Into the past …

There is a scene in the film Skyfall where James Bond has his boss, the worried and frightened M, with him after escaping an assassination attempt.  The assassin can seemingly strike at will, anywhere, and Bond has to protect his boss.  As the two speed off in a weaponized Aston Martin, Q asks Bond where they are going.  Bond replies:  “Back in time”.

In this case, Bond equates the past with a physical place (in the film, the estate where he grew up).  In physics, we spend a lot of time trying to teach students that time and space are really intimately connected, yet in day to day life, we don’t think of the past and future as being “places”.  Today, I got to travel back in time.

I flew in to Albany on Friday afternoon, and today I jumped on a bus in a place that would be considered suburban and modern.  There’s a Pizza Hut, a Dairy Queen … everything we associate with modern life.  I didn’t get on an interstate … just a simple divided highway that subtlely left civilization behind.  Forest, lakes, an occasional home, an occasional business in a building at least 70 years old.  Occasionally, a small yellow sign noting that someone famous used to live here.  The history in Central New York is so rich that saving every drop of history would prove impractical.  Some history is covered in weeds and forest and nature was allowed to retake its  preeminence.  Up into the foothills of the Catskills … the same mountains of Rip Van Winkle … forest covered hills that are among hte most ancient on the continent, and finally after 90 minutes into a valley.  Then, with little warning, the shores of a big lake called “Glimmerglass” by the locals.  Then an oddly modern (yet rustic) opera house, a golf course, and a large resort hotel from a century ago.  Then finally, the nineteenth century homes and the makings of a town … a very small town.  The town founded by the father of James Fennimore Cooper … Cooperstown.  Despite over three centuries, only about 1800 people live here.  It calls itself the “Town of Museums”.  There is a farmer’s museum on the outskirts.  A museum dedicated to the area’s history, and a museum dedicated to the son of the town’s founder.  There is also an art gallery.  Almost nothing about the town screams an identity with the 20th, let alone the 21st century.  It is a town seemingly frozen in time like an American Brigadoon.

Comparatively few bother with those places.  There is another museum.  One based on a bold face lie perpetrated by a Chicagoan.  That museum is the one I went to today.  A little background segue:

In the 1870s, a great baseball player named Albert Goodwill Spalding was enticed to leave Boston and return to his native Illinois nad play for the team on Chicago’s West Side.  He was enticed there not only to play, but to form a new league where rich owners were in control, and players had no more rights about their future.  It was called the National League.  Spalding only played briefly in Chciago for the National League team … it was called the White Stockings in those days … but it goes by another name now.  Spalding helped draw players from the old National Association to the new National League and was well rewarded for selling out his colleagues.  He used that money to buy a sporting goods concern.

As Spaldindg became rich, he wanted to expand his empire of baseball equipment that he sold.  So he organized a grand world tour for his White Stockings and other star players.  They traveled to Australia, New Zealand, Egypt (playing on the Gizeh plateau, under the eternal gaze of the Great Sphinx), Italy, and then England.  Spalding was appalled to learn that the Australians and English already recognized the game as cricket, rounders, and townball.  Spalding was infuriated that the old games had already caught on and he was not likely to expand his business.  He was also appalled to learn that America’s game was not apparently wholly American.  The situation was momentarily forgotten as labor issues erupted at home (the players, realizing that they were getting screwed in this National League were preparing to form a Players League to rebel against the owners).

By the time the early 1900s rolled in, Henry Chadwick, the Father of Modern Baseball, who had given us the box score and something called “batting average” and “earned run average” penned an essay that extolled the idea that baseball had indeed evolved from earlier English games like rounders and townball.  Spalding was always barely tolerant of this English interloper, but this was war!  No one was going to again say that the great American game (which Spalding had helped make sure of was not played by any African-Americans at the top professional level) was some bastard offspring of some Brit game.  Spalding formed a commission of patsies led by Abraham Mills (hence this was called the Mills Commission).  They ran adds across the nation in newspapers and magazines:  anyone knowing anything about baseball’s origin, please write to them.  As the commission waited, Chadwick died, silencing the biggest voice that could counter the sham group.

Eventually, a letter arrived from Denver:  71-year old Abner Graves recalled vividly as a boy in 1839 playing a game of ball and that a school mate of his, Abner Doubleday, had written up the rules for, and that he had composed the rules for this new game of baseball in a pasture just off of the tip of Lake Glimmerglass, in the town of Cooperstown.

