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Steve Wulf
June 12, 1989
The Hall of Fame was built in Cooperstown upon a foundation of fable, based on a letter from a madman and a dirty ball found in an attic. But from such bogus beginnings has come a nearly sacred shrine in an almost perfect setting
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June 12, 1989

The Stuff Of Legend

The Hall of Fame was built in Cooperstown upon a foundation of fable, based on a letter from a madman and a dirty ball found in an attic. But from such bogus beginnings has come a nearly sacred shrine in an almost perfect setting

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Kell was there, along with 199 other Hall of Famers. Some are more deserving than others, but once you walk into the Hall of Fame Gallery—the wing that holds the famous bronze plaques—you know you are in a place of worship, and you could never begrudge a man his place there. You might wish that Phil Rizzuto, Richie Ash-burn, Leo Durocher, Roger Maris, Nellie Fox, Bill Mazeroski, Ron Santo, etc., could be there too, but you wouldn't wish to unscrew Rabbit Maranville's plaque to make room for another, even if Maranville did hit just .258 lifetime. Besides, there's no sense in trying to read the minds of the baseball writers who vote for the Hall of Fame candidates (in the first election, in 1936, 11 of them left Ruth off their ballots). And there's no benefit in chastising the veterans' committee, which, in trying to undo past injustices, has perhaps relaxed the standards a bit; Jake Beckley may not be a household name, but that's not to say his name doesn't belong here. No, the overwhelming feeling you get in that splendid room is one of gratitude. Thanks, fellas, for filling up the afternoons and evenings of so many, for bringing them to their feet, for the memories.

Actually, the man we should thank for the Hall of Fame, but never do, is a different Abner than Doubleday: Abner Graves, a mining engineer who grew up in Cooperstown and died in a Colorado insane asylum in 1926 at the age of 92. Graves led an eventful life, to say the least. He ran away from home at 14 to join the California gold rush; he rode for the pony express; he became a cattle rancher in Colorado; at 75, he married a 33-year-old woman; and at 90, he shot her dead in the mistaken belief that she was trying to poison him, whereupon he was sent to an asylum.

Nothing else Graves did, though, compared in impact with the letter he wrote in 1905, when he was in his 70's, to Albert G. Spalding. At the time, Spalding, a former pitcher who had made a fortune in sporting goods, was engaged in a public debate with Henry Chadwick, the baseball writer who wrote the first rule book, devised the box score, and is considered the father of scoring. The subject of their debate was the origin of the game, and it was much like the one between creationists and evolutionists: Spalding believed that baseball was truly American and had sprung from his native soil, while the British-born Chadwick maintained that baseball was merely the next step up the ladder from the British game of rounders.

To prove his point, Spalding appointed a blue-ribbon panel to discover the true origin of baseball and named Abraham G. Mills, the third president of the National League, as chairman. The Mills commission did little more than read mail for three years; one of those letters was the one from Graves, who wrote that he remembered that in 1839, or thereabouts, Abner Doubleday had explained the game to a bunch of his friends playing marbles in front of a tailor shop in Cooperstown. The boys had then taken a whirl at playing Doubleday's game, Graves wrote, in Elihu Phinney's cow pasture off Main Street.

Since he had served under Doubleday during the Civil War, Mills seized upon that story, even though he should have realized that in 1839 Graves was 5 years old and Double-day was 20, a bit old for marbles. In other words, Mills was quite willing to overlook the possibility that the substance of Graves's tale was much like the stuff in Phinney's pasture that those boys must have tried not to step in. The commission also ignored the obituary written for the West Point newspaper when Doubleday died in 1893; the Major General was described as "a man who did not care for or go into any outdoor sports." (Recent researchers have surmised that Graves may have confused Doubleday with yet another Abner, Doubleday's cousin Abner Demas, who would have been about 10 at the time. An as-yet-unpublished manuscript—A Legend for the Legendary: The Origin of the Baseball Hall of Fame—by James Vlasich, a history professor at Southern Utah State College, sheds new light on this subject.)

Nevertheless, on the basis of Graves's letter, written by a man who was soon to be declared certifiably insane, the Mills commission reached the unequivocal conclusion that Doubleday had invented baseball in Cooperstown in 1839. Wrote Mills, "I can well understand how the orderly mind of the embryo West Pointer would devise a scheme for limiting the contestants on each side and allotting them to field positions, each with a certain amount of territory." Not exactly an airtight argument.

Needless to say, Cooperstown embraced the myth wholeheartedly, and in the early 1920s, the town began work building a ballpark on the land that Graves had designated as Doubleday's proving ground. Nothing much else was done until 1934, when Alexander Cleland came on the scene. Cleland was the trusted aide of the richest man in Cooperstown, an heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune named Stephen Clark. Cleland wasn't much of a baseball fan, but knowing Cooperstown's claim to fame, he conceived an idea for a baseball museum while riding on a train to New York City. In a 1934 memorandum to Clark, Cleland suggested that a museum could contain such things as "funny old uniforms," as well as baseballs thrown out by presidents, and bats of famous old players.

Then, in 1935, as if by divine providence, the belongings of Abner Graves were discovered in the attic of a farmhouse in Fly Creek, down the road a piece from Cooperstown. In Graves's trunk was the missing link, so to speak, a decrepit baseball that, in the predisposed minds of the city fathers, "proved" old Graves must have been right about baseball and Cooperstown. Clark bought the ball for $5 and put it on display in the Village Club in Cooperstown. With the discovery of the ball—and with the game's dubious centennial in 1939 approaching—Clark and Cleland stepped up their lobbying efforts with the lords of baseball. Cleland suggested the selection of ten all-time all-stars as part of the celebration, and Ford Frick, then president of the National League, hit upon the idea of a permanent Hall of Fame.

Despite Cleland's efforts, Frick would later claim full credit for the whole idea of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Even Frick's concept of a Hall of Fame was borrowed: The term itself had been employed by headline writers for years whenever an athlete did something extraordinary, and New York University had long had a Hall of Fame for Great Americans. But Frick's baseball Hall of Fame captured the public's imagination, and in 1936 the Baseball Writers' Association of America held its first elections for enshrinement in the Hall. Of the many players nominated, only five were named on the necessary 75% of 226 ballots: Ty Cobb (222 votes), Honus Wagner and Ruth (both 215), Mathewson (205) and Walter Johnson (189). What were the 11 guys who left the Babe off their ballots thinking?

Anyway, by the time the centennial rolled around, 26 men had gained admission to the new Hall of Fame. On June 12, 1939, the shrine was officially opened. A special baseball stamp was issued that day in Cooperstown by Postmaster General James A. Farley. Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who had been lukewarm on the project for years, waxed poetic in a speech that day: "Nowhere else than its birthplace could this museum be appropriately situated. To the pioneers who were the moving spirits of the game in its infancy and to the players who have been elected to the Hall of Fame...we pay just tribute." At the conclusion of Landis's speech, the band played Take Me Out to the Ball Game.

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