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THE STUFF OF LEGEND
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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"And I have to tell you, I enjoy it more and more every year. If a Hall of Famer is going through a depression period, well, there's no better cure than going up there, where everybody makes you feel like a million dollars. The fun part to me is reminiscing with the older players. Talking with Joe Sewell about the year he struck out three times in 100-something games; he was still mad at the pitcher [Pat Caraway of the White Sox] who struck him out twice in one game. Or listening to Ralph Kiner talk about how much Hank Green berg helped him when they played together in Pittsburgh, and I know that must be so, because Hank was one of the smartest players I knew. I love talking with Warren Spahn or kidding with Bob Lemon. Lem is always riding me because I couldn't hit him, and I tell him that instead of giving me that junk he threw up there, he should have pitched me like a man.

"Even the signings are fun. People tell you how great you are or remind you of something you did once or show you a picture of yourself you've never seen before. I'll tell you how much the weekend means to me: I had a chance to go salmon fishing this summer in one of the best rivers in the world with some of the best fishermen in the world on that same weekend in July, and I'm turning down one of the greatest fishing experiences ever just to be back in Cooperstown.

"But god I'll miss seeing Bill Terry this year. And Lefty Gomez. Anybody who's had the honor of spending even five minutes with that man will know what I mean. To hear Lefty talk, you'd think he never got anybody out—but he's not in the Hall of Fame for nothing.

"I look forward to going through the museum again too. Being something of a hitter, I naturally like to look at bats—Al Simmons's bat, Ty Cobb's bat, Heinie Groh's bottle bat. And I just like looking at the single-stitch baseballs they used in the old days. I'm just sorry it took me so long to realize just how special that place is. It's 100 years of the greatest game ever invented. It revives players and plays that might otherwise be forgotten, and it makes you forget all the bad things about baseball. Like that AL East—what do you think of those awful standings? Anyway, I'm just tremendously honored to be in the Hall of Fame, and nothing will ever keep me away again."

It would be unrealistic to expect every Hall of Famer to feel so strongly about Cooperstown, but some have failed to get the message at all. One, who shall go nameless, once complained that there was no diamond in the ring given to enshrinees. Some, to borrow a phrase from Take Me Out..., don't seem to care if they never get back.

But for the real diehard Hall of Famers, the weekend doesn't end with the induction ceremonies on Sunday; they stick around for the annual Hall of Fame game on Monday at quaint Double-day Field, a perennial sellout at just under 10,000 seats. Over the years the fans have witnessed such highlights as a pair of home runs by the Splendid Splinter himself in the very first such game in 1940; a two-hit shutout of the Indians by Cubs Dick Drott and Moe Drabowsky in 1960; three home runs by Yankee infielder Bernie Allen (1972); and the sight of Dan Quisenberry pitching overhand (1986). One of the finer moments came in 1962, after the game between the Yankees and the Milwaukee Braves was rained out. Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle were walking from Doubleday Field to the gymnasium where they were to change out of their uniforms, when they happened upon a tomato patch and a beer cooler in the backyard of Sam Sapienza's Short Stop Restaurant. "One thing led to another with those guys," Sapienza told Cal Fussman of The Sporting News in 1981, "and pretty soon they started to throw tomatoes at each other. They were really hitting each other too. Whitey Ford was sure throwing strikes that day. They were having more fun than a barrel full of monkeys. Then after the fight, we all drank my cooler full of beer." Mantle, Berra and Ford, of course, returned to Cooperstown in later years under more dignified circumstances. And the Short Stop has survived nicely enough to celebrate its own 50th anniversary this year.

When the annual party has ended and the throngs have departed Cooperstown, the village returns to its rural calm, and the Hall of Fame returns to normal working hours. The museum is open 362 days a year—it's dark on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's—and no matter how many times you visit, you can always find something new inside. The catcher's mitt of the man who coined the term "tools of ignorance," Muddy Ruel. Something from Tinker, something from Evers and something from Chance. The pitching rubber from Allie Reynolds's second no-hitter of the 1951 season, signed by both teams. There's a surprising number of famous "borrowed" tools: Mickey Mantle, for example, used a Loren Babe autograph model bat to hit his 565-foot homer, and Dave McNally hit his World Series grand slam with a Curtell Motton bat. The glove that Tommie Agee used to make those two sensational catches in the third game of the '69 Series was a Johnny Callison model. And it's remarkable how many ordinary players are represented in Cooperstown; on display is the bat that produced a rookie record hitting streak by, yes, Mike Vail.

Altogether, the museum has some 6,000 artifacts on display and many more in storage. Some of the items in storage are as fascinating as those that made the cut. There's a can of red clay from the high school field that Mize played on. Somebody thought to donate the last piece of kindling chopped by Cy Young, complete with Cy's signature. In 1965, Newsday TV sports columnist Stan Isaacs donated the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers' world championship pennant six years after he swiped it from the Dodger press box in L.A. In off-site storage is an entire ticket pagoda from the old Yankee Stadium.

The Doubleday ball, for which Stephen Clark paid $5, is one of the few artifacts that the museum paid for. (A few years ago, the museum paid "blackmail" money to someone who had found some original clay moldings from which the Hall of Fame plaques were made; the moldings should have been destroyed.) Last year, gifts ranged in chronology from Red Murray's 1911 New York Giants World Series uniform—along with his shoes, glove and cap—to the jersey that Hershiser wore in the fifth and final game of the '88 Series. In the current collecting frenzy, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Cooperstown to acquire historical relics. Some modern-day players are quite generous: Immediately after his record 20-strikeout game against the Seattle Mariners in 1986, Roger Clemens of the Red Sox packed off the glove, hat, shoes and ball he used for his final strikeout. Steve Carlton, who will probably be inducted five years hence, has loaned the museum all four of his Cy Young Awards. Other players are distressingly inconsiderate: Though Cooperstown has asked him for something—anything—representative of his unprecedented 40 stolen base-40 home run season last year, Jose Canseco has yet to respond. He is known, however, to have sold one of his uniforms to a collector for $2,500.

How can Cooperstown compete with big-spending collectors? There is some talk of altering the museum's policy of not buying mementos, but that would open up a can of worms the size of Doubleday Field. On the other hand, the Hall does not discourage benefactors who wish to purchase artifacts and then donate or lend them to the museum. And, says curator Ted Spencer, "we also have a secret weapon in acquiring new pieces: Bill Guilfoile." Guilfoile is the associate director of the Hall, in charge of public relations and one of the 10 nicest men in the world. A former p.r. man with the Yankees and Pirates, Guilfoile is in attendance at most of baseball's major events, and he's a hard man to turn down.

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