“The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again.”
James Earl Jones as Terence Mann, Field of Dreams – 1989
July 2-6, 2018 – Cooperstown, New York
After leaving Lake George, we decided to head to Cooperstown, NY. This is a place that celebrates so much of what my early years were about: the game of baseball.
Growing up in suburban Detroit, my world centered around the Detroit Tigers. That was passed down from my dad. As a teenager, he would jump on a streetcar in River Rouge and head to what was then known as Briggs Stadium to see the legends of the 1930’s play. Stories of the Tigers greats were a given, but they were also peppered with other heroes like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Detroit was the only team in the majors to top 1 million a year in attendance during the Great Depression (in 1935 and 1937), which shows the depth of the love of the game in the Motor City. On many occasions in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, Dad would come home from work and say “Jimmer, want to go to a game?” Within half an hour, we were in the bleachers cheering on our Tigs. Quite often, those excursions would include my sister and my mom. Judy could have become a baseball statistician, as she was awesome at filling out a scorecard. Mom loved the game also, and was one of those gals who would come ten feet out of her seat when the Tigers scored a run. It didn’t matter that Detroit itself was falling apart at the seams, as baseball seemed to transcend the tensions of that era.
So coming to Cooperstown is like returning to Tiger Stadium for me. Diana and I were here one other time in the 1980’s, and we were awestruck by the quaint charm of the town and beauty of the area. At that time, we had dropped down along Lake Otsego from the New York Thruway.
This time, we came in from the south. We were amazed how beautiful the scenery was on the southern route along Interstate 88. If there is one thing that has become apparent to us on this trip, it’s that the State of New York is an absolutely gorgeous place. 🙂
Cooperstown itself is a cozy little hamlet, nestled along the southern shore of Lake Otsego.
It is here that the Susquehanna River begins it’s long journey to Chesapeake Bay.
While most of the stores on Main Street are baseball themed, there are a few that are normal, small-town America establishments.
One of those is the Cooperstown Diner. Strictly a short-order type of place, you practically have to back out after eating, as there is no room to turn around. We ate there on our first visit and enjoyed it.
Tucked behind Main Street is Doubleday Field. This is the ‘home’ of baseball, as lore has that Abner Doubleday and friends first played the game on this spot in 1839. Back then, it was a cow pasture. During baseball’s centennial year of 1939, the first All Star game was played here. That was also the year the Hall of Fame opened its doors. Since then, there has been an annual Hall of Fame game played here between two major league teams, along with 350 other baseball contests of some sort.
Watching a game here is a treat, as is evident by the smile on my face. Sitting on the wooden benches brought new meaning to the term ‘box seats’. 🙂
The Hall of Fame itself is tucked into a series of storefronts at the east end of Main Street. One of the first things seen upon entering the building are a series of 30 lockers, each one representing a major league team.
Here is the Detroit Tigers locker, which contains a few items that relate to the team. In case you are wondering, Jackie Robinson didn’t play for the Tigers; the commissioner retired his number league-wide on April 15, 1997. That was the 50th anniversary of Robinson breaking the color barrier in the majors. Also, since no one wore a number in the early days of the game, Tiger great Ty Cobb didn’t have a number to retire.
Many other Tiger items were scattered throughout the building.
This is Ty Cobb’s warm-up sweater. Teams now wear jackets during chilly games.
They also had one of his bats and his spikes. Legend has him portrayed as a dirty player, born from his take-no-prisoners style on the base paths and his aggressive style of play. By the time his career ended in 1928, he has amassed 90 major league records. Many of those still stand today. After his baseball career, he became a successful businessman and was a generous philanthropist.
Another larger than life player from that era was Babe Ruth. The Hall of Fame has an entire section devoted to him. George Herman ‘Babe’ Ruth was born and raised in Baltimore, where he had a reputation as a hell-raiser. He was sent to a Catholic reformatory at age 7, and was eventually taken under the wing of Brother Matthias. During his twelve years at the school he became proficient at stickball and baseball, eventually being noticed by the then-minor league Baltimore Orioles. From there, his contract was purchased by the major league Boston Red Sox.
The day he arrived in Boston, he met a waitress at a coffee shop named Helen Woodford. Before long he proposed to her with the line, “How about you and me getting married, hon?” I chuckled at this, as everyone is “hon’ in Baltimore. 🙂 She said yes, and the teenagers were married three months after that first meeting. Babe went on to become one of the greatest players the game has ever seen. His 575 foot home run at Navin Field (later Briggs Stadium and then Tiger Stadium) in Detroit still stands as the longest home run in major league history. His career 714 home runs stood from 1935 until 1974. Sadly, Ruth died from esophageal cancer at age 53.
The person who broke Babe’s home run record in 1974 was Henry Aaron. Hammerin’ Hank, an African-American, received hate mail and death threats at the prospect of him breaking Ruth’s record. After finishing the 1973 season with 713 homers, his biggest fear was that he wouldn’t live to break the record the following year. He did, and he ended up finishing his career with 755 home runs. A home run that didn’t count towards that total was one he hit in the 1971 All-Star Game in Detroit. I was one seat behind the guy who caught it in the upper deck of right-center field. The ball had a dent in it, resulting in it not flying straight (and me ducking). My dad so wanted to catch it for me, but the guy in front gave it to his boy, and the kid was overjoyed. I told Dad, ” That’s ok, Dad…look how happy he is!”
Aaron was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush for his contributions to the United States.
Another story from the 1971 All Star Game was the home run that Reggie Jackson hit. We were sitting in the upper deck below the light tower in right-center, which was hidden from our view by the roof above us. The ball jumped off of Jackson’s bat and he stood in awe (as did the rest of us) as the ball rose high in the Detroit sky and over our heads. When the ball fell back to the field, we assumed it had hit the roof. We found out after the game that it actually hit a transformer on the light tower, a whopping 400 feet from home plate. Had that tower not been there it could have easily surpassed Ruth’s record homer on the same piece of real estate, as the ball was still rising when it hit.
Because it struck the transformer (see the blue arrow in the photo above), it technically was not hit out of the park. Diana and I were fortunate enough to witness him finally clear that roof to the right of that arrow in 1984 when he played for the Angels.
There are so many memories for me in that stadium. With two complete decks circling the field there was a constant level of sound from the crowd, even when nothing exciting was happening. At the point when something did happen, the place erupted. When Mom, Dad, Diana and I saw our last game there in 1999, I stopped Dad as he started to walk down the tunnel to leave the stands. I wanted to get one last glimpse of the field with him, knowing the Tigers were moving across town the next season. He reluctantly turned, revealing tears in his eyes. Neither one of us said a word. We didn’t need to.
Back to Cooperstown. The Hall of Fame covers all aspects of the game, including the Negro Leagues, the Latin connection. and the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. The latter was founded during World War II to keep baseball in the public eye, as there was a fear that the majors would cease play due to a lack of players.
Teams such as the Grand Rapids Chicks, the Rockford Peaches, and the Kalamazoo Lassies were highlighted in this exhibit and in the movie A League of Their Own.
And who can forget the San Diego Chicken? 🙂
The actual Hall of Fame is the place where the plaques of baseball’s greats are showcased.
It extends to a central point where the original 5 inductees are displayed.
Right in the middle of those 5 is Ty Cobb, sporting the Tiger’s Olde English D on his cap. 🙂
Next to him is Yankee great Babe Ruth, one of the most beloved players ever.
And here is Hammerin’ Hank Aaron, who holds that spot in my heart from 1971.
A couple of the many Tigers in the Hall that are special to me are…
…another Baltimore native, Al Kaline. One of the greatest Tigers ever, he started with the team at 18 years old and is still employed by the team at the age of 83. You may recall our post Al Kaline and a Day with Family that included a giant photo of him that we delivered to Diana’s brother in Florida. Dan had won a Detroit Free Press contest as a child after he wrote to explain why his school should get the photo, and was dubbed the World’s Greatest Al Kaline Fan. His school displayed the photo for awhile, then offered it back to Dan.
And a fan favorite, long-time Tiger Manager Sparky Anderson. Even though he managed many more years with the Tigers than he did with the Reds, he wanted his plaque to have him in a Cincinnati cap, as they were the ones who first took a chance with him. A classic exchange between him and Kirk Gibson during the 1984 World Series can be seen at the end of this post.
The 1984 Tiger team has two members being inducted into the Hall this year: Jack Morris and Alan Trammell.
The backing plates with their signatures stand ready for their plaques.
Just outside the Hall is a display with some of Morris’ memorabilia…
…along with some of Trammell’s treasures.
And my all-time favorite Tiger was the guy who penned this quote: Ernie Harwell. He was the radio announcer for most of my life. To most Detroiters, his voice was the music of the game the city loved so much. Many summer nights were spent listening to him on my transistor radio next to my bed. His easy Georgia accent was very soothing to listen to. When a batter took a called third strike, Ernie would say, “He stood there like a house by the side of the road,” and a Tiger home run would result in, “That ball is LOOOOOOONG gone!” On a foul ball into the stands he would say, “A man from (insert a name of a Michigan town) got that one,” as a way to acknowledge listeners from the region. As a kid, it took me many years before I realized he really didn’t know where the person who caught the ball was from. 🙂
Ernie’s microphone is displayed in the Hall of Fame, along with an audio recording of him calling the first inning of the last game ever played at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. I actually remember listening to that game.
He is enshrined at Cooperstown as a Ford C. Frick Award winner, given to broadcasters for their major contributions to the sport. A recording of some of his calls can be heard by clicking HERE.
And the Sparky Anderson video can be seen HERE.
Be sure to listen carefully to Sparky’s voice after Gibby’s home run. It’s classic. 🙂
That wraps up our time in Cooperstown. Be sure to stay tuned as we head back to Michigan to spend time with family and friends. Until then, safe and happy travels to all!