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GREG DEVILLERS: Cooperstown lives up to bucket list expectations

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — You get off the airplane at Albany, N.Y., get the rental car and drive southeast about 70 miles. The countryside is rolling hills and your trip is slowed by the small towns that the highway frequently winds through rather than around.

Finally, you navigate through 10 miles of a narrow road surrounded by dense woods, drive into the town and see the destination — a large brick building on Main Street, with people everywhere in front.

For the passionate baseball fan, this is the Mecca, the sport’s Holy Grail. This is the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. My wife, Janet, and I made the baseball pilgrimage recently.

The funny thing is that Cooperstown, N.Y., with a population of just over 1,800 people, isn’t that much bigger than Cooperstown, N.D. Area towns such as Warroad, Mayville and Langdon are similar in size.

And yet, this is where baseball history lives, in a small village where it once was believed that the sport had its origin.

Almost every sport is appealing to me. But baseball is my passion. Two days at Cooperstown was Heaven, a chance to see so many pieces of baseball history.

I’m not going to pull a Cliff Clavin and rattle off baseball facts and stats ad nauseam. The hall isn’t about stats. It is about the sport’s history woven together through its artifacts.

The hall has an eloquent room housing bronze plaques of all the hall of fame inductees. And the museum has thousands of other items from baseball’s history, much of them displayed in a way of putting together a timeline of pro baseball.

I don’t know how often the thought of “Wow, how’d they get that” came up. Even with all the exhibits enclosed in glass showcases, the hall is a touch with the past of the tradition-rich sport.

Here are some of the things that most fascinated me in two days of walking through the Baseball Hall of Fame:

  •  A guest book from the museum’s 1939 dedication. On a single page, the signatures include Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Connie Mack, Mel Ott, Tris Speaker, Nap Lajoie, Cy Young and Grover Cleveland Alexander, a who’s who of hall of fame members. Wonder what that one page would be worth on the autograph collectors’ market?
  •  A Honus Wagner T206 — a baseball card from the early 1900s so rare and coveted by collectors that it has been sold for more than $2 million — is in the Wagner showcase. While the card is enclosed in glass, the display brings most collectors the closest they’ll ever come to the card.
  •  The condition of gloves worn by old-time players is amazing. The webbing of a Hank Greenberg game-used first baseman’s glove is held together by tape. Other game-used gloves, including those worn by the likes of Frankie Frisch, Phil Rizzuto, Sam Crawford and Max Carey, have pockets that are torn apart or have holes in them.
  •  The evolution of equipment is interesting. There are 18th-century gloves that covered the palms of hands, but left the fingers bare. There are crude early catcher’s masks. There are the long, heavy, thick-handled bats prevalent in the dead-ball area (pre-1920), as opposed to the lighter, thin-handled whips used for bats today. One bat on display was a 38-ounce, 36-inch model Babe Ruth used to hit 28 of his then-record 60 homers in the 1927 season.

The list of items is endless — the contract for a $1 signing bonus by Bob Feller; George Brett’s famous pine-tar bat; checkers owned by Christy Mathewson; a brick from the saloon owned by Ruth’s father; huge trophies; a box for underwear endorsed by Ruth; a Minnesota Twins homer hankey.

And, near the end of the maze of exhibits, running constantly in the museum, is the classic Who’s on First comedy routine by Abbott and Costello. It is a skit that can’t help but make you laugh.

Who’s on First is a great way to wrap up a bucket list priority trip that, for me, definitely lived up to expectations.