On the eve of the World Series, one obsessive baseball fan finds that a trip to Cooperstown, New York, feels a bit like coming home.
Author Yates Walker Illustration Kate O'Connor
“TO LIGHT A CANDLE, NOT FILL A BUCKET.”
It might sound saccharine to some, but that quote from National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum curator John O’Dell—a reference to his goal of inspiring museumgoers rather than just collecting memorabilia—simply stuns me with its imagery every time I hear it. In fact, those are the words that finally convince my new girlfriend, Bobbi, to make the trip to Cooperstown with me.
It’s a risky move. We’ve only been seeing each other for six weeks, and our new relationship somehow feels even newer than that. A 26-year-old Ph.D. in linguistics, Bobbi is taking a postdoctoral sabbatical from hobnobbing with brainiacs and scholars to date me. She has zero interest in baseball and suspect interest in yours truly, but O’Dell’s line intrigues her, so, on a crisp Thursday, we take a drive to upstate New York.
An early morning departure from Cleveland and six hours on I-90 delivers us deep into a nearly pristine wilderness. The entire landscape is dusted white by a recent snowfall and, for a while, it appears to go on forever. Then, almost at once—Cooperstown.
Sure, it’s a charming little hamlet replete with vintage streetlights, homey storefronts and untouched 1930s quaintness, but that’s not why my heart is aflutter. A solitary thought echoes in my mind. The Hall. The Hall. The Hall. It’s so close. I’m here—truly, finally, actually here—in Cooperstown, baseball’s Vatican City. Ruth. Cobb. DiMaggio. Heroes and villains of the best game there ever was. Legends and magic and Cool Papa Bell.
I can’t wait, can’t sit still. I roll down my window, and even the cold, crisp bite of February tastes sweeter than usual. As Bobbi naps next to me, I actually giggle in anticipation. Two quick left turns, and it stands before me—the Baseball Hall of Fame—a stately structure, three-stories of red brick. My boyhood dreams realized.
“We’re here,” I announce.
Bobbi stirs and drowsily sits up in her seat.
“Is that it?” she asks.
I answer breathlessly and without taking my eyes off the building.
In the lobby, the first thing I notice is noise. There’s chatter from all directions as queues form and snake across the floor. The lobby is alive with energy, a craving for the experience about to be had. There are maps to grab, tours to choose, tickets to buy. Men in ball caps are making plans, discussing the order of exhibits they want to see. Parents and teachers marshal children. All around, eyes are aglow. Everyone wants to be there—except for the people who don’t.
After purchasing our tickets, Bobbi and I follow a map down a hallway to find a section dedicated to baseball’s origins and Abner Doubleday, the Zeus in baseball’s pantheon. I can feel my heart pounding in my ears as I walk the halls. I tell myself that the experience won’t officially begin until I stop walking and pore over my first exhibit. I am intentionally ignoring the museum displays that I pass. I will return to them later. For the moment, I’m trying to hold off until I find the perfect beginning because, as soon as I begin, the inevitable end is closer. The anticipation is better than a first kiss.
When I can resist no longer, I stop at a glass case mounted on a wall. It is a glimpse into 19th century America. There are historical references to an English game called rounders from which baseball apparently evolved, but that’s not what interests me. I’ve found my perfect beginning. It is captured in a few old photos of a semiprofessional team from 1880s Corinne, Utah.
Looking at black-and-white stills of long-dead men, forever 20 years old and in pinstripes, one immediately senses a game without time. It’s how I always thought of our national pastime: pure, forever, American. There were no steroids, no millionaires. It was just baseball, just the game and its heroes, and, oh, what a game.
I feel an irresistible surge of patriotism as I stare at a 100-year-old bunch of laced leather. It is a rudimentary glove, probably made for a son by a stitching mother and a farming father who killed the cow and treated the hide himself. A ball demonstrating similar craftsmanship rests beside it. I can’t imagine attempting to use such a mitt to catch such a ball, but I love that someone did. That was baseball. From its very beginning, the game was ugly and hard, but good at its core, just like the country that played it.
