Trip of a lifetime
Visiting the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown can be life-changing
Today, Cooperstown New York enjoys a quaint little place in the world. Once a year though, it is the epicenter of baseball glory. On the last weekend in July, thousands of people flock to those hallowed grounds to witness the induction of the latest members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
I have been one of those fans, and the experience was one of the greatest sports moments in my life. But that was only one weekend; the museum is open year-round and there is still plenty more to enjoy around town and the surrounding areas.
The museum is the centerpiece of the town for obvious reasons. It is a three-story shrine to America’s national pastime, founded in 1936 by Stephen Clark. It was created as a result of a 1905 commission that concluded the first “scheme for playing baseball” was devised by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, New York. Clark purchased the first modern baseball from 1839 and displayed it with other objects in Cooperstown in 1935 drawing the attention necessary to create the Hall of Fame and Museum a year later.
At the heart of it all is the Hall of Fame Gallery. This is the cathedral-like room in which the bronze plaques representing each of the members are displayed. The first group of players was inducted into the Hall in 1936. They were Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner, and Walter Johnson. Since those first five men were inducted there have been only a few hundred more elected to join them in more than 80 years. There have been thousands of players going in and out of professional baseball during its history and the members of the Hall of Fame comprise only about 1 percent of them. That number demonstrates the enormous difficulty of accomplishing what these players have done.
That is just one section of the museum. The other two floors are full of wall-to-wall history of the sport. From exhibits dedicated to Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron to the incredible pieces of stadiums that have long since been torn down, visitors can travel back in time to eras of baseball long gone by. If you stop to read every piece of literature it can take a full day to see it all. Those who just like to take a brief look will still spend a few hours taking it all in.
If you decide to plan your trip around induction weekend, there are a whole host of other activities that are available for you to enjoy. Doubleday Field is located just behind Main Street in the center of town. In the days before and after induction weekend there are little league games here, offering young kids the opportunity to play the game they love in the place dedicated to its history. If you are looking for other times to visit that offer large events, there is the Baseball Hall of Fame Classic played Memorial Day weekend. That game brings recently retired players from every major league team together to be coached by Hall of Famers in an exhibition game.
In addition to the events at Doubleday Field around induction weekend, there is the Hall of Fame Parade on Saturday. Dozens of Hall of Famers ride down Main Street while thousands in attendance line the route waving and cheering them on. You can cheer as living legends of the game ride by while the announcer recalls their great career achievements. Be ready to take a lot of pictures. And if you’re so inclined, you can join the folks who camp out overnight across from the museum. The parade route ends there, and some of the players come down from their vehicles and sign autographs for the fans.
The biggest event of induction weekend is the ceremony that takes place about a mile away from the museum at the Clark Sports Complex. It is named after the founder and is led by his granddaughter. This event brings back as many members of the Hall of Fame as can make the trip to sit on the stage and watch the newest members get inducted. Each member that comes to the stage is preceded by a video highlight reel of his career. Thousands of fans sit out on the grass and watch as this all unfolds, leading up to the introduction of the year’s newest members.
Those new inductees are brought to the stage with an introduction video in which someone important to their career details what got them to this moment. It’s a stirring feeling to watch these videos and see the players enter the stage. As they arrive, the crowd reaches a fever pitch. There are some other awards given out and then the program moves on to the presentation of each member’s bronze plaque and speech. One by one, the plaques are read and speeches are given, reflecting on long careers, loved ones, friends and teammates along the way. The July sun was out in full force, but in Central New York the weather was still pleasant. The ceremony is long, so be sure to prepare with plenty of sunscreen and a chair to sit down and rest your legs. An umbrella would be useful as well.
You will have plenty of time between events to make your way up and down Main Street to shop in the multitude of stores. Most have baseball memorabilia, so be prepared to find a million things you want to buy but know you shouldn’t. I am a baseball card collector so naturally I wanted to buy every card autographed by a Hall of Famer. In addition to baseball cards there were autographed pictures and baseball bats and many more items sure to please any fan. During induction weekend, just about every shop sets up a table outside the store to catch the eye of the thousands walking up and down the street.
In addition to the memorabilia shops there are several places to purchase Hall of Fame clothing. There are T-shirts, jerseys and hats available for every major league team. There are also several shops that sell Cooperstown merchandise.
While you’re out walking around town you will certainly work up an appetite. The food choices available are many. If breakfast is what you want, then the Doubleday Café or the Cooperstown Diner have just what you need. I had breakfast at both places, and you can’t go wrong. I thought the Cooperstown Café was the best but its small dining room can leave you waiting outside for some time. If you are only interested in picking up a small breakfast, your best bet is to stop by Schneider’s Bakery at the corner of Main Street and Chestnut.
Lunch and dinner opens quite a few more options. If you’re in a hurry you can grab a slice at Sal’s Pizzeria & Restaurant or Hey Getcha Hot Dog. But if you have time, visit The Back Alley Bar and Grill across the street from the museum or the Hard Ball Café. If you’re in town for induction weekend there is no limit to the number of vendors selling hot dogs, hamburgers, and sausage and pepper sandwiches right in front of their stores. The smell of it all was intoxicating, and I felt like I could have eaten at every one of those stands we passed. There are plenty of other options to choose from, including some of the local taverns located just off Main Street in the heart of town.
Cooley’s Tavern was the first one we visited while seeking out an adult beverage and lively entertainment. It was induction weekend so I had to assume that was why there was a jazz duo perched on the balcony playing all the hits. When we walked in there was a great feeling of nostalgia as we stared at a small room with a horseshoe bar as the centerpiece. There were booths off to the side and a back room with some TVs. But the bar was truly where the action was. Across the street was Sherman’s Tavern with a similar set up but more space to move around. There were several people enjoying themselves on the front steps of the tavern, giving the place a great hometown atmosphere.
But if family entertainment is what you’re searching for then you can always take a trip to the Hall of Heroes Wax Museum where you can get a glimpse of what some of the Hall of Famers looked like in their prime. Additionally, you can take the short walk down to the lake and enjoy the scenery at the park or take in the sights on the one-hour lake tour. Those offer great views and a relaxing environment to break up the busyness that is shopping and sight-seeing.
Looking back at everything there is to see and do in Cooperstown, it’s no wonder people make the trip at different times of the year. Look carefully when you search for accommodations. When we took our trip, we chose to stay in Albany and make the one-and-a-half-hour drive every morning and evening. During induction weekend the prices for lodging in Cooperstown are through the roof. They decrease the further away from town you get; look separately at every little town that exists for the fit that suits your travel needs.
During induction weekend, there are thousands of people crowded into the streets and the energy is electric. It is one of the greatest events in professional sports and anyone who is a fan of baseball should make the effort to see it at least once. If you choose not to go that weekend, then choose the one that gives you the opportunity to see it all in your own way. Plan accordingly, and you will have a wonderful time with memories to cherish the rest of your life.