During President’s Day weekend, I had the chance to go to upstate New York to a little town called Cooperstown and drop in on The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. For those that do not know, Cooperstown is a village that is only 1.6 square miles and in the 2000 Census, the population was a little over 2,000. It is on the south end of Otsego Lake and is a very quiet little village with one well known road, Main Street. Main Street is about 4 blocks long and is the home to restaurants and diners, small town shops and some other shops that have one focus, baseball. On the former farm of Elihu Phinney, a baseball stadium named Doubleday Field stands and at 25 Main Street, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum resides. That is where I spent two days on a very cold weekend in February.
Driving into Cooperstown, my only regret is that we were there during the off-season. Besides the fact it was 10 degrees and snowing most of the weekend, I knew I would not get the full feel as some restaurants and shops were closed for the winter. However, I did have a great experience and I spent a full day walking through the halls of the history of our favorite pastime, baseball.
As I was walking through the building with my fiancée (an avid Yankees fan also and the reason for the trip was that she had never been at the Hall of Fame before), I started taking mental notes of my favorite things. As you walk through the three floors of the Hall of Fame, there are exhibits that you walk by and there are exhibits that have you freeze in time. You stare. You think. You wonder. You imagine. You feel like a kid again. To each person, the feelings are different. My fiancée would ask me questions about things I was looking at and why and I would explain. But, there are fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, grandparents and busloads of families doing the same. Baseball is a game that is passed on from generation to generation and it really has never changed. We throw a ball and attempt to hit it. We run, we score and we try to get the other team out. That is why we love baseball. Whether the player was on a team in 1911 or 2011, the game is still the same. The bases are 90 feet apart. The pitching rubber is still 60’6″ away from home plate and we play for nine innings.
As I walked through, there were some displays that had my attention more than others. Yes, I am a Yankees fan and yes there are more displays about the Yankees than any other team. But, whether you are a Yankees fan, Red Sox fan, Cubs fan or a Marlins fan you will have similar experiences. So, today I bring to you my Top 5 Exhibits at The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
#1 – Babe Ruth Exhibit
What made this exhibit so cool is that Babe Ruth is still an icon almost a century after he started playing professional baseball. In one corner is his jersey hanging in a locker. My fiancée said, “The jersey is huge.” It was. The pinstriped #3 was hanging and it was gigantic. Until you stand there and look at his jersey, you really have no idea how large of a man he really was. In another area are the various trophies given to Babe Ruth through his career. These trophies were given to him because he simply was “The Babe”. They were in recognition of his accomplishments and they were ways for people to thank him. I think today, we cannot grasp how important Babe Ruth was back then. Standing there, I started to get that feeling. Amazingly, it was something non-baseball related that had my attention for about five minutes. It was a letter from a nurse at a hospital and a book next to it. The letter was from a nurse. The letter basically said that on the night that he died, just before he passed away, Babe Ruth asked her to bring him a certain book about him so he can sign one more autograph before he passed away. The letter was witnessed and authenticated. That little note and that one signature was simply remarkable. George Herman Ruth wanted to be “The Babe” one last time before he passed away. Little did he know that he will be “The Babe” forever.
#2 – Roger’s Hornsby Lifetime Pass
The Hall of Fame has displays for every championship team scattered throughout the building and those exhibits really focus on a player or two from that team. Within an exhibit on the St. Louis Cardinals is Rogers Hornsby. There is a gold card in the display and it reads, “The Major Leagues of Professional Baseball present this lifetime pass to Rogers Hornsby in appreciation of long and meritorious service.” It has the signatures of both league presidents within the gold card as well. Next to that is the medal that Hornsby got for winning the 1925 Most Valuable Player Award. He won the Triple Crown that year with a .403 batting average with 39 home runs and 143 RBI. Some players just stood out in their day and far and beyond the others. Hornsby was that type of player. What got my attention about these two pieces was that they were so simple, yet elegant. Hornsby did not get a laminated card to get him into every ballpark, it was gold. Plaques and trophies are given to Most Valuable Players today and have been for decades. In 1925, the best player got a simple little medal for being the best. As players go, he still is one of the best…ever.
#3 – Ted Williams’ Baseballs
Imagine a case of 77 baseballs, 7 wide and 11 high. The baseballs are all colored a different color and have a batting average on them. Above them is this display, “To Ted Willams, hitting was a science. To each of the 77 baseballs below, he has assigned a batting average. Each indicates what he believes his average would be if pitches were delivered in this area of the strike zone.” The 77 baseballs cover the strike zone, at least Ted Williams’ strike zone. Looking at this display, it looks like Williams believed the only place to pitch him was low and outside to low and inside. He believed his batting average would be anywhere from .230 to .275 if the pitcher threw strikes over the very bottom of the strike zone. But be careful pitchers. You throw a pitch up and in the strike zone, you are guaranteeing that Ted Williams would hit anywhere from .330 to .400. Ted Williams hit above .330 in all of his major league seasons, except for six. I had seen this display before when I had been to the Hall of Fame. However, at those times I never really took the time to really look at this display. Williams had the ability to breakdown the strike zone into small segments and know exactly how he hits with balls pitched to those segments. If Williams was playing today, with all of the computer technology we would be able to match his colored strike zone. Knowing what I have read about Williams, his eye sight and his ability to read the strike zone, I would be that Williams’ version of his strike zone would be the same as a computer generated model.
