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A Hall of an Opening Day
Steve Rushin
April 16, 2001
A visit to baseball's treasures at Cooperstown brightens the promise of a season ahead
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April 16, 2001

A Hall Of An Opening Day

A visit to baseball's treasures at Cooperstown brightens the promise of a season ahead

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Just north of Cooperstown, in the Adirondack Mountains, grew the white ash that became the bat that hit the ball that won the pennant for the '51 New York Giants. From the bat's place of birth (the Adirondack bat factory in Dolgeville, N.Y.) to its place of eternal repose (the Baseball Hall of Fame) is a distance of 25 miles. Along the way, of course, the instrument issued the Shot Heard Round the World. But in baseball, as in life, ash thou art and to ash thou shalt return.

With that in mind, I was seized last week by an impulse to carpe Opening Diem, so I got in a car and drove without pause to Cooperstown to stare in slack-jawed wonder at every mesmerizing display. Who can say why? David Conant of Charlestown, N.H., was seized by a similar impulse. Only, he climbed into the bell tower atop his hometown's St. Luke's Church and rang the church bell for four straight minutes, in the middle of the night, exciting the attention of townsfolk and police, to whom he explained his spontaneous compulsion: to honor—in the only way that seemed commensurate—Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk, the Charlestown native who had, earlier that evening, hit the home run that won Game 6 of the 1975 World Series.

With an equal sense of necessity I now sit on a section of dugout bench from Shibe Park, on the very spot from which Connie Mack, for 41 years, managed the Philadelphia Athletics. Across the ages, and across my butt cheeks, I feel an inexplicable connection to Cornelius McGillicuddy.

Behind an inch of bulletproof Lucite are Harry Caray's breathtaking black-framed eyeglasses. The lenses appear to have been cut from the same bulletproof Lucite used in the display case. Inside the temple piece is embossed, in gold block letters, the model name: GOLIATH.

These men, of course, were Goliaths. They were potentates. Their treasures are like those you'd find in Citizen's Kane's crates. Here is Mel Ott's awe-inspiring ashtray, with its sterling silver eagle perched astride a sterling silver baseball, a receptacle more suitable for holy water than cigarette butts. Indeed, here is a baseball signed—on the sweet spot—by His Holiness, Pope John Paul II: TO 'SPARKY,' CUM BENEDICTIONE, JOANNES PAULUS II. The baseball was given to the Hall for safekeeping last year by its owner, George (Sparky) Anderson of Thousand Oaks, Calif. He brought it to Cooperstown, God bless him, in a Ziploc sandwich bag.

Here is Grantland Rice's Underwood typewriter. In the old ballparks in Washington and Cincinnati, exiting fans could lean over a railing and see into the press box and thus read (and comment on) the stories of baseball writers as those accounts were being composed. So, after a 1-0 Yankees loss to the Senators, New York scribe Sid Mercer stared at a blank sheet of paper for what seemed like an eternity before typing out this memorable first sentence: "There's a terrible pest looking over my shoulder."

What brings these ghosts back to life are the everyday objects of their age- Babe Ruth's camel-hair topcoat, Miller Huggins's pearl-handled pocketknife, Christy Mathewson's chipped checkers set. Read a few entries from Ty Cobb's daily diary for January 1946, rendered in impeccable Palmer-method penmanship, and you feel you know the ornery little cuss. Jan. 1: "Took five calls from soldiers o'seas. Not collect." Jan 4: "Ordered two cases Old Forrester." Jan. 6: "Took call from Taylor Spink—bulls—- about some new award." Jan. 20: "Cincinnati—horses—- town." Jan. 27: "Named UPI Player of Half Century. Best tiling was I beat out Ruth." Jan. 30: "Shot 71 at Del Monte. Won 6 presses off DiMaggio—he can't putt for big money."

Unlike Cobb, though, most of these ghosts appeal—in Lincoln's phrase—to the better angels of our nature. So I end my tour by standing, astonished, at Lou Gehrig's locker, lifted intact from Yankee Stadium. Inside is the trophy teammates presented to him on Independence Day 1939, the day that Gehrig—one month after being told of his terminal illness-declared himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

What could one possibly say in response, except the words that his teammates had inscribed on a silver plate:

Let this be a silent token
Of lasting Friendship's gleam
And all that we've left unspoken
—YOUR PALS OF THE YANKEES TEAM

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