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A view from the cheap seats: memories of Cooperstown

By STEVE AUTEN - For The Courier-Times

Sports Editor's note:  With the championship series of both the the American and National League about to start, this is the appropriate time to include this piece from the long-time "Voice of the Trojans."

Memories, to the human condition, are powerful things. They can be vague, hard to conjure up, or so vivid that they come complete with color sights and smells so real that you are transported to a special place or event.

I want to remember one of my strongest and wholesome memories. Many of you know that I am battling cancer. Recently another series of setbacks presented challenges that took me away from writing this column, but I have recovered to the point that I take pleasure in offering to you one of my most special memories…sports-related, of course.

Baseball, as many of you know, is a favorite sport of mine. Dating back to my youth I have heard about baseball’s Hall of Fame. This is the honor bestowed upon the greatest players to have played the game.

Throughout my lifetime, one of the top items on my “bucket list” was a trip to baseball’s most sacred place: Cooperstown, New York, the home of Baseball’s Hall of Fame. This national shrine tells a uniquely American tale, equal parts history and myth, which begins with the iconic Abner Doubleday and ends with him.

It has been long-debated as to whether, with any certainty, Doubleday (whose hometown is Cooperstown) or anyone else solely invented the game we call baseball.

In the early 1900s as baseball began to grow into the national pastime, the debate over the origin of the game also grew. Was there one person responsible? How did the sport come to be? Was there an “ah-ha!” moment?

The remote hamlet of Cooperstown seized the moment. Doubleday grew up in Cooperstown, and in 1839 at age 20 he organized, as lore would state, the game of baseball. Eerily, as myth would have it, it was close to the current rules of today’s game.

Doubleday would achieve glory as a Civil War general fighting at Ft. Sumter and later Gettysburg. Researchers later concluded that he was not in Cooperstown in 1839, but at West Point.

However, in 1917, the townspeople of Cooperstown seized the moment and amid America’s desire to honor their hometown hero, agreed there should be a monument. Things progressed over the next 20 years to culminate in the opening of the Hall and celebration commemorating 100 years of baseball in 1939.

My memory is of driving through the softly rolling hills of south central New York to the picturesque village I had heard so much about. It is a town of only 2,300 inhabitants who are served by no airports, no passenger trains and no major highways. Yet 500,000 fans visit each year while millions of others dream of making the trip.

Cooperstown is blessed by a spectacular setting. At one end of town lies the glorious Lake Otsego, the shimmering body of water James Fenimore Cooper (for whose father the village was named) called “glimmer glass.”

All around the nine-mile lake there is something for everyone – a scenic boat tour, a farmers’ museum, a five-star golf course, lakeside hotels etched with history, and a main street that provides a complimentary baseball experience. Along with coffee shops, drugstores, and eateries is a souvenir extravaganza, from trinkets and cards to autographed rarities. Doubleday Field, a 10,000 seat stadium, is located near the Hall in the center of town.

For a first-time visitor, a walk down Main Street to the museum is impossible to perform slowly. The undertow is too hard to resist. Step inside the museum, your heart racing; you should relax – no wrong turns here! The hall holds a great fascination for all.

Many artifacts are distinguished not through mere existence, but by the story of the part in baseball’s history they evoke. Maybe it’s a ball from the first World Series, a uniform worn on a historic event to more notable exhibits. Babe Ruth’s locker, the cornerstone from Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field; a tribute to women in baseball depicted in the film, “A League of Their Own” – you can bet if it has meaning it’s there.

I suggest saving the best for last: the Hall of Fame Gallery, with its silent array of plaques. Each inductee with his likeness and story is depicted in bronze. There is a theater, art gallery, balls, bats, gloves, caps, memorabilia and more.

As you can tell, I’m a passionate fan of the Hall. My late friend and former Courier-Times Sports Editor John Hodge, heard me once talking about my trip and visited himself the next summer. I’ve been to the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, and Cooperstown puts it to shame. New Castle is blessed to be the home of Indiana’s Basketball Hall of Fame, so we know a thing or two about museums.

My suggestion is to go online and check it out. Stay at one of the famous old hotels, eat in a basement pub where Hall of Famers have carved their names. Have a bottle of “ninth-inning ale” while you wait for your order, and most of all take your time. Spend three or four days there. Soak it up.

Your high school boys and girls alike will enjoy the atmosphere as will the ladies in your life. I am speaking to the men in the family here, but as the world has evolved, women are real fans too.

The summer is over and only Major League Baseball’s championship series and World Series are left. Once each game is over, it is history, and it belongs to Cooperstown!