It says “Museum” on the entrance, but that’s not what this place is. It’s a love letter, one crafted over 150 years, with hundreds of authors and millions of recipients.
Basketball has the swag. Football has the press. Hockey has the grind. Soccer has the fervor. Baseball has the nostalgia, and that nostalgia makes a home in Cooperstown, New York.
I just finished a 3,500-mile road trip across the United States, from Portland, Maine to Glendale, California. My route took me through upstate New York; why not spend an afternoon in baseball’s hallowed halls as I made my way westward?
The village, billed as the “spiritual home of baseball,” is cocooned within the rolling green foothills of the Appalachians. Numerous towns dot the landscape, but most are small enough that you can sprint from one end of town to the other without breaking a sweat. There are no big businesses up here, no Uber or GoodEats. It’s not off the grid, but Buck, the town’s utility guy, hasn’t come by to fix the grid in at least four years, and it’s starting to go on the fritz.
Cooperstown thrives on baseball fans making the pilgrimage to the Hall of Fame; a bartender told me there were 63 locally-owned stores in the area, an impressive number for a town of less than 2,000. The village could have easily become a tourist trap, a town filled with kitsch stores and kitschier store owners.
It didn’t; Cooperstown is one of the most genuine, honest places I’ve ever visited. Tourists and residents alike share the same view: this is the baseball town. The nostalgia drifts through the air like pollen from the spring trees, infecting everyone in town. Grandparents remember their first baseball games. Parents fantasize about having a catch with their kids in the backyard. Children dream of one day seeing their face cast in bronze on the walls of the Hall of Fame.
The nostalgia seeps through every item in the museum. It’s more than a baseball; it’s the ball that David Freese hit for a walk-off winner in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series with the Cardinals down to their final strike. It’s the 755th baseball that Hank Aaron sent over the outfield fence in a Major League game for his final home run.
It’s not a glove; it’s the glove that Yogi Berra used to catch Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series, to this date the only perfect game in postseason history. It’s “the glove” that made “the catch” as Willie Mays raced down a fly ball in center field.
It’s not a bat; it’s the bat that Honus Wagner, the “Flying Dutchman,” used nearly 100 years ago. It’s the bat that Roberto Clemente used to record his 3,000th, and ultimately final, hit before his untimely death.
They are more than objects–more even than objects used to accomplish historic feats. They are moments encapsulated in time, brief occurrences when the game of baseball became The Game, the idealized, perfect image we hold the game to be in our minds.
But even baseball’s most glorious shrine can’t idealize something that can at times be ugly. What to do about steroids? Cheaters? Gamblers? They aren’t part of The Game. Baseball is Truth, Justice, and the American Way. It’s Liberty and the Freedom to swing at an upstairs fastball. The field is perfectly level from the outfield to home, an even playing field for the poor Irish kid from Boston, the upstart immigrant from Puerto Rico, and the college prep kid from Fordham.
I have gone on record saying baseball should recognize the accomplishments of its fallen heroes. Barry Bonds hit 762 home runs. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chased the home run record in 1998. Pete Rose collected 4,256 hits. History says these things happened.
Nostalgia, though, isn’t history. Nostalgia is idealized. It’s The Game in all it’s American perfection, it’s heroes enshrined in all their glory. It’s not players using steroids, placing bets on their own games, and cheating their way into the record books. Cooperstown is not a museum; it’s a shrine to baseball nostalgia, a love letter to The Game. And Pete Rose and Barry Bonds and their like don’t belong.
It’s not fair, or just, or right. History doesn’t lie, but sometimes we’d rather not listen. Sometimes we’d rather close our eyes and remember baseball “as it used to be,” and conjure an image of baseball “as we want it to be.” For all its history and artifacts, Cooperstown’s shrine is an imagined history of a baseball game that exists only in our nostalgia.
After departing the museum I wandered into Doubleday Field, the supposed site of baseball’s first game. The wooden bleachers and the metal fencing give the field an endearingly-classic feel. I sat down on the bleachers and looked out over the field as the shadows of the trees just started to creep over the outfield and the sun basked the grass in that blissful shade of green.
Two Little League teams were playing a game on the field. I have no idea who the teams were. I have no idea if it was an organized match. I have no idea if anyone was even keeping score. All I saw were two groups of kids playing a game of baseball in the afternoon sun.
No balls or gloves, bats or helmets from this game will end up next door in the museum. In all likelihood none of their faces will be etched in bronze. But it was in that late-afternoon sun at Doubleday Field that I finally saw the idealized, nostalgic image of baseball come to life.
Baseball is a kid’s game played by grown-ups. Grown-ups have a nasty habit of complicating things. They sign contracts. They get traded, and move in free agency. Sometimes they feel the need to cut corners to get better. For kids, baseball is much simpler: it’s a game among friends.
When you visit Cooperstown–and I hope, and highly recommend, that you do–you’ll find a shrine to an idealized game, one that will undoubtedly move you and reaffirm your love of the game. But Cooperstown is not the “spiritual home” of baseball; that honor belongs to every park, street, and diamond where kids meet up on a lazy summer afternoon for a pick-up game. That’s where you’ll find The Game of Baseball.