The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Cooperstown”

Ten Facts About Cooperstown, New York

Virtually every baseball fan knows that the Baseball Hall of Fame is in Cooperstown, New York.  But what do we know about Cooperstown, N.Y.?  I’ve been to Cooperstown a couple of times, though it’s been nearly twenty years since I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Hall of Fame.  I thought I might take a few minutes to see what kind of information I could uncover about Cooperstown.  Here are some facts I’ve decided to share with you:

Cooperstown, New York

Cooperstown, New York (Photo credit: Dougtone)

1)  Cooperstown is not named for the writer, James Fenimore Cooper (although the author did live and pen some of his stories, such as “The Last of the Mohicans,” in Cooperstown.  It is actually named for his father, William Cooper, who founded this town in the late 1780’s (though it first became officially incorporated in 1812.)

2)  Cooperstown Dreams Park was established in 1996, and the Youth Baseball League it serves features up to 1,350 teams competing per season.  The season lasts from the end of May until the end of August.

3)  The population of Cooperstown is 1,833, down nearly ten percent since the year 2000.  The population of Cooperstown is 91% white.  There are six black families and one resident of full-blooded Native-American ancestry. Females outnumber males 55% to 45%.  There is one registered sex offender in town limits.

4)  About one-quarter of the people of Cooperstown walk to work.  That’s very cool, except in the winter.

5)  Approximately 35% of the population are affiliated with a religious congregation.  Nationally, about 51% of Americans are affiliated with a particular religious congregation.  A plurality in Cooperstown are Catholics (43%.)

6)  The most common first name among deceased individuals in Cooperstown is Mary.  The most common last name among deceased individuals is Smith.  I would suggest that if your name is Mary Smith, you might want to avoid Cooperstown.  On the other hand, you would have a life expectancy of 81.5 years old.

7)  The first speeding ticket issued in Cooperstown was given out in 1906.

8)  No one born in Cooperstown has ever played Major League baseball.

9)  Company G of the 176th Infantry Regiment of New York was recruited from Otsego County (in which Cooperstown is located), as well as a few of the other surrounding counties.  They saw action in Virginia, North Carolina and Louisiana.  The majority of casualties this regiment suffered occurred at the Battle of Cedar Creek in Virginia in 1864.

10)  The last public hanging in Cooperstown took place in December 1827.  The man condemned to death was a first cousin of James Fenimore Cooper named Levi Kelley, convicted of killing his tenant, Abraham Spafard.  While the hangman was putting the noose around Kelley’s neck, the grandstand collapsed under the weight of the crowd of onlookers, killing one person and mortally wounding another.  The execution, however, went on as scheduled.


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My Hall of Fame Ballot, and a Cautionary Tale

Are you familiar with the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, located on the campus of Bronx Community College in New York City?  Not many people are.  It was formally dedicated in May, 1901, as place to honor prominent Americans who had a significant impact on U.S. history and culture.  Modeled on the Pantheon in Rome, its 630 foot open-air colonnade was conceived as a place where marble busts of America’s most significant writers, presidents, inventors, and the like would be commemorated for all time.  A very serious blue ribbon panel of 100 men was cobbled together to make initial nominations, and for several decades, the landmark was taken quite seriously.

As you have probably guessed by now, the existence of this Hall of Fame put the seed of an idea into the head of Ford Frick, who passed this idea along to Stephen Clark (of the Cooperstown Clarks), whose very wealthy local family connections paved the way for this unlikely caper to come to fruition.  Stephen saw this as an idea to bring business to Cooperstown, suffering from the ravages of the Great Depression, and nearly overnight, this quaint little village was  dedicated as hallowed ground where the Abner Doubleday legend also conveniently took root.  That there was no easy way to transport people to Cooperstown to visit the proposed new shrine doesn’t seem to have fazed Clark.

Meanwhile, while the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown was just getting off the ground, the more established, high-brow Hall down in the Bronx (on what was then the campus of New York University) was in its heyday.  The New York Bar Association went so far as advocating for certain of its members, and newspapers breathlessly covered the annual inductions.

In a fantastic little article I recently discovered, Baltimore Sun columnist Joe Mathews (August 1, 1997), wrote, in a sentence that could serve as a cautionary tale for the institution up in Cooperstown, “The 97-year old monument is a shrine not only to [them], but to an ideal of fame that, like the hall itself, is dusty and decaying.”