#4 – The Gretzky Honus Wagner Card
All of us have collected baseball cards. We have spent time putting them in number order or putting them into plastic to save them. We all have those few cards in our collections that are valuable and that we take special pride in. However, the Hall of Fame has a special collection of cards. It has a display of 25 cards on loan from Ken Kendrick, the managing partner of the Arizona Diamondbacks. This display features the rookie cards of Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron and Sandy Koufax. A 1954 Bowman Ted Williams card that was pulled from production is part of the collection. There is a 1916 Babe Ruth Sporting News card that is considered his rookie card. The card that gets all of the attention is the 1909 T206 Honus Wagner card that was once owned by Wayne Gretzky and has a current value of $2.8 million. This card was stopped by Honus Wagner because he did not want his card to be in cigarette packs since American Tobacco Company was the one distributing it. Kids could only get the card by buying cigarettes and Wagner did not want to be part of that. Or, Wagner simply wanted more money and he did not get it. There were only between 60 to 200 produced. As it is called, the Holy Grail is on display in the Hall of Fame and everyone stops to see it. I stopped. I stayed there and stared at the T206 Honus Wagner and remembered being a kid and my own baseball card collection. Maybe that is why baseball cards do that to us. They make us remember being young and innocent, when collecting cards of our favorite player was just a hobby and not a business.
#5 – Yankees Locker of the Late ‘70s
I was born in 1970, so my baseball formative years were between 1976 and 1979. During that time, I was growing up in New York. My family was all Yankees fans. My father’s company had season tickets to the Yankees (in the 5th row behind home plate) and I went to about 20 games each year from 1977 through 1980. There was a team that lost in the World Series in 1976 and won it in 1977 and 1978. That team, the team that was my favorite, was, and still is the New York Yankees.
Going through the exhibits, I once again had a moment to stop and pause. I stopped in front of the World Championship exhibit for the Yankees of 1977 and 1978. My favorite player, and the reason I became a catcher from 8 years old until I stopped playing baseball, was #15 Thurman Munson. Back then, Thurman was “Cap”, the Yankees Captain.
Leaving the Hall of Fame for a moment, in the old Yankee Stadium they never ever allowed another person to use Munson’s locker after his untimely death on August 2, 1979. In doing tours of the old stadium, I had a chance to see Munson’s locker and stand in front of it and remember the man that inspired me. In the new stadium, that locker is in the Yankees Museum.
So, going back to the Hall of Fame, Munson’s glove and catcher’s mask are there. Joining his in the exhibit is Ron Guidry’s and Goose Gossage’s jerseys and a bat by “Mr. October” Reggie Jackson. I stood there for a few minutes, remembered being young and remembered the team and the players that inspired me to love playing and watching the game of baseball.
Those are my Top 5 Exhibits at The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. However, I have two additional extras for you.
Extra #1 – Walking through the Hall of Fame, there is a definite era missing. What we call “the Steroid Era” seems to be missing. I didn’t see anything specific from Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Raphael Palmeiro, Barry Bonds, Brady Anderson (come on, I had to add him) and some of the other players who have tested positive or who have been alleged to have use performance enhancing drugs. There was nothing to celebrate their accomplishments. Then I saw a placard on the wall, and it explained it all. The placard said:
“Performance-Enhancing Drugs (PEDs)
Steroids, amphetamines and other performance-enhancing drugs have affected aspects of society, and baseball is no exception.
In this museum you will find artifacts, images and stories of players who have either admitted to or have been suspected of using banned substances. You will not find specific reference to this issue on the individual artifact labels.
This museum is committed to documenting today’s game honestly and impartially. With the perspective of time, the Museum will present and interpret the story of performance-enhancing drugs and their impact on the game.”
Extra #2 – The last exhibit is one you are waiting for throughout your visit to the Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame Gallery is the place where players are immortalized. There are plaques from 1936 through 2010 in the room. As the sign on the wall says, “Since 1939, the national hall of Fame and Museum has inducted baseball’s brightest stars and immortalized them with a bronze plaque in Cooperstown.” The first class was inducted in 1936 and the building opened in 1939.
From the first class of Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson to the last class of Andre Dawson, Doug Harvey and Whitey Herzog they are all there hanging on the wall, immortalized forever. There have been about 15,000 players to have played in the major league and only 295 players, umpires, executives and others are immortalized in Cooperstown. No baseball fan’s life can be complete until they visit Cooperstown. It is special to reach out and touch the plaque of an all-time great. Thank you to all 295 of you for the game you loved and giving all of us the dreams that we have to one day be on those walls with you.
That is my Top 5 Exhibits within the Hall of Fame. However, when you are in Cooperstown make sure you spend some time looking around. Get up for breakfast and go to the Cooperstown Diner. There are 6 tables and 6 seats at the bar. The food is amazing and inexpensive. For lunch, stop in at T.Js for a quick bite. The local breweries give you some great suds and the stores are truly second to none when it comes to baseball.
If you cannot tell, I love baseball. I love everything about it. I love the game of today, the history of yesterday and the competition it brings out between the people on the field and the fans of the teams they follow. Join with me and celebrate the game we all love with your own visit to the Hall of Fame and find out for yourself why this game is amazing.
Author’s Note – All photos in the article were taken by the author at The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum on February 20, 2011.
Tags: Arizona Diamondbacks, Babe Ruth, Cooperstown, New York Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals