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Published: 7/3/2011

Cooperstown: A guy getaway that's a home run

BY WILLIAM HAGEMAN
CHICAGO TRIBUNE
Patrons of the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum view the plaques of inducted members during induction weekend July, 2010. Patrons of the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum view the plaques of inducted members during induction weekend July, 2010.
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COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- You have time to think while on the road to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. And you will be on the road, because there is no airport in Cooperstown. This means driving.

You think of the game's legends who have regularly visited the small (population 2,200) upstate New York village.

You think of the thousands of fans who jam Cooperstown every summer to witness the induction of former players and executives.

You think, couldn't they have built the Hall near an airport?

But come in from the north along narrow County Highway 31 as it winds along Otsego Lake, and you'll round a curve and see in the distance the steeples of Cooperstown's churches.

Then you think, "This is great: small-town America and baseball."

The Baseball Hall of Fame may be the ultimate guy getaway weekend. Some opt for a fishing trip; others for a few days of golf or gambling. The Hall of Fame, though, is perfect for two days of total immersion in baseball.

"If you're a baseball lover, you can't beat this place. It beats Vegas," says Sandy Salazar, a waitress at the 25-seat Cooperstown Diner, down Main Street from the Hall.

She says late winter and early spring, when kids are in school, are the prime times for guys to visit. When they come in late spring, summer, and fall, it's usually with the family.

"There's a lot of other things to do [in the area]," Salazar says. "But guys are here for the museum."

The Hall is home to some of baseball's greatest relics -- Honus Wagner's bats, Ty Cobb's trophies, Roberto Clemente's clubhouse chair from Forbes Field, photos and documents tracing the sport's history, bricks from Hank Aaron's childhood home, Babe Ruth's bowling ball.

The mood is set with "The Baseball Experience," a 13-minute multimedia presentation in the Hall's Grandstand Theater. From there, visitors wander over three floors and 60,000 square feet of exhibit space. At every turn is something to stop you in your tracks, whether it's a showcase of baseballs used in no-hitters, a collection of World Series pins and rings, or one of the permanent exhibits, such as "Diamond Dreams," which tells the story of women in baseball, or "Viva Baseball," which looks at Latin Americans' role in the game.

"If you're a baseball fanatic, it's fantastic," says Mac Miller of Plains, Pa., who was visiting with a group of men from his church.

And as Charlie Baylor of Scranton, another group member, pointed out, "It's a guys' thing. Bringing the family would have been anticlimactic. This is for the guys."

Two new exhibits this year are "Swinging Away," which opened in April and examines the connections between baseball and cricket, and "One for the Books," a permanent exhibit that was unveiled in May and celebrates iconic numbers in the game.

The big draw, as always, will be the July 22-25 Hall of Fame Weekend, when Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar will become the 204th and 205th former major league players inducted in the Hall. Some 25,000 fans -- a typical crowd -- are expected to jam the village.

And they'll gladly make that long journey to Cooperstown, where baseball was invented. Well, that's the story -- since debunked -- that got the Hall built here. A commission, appointed in 1905 to determine the origins of the game, decided that Abner Doubleday laid out the first field in Cooperstown in 1839. In 1934, a tattered old baseball was discovered in a farmhouse near Cooperstown. The ball became known as the "Doubleday baseball" and was displayed in Cooperstown. The interest generated, and the upcoming "centennial," provided the push for the establishment of a true Hall of Fame, which eventually opened in 1939 in out-of-the-way Cooperstown.

"You've got to be a baseball fan to come here, to make that trek," says Mike Hemple of Blackwood, N.J., one of a group of 14 guys who came up from the Philadelphia area. "We've got guys in their early 20s to one guy in his early 70s. He's telling us his memories of some of these things. For me it's a childhood dream, memories of different World Series with the Phillies. It's a trip down memory lane."

Cooperstown isn't a one-trick pony (though it is a one-stoplight town). There are two noteworthy museums -- the Fenimore Art Museum and the Farmers' Museum -- beautiful Otsego Lake, Glimmerglass State Park (swimming, fishing, hiking, boating, and more) and the public 6,416-yard Leatherstocking Golf Course.

But who are we kidding? There's only one real destination in Cooperstown.

"I've had guys here from Venezuela," says Salazar, back at the cafe. "They thought [the museum] was in New York City. I asked them, "Were you surprised [Cooperstown] was four blocks long?"

"And a month ago there were three guys from Virginia. They were here for five days and spent six hours a day at the museum. What do you do here for 30 hours? What's there to see? They'd come in here every day and tell me."

 

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Best bet is to fly into Albany — it’s a little closer than Syracuse — and rent a car; there are several rental agencies on the premises. It’s an uncomplicated 90-minute drive to Cooperstown. The Hall is open seven days a week, except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day; 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Memorial Day through Sept. 4; 9-5 otherwise. Admission is $19.50 for adults, $7 for kids 7-12. Discounts for seniors, members of veterans organizations, groups, and others.

LODGING: There are hotels and bed-and-breakfasts in town. The Cooperstown Chamber of Commerce has listings (607-547-9983, bit.ly/kYNgw2).

DINING: The tiny Cooperstown Diner (607-547-9201, cooperstowndiner.com), 136 ½ Main St., serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Two other spots recommended by locals were the Alex & Ika Restaurant (149 Main St., 607-547-4070, alexandika.com) and Nicoletta’s Italian Cafe (96 Main St., 607-547-7499, nicolettasitaliancafe.com). One visitor also raved about the $14 lobster dinner he had the night before at the Tunnicliff Inn (34 Pioneer St., 607-547-9611, cooperstownchamber.org/tunnicliff)

OTHER ATTRACTIONS: The Fenimore Art Museum (888-547-1450, fenimoreartmuseum.org), the Farmers’ Museum (888-547-1450, farmersmuseum. org), Glimmerglass State Park (607-547-8662, nysparks.com/parks/28/details.aspx) and Leatherstocking Golf Course (607-547-5275, otesaga.com/LGC/index.shtml).

MORE INFORMATION: The Cooperstown Chamber has an excellent visitors guide (607-547-9983), and the Hall has information at 888-HALL-OF-FAME, baseballhall.org, and on its blog (bit.ly/awe4TO).



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