Apropos to nothing, my favorite sentence in the article is, “The first hall of fame was the brainchild of a Presbyterian minister who was influenced by his concern for prostitution, democracy, and the Roman Empire.”  (emphasis added.) Mets brass, take note.  Want to put asses in the seats at Citi Field next season?  Why not go with  “Prostitution, Democracy and the Roman Empire” as next season’s slogan?  It’s certainly much more compelling than “Show up at Shea” (1998), or “Experience It” (2003).

Now, back to our story.

Hardly anyone ever visits The Hall of Fame for Great Americans these days anymore, even though it sits on an easily accessible college campus.  Its committee of electors made its final official inductions in 1976.  Among the four final inductees were a horticulturist and a judge.  None of the final four have yet had a bronze bust built in their honor.  Its Board of Trustees formally dissolved in 1979.  Since then, the colonnade has been far more popular with pigeons than with people.  You may still visit the 98 bronze busts in existence.  Self-guided tours are available daily from 10:00-5:00, with a suggested donation of $2.00 per person.

Attendance to the Baseball Hall of Fame has steadily declined over the past twenty years, from a high of over 400,000 in the early 1990’s to around 260,000 last year.  Although the Hall of Fame is a non-profit institution, and is, in effect, a ward of the State of New York, it appears that its operating budget was over two million dollars in the red in its last fiscal year.  Over the past decade, the HOF has more often than not lost money.

Outwardly, the Baseball Hall of Fame appears to be a healthy, thriving entity.  It has a modern website, a Board of Directors featuring such luminaries as Tom Seaver and Joe Morgan, and disproportionate influence on how the game itself is remembered from one generation to the next.  Its solid brick exterior and its pastoral location connote classical American values such as fortitude, temperance and diligence.  And it contains part of the original facade of Ebbet’s Field.  What can go wrong?

By all means, consider the official Hall of Fame ballot a sacred totem of a mystical shrine, if you will, but consider this:  Will our choices result in a stronger institution, more relevant to modern American sensibilities of entertainment and utility, or will they further contribute to the atrophy that apparently is slowly setting in?

Having said that, and while chafing at the ten-player limit arbitrarily imposed on actual BBWAA voters, here are my choices, in no particular order,  for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame:

1)  Greg Maddux

2)  Mike Piazza

3)  Craig Biggio

4)  Jeff Bagwell

5)  Tim Raines

6)  Tom Glavine

7)  Mike Mussina

8)  Alan Trammell

9)  Frank Thomas

10)  Don Mattingly

I’m sure the most controversial pick on this list will be Don Mattingly.  Fine.  Up until I set about typing this post, I would not have included him among this group, either.  But in light of all the previous paragraphs I’ve written about The Hall in this article, the relevant question is, would the enshrinement of Donnie Baseball be a good thing for the future viability of The Hall, or would it somehow be a “bad” thing.

Three questions:

1)  Was Don Mattingly ever the best player in the game during his career?

2)  Did Don Mattingly represent the game, his team, and himself with nothing but respect both on the field and off?

3)  Did he meet the 10-year minimum length career criteria for Hall eligibility?

The answer to each of these questions is yes.  From 1984-87, there was no better player in the American League than Don Mattingly.  He was always nothing but professional.  He played for 14 seasons.  At various times in his career, he led his league in hits, doubles, RBI, batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+, and total bases.  From 1984-89, he averaged 330 total bases per season.  Perhaps most impressively, however, he never struck out more than 43 times in any single full season in his career.

In his only playoff appearance, in 1995, vs. Seattle, he batted .417 in 25 plate appearances.  He was a six time All Star, won three Silver Sluggers, nine Gold Gloves, and his .996 Fielding Percentage is among the ten best all-time at his position.  He won an MVP award, and finished runner-up once as well.  If he picked up a bat today, at age 52, he would probably still outhit Ike Davis.

Perhaps more to the point, Mattingly has legions of loyal fans who might just possibly trek all the way up to Cooperstown to see their hero enshrined, and to listen to his acceptance speech.  Years from now, dads might still be taking their kids to see Mattingly’s plaque at The Hall.  How many parents do you think bring their kids all the way up to Cooperstown each year to stand in awe of the plaques of HOF “immortals” such as Herb Pennock, Rick Ferrell, Lloyd Waner, or Dave Bancroft?

Explain to me, then, how inducting Don Mattingly into the Baseball Hall of Fame would be bad for baseball, or for The Hall itself?

