The extremely long and yet still incomplete Cooperstown write-up

DMZ · April 2, 2005 at 8:07 am · Filed Under General baseball 

People said they were interested, and here at U.S.S. Mariner labs we’re constantly striving to serve our customers, so — here’s my very long writeup of my week in Cooperstown, which still has gaps in it remaining to be filled (or not, I haven’t decided yet), and I need to go through and hyperlink stuff. So you can either brave it or wait until Monday, when I hope to have another chance at it.

An M’s Fan in Cooperstown

I headed out to Cooperstown late on Saturday to do a week of research for a project that has not yet been revealed. The plan was to take their daily midnight flight from Seattle to New York (SEA-JFK) then a second flight from Seattle to Syracuse, where we’d drive to Cooperstown.Travel-type notes: Albany would have been better, but JetBlue doesn’t fly to Albany. I didn’t want to fly a different carrier because JetBlue has nice seats, was cheap, and we also didn’t want to fly a puddle-jumper into the second destination, which makes my wife uncomfortable.

The flight out of Seattle was delayed by an hour. It was hard to schedule a whole day around getting on a flight and falling asleep and then delay falling asleep, then putting off falling-asleep part for an hour. Then on the flight (now a 1am departure for a 6h flight), a guy sat in front of our row listening to JetBlue’s in-flight DirecTV service the whole time, JetBlue’s cheap headphones over a headband. He watched rap videos on MTV the whole flight at really high volume. I could hear the high end through my sealed headphones while I was listening to music. It was crazy. And I discovered that despite taking a flight at a late time and needing sleep, there’s still no way for me to comfortably do that in an airplane seat. It’s just not going to ever happen, and I should get used to the idea.

This was not, amazingly, the worst flight I’ve ever been on. Three years ago I flew back from Maui, where we’d gone for our honeymoon, on Hawaiian (worst seats in the industry) and I sat behind a screaming baby who spent the entire flight stinking up the place with diapers straining from a load like a flu-stricken Atlas about to drop the world.

The drive from Syracuse to New York was one of the most boring I’ve ever had to make. It was long, gray, and featureless. There’s a lot of trees out here, but in winter there aren’t as many evergreens as I’m used to seeing. Snow hung around, grey stubborn snow, covered in dirt and sand. That snow wasn’t going anywhere without an eviction notice.

To make the drive worse, there was nothing to listen to on the radio. I’d brought a cassette adapter for the car, but it had a CD player. I didn’t bring any CDs, of course, because I’ve got an iPod for use on frequent flights back and forth to San Jose (which I won’t be making any more because Expedia cut my group, but that’s another story entirely). I listened to crazy mid-state New York radio a loooooooot in my driving around, and (remarkably) there were a ton of stations, and (as you’d expect) they were terrible. It was like Seattle radio without KEXP. I would shout with joy when we got within range of a “classic rock” station that might play “Shattered” (which is wildly-overplayed on classic rock stations, for reasons that would compose another post).

Back to Cooperstown. It’s really small. Main Street runs about two blocks of shops, from the National Baseball Hall of Fame at one end to Main and Chestnut at the other. The shops are all baseball-related memorbilia and Cooperstown-related clothes. Pete Rose has his name on a memorbilia shop here. The stock of team-related stuff was seemingly 90% Jeter-Alex Rodrgiuez-Matsui-Giambi jersey T-shirts. I saw one Ichiro! shirt. None of the shops sold reallyl old-school baseball jerseys. Say you’re me, and you’re looking for a crazy 1899-style jersey top. You’re not going to find it here. I’d have thought there’d be a market for that in Cooperstown. I’d have started a shop except that I’d have to move out here, and I don’t think I’m a good fit.

There’s a store in Cooperstown that features a lot of rivalry gear, like T-shirts that say “This is your brain (Red Sox logo). This is your brain on drugs (Yankees logo).” These shirts are paired with the reverse, so if you’re a fan of either team, you can get shirts that suit you. I find this usettling. This is overly dramatic, but it’s like selling arms to both sides in a war, and while each fan gets to say “you suck” to the other, the guy running the store either
– agrees with one but is willing to ignore that to take money from the other side
– agrees with neither but doesn’t care

In which case, it seems strange that fans of these teams, so devoted to this rivalry that they’ll plunk down a twenty for a cheap shirt to let others know their place in it, would support someone who also deals in gear that insults them.

I wouldn’t buy a “Yankees suck” T-shirt from a guy in Seattle who also sold a “Mariners suck” T-shirt. I want my fan gear from other fans. Is that so odd?

Also featured: bootleg T-shirts of Calvin peeing on the Yankee/Red Sox logo. I can’t believe that of the MLB, who protects its licenses zealously, the two teams, who are both rabid about the value of their logos, and the comic syndicate that owns the rights to “Calvin and Hobbes,” none of them have reduced that store to a smoldering crater.

There are a couple of modest places to eat. Over the course of a week, I
found the best of them (the Doubleday Cafe) and pronounce it “okay”.

When we ate at TJ’s, we looked at the menu which (as most places on Main Street did) had a little touristy blurb alongside “Burgers cooked medium or medium well will not be returned and will be paid for” and warnings that unruly patrons would be removed. The blurb said that Cooperstown was a “mecca” for tourists all over. “Does that make this my haj?” I asked my wife. She argued that for me, it was actually appropriate. The food was bleah.

We stayed at the Landmark Inn, which I highly recommend. Unless your reservations might conflict with mine, in which case you should stay at the Best Western or something. The thing about the Bed & Breakfast is if you get a good one, for a modest price premium you get a nice room in a cozy house, quiet to read, and a good breakfast and possibly another meal. If you draw badly, you’re in a themed B&B and forced to sleep on a back-breaking rack, play along with their traditional get-to-know-your-fellow-lodger games at dinner and then get up the next morning to make pleasant conversation with the people you didn’t want to get to know the night and manage a polite smile despite having just unstrapped yourself from the torture-with-pillow, while your back spasms keep stabbing your nerves.
The Landmark’s the first kind. The breakfasts are great. The beds are too good, to the point I recommend staying away from them unless you want to fall asleep right then. They may be drugged somehow, I’m not sure. I’ve rarely had better rest while on the road.

My fingers slowed by reluctantce to type this but, if I’m to be honest here, I must report that the Hall of Fame itself was a huge disappointment. They’re doing wide-scale renovations that have reduced the exhibits available to:
– the plaques
– a hallway with some blown-up replica documents
– the theater
– a huge room with baseball-related Sports Illustrated covers blown up
and hung on the walls
– the records section, with career and active
– some team sections: the really good A’s team, for instance, or the
1990s Yankees (“the team of the century”)
– the writer/broadcaster section
– some good historical stuff, as you’d expect

That’s it. It felt like half the museum or more was missing — hallways that would seem like they should take us to more stuff were roped off.

In order, then:
The plaque room is anti-climactic. I had a mental image that the Hall of Fame would have a display for each player: their plaque, a bunch of stuff if they had it, a little historical bio of their accomplishments.Instead, it’s a spacious room with player plaques on the wall, organized by year of induction. Browsing is great, though, going through and reading the selected bits about each player, or manager, and seeing the likeness of guys like Klem.

The hallway from the plaques up to the writer-broadcaster section has things like Jackie Robinson’s retirement letter. In a related racially-charged side note — I was in Cooperstown and the Hall of Fame for days before I saw an African-American who wasn’t part of the history of the game, and it was Jackie Robinson’s daughter, who was a pleasant as could be. I may have seen four, five people of color in my week here, and that makes me sad.

The theater plays a video presentation on the glory of baseball and how it represents life, America, and everything that’s good in this world. It’s presented the most serious and heart-tugging way it can manage. It’s sincere propoganda, but I’m a huge baseball fan, and that kind of heavy-handed, meaning-laden stuff makes me squirm. Also awkward: the video contained a lot of footage of Mark McGwire, as it was put together when he was a hero who saved baseball and not the object of public scorn.

After the film ends, a HoF guy comes in and leads a rousing chorus of “Take me out to the ballgame” which is also kind of awkward. Not only because I’m a terrible singer and embarassed about it, but because he has the same problem that Johnny Bench did when he tried to do this at the HoF ceremonies a couple years ago: it’s a 7th inning tradition, and I love it there, but it’s strange to sing it in other circumstances.

That said, I want to say though that the people who actually worked in the Hall of Fame, scarce though they were, were all amazingly friendly and helpful to everyone they saw.

The huge room with SI covers is dumb. If they were going to do it, they could have done great work with a giant timeline and covers of “Baseball” magazine and The Sporting News (which used to be baseball-centric and a great, great read).

The records section is pretty lame. There’s lists of career and active leaders in each category.

This is where Ichiro’s stuff is. From my notes, here’s what’s in his case:
– batting gloves, wristbands, bat, and gloves used for 261 & 262
– sunglasses, elbow guard, and spikes from October 3rd
– two tickets to 10/1 game
– bat used for his 200th hit that year (HR, 4th year he hit 200, which is some kind of record)
– away jersey top worn by Ichiro during the 2004 season
– a fan’s Ichi-meter that tracked the number of hits he got

It’s almost like someone from the Hall of Fame approached him after the game and Ichiro! stripped down, piled everything up, and said “here you go”. Pretty cool.

Team section was okay – it’s where Pete Rose has all his stuff, along with other Big Red Machine hats, balls, and stuff. I was annoyed at the Yankee display, in part because almost everyone at the Hall with team gear on wore Yankees stuff. Sure, it’s New York, but — no Mets? At all? The remainder wore Boston Red Sox gear. I didn’t see anyone at all wearing a different team’s hate.

The historical sections that were available were impressive. Seeing old stuff of McGraw, Ruth, and other greats was worth going for. To see the old equipment they used, and to think of Ruth and Gehrig in the uniforms before you — I felt all gooey. I love that baseball is steeped in this kind of deep and rich history, and that I can stand in front of John McGraw’s case and place him in the history of a franchise that’s run for over a hundred years.

There’s a large case of balls from no-hitters since 1940, which provides an example of what the Hall offers fans and where it fails. Each ball is set on a ring that’s mounted with a picture of the pitcher and a short blurb about the who, what, and when of the no-hitter. You get to see some more M’s here: Randy Johnson (6/2/1990) and Chris Bosio (4/22/1993) are both there.

But when I saw the case, one of the top balls had fallen off, knocking another one down — and it had been this way for hours, and wasn’t fixed when I glanced in later. I guess the movement inside the case didn’t set any alarms off (or, if it did, no one noticed why), and no one at the Hall looks at the exhibits to make sure stuff hasn’t fallen off hangers and stuff.

Those are balls from no-hitters, and they’re mounted in a way that they can fall off, damage each other, and no one notices. What kind of museum treats stuff like that?

That’s all I have for the museum. I spent most of my week at the Giamatti Research Center, doing research and wearing gloves to handle delicate documents.

I’ve got a longer thing about interpersonal relationships I’m going to skip for now.

The thing about the research center is that it’s up a hallway (with the docs) and sort of in the bookstore part, which is behind the writers-and-broadcasters part of the Hall. So it’s not super-high-traffic, and it’s behind a door you have to open… but people wander in all the time. Some of them have basic softball questions for the staff (“Who was the guy who..”), others have stranger questions (“Which Hall of Fame players served? I know Warren Spahn was in combat on some island and got cut off, but… who else killed someone?”) (real question).

The library is “closed stacks” which means that you can’t wander the aisles like a public library, looking for interesting stuff. You have to find the stuff first somehow, then ask for it. This is frustrating because over the course of the week I got the unsettling feeling that there were great sources available that I just didn’t know the password for. I wanted to bribe someone to let me back in the stacks (“I worked in libraries for years, I know the Library of Congress system, I’ll be quick, pleeeeeeeeasee…”)

As you enter, then, it’s almost more like a reading room than the library people might expect: there’s a desk where the poor belagured staff sit, and a long table where the researchers of the day flip through files, or books, or whaterver they’re working on.

Because of all this, there’s a weird dynamic that I’m going to bitch about. People wander in, the staff asks if there’s anything they can do to help them, and they say “No, I’m just looking around” (sometimes it’s “No thanks…” but it must be one of those two). The visitor, alone or dragging kids, then wanders around and bugs people who are doing research.

This is like finding people in your seats every game if you have season tickets. It’s really hard to be polite over and over in this situation, and in a couple days I was snapping at people:

“What are you doing?”
“What for?”
“What are you looking at?”
“It’s a player file.”
“So they have player files, huh? What kind of players?”
“Baseball players, mostly.”
“Huh, and there’s all kinds of old clippings from papers and stuff?”
“So you’re looking through these files they have on players?”
“Who’s Mike Marshall?” (begins pawing through file)
“I’m sorry, but we have to wear gloves when handling original documents.”
“Please, we have to wear gloves…”
“What for?”
(brief, clipped explanation)
“What’s your book on?”
(I stab visitor to death with pencil, careful that blood spurting from puncture wounds does not splash on valuable original documents, followed by the applause of other researchers)

No, really. People would open files I’d checked out, lying next to me, and I’d have to give them the librarian lecture. That’s beyond idle curiousity or not knowing they’re the umpteenth person to interrupt you that day.

Anyway. Back to discussing Cooperstown: the first couple days were rainy, grey, and miserable, and I didn’t like the town at all. It reminded me of all the things I hated about Leavenworth, which (again) is another rant entirely, but if you know that town you know what I’m talking about. Then we got some sunny, cold days that reminded me of Seattle, in the nice weather we’d been having before I left, and it’s really a beautiful part of the country, and outside of the touristy places people’ve been pleasant and helpful.

We took a day to drive up to the FDR library which includes his house, his grave, and his super-cool hand-controlled Ford convertible with (no joke) a box on the left-hand side of the steering column that dispensed lit cigarettes for the president.

There’s another long bit on the FDR library I’m skipping for now.

On the way back, we stopped at Coppola’s (which is on the road as you head out of town) where I was served a dead fly with my salad. First time that’s ever happened to me (that I know of– I’ve probably eaten them before, odds are). I didn’t get a discount or anything, though in fairness I was so hungry at the time my reaction was more “can you please bring me the ravioli, and please make sure there’s no off-menu protein supplements?”

Final thoughts on the Hall — I came to Cooperstown looking for something that wasn’t there. Not that the Musuem needs to pander to me, but there’s nothing at all to tie my fandom as a lifelong Mariner fan into anything except random displays, like the no-hit balls. I didn’t get a sense of the sport’s progression, how it has waxed and waned in the country’s life, or how the team I follow was part of that history. If you’re a fan of a storied team like the Yankees, you can come to the Hall and feel like you’re being patted on the head for a couple of hours. But if you’ve brought your family out from San Diego, say, or any of the other franchises that didn’t seemingly being play with nine people off the Mayflower, it’s almost if your team is only peripherally involved with the sport the Hall honors.

I hope that whatever they’re doing to renovate the place, this might be addressed, but for a fan of a team and of baseball like me to go away from my visit feeling both impressed by the history of the game and less connected to it is a tremendous failure. Teams won championships, and there were dynasties and failed attempts to build them, but there was a whole lot of other baseball that’s been played in my life, and it wasn’t there.

As I get ready to head back to catch a couple of jets back, here’s my summary: if you’re planning a trip, don’t go until the renovations are done. Do be like me, and beat the rush, but don’t be like me and go quite this early.


14 Responses to “The extremely long and yet still incomplete Cooperstown write-up”

  1. Knuckles on April 2nd, 2005 9:39 am

    What, a trip to Cooperstown without a side trip to the Ommegang Brewery? That’s just plumb crazy…

  2. John D. on April 2nd, 2005 9:54 am

    Re: (1) Side Trip to Ommegang Brewery – You’re talking overkill. In Washington, it’s easy to get breweried out.

  3. Daniel Grieser on April 2nd, 2005 10:28 am

    Can anyone ask for and view a player file in the library, or do you need to have some credentials?

  4. Aaron on April 2nd, 2005 10:30 am

    Sounds like you hit a bad week at the Hall. I’ve lived in nearby Ithaca for a couple of years now, and paid several visits to Cooperstown over my time here. Thanks to the ongoing renovations, each visit has been a crapshoot. There have been times when even fewer exhibits than you mentioned were open, and other times when the place was almost fully functioning. And when all the exhibits are open, it’s a much, much better experience with a far more complete chronological tour through the game’s history than they’ve had up recently. There’s also been a nifty exhibit on postseason history of the game that hasn’t been open in awhile. At any rate, it’s a bummer that you hit what sounds like an off week. One final note- Cooperstown is definitely better in the summertime, in spite of the crowds.

  5. Metz on April 2nd, 2005 10:43 am

    Derek did you bother to wander off main street at all? There are some great examples of 1920-1940’s architecture off them main drag. There’s lots of beautiful mansions to admire. I was there a few days before Molitor & Eck got enshrined and there were lots of people from all over the US. Lots of different caps and accents and ethnic backgrounds. I enjoyed the HOF because I got to combine my love of baseball with dispensing historical stories to my kids. Maybe you have to see the HOF through a childs eyes to really appreciate it?

  6. Deanna on April 2nd, 2005 4:18 pm

    Cooperstown: a drinking town with a baseball problem.

    I have to admit, the renovations made me really sad too when I was there a year ago. I went to the HoF as a kid a few times, and I loved it. That was what really first got me interested in baseball history, which has carried through to this day. I would say that if at all possible, you should go back sometime after they’re done — I have really fond memories of the place, and I don’t think it’s all just the tinting of a child/teen’s eyes.

    My memory from that hallway with the letters on the wall that was more poignant was Buck Weaver’s letter from 1953 or so still asking to be reinstated, and the reply of “Sorry, no dice.”

    Is the baseball card room off-limits now? That’s a shame if so — I’m pretty sure it was still available last winter. I love seeing how the cards evolved over the years, and just seeing the old pictures of players.

    The historical stuff *is* great. Though I was surprised at a distinct lack of stuff on Walter Johnson — for crying out loud, he was one of the First Five! I think they had, like, one of his gloves or something. And yeah, wow — the postseason room was exceptionally cool, including a neat display of tons of World Series rings — I’m surprised if that’s closed off, hmm.

    And yeah, I’ll agree that Cooperstown in general seems better in the summer. It’s all nice and pretty and you can do stuff like go on boat rides around the lake at sunset and listen to people tell stories about the town.

  7. Theodicus Groot on April 2nd, 2005 4:31 pm

    I went in 1972. It was surprising how dingy and moth-eaten the place was. It certainly needed a renovation or two (which might even place researches beyond the reach of tourists). The traveling exhibits seem to show much more curatorial effort than the permanent exhibits.

    How is the HoF funded? One gets the impression that there hasn’t been money to hire high-quality professional staff. Hopefully that’s the problem, because the alternative explaination, that it’s just an old-boys’ club that doesn’t care, would be most disappointing.

  8. Jim Thomsen on April 2nd, 2005 6:57 pm

    To live in this town, you must be toughtoughtoughtoughTOUGH ….

  9. David Jones on April 2nd, 2005 10:42 pm

    I’ve been an avid reader for well over a year now, but this is the first time I’ve ever commented…the Hall does this to me I guess.

    I went for pretty much a full day with my dad several years back (1996 or 1997) when I was a teenager – we were visiting relatives in Ithica and decided to take a Father/Son day to visit the Hall.
    It was before the McGwire/Sosa HR chase, before Bonds really rose to prominence, and before most of the Mariner highlights, save 1995.

    Maybe it was my relative youth, but I was blown away by the Hall.
    Certainly, the lack of “renovation” happening must have had something to do with it. I remember room after room of exhibits – a full room chronicling the early days (pre-1900) complete with gloves, uniforms, etc…even a full suit worn by the umpires of the day.