Unfortunately, that kind of sentiment isn’t readily transferable, and soon Bobbi tells me that she’s taking a cigarette break. Her departure might warrant more attention, except that, the moment before, I’d found Tyrus Raymond Cobb. Ty Cobb. Quite possibly the greatest player of all time. The original Georgia Peach. And the meanest SOB ever to swing a bat.
In various photographs, Ty wears several different faces. He looks almost charming in the photos that capture him promoting Coca-Cola in the soft drink company’s infancy. He is homely handsome on tobacco cards in his Detroit Tigers uniform. But in a few of the photos, you can catch a glimmer of the famous vicious streak he’d shown by shouting racist epithets, attacking fans and cleating fellow ballplayers with the intent to maim.
I walk down another hall, looking for signs of Bobbi. She’s been a good sport simply by making the trip. I want to help her enjoy the experience. But when I find a wing dedicated to the Negro Leagues, I briefly forget I have a girlfriend.
The Monarchs of Kansas City. Chicago’s Brown Bombers. Satchel Paige. Josh Gibson. Cold electricity shoots up my spine as a smile spreads across my face. Yes, it was baseball’s apartheid. Yes, it’s a shameful reminder of my country’s racist past. But it was also glorious. I can almost feel the celebrated and singular carnival atmosphere of black baseball. The Negro Leagues had a unique spirit, a renegade essence and a fierce independence. The joy for the game was the same.
A miniature movie theater with antique drapery draws me inside. I take a seat and soon find myself fighting back tears as I watch black-and-white footage of Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby. As the two men integrate the major leagues before my eyes, I can’t stop thinking about how they helped begin to heal a divided country’s wounds.
I spend three hours by myself, discovering and rediscovering my heroes, Yogi Berra and Carlton Fisk and Mickey Mantle, reading about the Chicago Black Sox scandal that almost destroyed baseball and Babe Ruth, who saved it. There are too many stories to put in one article, but there’s a truth that occurs to me in Cooperstown that I think is worth sharing.
Professional baseball has never been pure. Today’s steroids are just the latest bit of hideousness. At times throughout its existence, the sport has been marred by racism, riddled with corruption, governed by greed and played by cheaters. Indeed, baseball is a dirty game. But also a great one.
And it belongs to America. It is the people’s game. We start playing it at age five. And that moment when a young man—or, increasingly, a young woman— stands defiantly at the plate, eyes glinting, fingers gripping a Louisville Slugger, is transcendently, incorruptibly American. It is good versus evil, the one against the many. And when we can no longer swing a bat, we replay that moment in our minds. And that’s why the game has such longevity. Certainly, baseball can get dirty, but we can stand up and brush off the dirt because—once again, like the country that plays it— baseball is capable of righting itself.
I’m staring at a photo of Lou Gehrig as he says goodbye to Yankee Stadium when I decide that there are people who love baseball and people who don’t, and the people who don’t just haven’t looked closely enough. Then I feel a tap on my shoulder and turn around. It’s Bobbi.
“I love this place,” I tell her, pulling her close.
“I do too,” she answers earnestly.
In answer to my look of disbelief, Bobbi explains that in our time apart, she discovered and became bewitched by a section devoted to baseball’s influence on the American lexicon.
“I like baseball!” she admits with a note of surprise. “Who’d’ve guessed?”
On the long ride home, Bobbi and I talk about our favorite exhibits. I tell her about baseball’s history and fundamentals. She relates to me a new fascination with baseball’s influence on regional dialects. I explain to her that the designated hitter is fundamentally un-American. She tells me that baseballese has affected her understanding of discourse analysis. She’s a lot smarter than me.
We’re still dating. And I think it’s partially due to a now-shared love of baseball. For John O’Dell, two more candles lit in Cooperstown.
Against all odds, YATES WALKER never made the T-ball Hall of Fame.