Thursday, August 4, 2016

Home Runs and History

In Cooperstown, New York it’s all baseball. All baseball, all the time. All baseball everywhere.

I’m part of the baseball mania here, cheering for my grandson and his team, the Orinda Thunder from the San Francisco area. Thunder is one of 104 teams competing in a week-long national tournament for 12-year-olds.

There are, by my guess, 1,500 youngsters playing the game day and night on 25 very professional-looking ball fields. When they are not on the fields the players are lining up to get into the world famous National Baseball Hall of Fame on the village’s main street.
The Orinda Thunder

Yes, village. Cooperstown is a village, cuddling the foothills of the Catskill Mountains. Population 1,800, which explodes to 50,000 during times of baseball mania. One short main street. One traffic light.

Baseball is fun and so is being around 12 year olds. However, too much of anything is not healthy, so I sneak away from the baseball action to find something interesting, other than baseball, about Cooperstown.

On Pioneer Street, not far from the Hall of Fame, I pass an ancient building. It is the Tunnicliff Inn, Est. 1802, and on the large front window is painted: The James Fenimore Cooper Dining Room.

Of course, James Fenimore Cooper (1759 -1851) the famous American author! I skip down to the village library to discover if he had a connection to the village. Connection indeed. His dad, William, founded the frontier settlement in the late 1700s and James lived there on and off for much of his life.

James Fenimore Cooper was the United States’ first famous novelist, writing 32 novels about the roughness and romance of frontier life. Some of his more popular efforts: The Deerslayer, The Pathfinder, The Last of the Mohicans.

His daughter, Susan Fenimore Cooper, also was a writer, and an amateur naturalist. She wrote mainly about country living and nature in a time when nature was much more natural.

Her most important achievement, however, was founding a home for orphans and destitute children. It was established in a large house on the shore on Otsego Lake and across from the village cemetery.

All intriguing history but nagging my reporter’s mind is how a village with one traffic light became the Mecca of baseball.

Craig Muder, Hall of Fame communications director, has the answer, which he shares with the Orinda Thunder sluggers during a visit to baseball’s shrine.

A misty piece of folklore had it that Abner Doubleday, an army general, invented the game for his troops encamped at Cooperstown back in 1839. The legend, nourished by some bad research, grew and was accepted by major league baseball owners and fans.

The Cooperstown area also was known for growing hops used to brew beer. But by the early 1930s, Prohibition and the Depression had knocked the stuffing out of the Cooperstown economy.

Enter Stephen C. Clark, a Wall Street financier who had a home in Cooperstown. He was the owner of what was known as the “Doubleday Ball,” which the legend said General Doubleday and his troops used for the first baseball game back in 1839.

He displayed the ball at the Cooperstown Village Club, which began collecting donated baseball artifacts. Clark proposed a national baseball museum for Cooperstown and in 1939 the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum became a reality.

It is impossible to say where first baseball game was played. That’s because it grew out of Rounders, an English stick and ball game dating back to the early 1700s.

Certainly one of the earliest forms of North America baseball was played in Canada. The Canadian Encyclopedia says that a baseball-type game was played June 4, 1838 in Beachville, in southwestern Ontario. That was two years before the Doubleday game in Cooperstown and seven years before the birth of the New York Knickerbockers and the “New York game,”  which introduced nine-man teams.

No matter where the first baseball was pitched, Cooperstown is an excellent venue to celebrate the game. It is here that young players every summer learn about team play, and how wholesome sport can build better citizens.

As Craig Muder told the Thunder players: “Baseball stands for something.”


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