    A huge wing on the Negro Leagues, full of names that sadly I can’t remember off the top of my head anymore, but reinforcing the travesty that those players weren’t able to match wits with the MLB players of the era.

    Another huge wing on Umpires from pre-1900 to present-day, which was actually quite cool. There were other historical section wings as well, dedicated to each era (pre-AL/NL merge, WWII-era, then each decade from 1950 on). I remember this big display of baseball cards as well, complete with a Honus Wagner card (I don’t think it was THE card though). There was also a cool section with models of all the real old-time stadiums (Polo Grounds, something in Philly, etc) from the 1900’s.

    Then the records section, the no-hitters, etc. There was a neat display on Williams’ .400 season where they had a color-coded series of balls showing his average at each part of the plate.
    I agree with your assessment of the Team Section – I don’t remember being blown away. There were some cool Mariner things, like Griffey/RJ/Edgar items, and items from each team, but it didn’t have the magic of the rest of the place.

    Lots more too…while we were only there for a day, we could have stayed several more.
    I think you’re right, about half the place wasn’t accssible to you. I thought the Hall was an incredible tribute to baseball lore and legacy when I was there.

  10. tvwxman on April 3rd, 2005 1:58 am

    I’d echo Aaron in #4. I was a graduate of Ithaca College and also spent an additional year working in nearby Elmira. A group of my friends would go before opening day every year, and it was hit-or-miss.

    I too was unimpressed with the plaques, and was disapointed with the lack of Mariners items on display. However, in fairness, it was pre-1995, so the M’s weren’t really more than a pathetic footnote in the MLB history at the time.

    With a group of friends, it’s a lot different and more enjoyable. However, my dad and I had a great trip there one summer. He had never been, so it was fun to go with him and talk about the players from his days. Plus, I was over 21, so we were able to hit a few microbreweries in the area. I don’t know if I’d go with my wife.

    Oh, as far as the rental car goes, two words: Satellite Radio. It’s your best friend driving in rural areas. Heck, it’s a blessing here in Atlanta too.

  11. Knuckles on April 3rd, 2005 5:58 am

    “…it’s easy to get breweried out”?

    I don’t know about that. I’ve been working on it for the better part of two decades, and I’m still going strong.

  12. DMZ on April 3rd, 2005 1:59 pm

    Derek did you bother to wander off main street at all? There are some great examples of 1920-1940’s architecture off them main drag.

    Yes, I did.

    I’m all for cute houses and all, but it’s not interesting enough to me to spend all that much time on.

  13. Amy on April 6th, 2005 11:01 am

    Hey, just came across your website. I’m the fan that made the Ichi-meter that is on display with the Ichiro stuff. I went to Cooperstown in December 2004 for the first time. I was impressed with the amount of historical items on display. I have heard that it is quite a madhouse to visit in the summer and was glad that I was there in the dead of winter so I could leisurely browse everything at my own pace. My husband photographed nearly everything. The town is pretty much closed down in the winter, so the only other thing we saw besides the HoF was the Art Museum. It was right on Lake Ostego and it was inside what used to be James Fenimore Cooper’s mansion. It was a pretty nice place. I hadn’t planned on going there, as my trip to Cooperstown was to see my sign in the HoF. I would suggest visiting there if you have the time.
    I have pictures of the Ichiro display on my website if anyone is interested:

  14. Brenda Berstler on August 3rd, 2005 12:50 pm

    I’m delighted your stay at the Landmark Inn was pleasant, especially in light of what seems to be an otherwise mediocre trip. Please know that there are many other equally comfortable bed and breakfasts within the village of Cooperstown, lest anyone think that their only alternative is a chain motel.

    As a point of clarification, B&Bs serve only breakfast. By village ordinance they are not allowed to serve lunch or dinner. Also, in reference to one of your messages, the building that now houses the Fenimore Art Museum was never home to James Fenimore Cooper, being built many years after his death. It was built as a private residence for one of the Clark family, who unfortunately died before ever living there.

    For anyone planning a trip to Cooperstown, I would be happy to guide you to better dining, superior accommodations and a number of shops that sell fine goods and nothing baseball related. Autumn is a beautiful time to visit.