To judge by the way people flock to the Hall of Fame, the chance to peer into Joe DiMaggio's locker or listen to Babe Ruth's recorded voice outweighs the fact that Cooperstown is fairly remote, accessible over back roads dotted by quaintly named hostelries like the Shangri La Motel and Sleepy Hollow Cottages. There is another way to get to Cooperstown, of course, and that is to hit 500 home runs, win 350 games or perform similar baseball heroics. So far only 118 have traveled this route, a select company inducted into Cooperstown's high-ceilinged hall with the solemnity of slain warriors received into Valhalla.
It has become ritual among baseball writers to noisily second-guess Cooperstown's selections, a clamor that reached a crescendo last February when Satchel Paige either was, or was not, elected, depending on one's view of the separate section newly established to honor greats of the old Negro leagues. If nothing else, the new section should at least spread the secret that baseball ever excluded blacks to start with, for the only hint of this I came across was a cryptic line on Branch Rickey's bronze plaque. It read BROUGHT JACKIE ROBINSON TO BROOKLYN IN 1947, which by itself could lead one to suppose that Rickey was a New York cab driver, and an uncommonly obliging one at that.
But controversy means publicity, and Cooperstown is the only sports shrine able to live solely on admissions—$1.50 for adults—unless somebody cares to quibble that the goodwill engendered by the annual major league exhibition game at nearby Abner Doubleday Field constitutes a subsidy. Doubleday was the man long credited with having invented baseball in Cooperstown, and the subsequent discovery that the game was really invented by Alexander Cartwright in Hoboken, N.J. poses no problem for Ken Smith, the ex-New York sports-writer who is the Hall of Fame's director. "We call this the home of baseball," Smith advises. "We don't say baseball was actually invented here."
Smith is an apple-cheeked man with tufts of white hair flanking a bald pate like batsmen on either side of home plate. While we visited in his second-floor office, he sat at his cluttered desk, occasionally singing to himself, "It happened in Monterrey a long time ago...," little caring that Monterrey was in the old outlaw Mexican League, which does not even merit a separate section. Smith said that much of his time is spent answering requests for information from people starting new halls of fame, and he showed me a folder bulging with inquiries from such groups as the American Waterworks Association, which had recently organized a Water Utility Hall of Fame.
"They all write to us—we're the Metropolitan Museum of halls of fame," Smith said, using a metaphor that might have gone unchallenged were it not for the next stop on my journey. This was Saratoga Springs, N.Y., home of the National Museum of Racing, a shrine resembling the Hall of Fame of the Trotter at Goshen in a couple of important respects; it stands adjacent to a historic track, in this case the old thoroughbred course beyond the Citgo station on Union Avenue, and it has horses among its immortals—including Man o' War, Seabiscuit and Citation—although any thought that animals in general therefore enjoy favor is quickly dispelled by the NO DOGS PLEASE sign on the front door.
That last prohibition, it turns out, is intended to protect the museum's antique furniture, much of it salvaged from the elegant hotels that flourished in Saratoga Springs when the town was a summer retreat for New York's fashionable rich. Saratoga Springs' grand frame houses are now banquets for termites, but it still has a spa or two in operation and its race meeting every August continues to occupy a prominent place on the sport's calendar.
The museum reflects past glories both of Saratoga Springs and the sport of kings. It abounds in silver trays and gold cups, not to mention a collection of paintings topped off by two dozen oils by the 19th century equine artist Edward Troye. There is also a wing containing portraits of such "patrons of the turf" as the handicapper John Banks Campbell, whose likeness is accompanied by the gently worded inscription: "Racing was the better for his having been part of it." Unfortunately, the floors of that wing had been waxed earlier in the day, so the only way I could inspect it was to wait until Sidney (Sly) Veitch, the custodian, had departed for lunch, the Morning Telegraph tucked under his arm, and then steal on tiptoe past a barricade he had put up.
The wing, like the rest of the museum, was immaculate, and after lunch I tried to make up for my sneakiness by complimenting Veitch on his care. "I want to keep it nice—that's what they pay me for," he replied. A slight figure with an Adam's apple protruding over his flannel shirt, the 67-year-old Veitch said he hired on with the museum after it opened in 1955 as a way of staying close to the sport that had been his life. His father was Silas (Si) Veitch, a well-known steeplechase jockey of half a century ago, and he himself rode jumping horses for many years, but he considers his custodian's job not a comedown but "a lucky break."
One part of the museum that receives Veitch's careful attention is the Hall of Fame, an austere room with plaques listing the 121 honored jockeys, trainers and horses. I asked Veitch what goes through his mind when he goes into the Hall of Fame to clean up.
He misunderstood the question. "Oh, no," he said. "I rode my share of winners, but I'll never be in the Hall of Fame."