In the final analysis, the Hall of Fame is an idea as much as it is a place.  All baseball fans, in their heart of hearts, have their own idea as to what constitutes fame in this context.  When the chasm between what fans believe in their hearts is legitimate fame relative to the actual composition of the institution itself  grows too wide, then the fans, faced with an untenable choice, will always follow one and ignore the other.   Should that happen, The Baseball Hall of Fame may one day bear an uncanny resemblance to that other unfortunately failed Hall of Fame further downstate on a bluff overlooking the indifferent Harlem River.

Who Belongs In the Hall of Fame? (Almost Anyone)

Quick, tell me three things you know about Dave Bancroft.

O.K., tell me two things you know about Dave Bancroft.  No, he is not the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain.  No, he is not the twenty-something lead vampire in the “Twilight”  franchise.

Alright, so using deductive reasoning, you figured out he was a baseball player.  This is, after all, a website dedicated to baseball.

Well, did you know that he played from 1915-1930?   Did you know that he was a career .279 hitter who played good defense, amassed 2,004 career hits and scored just over a thousand runs, primarily as a shortstop for the Phillies, Giants and Braves?

Did you know his nickname was “Beauty?”

His career OPS (On-Base plus Slugging Percentage) barely topped .700, pretty low for a hitter in any era at any position, other than pitcher.

In other words, he had a substantial, if unremarkable career as a baseball player.  A career not unlike those of Tony Fernandez, Alvin Dark, Dick Groat and Jay Bell.

With one substantial difference.  Dave Bancroft was selected by the Veterans Committee to be enshrined as a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971, forty years after he retired.

Dave Bancroft is just one of several members of the Hall of Fame who are, at best, questionable choices to represent baseball in what is essentially baseball’s  equivalent to Mt. Olympus or Mt. Rushmore.  After all, would we carve a huge profile of Grover Cleveland on Mt. Rushmore just because he was a two-term president?

Grover Cleveland Alexander, on the other hand, might make a pretty good choice.

So why do the Baseball Writers of America, who are tasked with the assignment of choosing the newest inductees on an annual basis, struggle so much with their respective choices?  Doing so indicates that they truly believe that the HOF standard are players such as Ty Cobb, Willie Mays, and Tom Seaver.

The reality has always been dramatically different.  As Bill James wrote in “The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract” published in 2001, “The Ted Williams…standard for Hall of Fame selection has never existed anywhere except in the imaginations of people who don’t know anything about the subject.”

This is not to say the writers  shouldn’t take their responsibility seriously.  But how much should a writer agonize over whether Andre Dawson was significantly better than Dale Murphy (who despite two MVP Awards, is not in the Hall.)

Voting for or against Andre Dawson can be justified using the the lowest common denominator logic of  “Well, Player A is in, and Player B was just about as good as Player A, so Player B should be in as well.”

This logic has permeated the selection of Hall of Famers for many years, and will probably continue to do so for the foreseeable future.  It is the logic that resulted in the induction of players such as Tony Perez and Orlando Cepeda, and probably Jim Rice.

Sometimes, it helps to have a  brother who is already in the HOF.  Lloyd Waner was voted in by the Veterans Committee.  It must have helped his cause that his brother, Paul, was already in The Hall.

If you are fortunate enough to have been part of a cool sounding trio of infielders, your chances of being inducted into The Hall also apparently increase.  Thus Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance resulted in at least two, if not three, questionable inductions (Frank Chance might have been the only deserving member of that trio.)

In my last post, I stated that the two essential questions regarding the issue of baseball immortality are 1) Who deserves to be remembered? and 2) How do they deserve to be remembered?

The Veterans Committee seems to have been primarily motivated by the fear that certain players that they hold dear, former friends, peers and colleagues, might simply vanish into obscurity.

The irony is that even induction into The Hall of Fame doesn’t necessarily mean a ticket to immortality.  After all, do people really make the pilgrimage to the tiny little village of Cooperstown, smack dab in the middle of nowhere, so that they could stand in awe in front of Fred Clarke’s plaque?

So what is a sportswriter, ballot in hand, to do?

Here’s another question?  Why has the task been given to sportswriters?  Do we allow news journalists to select our senators for us?  Writers and journalists are generally competent at reporting on the world around them. This does not automatically indicate a degree of wisdom superior to that of the average baseball fan.

And if they are so competent, then why are they given 15 chances per retired player to get it right?  (or wrong, depending on how you view the induction of Jim Rice.)

In my next blog, I will suggest a few alterations to the current induction system.  Ultimately, perhaps, the Dave Bancrofts of the world can receive their due as significant contributors to the game in a more reasonable fashion, if only to leave more elbow room for Mays, Williams and Ruth.

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