Cooperstown's Baseball Hall of Fame turns 75

The National Baseball Hall of Fame's gallery houses The National Baseball Hall of Fame's gallery houses a plaque from everybody who has been inducted into the Hall of Fame from 1936 till the present. Here, two young visitors check out two statues at the Hall of Fame Plaque Gallery. Photo Credit: National Baseball Hall of Fame / Milo Stewart Jr.

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By now the horsehide cover has been completely torn off what's known around upstate Cooperstown as "the creation myth" -- the fanciful little story that future general and Civil War hero Abner Doubleday invented the game of baseball in this picturesque, central New York town on June 12, 1839. That honor is now typically accorded Alexander Cartwright of New York City sometime around 1845, by no less an authority than the United States Congress.

But Congress didn't weigh in until 1953, by which point the myth had already cleared the bases with the dedication of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum on June 12, 1939, the putative 100th anniversary of that first game. Seventy-five years later, a minimally apologetic Cooperstown is suiting up for the hall's diamond anniversary season. So if you've still never been to Cooperstown -- or haven't been in years -- this would be a good year to head up.

Build it and they might come

Even if baseball wasn't invented here, few places are more evocative of the national pastime than bucolic Cooperstown, at the southern tip of forest-girded Lake Otsego. Founded in 1786 by Judge William Cooper, the father of frontier novelist James Fenimore Cooper, present-day Cooperstown exudes in abundance all the equally cherished, time-honored virtues of rural, small town America.

What precipitated the founding of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum was also quintessentially American: a business opportunity born out of adversity, in this case, the Great Depression and especially Prohibition, which had devastated the area's thriving hop industry. Local hotelier Stephen Clark came up with the idea to capitalize on the creation myth as it neared its centennial and successfully lobbied National League president Ford C. Frick for support. The first class of honorees -- Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner -- was inducted in 1936, three years before the Georgian-style hall was ready.

Touching home

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Now modernized and greatly expanded, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum continues to be Cooperstown's biggest hit, drawing about 250,000 fans annually, many of whom proudly sport their favorite team's logo as they pose on the hall's front steps. (Cooperstown's location naturally favors Yankee fans who have an added incentive to come this year, as longtime Yankees skipper Joe Torre is one of the six members of the Class of 2014.)

Once inside, visitors can -- and often do -- spend the better part of the day working their way methodically through the museum's three floors of static and interactive exhibits (and 38,000 artifacts) that celebrate all aspects of the game and its history (including revered stadiums and the contributions made by women, minorities and even legendary fans) before emerging into the majestic Hall of Fame Gallery with its current assemblage of 306 bronze plaques.

The 2014 Hall of Fame Induction Weekend is July 25-28. The ceremony itself takes place July 27, at Clark Sports Center. Open lawn seating is free. On Aug. 2, Paul Simon headlines a musical tribute to the game, also at Clark Sports Center. VIP tickets are $100-$400. Open lawn seating is free.

Let them play ball!

Also celebrating its 75th anniversary is Doubleday Field, purportedly built on the site of that mythical first game. Whatever its pedigree, the covered brick grandstand, gray wooden benches, and board outfield fence whisk fans nostalgically back to the early days of professional baseball. Now home to the Cooperstown Hawkeyes, a collegiate summer team, Doubleday doubles as a venue for any number of amateur teams who come for the thrill of playing on the very same diamond as have so many baseball greats over the years. This year's Hall of Fame Classic, featuring retired Major Leaguers, takes place on Saturday, May 24. Hawkeyes games are $5; all other games (three daily during the summer season) are free.

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Extra Innings

Not surprisingly, "downtown" Cooperstown is dominated by baseball-themed stores and entertainment options. Memorabilia stores give die-hard fans the opportunity to take home their own bit of baseball history. There are two customized bat stores, while those wishing to test their pitching speed and batting prowess can do so at the Doubleday Batting Cage (five swings for $2). Back on Main Street, a pasty likeness of late Yankee owner George Steinbrenner "welcomes" prospective visitors to the Heroes of Baseball Wax Museum. And, of course, the Cooperstown roster includes dozens of baseball-themed eateries.

Other upstate museums

Though it may not seem like it at first, there are other attractions in Cooperstown besides baseball, all of which make for a more well-rounded -- or extended -- visit for the whole family. Among the more compelling:

The Fenimore Art Museum (5798 State Hwy. 80, 607-547-1400, fenimoreartmuseum.org). Owned and operated by the New York State Historical Association in a 1930s manor house along Otsego Lake, this surprisingly large facility is most famous for its collections of American folk art and American Indian art. Admission: $12 ages 13-64, free ages 12 and younger.

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The Farmers' Museum (5775 State Hwy. 80, 888-547-1450, farmersmuseum.org). An outdoor living history museum re-creating agrarian life in the 1840s; also home to the Empire State Carousel and the Cardiff Giant, one of the great hoaxes of the 19th century. Admission: $12 adults, $6 ages 7-12.

The Glimmerglass Festival (7300 State Hwy. 80, 607-547-2255, glimmerglass.org). Opera and Broadway revivals in an outdoor setting along Otsego Lake north of town. This summer's lineup: "Madame Butterfly," "Carousel," "Ariadne in Naxos" and "An American Tragedy." Tickets: $10-$115.

Or take a one-hour cruise on Otsego Lake aboard the Glimmerglass Queen ($16 adults, $10 ages 12 and younger).

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