Yes, There Really is a Cooperstown

Yes, There Really is a Cooperstown

Nikolas Koenig
Nikolas Koenig
But is this almost-too-perfect time capsule still relevant?Perhaps more than ever

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Drive north on Highway 28 out of Oneonta, in upstate New York, and about 20 miles along, something strange starts to happen. The two-lane road curves through the Catskill Mountains, roughly following the course of the Susquehanna River. Small farming towns come and go, and with them the standard landmarks of roadside retail dross: chain stores, mini-malls, fast-food joints. Approaching Lake Otsego, there's one last burst of commercial buildup—and then the signs and strips and parking lots suddenly fall away. Driving forward in space, you run backward in time, into a landscape of trees and fields, and, at the end of the road, a tiny town made up of picture-book houses set back on perfectly groomed lawns, gathered around a four-block-long Main Street interrupted by a single traffic light. This is Cooperstown, population 2,400, give or take the 400,000 visitors who come through every year to spend a few days amid a bit of demotic American history.

Cooperstown, of course, is home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum. It's home to a number of other attractions as well, including two fine museums, an opera house, and an impressively appointed resort hotel, but the Hall of Fame is what makes it a destination. As legend has it, baseball was born here when Abner Doubleday first laid out the now-indelible dimensions of the diamond and coaxed his friends into a game. In truth, many scholars agree that the sport originated in New York City, with the first professional innings played in Hoboken, New Jersey. But never mind: in the game of history, the Hall of Fame is a ringer. If Cooperstown is not the Town That Invented Baseball, it is certainly the Town That Baseball Invented.

Fictions, big and small, pervade the place. Cooperstown was also the cradle, inspiration, and haunt of James Fenimore Cooper, creator of Natty Bumppo and, by general consensus, the nation's first great novelist. Cooper's father founded the town in 1786, and ran it like a fiefdom for its first two decades; Cooper fils depicted it as the epitome of a certain form of Americana, wild, savage, and yet still possessed of a particular Yankee restraint.

After the Coopers, the town fell into the hands of a few other wealthy families, including the Clarks and the Busches (as in Budweiser beer). A faint air of noblesse oblige still hangs over the place. Cooperstown has been carefully bought, zoned, and built by a succession of rich folks intent on preserving it as a specimen of the rural good life. The result is the kind of place that seems designed, here in the country's third century, to test your faith. Do you believe in this vision of America?Cooperstown goes out of its way to be agreeable, to be likable. It succeeds best when it tries least.

Take, for example, the Farmers' Museum, a collection of more than a dozen buildings spread across 23 acres. One building serves as an exhibition hall (when I was there it had a show on hops farming). The rest are re-creations of various small-town edifices: a house, a church, a printing shop, a pharmacy, with their respective inhabitants manning the rooms in period dress. As with everything else in Cooperstown, the Farmers' Museum is extremely well groomed, well mannered, and discreet. Chances are the colonial village it emulates was nowhere near as orderly: there's not a stone or blade of grass out of place; the paths between the buildings are immaculate. Even the gift store is quiet and dignified.

But one exhibit gives the Farmers' Museum an off-key tone. Inside a tent on the grounds lies a ditch; inside the ditch is the so-called Cardiff Giant, a 10-foot-long, 1 1/2 -ton gypsum statue, which a farmer named George Hull claimed to have found while digging on his property one October day in 1869. It was, said Hull, a petrified man, and confirmation of the otherwise inscrutable remark from Genesis 6:4, "There were giants in the earth in those days."

The Cardiff Giant was, of course, a hoax, but was not exposed as such until it created a sensation throughout New York State. Thereafter, the statue languished in the possession of various curiosity collectors until 1948, when it was turned over to the Farmers' Museum, which put it on display. As what?As a fake, a fraud, a prime example of Barnumism in American life. There's something endearingly goofy about the entire endeavor: it's as if the Museum of Modern Art exhibited a forged Picasso as one of its most prized possessions. You gaze down upon this enormous thing and contemplate, not the mysteries of the Bible, but the gullibilities of Americans—unto the latter day, it seems. The Giant, after all, exists to bring money to its owners, a task at which it succeeds, quite as much when it's displayed as a hoax as it did when presented as real. Mark Twain couldn't have written a tale more steeped in cheerful ironies.

Across the street from the Farmer's Museum lies the Fenimore Art Museum, luxuriously laid out in a large neo-Georgian house built in the 1930's on the site of Cooper's farmhouse. The collection is composed of anything and everything relevant to New York State: Hudson River school paintings, portraits of the Coopers, a quite wonderful gallery of folk and primitive art, and a large array of Native American artifacts. But I found what I was looking for—an exhibit that frayed the museum's carefully hemmed presentation—in a room labeled JOHN HENRI ISAAC BROWERE'S LIFE MASKS.

Browere's vocation was casting the faces and torsos of his eminent contemporaries in plaster, which served as a mold for bronze. The process and the ideas behind Browere's life masks sound almost laughably banal, but the result is startling. You traverse a small room, historical time compresses, and you find yourself—by God—face-to-face with an aged Thomas Jefferson, with John Quincy Adams, Gilbert Stuart, and a dozen others, rendered with such specific detail that they seem close to alive. The effect is cranky, broody, and singular, and the more appealing for being so unexpected.

As you leave the museums and head back through town, you pass wide, unbroken sidewalks that lead down shady streets: very Norman Rockwell. Whether by zoning decree or commercial Darwinism, there is nothing to break the stately flow of Cooperstown's genteel small-town planning—no mini-marts or newsstands, no drive-through banks, no bars. Even the few blocks of Main Street, where the stores are concentrated (about half of them devoted to baseball memorabilia), seem designed to be as inoffensive as possible.

