The story of America: It’s all there in the National Baseball Hall of Fame
Former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw takes us on a tour of Cooperstown, and American history
August 3, 2014 12:00 AM
Honus Wagner's plaque at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
By Tom Brokaw
Somewhere in the Americas, a young man is in a backyard, bat in hand, checking his cuts, making sure the wrists roll over and the legs provide power. Or he is rehearsing the overhand motion with two fingers tucked along a baseball’s seam, trying to release it just as his body pushes off the rubber. Then he looks around, stands on a small rise and rehearses the speech he will give one day. His speech at The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, that monument to the game and the men who played it at levels beyond the ability of ordinary mortals.
The Hall of Fame is something beyond the honorable recognition of game, players and supporting cast. It occupies a central role in the American idea of an immigrant nation constantly evolving as a society of different origins, with rules that govern the strongest as well as the weakest and loyalties to teams and players that can be momentarily tempered in appreciation of the great player wearing some other color.
To get to the Hall of Fame as a player is hard, very hard. A career must be long, consistent and bold in that cherished standard for baseball worthiness: the stats. If you don’t have the numbers, you don’t get in.
The original organizers sent a message with their first class in 1936: Tyrus (Ty) Cobb, The Georgia Peach with the spikes up and the bat on the ball; Walter P. (Big Train) Johnson, a pitcher so dominant his record of 3,000 strikeouts held up for 50 years; John P. (Honus) Wagner, a coal miner’s son who left the mines for the new game spreading across America and within a few years became one of its biggest stars, a power hitting shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates who for 17 consecutive seasons hit over .300.
Another pitcher was in that first class: Walter (Christy) Matthewson, a college man, a rarity in the early city-streets and country-boy origins of baseball. Matthewson’s career as a pitcher for the Giants is best summed up by two stats: a 2.13 ERA over 17 seasons, including one in which he won 37 games.
The final inductee of that first class: George Herman (“Babe”) Ruth, a baseball player, yes, but also a legend of such outsize proportions there is little I can add to his stats or story. He was in his day the best-known American in the world. He played the game at the highest levels first as a pitcher and then as a hitter. To this day, the name Babe Ruth is at once mythical and yet we feel as if he walks among us still.
So that was the standard in 1936 for this new shrine to the game and the best who played it. The latest members were inducted last Sunday, including Gregory (Mad Dog) Maddux, the first pitcher to win four consecutive Cy Young awards and the only pitcher with more than 300 wins and 3,000 strikeouts and fewer than 1,000 walks.
Cooperstown was chosen for the hall in the mistaken belief that the first major-league games were played in that picturesque New York town in the Catskills. Never mind the historic hiccup. Shrines should have bucolic settings and connections to that which they honor.
Cooperstown, by its location and size, pays tribute to a game and players who came of age in rural America, largely working-class young men with the physiology and determination to dominate a game that quickly became our national pastime.
Selecting that first class, small and elite, the organizers sent a message that remains: This is baseball Olympus. It embodies our national game, which attracts presidents to throw the first pitch, movie stars who shrink in the presence of its stars, ball parks filled with the moneyed and the barely making it, side by side in their loyalty to the home team.
This is the Hall of Fame.
There will be others, in all sports and even in business, broadcasting, bowling, door-to-door sales, whatever a promoter can dream up. But there‘s only one founding Hall of Fame.
The first visit to Cooperstown is usually a fan’s pilgrimage to a favorite player. It quickly becomes a walk through America: the early days of immigrant-family stars from German and Welsh coal fields, from Polish and Italian neighborhoods. The Irish city kids and the first Jewish superstar. Farm boys with big hands and sinewy backs.
When so many of them interrupted their careers to fight in World War II, they came home to a different country in which their black brothers in the game were ready to take their rightful places. Branch Rickey knew, for many reasons, it was time to bring a Negro to the majors and the man he chose was destined to become a historic figure from the moment he pulled on a Dodger uniform: Jackie Robinson, No. 42.
As a lifelong Robinson fan, for his skills as a player and for his values as a man, I wept as I stood in front of his bronze plaque in Cooperstown. I also realized he was inducted in 1962, yet a full year later Alabama Gov. George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door, promising “segregation forever.”
Rickey and eventually all of baseball knew better years earlier. Baseball was more than a game. It was a social force that fulfilled the promise of the American ideal.
Robinson, of course, was just the first, followed by a long roster of black superstars and those who had been stranded in the old Negro leagues. Then came names such as Marichal, Aparicio, Cepeda and Mendez, as the game moved deeper into the Americas. Soon we will read in Cooperstown the names of Asian players who came to America from the other side of the world.
At Cooperstown, you are reminded that baseball, as the late commissioner Bart Giammati once put it, “is a game designed to break your heart. It begins in spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then, as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.”
Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that Ted Williams (.344 lifetime batting average and the last player to hit .400 or above) THANKED sportswriters for voting to put him in the Hall of Fame. His is one of the stories told there that gets baseball fans through the lonely fall and keeps them from facing the winter alone.
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