ILLUSTRATED, June 12, 1989
IT'S AN UGLY
LITTLE THING THAT LOOKS MORE LIKE A FOSSILIZED chaw of tobacco than a baseball.
The cross seams on one side have come apart, revealing some kind of cloth
stuffing that resembles dirty yarn. Hard to believe anybody saved the thing in
the first place. This is the so-called Doubleday ball, supposedly used by Abner
Doubleday and the boys 150 years ago and most certainly used 100 years later to
foster the belief that baseball was created in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1839. � We
all know by now of course, that Abner Doubleday was the man whom baseball
invented, not the other way around. Historians tell us that Cooperstown has no
better claim to being baseball's birthplace than Brooklyn or Hoboken, N.J., or
Murray Hill in Manhattan, to name just a few sites where baseball was played in
its earliest days. In 1839, the year Doubleday is alleged to have conceived the
game in Cooperstown, he was a first-year cadet at West Point, confined to
So how can
something so wrong be so right? As the National Baseball Hall of Fame and
Museum celebrates its 50th anniversary this summer of 1989, baseball fans
should give thanks to the solons of the game who had the bad sense and good
taste to make Cooperstown home plate. Maybe the game didn't begin in
Cooperstown, but it's nice to think that it began in some small town when some
boy named Abner drew a diamond in the dirt. And after the great players have
touched 'em all, they can find no warmer greeting than the one they get when
they cross the plate there on the shores of Otsego Lake.
something like going to heaven," Hall of Famer Charlie Gehringer (class of
'49) said of his own induction. He could have been speaking of the village of
Cooperstown, which is the stuff of picture postcards, or of the state of grace
that comes with joining the likes of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and Christy
Once you begin to
appreciate the Hall--and even some Hall of Famers still don't--then you should
go back and take another look at Cooperstown's Exhibit A, that ugly little
Doubleday ball. It's not just stuffed with cloth but also with the dreams of
boys and the sweat of men. Pardon the mush, but it's the perfect symbol of a
game bursting at the seams with 150 years of history and lore. Out of that
homely ball, which is the oldest physical evidence of the game anywhere, have
sprung the thousands of other artifacts in Cooperstown. And, pardon the
anthropomorphism, each one of those relics has a story to tell.
There's the resin
bag that Ralph Branca used to get a grip on the ball he threw to Bobby Thomson
in 1951. Here are the shoes of Shoeless Joe Jackson. The glove that Brooks
Robinson used to make all those plays in the 1970 World Series. Cool Papa
Bell's sunglasses, themselves the essence of cool, worn when he starred in the
Negro leagues between 1922 and 1950. There's Ruth's 60th home run ball and
Roger Maris's 61st home run ball. Maury Wills's 104th stolen base from 1962.
The bat with which Ted Williams, in his last at bat, homered. Joe DiMaggio's
locker, which the Hall later found out had also been used by Mickey Mantle.
Pipp's glove. Orel Hershiser's uniform shirt from the 1988 World Series. (Hmmm,
looks small.) The medal that catcher Moe Berg was awarded for his spy work
during World War II. A huge trophy inscribed, presented to denton t. young, the
king of pitchers--call it Cy Young's award. The home plate from Willie Mays's
1,950th run. A crown given to "King Carl" Hubbell and a Triple Crown
for Frank Robinson. Mathewson's checkers set. Jocko Conlan's whisk broom. Ty
Cobb's sliding pads. The Babe's bowling ball....
"I wonder if
my silver bats are here," says Hall of Famer George Kell (class of '83). On
the Saturday night of the annual Hall of Fame induction weekend each summer,
the museum is reserved for the Hall of Famers and their families and friends.
On this night--July 30, 1988-- Kell is looking for the two silver bats he
donated to the Hall; one he got for winning the 1943 Inter-State League batting
title, the other for winning the 1949 American League batting race by .0002 of
a point (.3429 to .3427) over Williams. "My, this place brings back
memories," says Kell. "I just suddenly recalled the time in 1946 when
Connie Mack called me to his room in the Book Cadillac Hotel in Detroit to tell
me he was trading me to the Tigers for Barney McCosky. 'You're going to be a
great one,' Connie told me, 'but I'm trading you because I won't be able to
afford to pay your salary.' I was pretty upset at the time--I was only 23--but
I guess it turned out O.K. Now, where are those bats?"
Kell is looking a
bit anxious when he suddenly glances down at a glass case on the second floor.
"Here they are!" he exclaims. There they are, all right, long, silver
teardrops to match Kell's own. "Changes your life, getting into the Hall of
Fame," he says. "For the rest of my life I'll be known as Hall of Famer
George Kell. And a hundred years from now my great-grandchildren will come
here, and they'll think I was as good as Cobb or Ruth. Let's go down to the
gallery now. I want to check to make sure I'm still here."
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 Roger Maris, 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. 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