I’ve loved baseball for the past 30 years so I finally went on a Pilgrimage to Cooperstown. It wasn’t worth it.
Baseball is a master of nostalgia and poetic imagery: the crack of the bat, the smell of the grass, the view of the park as you come up the tunnel. Every corny video tribute that is released right before opening day gets me near tears as the winter is finally over and it’s time for baseball again. Does it matter that the sights on opening day are far more likely to be a fat guy passed out in the bleachers from drinking since 10am, covered in overpriced popcorn? No, it does not matter. It’s still baseball. For every other aspect of my life where I’m cynical, I’ve ignored the critics who say that the game is boring and takes too long, that the guaranteed contracts make baseball players too fat and happy, and that a league without a salary cap in the era of fighting against income inequality is flat out bonkers. Plain and simple, I love baseball, and nothing can discourage me. Well, nothing except the Hall of Fame.
I decided to make the trek to Cooperstown, NY this summer because I finally had some vacation time for just myself and apparently I’m a huge nerd. I could tell from the subtle looks from people I told about my plans that going to the middle of nowhere to look at old ticket stubs and game-used baseball gloves was not their idea of a getaway. Others were less subtle stating plainly that it was a waste of time and if I spent more than an hour there they would have me committed. “They’re the insane ones”, I thought to myself like a scorned teenager. They just don’t get it. They can’t appreciate history. I’ll show them!
Forty minutes into my drive since exiting the highway and passing through another town that had more cows than people I first started to question if, in the words of GOB Bluth, I had made a huge mistake. There’s something to be said about putting a museum in the middle of nowhere and still expecting people to show up. I think that something is probably eat shit. I went to the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame on this journey of too much free time and self-exploration and the locations couldn’t be more different. Say what you want about Cleveland. No seriously, say whatever you want, Clevelanders are already too beaten up to fight back. But the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame is a really cool building that looks over the water, and is surrounded by things that actual humans might want to visit like a science center, a football stadium, or even a restaurant. If I got lost anywhere outside of the main strip of Cooperstown I would have to sleep in my car and hope some other baseball fan found me on the side of the road before I starved to death. That is unless I made it to the one Brewpub that also decided Nowhere, NY was probably a good enough sized market to open up shop.
After seeing one tiny road sign that you could have mistaken for a yard sale notice I approached Main Street Cooperstown and the enchantment started to come back. This hidden little folksy town was where Pedro was just inducted. Pedro! This is the place where the game’s legends come every year to be honored, and where fans have been coming to see history since my grandfather was a little kid. And… there are no cows! I had never been so happy to see so many people. In reality, there were probably only a few hundred scattered around the street. But dammit, they were happy. And they had souvenirs! Customized bats were absolutely everywhere. Where else could you feel so much joy with hundreds of people walking around with lethal weapons? What a magical place!
I’ll admit that taking 25 minutes to park took a little of the shine off the experience. I mean, what tourist attraction doesn’t have a big enough parking lot? It’s not like anyone took the subway to get here. Every sucker, uh, baseball fan, drove themselves (and often their bored children) for several hours to get to this dork mecca and you can’t even give them free parking? I guess, everything is a business. $10 gets you a spot in a tiny lot with the lure of getting your windshield smashed by foul balls from the adjacent Doubleday Field. At least you get a free view of the legends of baseball, or Cincinnati little leaguers, really whoever happens to be on the diamond that day. I actually would have taken my chances with the foul balls and paid whatever they were asking at that point just to get out of my vehicle but the minuscule lot was not suprisingly full and I had to search for street parking. Should have just ditched the Mazda and road one of sneaky-fast cows into town? The mistakes were starting to add up.
I briefly panicked over the Two-Hour Max parking limit before deciding that whatever parking ticket I might get wasn’t going to hold me back from enjoying a full day of baseball pornography. I marched down Main Street past the families enjoying their ice cream cones and new baseball hats, walked up to the counter, paid my $22, and proudly told them, yes, I did come here by myself. And then I spent the next two hours asking…. why? The first exhibit featuring a locker assigned to each team filled with random team memorabilia was interesting enough but more than a little disjointed. Like a diorama put together by 3rd graders disjointed. Yes, this World Series winning baseball that they water-boarded Doug Mientkiewicz to get back seems like part of the Red Sox’s history, but I’m not sure Sam Horn’s jock strap resonates quite the same. Every locker was just thrown together with random items and facts, with no real discernible pattern. Maybe most puzzling was that every locker had a team jersey but some of them were current players, some Hall of Famers, and others that you forgot even played for that team. Did I catch a Piazza on the back of that Marlins uniform? I can’t be certain. But I did notice that the Arizona display didn’t even bother to put any name on their jersey. I imagine that Diamondbacks fans who visited would be embarrassed but I’m fairly certain their Front Office has probably helped them reach the point where shame is no longer possible.
Now that I was aware the Hall of Fame cared deeply about 30 MLB teams I was ready to dig into the history. And for about 15 minutes it was pretty cool. I took in every quote (Yogi or otherwise) that they plastered on the wall and was amazed by every old school mitt that fielders somehow caught line drives with despite looking less protective than what you have to wear to survive a New England winter. It really was cool, (well, cool to me) that someone took the time compile all this history (crap) over the last century and a half. Where else (don’t say the internet) could all these dads show their kids these baseball artifacts? Without these visual aids it would be even more difficult to describe how these pioneers played with uniforms that wouldn’t be out of place on a Beatles’ album cover, or that yes that ticket stub that says “colored” is exactly what you think it is. Now go find your friend that doesn’t believe institutionalized racism exists and punch them right in the stomach. Hey, this is my fake kid, I can talk to him however I want.
