Sports

Karl Lindholm: Cooperstown is a great place to be!

FOURTEEN HALL OF FAMERS and two dozen recently retired major league players took part on May 25 in the 2024 Hall of Fame East-West Classic in front of a sellout crowd of 5,740 fans at Doubleday Field. Here, recently retired players Chris Young and Latroy Hawkins congratulate one another after the East’s 5-4 win. Photo by Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Have you been to Cooperstown? Recently? 

It’s about three and a half hours from here, the last 45 minutes of which are off the thruway and run through the beautiful hilly terrain of central New York.

The town itself is quite stunning, with lovely 19th-century homes surrounding a vibrant, wide Main Street of commercial properties, many selling baseball vintage attire and ephemera.

Cooperstown’s claim to being the site of baseball’s origins is based on a myth, now quite thoroughly debunked, that Cooperstown, N.Y., native General Abner Doubleday invented the game there in the 1840s. 

The fact is that baseball, this pastoral game, was adapted from British bat, ball, and base precedents in the urban environs of New York, and the first actual game was played across the Hudson in Hoboken, N.J., in the 1840s. 

It was a city game. Nonetheless, baseball’s Smithsonian is in this beautiful rural burg named after the family of America’s first great writer of fiction, James Fenimore Cooper. 

I’ve spent much of two weeks recently in Cooperstown — a good place to be for a baseball fan. From May 30 to June 1, I attended the Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and from June 6-9 I was at the 24th annual Jerry Malloy Negro Leagues Conference. Both conferences were held in the Baseball Museum and Hall of Fame.

“SOULS OF THE GAME: Voices of Black Baseball,” a dynamic new exhibit covering 150 years of African Americans in baseball, opened in Cooperstown at the Baseball Museum and Hall of Fame on May 25.

As stimulating as my time was in Cooperstown I regretted having to miss another exciting event in Cooperstown the weekend before the Symposium, but I had a conflict and gave myself a Dean’s Excuse. 

On that Saturday, May 25, the East-West Classic was played on Doubleday Field, a six-inning exhibition by recently retired Major-Leaguers, including CC Sabathia, Curtis Granderson, Adam Jones, David Price, and other notables. Former Phillies slugger Ryan Howard won the game for the East, 5-4, with a three-run homer in the final inning. 

Nearly 40 former players in all took part in the celebration, including 14 Hall of Famers: Ken Griffey Jr., Jim Rice, Fergie Jenkins, Ryne Sandberg, Joe Torre, Ozzie Smith, Dave Winfield, Vermont’s own Jim Kaat (he lives in Manchester, Vt., from May to October) and other legends. Hank Aaron’s widow Billye threw out the first pitch. 

The game commemorated the Negro Leagues’ all-star game between rival leagues played every year in Chicago’s Comiskey Park from 1933 (the same year the MLB all-star game was first played) to 1953. It was a week-long celebration at the end of the Negro Leagues season in late August/early September on Chicago’s South Side. Fans coming by train from all over the country. In the 1940s, the East-West Game filled Comiskey with 40,000-50,000 spectators. 

This wonderful event in Cooperstown this year coincided with Commencement at Middlebury College, when the Voice of the Red Sox for 43 years, Joe Castiglione, was awarded an honorary doctorate. I had the pleasure of meeting and spending some time with Joe and his wife Jan and sister Cherie (Middlebury ’72). 

STATUES OF TED Williams and Babe Ruth preside in the Hall of Fame Plaque Gallery in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Joe’s smiling face is all over the Hall of Fame Museum these days as he will be receiving the prestigious Ford C. Frick Award for Broadcast Excellence in Cooperstown at Induction Weekend (July 19-22).

The evening of the East-West celebration, May 25, was the ribbon-cutting for a spectacular new permanent exhibit on the Negro Leagues, “Souls of the Game: Voices of Black Baseball.” This exhibit was two years in the making and involved the expertise of many people — scholars, writers, current players and former players like Dave Stewart, who have a keen interest in telling the story of Black ballplayers and their experience.

The exhibit’s title “The Souls of the Game” is an intentional play on W.E.B. DuBois landmark study “The Souls of Black Folks” in which he said, “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.” The voices of over 30 present and former ballplayers are an interactive part of the exhibit.

Stunning artifacts from and vintage photos of players and teams represent the 150 years of African Americans in baseball. On display among the many powerful material objects are Cool Papa Bell’s cleats, Buck Leonard’s Homestead Grays jersey from 1946, Mookie Betts shirt from the 2022 all-star game, which read, “We need more Black People at the Stadium!”

That these two baseball conferences were hosted by the Hall of Fame was a perfect coincidence of place and moment: A palpable excitement permeated what some might consider, in other years, the occasion to a rather dry recitation of baseball research projects and interests. 

The opening session of the Cooperstown Symposium on May 29 was abuzz with talk about the announcement that day that Major League Baseball had finished its investigation and compilation of Negro League statistics into official records. Players who came to the Majors from the Negro Leagues (Willie Mays, Roy Campanella, Ernie Banks, Satchel Paige and others) will have their official statistics upgraded — and the numbers of those Negro League greats like Josh Gibson and Oscar Charleston will now be found in the official record book. 

More on this in my next “Sports (Mostly)” column.

My presentations at these conferences were adapted from pieces I wrote in the Independent: “Tale of Two (Red Sox) Cities: Boston and Memphis” discussed the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro Leagues, a stable franchise under the same ownership for 30 years with four Hall of Famers — and “The Four Fronts of Baseball’s Integration: 1946” went into the minor league seasons of Brooklyn’s five Black players and the stadiums in which they played in Daytona Beach; Montreal; Nashua, N.H.; and Trois Rivieres, Quebec.

It was both daunting and thrilling to make these presentations in the Grandstand Theater at the Hall of Fame, a 190-seat auditorium with an enormous screen for our PowerPoints and video.

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For many years, I made annual visits to Cooperstown with students in my baseball classes who could clear a day for “field study,” leaving at 6 a.m. and returning by 8 p.m. Fall term classes would go right away in September and spring term students near the end of the course, late April/early May, when the natural landscape was particularly striking. 

I often departed from my charges in mid-day and walked the quarter mile to the Otesaga Inn, a resort built in 1909. I would go the expansive veranda in back, sit in a rocking chair and read, looking out over Lake Otsego (Cooper’s Glimmerglass), a beautiful setting. (Yes, a nap was often included.) 

Do take a trip to Cooperstown. It’s a good time. 

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Karl Lindholm Ph.D. is the Emeritus Dean of Advising and Assistant Professor of American Studies (retired) at Middlebury College. He can be reached at [email protected].

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