The Cooperstown Myth

Baseball HOF

It’s not Williams College

Cooperstown.  I waited 30 some odd years, but my day finally came.  I didn’t get any votes or anything.  Just a few souvenirs and a bunch of photos, some good, some not so.   What is Cooperstown?  You really don’t know?  If you are an American from the United States of America (because you could be an American from 34 other countries that constitute the continents of North and South America) you should know.  You should not only know its claim to fame (and it really is a claim) but know where this mythical place is located.   I’ll tell you where it’s not.  It’s not in western MA, the home of Williams College.  And I’ll tell you what it’s not. It’s not a place where they make tires, you know, Cooper tires, or barrels – actually they might make barrels there.   I’ll tell you what it has:  a lake – Lake Ostego, where you can’t toss stones or bring your pets or even fish, but where you can rent out boats, I think.

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Cooperstown.  It’s in upstate NY (I think everything except NYC is upstate) in the middle of a bunch of Monsanto green cow pastures.  The gently rolling slopes of the Alleghenies intoxicate.  And then out of nowhere, a sign appears – 300 miles to Buffalo.  Have you noticed that wherever you are in NY, there’s always a sign for Buffalo?

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Cooperstown.  No coopers there.  And no buffalo as far as I could tell.  But lots of tourists.  It’s a tourist town, with one attraction, and one attraction only – The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.  And I went through through this shrine to baseball the other day and can now proudly check it off my bucket list.  And what a fine shrine it is; baseball’s hallowed ground and as much the story of the “United” States of America, as baseball, as Ken Burns would say, and I think he’s right.

My wife asked, why Cooperstown in the middle of nowhere?  We all know Abner Doubleday invented the game in Cooperstown in 1839, the same man who later became a Union General during the Civil War.  But it’s not true.  Doubleday had nothing to do with the game and Cooperstown as the birth of baseball is little more than a manufactured lie that got the town a permanent contract with baseball, thanks to the Sporting Goods king, A.J. Spalding, who no doubt stood to benefit – a boon to the tycoon. The museum displays the “Doubleday” baseball found in some guys attic in Cooperstown that was supposed to prove Doubleday invented the game.  A poster above the display concedes that the ball did not prove Doubleday invented the game and that baseball derives from  other games played in England and elsewhere long before 1839.  However, a commission ruled otherwise and so the myth was born.

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And so baseball is really a reinvention of cricket and rounders and similar games from overseas brought over by early settlers and tweaked over the years until the game was finally codified and standardized.   And good thing too, because at one point, you could literally throw a guy out by hitting him with the baseball.

As unoriginal as the game turns out to be, baseball really is the story of this country.  Union prisoners played the game.  Segregated leagues paralleled the black struggle for racial equality during the Jim Crow years.  Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier that led to the integration of the major leagues which predated Brown v. Board of Education by a good five years.  Women first played the game in dresses.  As the game spread to other countries where America has strategic interests, the game caught fire and is now played around the Americas and the world.  In today’s modern game, the rosters are more diverse than ever with players originally from Cuba, Canada, Australia, Venezuela, Mexico, Panama, Japan, South Korea, and the Dominican Republic. But regrettably, our national pastime, with its humble school yard roots in England, has been co-opted and commercialized to serve the interests of big business from the very beginning.  And without a salary cap, the Yankees and the Red Sox will always have a competitive advantage.

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But I liked the museum.  As a Red Sox fan, I liked seeing Babe Ruth’s and Ted Williams wax statues swinging together like best friends.  And the oil painting of Cy Young pitching who looked  like a giant 65 year old grandfather put a smile on my face.   I had my picture taken in front of the exhibit of one of my favorite baseball players, Roberto Clemente.  I took a photo of Curt Shilling’s shoes that held a bloody sock, that was not on display.  I snapped shots of an autographed Pedro Martinez Red Sox jersey, Phil Niekro‘s baseball card portrait, some old dresses the ladies used to wear when they played, and a few shriveled up gloves that looked like giant milk duds, which is also how I described some old Hall of Fame basketballs I saw in Springfield, MA.

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I enjoyed the day, as did my wife, who doesn’t like baseball.  The museum delights thousand of fans, young and old alike from all over the globe everyday.  Cooperstown; myth making at its best, the stuff of dreams and souvenirs.  And if you’re easily spooked like I am, stay away from the wax museum, just up the street.

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Baseball’s Dying Tradition

It flutters, dances, darts, floats, drops, zigzags.  What is it?  A Hummingbird?  No, but good guess.  Ok another clue – you can’t hit it and probably can’t catch it either.  No, not a snitch from the Harry Potter world of Quidditch.  Give up?   Answer:  A knuckleball.

Knuckleball pitchers are a dying breed and should be placed on the endangered species list.  One word of advice to all you pitchers out there:  if you can learn to master the knuckleball, you might have a long and prosperous career in the big leagues.  Easier said than done, of course – I imagine if it were easy to master, more pitchers would throw it.

As far as I know, Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox, Josh Banks of the Padres, and R.A. Dickey of the Mariners are the only big league knuckleball pitchers left in the game, along with two in the minors.  One promising minor league knuckleballer is Charlie Zink, who plays for the Pawtucket Red Sox.  He made his big league debut with the Red Sox a few weeks ago against the Rangers. Zink’s knuckler moved well, but got knocked around and he only lasted 4 1/3 innings giving up 11 hits and 8 earned runs.

Tim Wakefield has been in the big leagues since 1992 and with the Boston Red Sox since 1995.  He has won 176 games, 162 with the Red Sox, third most in Sox history behind Cy Young and Roger Clemens who finished their Red Sox careers with 192.   Wakefield has been one of the most consistent and versatile pitchers the team has ever had.  He has started, closed, pitched short, middle and long relief successfully.  As a starter, he has a knack for keeping the score close, and has lost a number of games due to lack of run support.

There have been other major league knuckleball pitchers of note going back a few years.  Brothers Joe and Phil Niekro had long careers in the majors throwing the knuckleball.  Joe pitched from 1967 – 1988 winning 221 games, and his Hall of Fame brother Phil won 318 games also lost 274 from 1964 – 1987, making him one of the winningest and losingest pitchers of all time.  As Red Sox pitching consultants, Phil and Joe also helped Wakefield perfect the pitch early in his career. Knuckleballer Charlie Hough pitched from 1970 – 1994 winning 18 games in 1987 with career totals of 216 wins and 216 losses.

There are only a few pitchers left to carry on the tradition of the knuckleballer.  Most major league hitters would say good riddance, but I say to all you pitchers out there who dream of playing in the big leagues: LEARN THE KNUCKLEBALL!