The problem after fifteen minutes was that everything just started to blend. How many names and faces can you really keep track of in any setting? I just went out to dinner and met a new group of friends with maybe 15-20 people there. I can’t say with any certainty I remember more than one or two names. I might recognize another two or three faces. After you’ve scrolled through hundreds players, who can honestly remember if Bob History played 2nd base for the Cardinals or shortstop for the Giants? And I know I’m supposed to know Rogers Hornsby but I couldn’t pick him out of a lineup with any of the other dead white guys on display there. One plaque here, a few scattered images there and we’re supposed to get a feel for these guys’ careers? The Costanza Wool Special uniforms that they are all wearing wouldn’t even tell you whom they played for let alone who they were. And that would be true even if the photos weren’t taken with technology older than Civil Rights.
I understand that the Baseball Hall of Fame is just a museum, but if you are going to sell the game through its history and nostalgia you could bring it to life a little. Even the famed Gallery, or the room with all the bronze plaques that people spend way too much time fighting over, was underwhelming. I wanted to be taken by the enormity of standing in a place where only the game’s great were allowed to hang on the walls, but in reality after taking a photo next to Pedro’s plague and reading about a dozen blurbs I was done. Partly because descriptions seemed to be written with the same devotion as the intern responsible for writing the Comcast On Demand briefs, but mostly because it was just more of the same. Look at a baseball, read a description of what that baseball means. Look at an ugly bronze version of your hero, read a description of who the player was. I love reading. But I don’t normally have to drive 5 hours and pay $22 for the privilege.
If the Baseball Hall of Fame wanted to actually get some young fans interested in the game, they might try a new strategy for recruitment other than reading. In a world where people can’t sit through a live baseball game without checking their phone 400 times, people are supposed to take pleasure in looking at a ball in a case and the 500 words it needs to explain why it matters? Why not SHOW us instead of TELL us? Has no one there taken a creative writing class? No, that’s right, forgot about the blurbs. But why can’t we witness these actual moments? I saw two video screens there and I’m pretty sure both were showing the same Babe Ruth clips with him hitting a dinger and rounding the bases with his legs moving as rapidly as Luigi Mario. I understand there won’t be video around from the first World Series and maybe I’m stuck with the photo and paragraph to cement Rogers Hornsby in my brain, but there is no video, or hell, audio for the world series winning teams of the last half century? How much better of an exhibit is watching a clip of Joe Carter hitting that walk off in the World Series instead of a ball in a case and a photo? What makes you relive these great baseball moments more, hearing them and seeing them, or someone framing a box score from the next day’s paper and slapping it on the wall?
I checked out the last section of the museum, the place where they list all the record holders, hoping that this would save the experience. This may not surprise you, but it did not. Was it too much to ask for that clip of Hank Aaron getting nearly tackled going around the bases playing on a loop? Apparently. Instead of capturing those moments of record breaking and displaying them via monitors or even a pair of headphones to listen to Vin Scully paint the picture for, you get a piece of paper listing the previous record holder, and then another piece of paper for the current champion. And there’s no real organization by significance either. Most doubles in a career can be next to most HBP in a single game. A few feet away you’ll see something about the ALL TIME HITS LEADER while in the other direction…some scrub for the Phillies who lucked into an unassisted triple play a few years back. At least they made sure to put up a video of that unforgettable moment.
When I went to the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame I spent over 6 hours there and I only left at that point because I realized I hadn’t eaten yet. In Cooperstown, I saw as much as I could see before my eyes got tired, which took about 90 minutes thanks to the abundance of small plaques. Sure, I had to use my eyes in Cleveland too, but I also got to use my ears. Every music era exhibit not only had mini rock documentaries playing on a loop, but throughout the museum you could find interactive kiosks to listen to the legends you just saw on display. What did Lou Reed sound like again? Oh yeah, let me just put on these headphones and listen to every song he ever created! Wouldn’t even baseball’s oldest curmudgeons appreciate something that allowed fans to go through and play every World Series winning call or watch all 27 outs of each no-hitter? Is it out of the realm of possibilities to create an viewing booth to compare the swings of different legends? I know that I grew up loving Ken Griffrey Jr., but I’m not going back to upstate New York just to take a picture with his old teal Mariners jersey. BUT if I could take all of the those beautiful Junior swings and compare them to other lefty swinging greats like Ted Williams or Barry Bonds (oh yeah, there’s plenty of him and Pete Rose scattered throughout the place, time to give it up moral police) in some virtual reality machine that Bob’s Arcade can afford but somehow the National Baseball HOF can’t, well then THAT might be worth the trip.
I know baseball isn’t hugely popular in younger demographics and I can’t imagine the thousands of people a day that drag their kids to Cooperstown are likely to change that. If I’m thirty and I’m bored to tears in less than two hours its unbelievable that anyone still young enough to be playing the game would ever want to go back. Sure the bats with your name engraved is still cool, but that will be your best take away. Not the century plus of history, but the object that you can actually hold in your hand and swing. You know, like the real baseball players do. How much better would the HOF be if you could step up to the plate and have a simulation to what it’s like to hear the crowd behind you, or to see what Pedro’s changeup disappearing on you actually looks like? If there was a place where you could see, hear, and feel what its like to have experienced or at least witnessed some of the greatest moments in the game, then I would love to someday bring my kids to this interactive baseball heaven. But there’s no way I’d want to share a bunch of old memorabilia and hope that miraculously makes baseball stick with them. An old tomb where you can’t even hear the crack of a bat? It’s just not worth the journey. Well, not unless my future kids really love cows.