|The prestige of the first class of Baseball's Hall of Fame insured the building would be opened.|
With local boosters licking their chops and a somewhat embarrassed Major League Baseball trying desperately to hold on to a ridiculous origin legend for the game saddled on them by the Mills Commission of 1908, the National Baseball Hall of Fame opened its doors in beautiful but un-bustling Cooperstown, New York on June 12, 1939.
The pedigree of the National Pastime was somewhat murky. Everyone knew that it grew out of ball, bat, and tag games like Rounders and Townball which had been played on village greens since at least the turn of the 19th Century. It was assumed to be related in some way to Cricket, the English national game which began taking hold in big American cities with the establishment of clubs of well-heeled sportsmen. The connection to Cricket, and even to Rounders, another game of English origins, offended the sense of cocky jingoism that accompanied the coincidental rise of baseball and America as a muscular new world power in the later half of the century.
If the paths of evolution were befogged in the mists of time, the actual beginning of modern baseball was not, and plenty of people knew it. The game as we know it came into being with the formation of the New York Knickerbockers founded on September 23, 1845. It was one of several amateur sporting clubs made up mostly of young clerks playing bat and ball games to a variety of rules. Alexander Cartwright and other members hammered out the Knickerbocker Rules, the first ever published. The adoption of these rules by other clubs made games between squads of rival clubs possible without long negotiations over field or day rules.
The first inter-club game under these rules was played at Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey on June 19, 1846. The Knickerbockers, by the way, lost to a club called the New York Nine. But it was pretty clearly THE first game.
By the onset of the Civil War baseball was being played by clubs adopting the rules throughout the Northeast, Mid-West, and Upper South, although various other versions were still played locally in small towns and villages.
Many a lad packed his bat and ball with his kit when reporting for duty in the Union Army. Baseball games enlivened the deadly boredom of camp life between episodes of unimaginable horror in the big battles of the war.
Young Abraham Mills—no known relation to my mother’s family—of the 5th New York Volunteers—Duryée’s Zouaves—participated in one notable game on Christmas Eve of 1862 against members of other regiments before 40,000 troops camped at Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.
Mills returned from the war as a second lieutenant, completed law school and set off on a distinguished career. But he kept his hand in baseball as the player manager of the amateur Olympic Base Ball Club in Washington, D.C. Eventually his legal and business connections and baseball experience secured him the Presidency of the National League.
In 1908 the former executive was put in charge of a special commission charged with investigating the origins of the game. Privately it was understood that he was to discover a uniquely American pedigree un-besmirched by close association to British games. The Mills Commission did not work very hard or very diligently.
On the strength of a claim in one letter from a Colorado mining engineer, Abner Graves who claimed to have witnessed the first game played by Abner Doubleday, a future Union Army general, and students of the Otsego Academy and Green’s Select School in Cooperstown in 1839. Despite numerous inconsistencies in the story, the Commission declared to the world that Doubleday was the founder and Cooperstown the cradle of baseball.
That was their official story, and they were sticking with it, even as mounting evidence year by year undercut the claim.
Cooperstown was a once thriving town off the beaten track in central New York State. Near-by Lake Otsego is the source of the Susquehanna River. Its other claim to fame was that it had been platted from a claim by the father of writer James Fenimore Cooper. Once the center of a hops growing region, it had been hit hard first by Prohibition and then by the Depression which had cut deeply into a summer resort business.
Stephen Carlton Clark, whose family had made a fortune as co-founders of the Singer Sewing Machine Company and who had extensive holding in the town, including half-empty resort hotels began scheming to find some way to boost tourism. He realized that the Doubleday connection was just what he needed.
He began promoting the idea of a Hall of Fame in his home town in the mid-Thirties. Finally securing the blessing of Major League Baseball, he launched a well-publicized national campaign to elect the first members of the Hall while preparing his building in Cooperstown.
On January 29, 1936 the first “class” was elected And quite a line-up it was—Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson. With the standards for on field performance—not personal behavior—set so high, no subsequent class would be admitted without controversy and argument.
On the strength of those names, particular Ruth, who had only recently retired as was still the Sultan of Swat to well-heeled Yankee fans for whom the tedious trip to Cooperstown was not quite so inconvenient, Clark finished his shrine and launched it to great hoopla.
It was an even greater goldmine than Clark ever imagined.
Currently there are 300 elected members of the Hall including 208 former major league players, 35 from the Negro leagues, 19 managers, 10 umpires, and 28 pioneers, executives, and organizers. In addition sportswriters and broadcasters are also honored as are collectively the members of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
About 315,000 fans make the still inconvenient pilgrimage to what is now considered a reverential shrine annually. Decedents of the Clark family still sit on the board and own just about all of the available accommodations in town. They are very good at counting money.
Every devoted baseball fan is expected to make the pilgrimage at least once in his or her life time. I haven’t met that holy obligation yet. Contributions to the cause will be gratefully accepted.