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Yes, There Really is a Cooperstown

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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