The same holds for the Otesaga, an enormous brick hotel on a prime piece of property at the edge of the lake. There are dozens of bed-and-breakfasts around Cooperstown, many of them quite lovely, but the Otesaga is an institution, and has been since it was built in 1909. At the front, a long semicircular driveway leads up to a sparkling white colonnade; at the back, a vast wooden veranda looks out over a dining patio, a swimming pool, and impeccably maintained lawns sloping down to the lake. Of the town's full-time residents, about half seem to work here. It's a beautiful old hotel, with terrific views, an excellent restaurant, great service, and considerable charm. And yet there's something slightly cloying about the place. I couldn't shake the feeling that its appeal was manufactured rather than grown; it all seemed a little forced—not enough to prevent me from enjoying myself, but just enough to make me wonder why I was.

It's right about here, indeed, that you start to feel a certain satiety with Cooperstown. It's somewhat oversweet—not saccharine, exactly, but a little too refined, like confectioners' sugar. You miss the stronger, harsher flavors of 19th-century life. Walking around, you begin to wish for just one house that doesn't sport a new coat of white paint, for one lawn that isn't perfectly groomed, for one monument that doesn't have fresh flowers arranged carefully at its base. You would not know, for example—you would not imagine—that the original Mr. Cooper, the town's founder, died a premature and violent death, when, walking out of a political meeting in Albany in 1809, he had his head staved in from behind by an assailant who was never identified. Thus is much of American history really made, but you won't find a hint of it in Cooperstown itself.

It helps, then, to get out of town. One evening I drove up Route 80 in the pale yellow sunset, past farms, fields, and silos, through perfectly proportioned valleys in which a crepuscular blue haze collected. I'd forgotten how rural rural New York is—and this only 65 miles from downtown Albany. It took little more than the smell of cut grass and manure to put a humanizing smear on the Cooperstown experience, to add the essential tang that the town seems to lack.

Eight miles along Route 80 you come across what looks like a giant postmodern birdhouse plunked down on a large lawn. This is the Glimmerglass Opera, a sort of mirage amid the mountains, where, every summer since 1975, a small and adventurous company has been performing both classic and newly commissioned works; I attended a premiere of Monteverdi's Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria. It was an odd sight to see several hundred opera buffs flocking to the countryside for an evening of Baroque song. Where they came from I can't say, though I did run into three friends from Manhattan who had made the four-hour drive that afternoon to catch the premiere and were heading back right after the performance.

Glimmerglass is a casual place, without glitz or pretense; the audience, like the players, is young and enthusiastic, and willing to take a chance on unfamiliar and experimental works. As such, it is almost antithetical to the rest of Cooperstown, for which the comfort of the past serves as a kind of guiding principle, occasionally honored in the breach, but otherwise omnipresent.

I know there are people in this world who have little patience for the whole Church-of-Baseball, Field-of-Dreams, fathers-playing-catch-with-sons mythology. Me, I'm a believer, and the Hall of Fame seems to me an unmitigated good. It's one of those rare places, like the Lincoln Memorial and the Hoover Dam, which are exactly what they're supposed to be—so fitting that they're almost corny, and all the more delightful for that. Some of the holdings are significant (Mark McGwire's 62nd home run ball), some trivial (sheet music, commemorative pins), and some simply weird (Shoeless Joe Jackson's shoes), but all are talismans to the bona fide baseball fan.

The purpose of history, I think, is twofold and contradictory: to teach the pastness of the past (that They are different from Us) and to teach the presence of the past (that They are the same as Us). Baseball, it turns out, is particularly good at providing those lessons, for the game is so carefully patterned, with its boundaries and plays and statistics, that both the similarities and the differences between olden days and our own stand out in sharp relief.

You can see the strangeness of early baseball in the tiny, flimsy gloves, in the faded colors of old trading cards, even in the funny haircuts on the players. You can see the old-time savagery in the sharpened spikes with which Ty Cobb—perhaps the meanest son of a bitch ever to play a professional sport—terrorized opponents. You can see the archaic bigotry in the team pictures: all those white faces, before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.

And you can see the continuity, in the chain of being that's formed by record-breakers (Ruth to Maris to McGwire; Gehrig to Ripken); in the sacred dimensions of the stadiums; in the persistence of the Louisville Slugger; in the arrival of old stars for induction ceremonies in late July. You can hear it in the talk—"rookie," "bunt," "chin music"—that survives from the game's earliest days.

My favorite exhibit was the locker, glove, and sunglasses of a legendary Negro Leagues player named James "Cool Papa" Bell, a man so swift on his feet that it's said he once rapped a line drive straight up the middle of the field, only to run into his own hit ball as he rounded second. I told this story to my nephew, whom I'd brought along to the museum, but he, with the incredulity of a six-year-old, refused to believe me. Well, as I said, Cooperstown is a test of faith: faith in a vision of America, and in the presentation of its history. For myself, I put more trust in the tall tale about Cool Papa Bell than I do in any textbook account of mid-20th-century life. I think there's more truth embodied in the paradoxes of the Cardiff Giant than in the Farmers' Museum re-creation of a printshop; more knowledge to be found in James Fenimore Cooper's most improbable stories than in the carefully arranged artifacts housed in the museum that bears his name.

But that's just me. Cooperstown offers both sorts of histories—you have to use a little imagination, yet they're there. So go on and have a look. If nothing else, you're sure to come away with a better sense of what you believe.

JIM LEWIS is the author of two novels: Sister and Why the Tree Loves the Ax.

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