After 75 Years, Stories Still Carry Baseball Hall
The Baseball Hall and Fame Museum has opened a scrapbook-style exhibit on Babe Ruth as part of its 75th anniversary.
Kris Garnjost photograph
Negro League legend Rube Foster is among the more than 200 players enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Kris Garnjost photograph
Cooperstown, n.y. — The old black-and-white photograph captures the scene at the first National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum induction in 1939. Standing together, smiling on Doubleday Field, are Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson and George Sisler. Off to the right in the same photo, stands a young, teenage boy.
“That’s my father,” a woman says, pointing to the youth. “He was 14. He grew up here in town.”
“Gives you goose bumps,” says a man, looking at the photo. “That’s why you come to the Hall — for the stories.”
The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is all about stories — stories that are true, stories that might be true, stories that are too good to be true. The stories are about baseball and about how baseball has touched — or touches — everyone in America.
Last Thursday, the Hall of Fame celebrated the 75th anniversary of its official opening and the first induction ceremony (on June 12, 1939) in its Cooperstown home.
The festivities began in the Hall of Fame Gallery surrounded by the plaques of the more than 300 elected members. It is interesting to note that more than 18,000 players have made it into the major leagues and only 211 have been selected for a plaque in the Hall of Fame. The rest include executives, umpires and media members.
But on this rainy day, fans and dignitaries were crowded together inside for an event that was meant to be outside in the summer sun. It was a rain delay, so what else to do in a rain delay but stand around and talk baseball?
A man in his 50s, in full Boston Red Sox regalia, groused about how last week Jonny Gomes whiffed on a low outside pitch on a 3-and-2 count with runners on second and third. According to this man, this is a microcosm of Boston’s futile season.
A woman next to him in a Mets jersey looks wistfully at the ceiling and sighs, “I saw (Mike) Piazza hit his last home run in Fenway.”
This small town is about 4½ hours from the Upper Valley, idyllically located at the end of a lake in the rolling hills of central New York state.
How it became “The Birthplace of Baseball” and the home of the Hall of Fame is one of those baseball stories that really is too good to be true. The truth is that baseball evolved from the stick-and-ball games that had been around for centuries.
The idea that baseball was a strictly an American game was cultivated by baseball entrepreneur Albert Spalding in the early 1900s. The story goes that, in 1839, Abner Doubleday — before going off to West Point — created baseball as an alternative to the unwieldy contemporary game of rounders. Doubleday was a decorated general in the Civil War, and it was not until after his death that his connection to baseball was reported by Spalding as he and major league baseball formed a commission that verified this patriotic story.
Ironically, Cooperstown had a history of storytelling. Hometown to renowned novelist James Fenimore Cooper of Deerslayer fame and Erastus F. Beadle, who invented the dime novel, the business community of Cooperstown saw the opportunities to promote the town. Seizing upon the idea of celebrating baseball’s centennial — 100 years from the game's fictitious 1839 birth — Cooperstown, with support from Major League Baseball, baseball equipment businesses and federal and state government, created The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and Doubleday Field.
The culmination of these efforts was the Baseball Centennial Celebration, that brought a crowd of more that 15,000 baseball fans to the Hall to hear speeches and to see legendary stars, including Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Cy Young, Walter Johnson and Honus Wagner.
Seventy-five years later, those events still resonate. Three of those fans in attendance in 1939 returned for the 75th celebration. In a roundtable discussion, Catherine Walker spoke of how her brother carried Babe Ruth’s bag up from the train station and how in awe she was at the mass of people.
At just 14, Howard Talbot was so excited by the day that he would eventually get a job at the museum and rise to the post of executive director. The oldest roundtable participant was Homer Osterhoudt who, at 19, had worked on the actual building of the museum. Osterhoudt was also an amateur photographer and took many photos of the celebration that are now in the Hall of Fame collection.
Last week’s commemoration and celebration had a share of some more modern heroes. too.
Hall of Famers Cal Ripken Jr. and Phil Niekro spoke briefly and made the first cuts of the ceremonial birthday cake. On Friday evening, they were featured in a Voices of the Game interview segment in the Hall’s Grandstand Theater
Niekro, a funny, down-to-earth speaker, was genuinely moving when he spoke about winning his 300th game with his father silently fading in the hospital. On the lighter side, Ripken told a story of his brother, Billy, being hit by a pitch and momentarily knocked out. When he came to, with Cal and the opposing catcher, Carlton Fisk, kneeling over him, his first words were, “Carlton, you’re even uglier close up.”
Favorite players go from heroes to humans and back to heroes again in the course of a couple of days spent at the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Not only do the exhibits chronicle the history of the sport, extra effort is made to offer first-hand accounts of events and to create a context that illuminates the times as well as the event.
That sense of context can’t be any clearer than in the newly expanded Babe Ruth room. Marking the 100th anniversary of Ruth beginning his baseball career, the new exhibit tells Ruth’s story in scrapbook form, using contemporary newspaper accounts, newsreels, and advertisements.
“We wanted to take the visitor back in time and have them experience what it was like to read about Babe Ruth,” says exhibit curator Tom Shieber, “and to learn about Babe Ruth as his contemporary fans would have.”
Ruth was part baseball hero and part American celebrity. His on-field accomplishments were monumental. His off-field activities were larger than life. His home run prowess revolutionized the game. In 1920, he became the first player to hit 50 or more home runs in a season. The next best total that year was Sisler with 19.
Ruth's hitting prowess sometimes merged with his celebrity. Take, for example, the 1932 World Series between the Yankees and Chicago Cubs, where Ruth is reported to have famously called his shot.
After bickering with the Chicago bench and pitcher Charlie Root throughout the at-bat, Ruth took two strikes before making some sort of a gesture toward the Wrigley Field outfield. On the next pitch, Ruth hit a towering home run in the general direction where he appeared to gesture.
After the game, one news report suggested Ruth was calling his shot. The press liked the idea and ran with it. When asked about later, Ruth played along and let the story grow into its place in popular culture.
Baseball historian John Thorn, in Friday’s Babe Ruth roundtable, described this event “as a fact too good to be checked.” He went on to speak in more general terms about many of baseball’s told and untold stories.
“While the facts were interesting,” Thorn said, “the lies were even more interesting.”
The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is full of stories, some all facts and some all lies, many a mixture of the two. Some are on the walls and in the voices of the Hall of Famers and experts who speak there. Others come with the fans, both casual and fanatic, who bring their personal stories .
Some they share, and some they reserve. And some are as simple and beautiful as a young mother quietly singing Take Me Out To The Ball Game to her infant as she walks through the Hall of Fame Gallery.