Cooperstown: Pilgrimage to the Baseball Hall of Fame
By Brendan McDermott
I went to Cooperstown today. While I was there, I told my Aunt Susan that “this is the greatest place I’ve ever been.” Once the physical high of actually being there had started to wear off, I thought about what I’d said.
Cycling through all of the memorable events and places I’d been was a longer list than I’d previously thought. I went to the Indy 500 that had the record amount of lead changes (and had perfect seats for every crash). I’ve seen our nation’s great capital, the monolith that is the Washington Monument, and the fitting testament of the Lincoln Memorial. I’ve been to Ireland and England, seen Dublin, the Cliffs of Moher (also, more cliffs), and gazed upon all of London from a 400-foot ferris wheel.
But mostly, I was surprised at how many were at Busch Stadium. Regular season games, catching the Metro at Shrewsbury with my friend Ben and taking the 7th inning stretch as a chance to go get a good photo of the neon St. Louis Cardinals sign, watching Chelsea play Man City, having the opportunity to see the players I’d idolized on TV in person, a chance I thought I would never have, given that they make their living an ocean away, seeing my only playoff game in 2005, a 5-3 NLCS win against the Astros, two World Series celebrations, both times showing up without a ticket, getting in once from my father exploiting my childish cuteness (“Brendan, hold up your fingers, they’ll give tickets to a little kid”) and another by just wandering around, digits raised, the celebrations after Game 7 of the 2011 World Series, where the stadium crew opened the gates for the final out. I watched Allen Craig catch a lazy pop fly on a concession stand TV, and as I walked past the first opening to the seats and saw the confetti raining down, the reality of what had happened and where I was to see it struck me in one estatic wave.
I’m not a very religious person. Hell, the last time I went to church outside of SLUH was just to go a baseball game afterwards (walk-off win against the Dodgers, Holliday lasered a double over the right fielder’s head, I was about thirty feet away down the first-base line). But even I won’t deny the spirituality that goes into the game of baseball. We call a Cards game baseball heaven, both because of the product on the field, and the atmosphere surrounding it. Cooperstown is baseball’s pilgrimage for the same reasons, the revered plaques and memorabilia, and the aura of history that permeates the entire building, and the entire town.
As I read through every plaque in the Hall of Fame, I realized that baseball’s history is unlike any other sport. This isn’t simply because baseball is the oldest of the four major American sports, it’s something woven into the fabric of the game itself. Baseball is a series of distinct tiered events, from the entire season, to each series, to each game, to each inning, its top and bottom, every at-bat and finally every pitch. Every part of baseball can be broken down and codified, statistically captured in a way not possible in other sports. Sure, there are numbers in basketball, hockey, and football, but they don’t hold the same power, the same mystique. Numbers that command respect and gather awe: 4256, 56, 2632. Numbers that serve as benchmarks for greatness: .400, 3000, 500. Numbers that allow baseball to be a very self-aware game: 42, 755, 27. Baseball was the first sport to embrace the computer, to make projections for individual players and for teams, and the first sport to stop believing their own eyes, to look down from the exciting young prospect and dig into his numbers rather just trusting his 6’3” 220 pound frame. As my brother Patrick told my mother on election day 2012 “It’s all about the numbers, Mama.”
No sport understands its legacy like baseball. Not only is it “America’s Pastime,” but it takes great pride in being so. On having a role to play in the Nation’s history. When the draft hit the country, its players became veterans, war heros, and the league became an FDR-encouraged morale boost. In the wake of 9/11, one of the country’s darkest, most harrowing days, baseball was our return to normalcy. As Jack Buck put it at the first game six days later “Should we be here? Yes!” In the first game in New York after the tragedy, Mets players would don NYPD and FDNY caps, and Mike Piazza blasted a two-run homer in the bottom of the 8th to win the game 3-2, arguably the most important win in Mets history. When the nation needs it, baseball is there, lifting us up because that’s what a pastime does.
So when I stood in the Hall of Fame, the resting ground of the game’s undeniable legacy, the filled plaques proud of its past, and the blank ones prepared for its future, of course I cried. It would have been more surprising not to.
The declaration I’d made to Susan was only reaffirmed in the western themed restaurant across the street. In between taking pictures of souvenirs I’d bought for Ben and Patrick and attempting to drown out country music, she casually mentioned something.
“You know, the last person who was this excited to be here was your Grandpa.”
That sealed it for me. I’d always heard about my grandfather’s love for the game, seen pictures of him wearing his satin Cardinals jacket, and jumped at the chance to wear it myself when I was big enough. The image of my Grandpa making the same pilgrimage I did, reading the same plaques, reaching out and touching the Cardinal ones, feeling the ever-present aura of history and legends I’d spent the day immersed in, and possibly shedding the same tears, I knew what I’d said was right. It just had to be.
Cooperstown is the greatest place I’ve ever been, not just because of the plaques, artifacts, and history that managed to move me to tears, but because I never got to go to a ballgame with my Grandpa. And I never will. But in a place where the past is on equal footing with the present, I got to share one last memory with him.