Beyond Baseball

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The name of this column is “History Happened Here,” but in the case of Cooperstown, “History Didn’t Happen Here” might be better. This is not to say that Cooperstown has no history; in fact, it has enough for half a dozen villages its size. But the first thing every American thinks of on hearing the town’s name—the thing that makes it a tourist destination instead of just a scenic spot with a past—is based on an egregious fabrication.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum opened in Cooperstown in 1939, not far from the spot where, a century before, a local lad named Abner Doubleday supposedly drew a diamond in the dirt with a stick, wrote out the rules, and then played the first game of baseball with his boyhood companions. Chances are remote that any of this actually happened. Among other things, Doubleday was at West Point throughout 1839, and the “playmate” who remembered the event more than six decades later was fifteen years his junior. Although the Hall of Fame’s three hundred thousand yearly pilgrims don’t seem to mind these discrepancies, to most baseball historians the Cooperstown creation myth is about as plausible as George Washington’s chopping down the cherry tree.

Yet plenty of history did happen in Cooperstown. During ancient times it was the site of an Indian village. In 1779 Gen. James Clinton assembled his troops there to fight the Britishallied Iroquois. Seven years later William Cooper bought 110,000 acres of land and established a town named after himself. Among the family he brought from New Jersey was a newborn boy named James, who, under the name James Fenimore Cooper, would become America’s first internationally recognized novelist. Cooperstown later went through stages as a farming community and a popular resort (both of which it remains in some degree) before gaining the title Village of Museums. Of course, it’s Cooperstown’s other sobriquet—Home of Baseball, nowadays often hedged to Traditional Home of Baseball—that sets it apart from Oswego or Schoharie or any other upstate New York town with a couple of museums. But underneath the theme-park ambience is a village that has much more in common with those places than with Orlando or Anaheim.

Although it’s right on Main Street, the Baseball Town Motel is easy to miss. It’s upstairs, over the F. R. Woods sports-memorabilia store, in the middle of which stands the motel’s reservation desk. Dozens of similar stores—offering caps, bats, pennants, autographs, cards, pictures, and every other conceivable way for fans to express their devotion—line the adjoining several blocks; a fan could spend a week in town without straying more than a few hundred feet. Or as the motel clerk said, “You can walk to everything.” Then, doubtfully, glancing at my bow tie, “Well, I guess you can take the trolley if you want to go to the Farmers’ Museum or something.” The setting for her remark, amidst shelf after shelf of Florida Marlins shot glasses and St. Louis Browns T-shirts, was apt, for just like the motel itself, the real history of Cooperstown is often obscured by baseball worship.

There is indeed a trolley—or rather, a bus painted to look like one. Its route includes the Farmers’ Museum, but the mile or so from the center of town is worth walking, for several reasons. It provides an opportunity to escape the crowds; there are some fine houses along the way; and the surrounding scenery makes the walk a visual delight. In particular, here and there you can catch a glimpse of Otsego Lake through the trees, and it is in Otsego Lake that the soul of Cooperstown lies.

For a closer look at the lake, go to the foot of River Street, where an inconspicuous staircase labeled COUNCIL ROCK and CLINTON’S DAM leads to a small grassy area with a few scattered benches. This is the southern end of Otsego, out of which the Susquehanna River flows, and from it you can see for miles up the long, narrow lake. Council Rock turns out to be a smooth, round-topped boulder that nowadays lies mostly submerged a few feet off the shore. Tradition, Cooper’s novels, and some historical evidence hold that it was a long-time meeting place for the Indians of the region.

As for General Clinton, he took advantage of a lull in the Revolutionary War in 1779 to build a dam here that raised the level of the lake by several feet. Upon receiving orders to move, he knocked out the dam, thus providing enough of a current to float his fifteen hundred men to Tioga Point, where he joined forces with Gen. John Sullivan to slaughter several hundred Indians led by Joseph Brant. It’s easy to see why Clinton needed such ingenuity, for at its source the mighty Susquehanna resembles nothing so much as a large pan of water that someone has used to rinse green paint from brushes.

James Fenimore Cooper called the lake Glimmerglass, after the smooth, shiny surface it presents in the sun. The name has stuck; everything in Cooperstown that does not have a baseball name is called either Glimmerglass or Leatherstocking. On an overcast day the lake does not glimmer, but as white birds fly in silhouette against the green hills and a couple paddles by in a canoe, it’s possible to imagine Clinton and Natty Bumppo and countless generations of Indians looking out over much the same scene.