Baseball wasn't invented in Cooperstown, N.Y., or anywhere else; the sport simply evolved from the English game of rounders. But of the thousands who invaded the picturesque hamlet near Lake Otsego on June 12, 1939, almost nobody seemed to care.
The occasion was the opening and dedication of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, which endures 68 years later as the mecca of our national game. Cooperstown remains a pastoral setting perfectly in keeping with the myth that a West Point cadet named Abner Doubleday dreamed up the sport in a cow pasture there one day in 1839. (The story was perpetuated and circulated by the Mills Commission, which was formed in 1905 to determine the origins of the game and took the easy way out.)
During baseball's supposed centennial year, however, no one bothered to expose the Cooperstown hoax for what it was. Probably everybody was having too much fun pretending it was true.
This was a simpler, more trusting time, and baseball stood alone at the top of America's sporting heap as war clouds gathered in Europe and Asia. Its chief rivals for attention were college football, boxing and thoroughbred racing. Pro football and basketball were further down the pecking order then, and hockey excited the populace in only a few U.S. cities. So the opening of baseball's Hall of Fame was a big deal indeed.
Its first members had been elected in 1936 before there was even a building to house their plaques. By 1939, 25 men had been so honored, and all 11 of the living members made their way to upstate New York for the dedication: Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, Tris Speaker, Connie Mack, Nap Lajoie, George Sisler, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Eddie Collins and Cy Young.
As far as fans were concerned, one immortal outshone all the others. Ruth, only four years removed from his final season, was mobbed by autograph seekers at every step.
It was just like the old days — my arm got terribly tired from signing, the 44-year-old Bambino said at day's end. I didn't know there were so many people who didn't have my signature.
Because of travel problems, Cobb was late in arriving from California and checked into the Cooper Hotel about the time baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis announced his name during the ceremonies. When he finally arrived at the site, Cobb was largely ignored as the crowds swarmed around Ruth. It's safe to say the egotistical Georgia Peach was not pleased.
After the official dedication, many of the inductees donned vintage uniforms and served as a board of strategy for a seven-inning exhibition game between teams of current major leaguers. (If anybody cared, Wagner's squad defeated Collins' group 4-2.)
Nine future Hall of Famers played in the game: Arky Vaughan, Charlie Gehringer, Joe Medwick and Lefty Grove for the Wagners; Lloyd Waner, Billy Herman, Mel Ott, Hank Greenberg and Dizzy Dean for the Collinses. But again the erstwhile Sultan of Swat swiped the spotlight.
When the rotund Ruth grabbed a bat and waddled to the plate to pinch hit for the Wagner squad in the fifth inning, the spectators at Doubleday Field roared in unison. With a 1-1 count, the Babe fouled out to the catcher directly in front of the plate. Nonetheless, he was applauded loud and long.
Imagine if he had hit [a home run], one eyewitness said. They probably would have carried him off the field — and he would have been a lot to carry.
The occasion marked one of Ruth's final appearances in uniform. He never worked for a ballclub after being dismissed as a coach by the Brooklyn Dodgers before the 1939 season and spent the last nine years of his life without realizing his dream of becoming a major league manager.
Once in the mid-1930s, the Yankees suggested he gain some managerial experience in the minor leagues.
[Bleep] the minor leagues! Ruth snorted. I'm a major leaguer. And who could argue?
Commissioner Landis and league presidents Ford Frick of the National and William Harridge of the American were among the first-day dignitaries at Cooperstown as three radio networks and six newsreel cameras covered the proceedings.
I should like to dedicate this museum to all America, to lovers of good sportsmanship, healthy bodies and keen minds, for those are the principles of baseball, said Landis, then in the 19th year of his 24-year reign as the sport's rock-rumped czar. So it is to them, rather than to the few who are being honored here, that I propose to dedicate this shrine of sportsmanship.
Then ribbons were cut, the door to the museum was unlocked, a parade began and the Cooperstown post office began selling stamps marking the game's official if inaccurate centennial, with Postmaster General James Farley giving the first to Landis. No controversies marked the sunny occasion. Pete Rose, Barry Bonds and their transgressions were far in the future. And in 1939, there was no public regret that this baseball shrine, like the game itself, was totally Caucasian.
Each year, surviving Hall of Famers and thousands of fans gather in upstate New York to celebrate our national game in what passes for its birthplace; the 2007 observation will be July 29, when Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn are inducted.
The setting always has seemed ideal, as well as idyllic. As many have observed after absorbing Cooperstown's ambiance and artifacts, If baseball wasn't invented here, it should have been.