Spalding was beside himself in glee.  He didn’t bother to investigate, and he didn’t have to.  This was it!!  Abner Doubleday had been a general at Gettysburg (for the good guys, no less), and to tie the great game of baseball to a real American hero in an idyllic lakeside town was all he needed.  Spalding printed the lie as truth.  It was easily fact checked:  Doubleday was at West Point in 1839 … he was nowhere near Cooperstown.  The lie perpetuated, and eventually became FACT!

Nearly 30 years later, Cooperstown native Stephen Clark, who had gotten rich through Singer sewing machines, found an ancient baseball, which he assumed must have belonged to Abner Doubleday.  He acquired some other baseball memorabilia, and displayed it in town.   It drew crowds … crowds who would pay money.  Clark approached the president of the NL with an idea:  build a museum to hold the history of the game, and maybe also create a Hall of Fame to honor the best players of the game.  And what better place to put it than in the one place where baseball was definitely not invented:  Cooperstown, NY.  The Clark family is very big in Cooperstown.  Stephen’s granddaughter, Jane Forbes Clark, is the President of the Hall of Fame’s Board of Directors.  Just like many small town things, the Hall is a family operation with a long history.

And thus I finally made it to one of the places I had longed dreamt of going to … right up there with the Pyramids, the Great Barrier Reef and Vulcan.  A tourist trap built to attract rubes to the middle of nowhere New York.  I was in ecstasy!

The Baseball Hall of Fame is not a very big building … it is not even particularly obvious as to what the building is.  Of course the first stop is the Hall of Immortals (the Plaque Room), where all of the plaques of all of the games elite and immortals hang around the room, starting with the first class:  Ruth, Cobb, Johnson, Wagner, Mathewson.  You half wonder if the first few letters of their names can be rearranged to form a word like “Shazam!” to give you super human baseball powers if you say their names.  You snake through the galleries, but I quickly ignored plaques like “DiMaggio”, “Mays”, and “Williams”.  You can be a fan of baseball, but you are also a fan of a team, and my priority was to first find the plaques of my beloved White Sox … Harry Hooper who had once been Babe Ruth’s roommate and who was one of the first players to write about their experiences.  George Davis, who was the offensive hero of the 1906 World Series … Eddie Collins and Ray Schalk who had been on the 1919 Black Sox team, but never tried to throw the World Series.  Ted Lyons and Rad Faber and Luke Appling who spent over 60 collective years with the Sox.  Al Lopez, Luis Aparicio, and Nellie Fox:  two Sox players and one manager who helped restore the team to glory after 30 years of floundering after the 1919 scandal.  Carlton Fisk, the Commander, the battle scarred catcher who writer Roger Angel once described as a knight out of some medieval romance defending what was good and right.  I had to see those.  I also had to see some of the true heroes of the game:  Roberto Clemente was once asked how he should be remembered:  I want to be remembered as a ballplayer who gave all he had to give.  He gave his life trying to get relief supplies to victims of an earthquake, giving all he had.  Hank Greenberg wouldn’t play on the Sabbath … his Sabbath, the one that wasn’t the same as Christians.  There are still anti-Semites, but Greenberg made sure there would be fewer.  Branch Rickey’s plaque is there too … the businessman who fulfilled a promise he had made to himself after watching one of his college baseball players crying because he couldn’t change the color of his skin.  Jackie Robinson is there.  His plaque looks just like everyone else’s.  It seems like it shouldn’t, but then again, maybe it is wholly appropriate that it is just like everyone else’s.  All people suffer.  So few suffered like he did for his craft.  That his plaque is not far from those representing the villains of the game:  the vile Ty Cobb, the dastardly Kennesaw Mountain Landis (his plaque even mockingly praises him for his integrity), and Tom Yawkey who made sure his Boston Red Sox would be the last team to integrate.

Walking through the halls of artifacts was like being a child in a candy store.  Nolan Ryan’s seven no hitters … one ball for each (including one caught by my namesake).  The glove Dewayne Wise used to almost make the catch of the 21st century (before making the catch of the 21st century in his bare hand) was there … a bat once swung by Babe Ruth, and the locker that Joe Dimaggio had once used before handing it over to his successor, Mickey Mantle.  Hank Aaron’s bat used to clout his 715th home run.  One of the best artifacts:  one of the giant green spirals from atop the scoreboard at old Comiskey Park.  How many times had I seen that as a kid so far away and six stories up in the air, and now to see it up close with its hundreds of small lights, remembering what it looked like after a Harold Baines home run.  Tears and giddiness.

