotels, B&Bs and campgrounds for miles in every direction. They buy up the mementos and dig through the stacks of baseball cards that are the wares of what seems to be every other store on Main Street. They are the ones filling the streets with conversation about the game that brought them all together.
Cooperstown is where all these threads meet up. It’s a baseball festival unlike any other, more organic than something like the All-Star Game.
While the crowds in Cooperstown generally reflect the teams represented by the inductees, their numbers from year to year are always plentiful. If for some reason, a class of 30 went in, representing every market, upstate New York couldn’t handle it.
“You don’t play the game to go to the Hall of Fame,” Thome said. “If you’re elected, it’s a feeling like no other. The best part is sharing it with your parents, your wife, kids, friends, organizations, getting texts from teammates. Ultimately you’re doing this all together.”
After Sunday’s speeches, on a resplendent afternoon, the fans picked up the chairs they’d lugged to the Clark Sports Center and headed back out into the world to nurse their sunburns. The inductees headed inside the media center to answer questions about their speeches.
The fans were of all ages and ethnic backgrounds. They spoke English, French, Spanish and more. There were, it seemed, as many women as men. It was hard to see them go and consider that the game is broken in any way, shape or form. According to Hall spokesman Craig Muder, the crowd count was 53,000 — the second largest ever.
“Second-largest turnout,” Trammel said. “That’s very cool. Looking out there, it was just a wave of people. When you get up there, with the nerves and anxiety, it’s like you’re playing.”
After the final press conference, the journalists convened to the part of the gymnasium that was outfitted as a work area. Rows of work stations with basketball hoops looming overhead. Everyone began writing, editing, uploading and the like.
Tomorrow, if not before, like the fans, all of those journalists will head back to where they came from. Some will move on to other assignments. Many of them will go back to covering the regular season, with the upcoming non-waiver trade deadline.
Let’s hope that everyone who was here takes a little bit of Cooperstown back with them. Baseball has its challenges. It always does. We know what they are because we never stop talking about them. Often it seems like we cover them so thoroughly that we forget everything that is good about the game in the first place. In the mania for perpetual entropy — growth or doom being the apparent choice — it would be a shame if baseball lost track of the qualities that set it apart. Those are good qualities and if somehow their current cultural relevance is diminished, that’s on the culture, not on the game.
“I think the commissioner is doing everything he can to better the game,” Thome said. “I think the game and the athletes are heading in a wonderful direction and I’m seeing it from a youth side too. The kids today are translating into Trout, Harper, Machado. I think it’s in one of the best stages in where it’s grown, and fans have helped as well.”
Many of those good things are on display in Cooperstown, and very little of the bad. Remember those things, and share them where we can. As is proven year after year after year in this tiny village, there are countless scores of people who still relish this game, for what it was, and for what it is.
“This whole event is magical,” Morris said. “It’s magical for us, the inductees. It’s magical for the returning Hall of Famers. I’ve got to believe it’s magical for the staff because they see the importance of it. As I’m looking out at the stands, I had the thought, there’s a lot of people who love this game. How lucky are we?”
As for this year’s inductees, you can find them here again next year. Any year, for as long as Cooperstown exists.
After the last press conference, as the journalists worked up their stories, and the workers began to clear the grounds, and the people wandered away, there was one pair who seemed intent to stick around. It was a man and his young son, both wearing Indians caps. With the throng dissipated, there was room on the grounds for them to do something that is eminently timeless, and eminently perfect.
The man, and his son, decided to play catch.