100 miles down the road from Cooperstown I am wondering aloud, why didn’t I take advantage of the one brightly lit room in the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Research Center, and ask the staff to search their database and archives for my dad? If I had, the record may have read something like this:
Mark Opatt, Pitcher.
Member of the San Francisco Giants D, B, and A Minor League Teams
1959 to 1962
Hastings (Nebraska) Giants;
Quincy (Illinois) Giants;
Pocatello (Idaho) Chiefs;
Eugene (Oregon) Emeralds;
Artesia (New Mexico) Giants;
1961 season of winter ball with the San Francisco Giants in Phoenix, Arizona.
I’m sure they had something. They had to. The Research Center, although under construction like the rest of the Hall of Fame, stretched across a quarter of the building and up two floors. When we walked in, there were two rubber gloved visitors sifting through ancient photos and press clippings of their favorite teams. When one walked up to the young research staffer and asked him to identify a person in a blurry photo, the researcher knew the name right off the top of his head. He didn’t even have to reach behind him into the rows and rows of information. A wealth of data at his (and could have been my) fingertips. Why oh why didn’t I ask?
At the risk of sounding like I’m making excuses for myself, the room was a bit intimidating. You had to open a large door to enter it and once inside, the air was even more hushed than in the Hall which housed the plaques of the inducted. In fact, when Michael grabbed the doorknob and began walking in, I thought for sure we were heading into a restricted area and we would be asked to leave. There’s nothing about the Research Center that says, “Hey come on in! This place is for you. Welcome.”
Still, I regret not asking.
I am not trying to infer here that my dad was the greatest minor league pitcher ever and deserves a spot in the Hall of Fame. I’m saying that he, along with every other minor league, international, college, high school and little league player and lover of the game are remarkably absent from the timelines and displays that snake around the building. If this is America’s game, where is everyone?
It’s hard not to compare the Baseball Hall of Fame with our experience at Springfield Massachusetts in the Basketball Hall of Fame, where every person at every level was recognized as an integral part of the game. Like Michael said, if you played the game, you played. Period. Not so in Cooperstown. If you weren’t in the Majors, you didn’t fit into their scheme of things. There was a temporary exhibit of Women in Baseball and if you looked closely, a corner display of the history of the Negro Leagues. I could find nothing about the role of minor league players, or even how the minor leagues related to the Big Time. Winners of the World Series don’t just pop out of the ground. They do come from somewhere.
It would be different if this were the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. But it’s not.
As we’re driving away from Cooperstown, the home of baseball, I’m realizing all of the questions that are still unanswered in my head.
When was the first game of baseball played in the United States?
Where did it come from?
How did the game evolve?
Have there always been Major and Minor Leagues?
When did colleges and high schools add baseball to their extracurricular rosters?
How did baseball spread and grow in popularity to other countries? Why is it big in Japan?
Of course I can go online and look up the answers myself, but that’s not what going to a museum is about. It’s about gaining knowledge. Coming out with a greater understanding than when you walked in. I was blessed to be with someone who happens to know a lot about the game. At present, there was no way I could have navigated myself through the temporary displays to quench my thirst for answers.
Other questions were more directly related to museum itself and how it chose to display its impressive collection of baseball artifacts. I really enjoyed seeing how things like the shape and size of gloves have evolved over the years. Why not a display dedicated to that? Tears came to my eyes when I realized I was looking at the World Series Program for the 2001-2002 season. Simple and direct, it was a drawing of a player, chin to waist, holding his hat over his heart. It was beautiful. Why did I have to kneel down and look below eye level to see it? Why was it, and all of the other programs, shown devoid of historical context? Each program told a story. I just wish I knew what it was.
I did enjoy the small “Baseball in the Movies” section of the Museum where trailers of popular films like Bull Durham, the Natural, A League of Their Own, Damn Yankees and Field of Dreams are played on a continuous loop surrounded by movie posters, plot summaries and costumes and props worn by the actors and used in the films. This was the one place in the hallowed hall where you could see just how much baseball has seeped into our everyday lives and one of the few places where the Hall of Fame drops its reverential tone and allows some humor to sneak in. Who doesn’t laugh when Tom Hanks screams, “There’s no crying in baseball!”
But there is laughter in baseball. There is joy. Guess what, Mr. Hall of Fame Curator, baseball is FUN. Fun is forgotten as visitors shuffle through dark rooms (which actually are quite good for photographs, but terrible for deciphering small white text on clear glass display cases) and pay their respects to what is presented as a dead game.
Similar multi-media exhibits, perhaps “Baseball in Art,” “Baseball in Literature,” even “Baseball in the Modern English Language” to explain how many of our colloquialisms and idioms are borrowed from the game, would be cool expansions on the Baseball as America idea and a reminder that baseball is very much alive.
To use a quote from my friend Russ Rice, baseball is, “like motherhood and apple pie.” I agree. To me, baseball is as American as it gets. But aside from one book and a small display in the main bookstore, nothing in the Hall of Fame explores baseball as America. WHY is this game so much a part of our national identity? Why do we embrace it and hold it sacred? So much so that Franklin Delano Roosevelt urged the Commissioner to keep playing games during WWII to boost the nation’s morale? Why no general historical timeline alongside the displays? Baseball has never existed in a vacuum. Why exhibit it as such?
Granted, the Hall of Fame is under construction and will be until 2005. Michael and I talked a lot about how we should report on and rate Cooperstown considering it is a work in progress. We came to the conclusion that our obligation to you, dear readers, is to share our experience. My experience was one of disappointment. The game that I grew up with, the game that I love is not the one on display at the Hall of Fame.
USA-C2C.com is an independent website, not affiliated in any way with the National Park Service, the National Parks Foundation or any of their partners.