I left the Hall of Fame at about 11:30 … only two hours.  The small museum was packed to the gills … yet no one complained.  It was like James Earl Jones’ pronouncement in Field of Dreams:  They’ll pass over the money without thinking about it … for it is money they have, and peace they like.  Even in a place that saw its second biggest crowd ever … tens of thousands of people were all saying “excuse me”, “that’s no problem”, “my fault”.  There was a certain peace being surrounded by baseball fans who gasped in awe at the past.  Their past, their parents and grandparents, and great-grandparents past.  In this place, a nexus in time, those times all coexisted.  Then why leave … there was more to explore!

The town of Cooperstown has one stoplight and a volunteer fire department (I can’t emphasize how tiny this town is).  Yet, Main Street has two stores that sell nothing but baseball bats.  At least four deal with baseball cards and memorabilia.  Clothing revolved heavily around caps and uniforms.  I was like a dog, and a train load of milk bones had just derailed in front of me.  As you walk through the town, some of those figures of the past were there.  Some just walked from place to place.  I looked up, there was Andre Dawson, followed by a flock of well wishers as he headed to who knows where.  Out of the CVS came a face I remembered … he pointed to my White Sox log on my shirt “Sox fan … I’ll have to make you a Cubs fan“.  Jose Cardenal, best remembered as a Cub with a 2 foot afro on his head.  What a story!

One store allowed you to buy an autograph ticket and head around back to get an autograph from Pete Rose.  So many love him and so many revile him.  He is like a soul who cannot properly rest one way or the other.  John Rocker was there.  Once reviled for threatening to quit baseball if ever traded to New York because of “queers” and “foreigners” (amongst others, I’m paraphrasing).  There was a raffle with the winner getting a night out with John Rocker.  I chose not to enter that.

In addition to the sites, there were the smells … most of the restaurants were too small, so they set up on the sidewalk serving, what else:  hot  dogs, hamburgers, lemonade … staples of the ballpark experience.  It smelled heavenly.

There were six people who are being inducted tomorrow, and they drew lightly form members of St. Louis Cardinals nation, Toronto Blue Jays territory, CubNation, and New York Yankee Nation.  However the largest contingents were drawn from Atlanta Braves nation and Chicago White Sox township (hey, its not like I can lie about this).  Small in number, White Sox township was well represented.  Like street gangs, you knew instantly everyone’s affiliation.  Everyone got along great, but when you had a chance to help a fellow member of the township, it brought a glow to someone’s face there was instant camaraderie.  It was like the meeting at the beginning of The Warriors:  All those rival gangs together in one place, and no one was getting wasted.

As 6 pm rolled around, it was time for the parade.  Some people had staked their places i the early morning (or their wives did while the men went around town, switching off every so often.  We were lucky to get second row standing room.  The crowd was easily 7-8 deep in some places.  The parade consisted of those immortals who had returned to see the new members inducted.  There was a Chairman of the Board.  There was a Mr. Cub (actually two).  There was a (slightly scowling) Mr. October, and a (warm and friendly) Mr. November.  A Hawk and a Goose.  A Molly, a Robin, and a Fergie.  And even among superheroes, there was an Iron Man, and a Man of Steal.  As the former immortals passed, one at a time … I had never send them so close.  Then finally came the new six:  the manager and two pitchers from Atlanta … the manager of the Yankees in their latest golden age.  Then the third winningest manager in the game’s history … who had anonymously started his career on Chicago’s South Side, and helped end 24 years of waiting to win.

And then there was … our guy.  We may not have been collectively as loud as the Brave represented … but at least we did not resort to the annoying and racist tomahawk chop to salute Frank Thomas.  For the first time in over 20 years, a White Sox player was alive and present to take the last step.

Tomorrow, the induction ceremony.  I need to try and get less excited so I can get to sleep tonight.  That will be difficult.


2 Responses to Into the past …

  1. R.J.D.S. says:

    First & foremost, thanks for filing a report. Secondly, growing up I was somewhat convinced my middle name was because of Jose Cardenal (I’ve since wised up, but man, that ‘fro). And finally, I only saw snippets from news highlights, but that had to be some parade!

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