When the Yankees won the 1955 World Series, fans stormed the field, and one of them picked Robinson's cap off the ground. He wrote to Robinson a few days later, offering to return the cap, but Robinson wrote back and told him it was his to keep. The fan later gave it to the Hall. Photo Credit: National Baseball Hall of Fame
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. - On a winter afternoon in early March, with another foot of snow on the way, it is baseball season here at 25 Main Street. It always is.
Defiant toward the looming storm, one family is commenting on Buster Posey's shoes in a San Francisco Giants exhibit. Other people are perusing the Japanese language broadsheet newspaper page with a color photo of Ichiro Suzuki in his Yankees uniform. A couple is taking photos of Jackie Robinson's bronze plaque.
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This is a typical day at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, which has had nothing but days like this since it opened its doors on June 12, 1939. Back then, 15,000 people crowded the street for a look inside after having seen Babe Ruth, Cy Young, Walter Johnson and others in person at the opening ceremony.
Seventy-five years later, the building in this little upstate town is as relevant as ever. The words "Hall of Fame'' and "Cooperstown'' hit home and go deep, as evidenced by the impassioned national debate about which players from the performance-enhancing-drugs era should or should not be inducted.
"To sift through the conversation, it is all because people care,'' said Jeff Idelson, the Hall of Fame president. "It's evident that the honor and prestige of becoming a Hall of Famer still matters to people. Very much.''
So in its Diamond Anniversary year, the Hall of Fame is the topic of our annual Baseball 101 seminar. It happens every spring: We view the sport as a whole through 101 details, like getting to know the forest by studying the many trees.
Our lineup this year is entitled The 101 Best Things in the Hall of Fame. In this case, "best'' is not meant as the most famous or dramatic, but the most effective in revealing the sport's essence. Like Baseball 101, the Hall of Fame tells the game's story through details: a ball representing each no-hitter in the major leagues since 1939, a scorecard from 1880, a 1964 "Welcome Yogi Day'' button marking Berra's first game at Yankee Stadium as a manager.
This will be a standout year for the Hall of Fame. Along with the 75th anniversary, staffers are expecting a lavish celebration during induction weekend in late July. By early March, hotels in a 25-mile radius already were booked. Fans seem eager to toast Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Joe Torre, Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox.
It will be vibrantly different from last year, when no modern player was inducted. That reflected the Baseball Writers' Association of America's ambivalence about the PED era. The writers, who do the voting, lately have rejected anyone identified (or even suspected) as a steroid user.
That has detonated an annual frenzy of criticism. Debate has focused on various players' candidacies and on the process itself (which the Hall has no plans or desire to change). Controversy only confirms how important the institution is.
"Listen, earning election to the Hall of Fame is the greatest honor for an athlete, in any sport,'' said Idelson, a former public relations director for the Yankees. "The fact that only one percent of baseball players have bronze plaques underscores rigorous standards the writers have always enforced.''
But the Hall of Fame is more than plaques. It is a living, growing collection. Whenever a pitcher is through seven innings of a no-hitter, someone from the Hall of Fame is on the phone with the player's ballclub, saying that some memento would be appreciated.
"Young kids might think of history as when George Washington was running the country, but history happens every day,'' Idelson said.
Glass display cases here contain many artifacts from players who are either ineligible or unelected to the Hall. "That's the difference between the Hall of Fame and the museum,'' said Erik M. Strohl, vice president of exhibitions and collections. "How can you tell the history of baseball without Pete Rose?''
Nor can you tell the story of baseball without the Hall. Staffers here point out that you can't listen to a major league broadcast for long without hearing a mention of Cooperstown.
Ballplayers pay the highest tribute by the way they talk and think about the Hall. Henry Aaron has donated more than 50 items from his legendary career, Strohl said. This reporter's ears once heard Rickey Henderson give a mock preview of his induction speech in the Mets' clubhouse in 1999 (and it wasn't nearly as good as the one he actually gave in 2010). Duffy Dyer, the third-string catcher on the 1969 Mets who played seven years with other clubs, once deadpanned to this writer: "Don't worry, when I go into the Hall of Fame, I'm going as a Met.''
Current and former players occasionally stop in here. Dick Green and Bob Horner have been in this year. Suzuki has visited six times.
The thing about that is that Cooperstown -- a tiny burg in the hills, more than an hour west of Albany -- is not on the way to anywhere. You have to make a special effort.
So it's not easy to get to the Hall of Fame, in more ways than one.