By JONATHAN TILOVE
June 28, 1990
c. 1990, Newhouse News Service
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. - The Baseball Hall of Fame is not the house that truth built.
The story of young Abner Doubleday interrupting a game of marbles on a fine day in 1839 to draw a diamond in the Cooperstown dirt and proclaim invention of a new game of bat and ball was doubted from the start. It has since completed the journey from alleged fact to acknowledged fable.
But if, as Bernard Malamud has said, the whole history of baseball has the quality of mythology, it was a pleasant enough trip that brought baseball’s shrine to a place of innocence and long ago in the middle of beautiful nowhere in central New York. If this is not the birthplace of America’s national pastime, it certainly should have been.
More than 400,000 people visited the Baseball Hall of Fame last year, its 50th. An especially nice lot, they say, who went way out of their way to get here, wholesome families with their little boys in crewcuts and numbered jerseys and little girls with pony tails poking through the backs of their baseball caps. Perfect. As emotionally satisfying as a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth.
The end. Drive home safely. But wait. What is that sound?
That noise wafting up from the land of overnight double-parking, car alarms and cursing-and-clanging middle-of-the-night garbage collection? It is the sound of Hoboken, N.J., that mile-square spit-of-tobacco-juice, hard-slide-into-second of a city, clamoring to set the record straight. With history as its witness, says Mayor Patrick Pasculli, ”Hoboken is the true birthplace of baseball.”
And what of Cooperstown’s heartwarming claim? ”An outrageous myth that has been perpetrated on the American people,” says the mayor, ”and the world.”
Last week, Hoboken asserted its claim with a state proclamation, signed in person by Gov. James Florio, a parade, fireworks and a re-creation of that very first match game of baseball played on June 19, 1846 in the Elysian Fields, where today Maxwell House manufactures coffee that on a damp day perfumes the air of Hoboken with the smell of burnt chocolate. The most historic site of the national pastime can be clearly seen from across the Hudson in the city that never sleeps, marked by a huge neon coffee cup cocked at an angle, its proverbial last drop forever drip-drip-dripping.
Long gone are the days when Hoboken was a pastoral resort, advertised by a Manhattan steamship company as ”the most delightful of all excursions.” But through it all, Hoboken has remained serious about its baseball. A father is congratulated when his son is born just before the September cutoff for Little League play – nine years hence. Mayor Pasculli recalls liking everything about ”Field of Dreams” – except that Shoeless Joe Jackson was shown batting from the wrong side of the plate. Hoboken is already the acknowledged birthplace of the steam-powered train and ferry, of Frank Sinatra, of the Blimpies sub shops.
But Pasculli says that all pales compared to being the hometown of baseball. Several sons of Hoboken made it in the big leagues. They were mostly pitchers and catchers, and in a book 20 years ago that staked Hoboken’s claim to baseball immortality, sportswriter Harold Peterson speculated that was because the city of attached brownstones (the population is now 44,000 but used to be greater) was so cramped that players in the outlying positions didn’t have the room to develop their skills. One native son, John ”Honey” Romano, a slugging catcher who spent 10 years in the majors and led last week’s parade, told Peterson he and his friends were always playing baseball in the field next door to his house and sending balls smashing through windows, ”but our parents never seemed to mind, except for the flying glass.”
Cooperstown is a very different sort of place. With its short stretch of Main Street, dignified Victorian homes, grand lawns and barely more than 2,000 people, it must look, with the exception of the automobiles, much as it did in the 19th century when it banished ball playing from one field because of the property damage it might cause. The main hotel in town requires that gentlemen wear jackets after 6 and forbids short-shorts from the dining room at any time. The town banned Pizza Hut. Untouched by modernity, it is a rural idyll for a sport played in a park. Its very remoteness is sanctifying. When the president of the Japanese baseball hall of fame came to visit a few years ago, he chose to take the seven-hour bus trip from New York City through little towns with names like Big Indian, Andes and Delhi so that he could experience the same arduous pilgrimage as the common fan.
Officials of the Hall of Fame are candid about the Doubleday fiction yet cool about the Hoboken challenge.
”We’re not trying to encourage any great rivalry between Cooperstown and Hoboken, though some people would like that to happen,” says William J. Guilfoile, the associate director of the baseball museum. ”We certainly recognize Hoboken’s contribution, and we would hope they would recognize ours.”
Cooperstown did not go searching for history. It was designated the birthplace of baseball in 1907 by a national committee determined to prove that baseball was the immaculate conception of an American mind – like the telephone or the light bulb – and not some evolutionary progeny of British games like cricket and rounders, or the innumerable ball and stick games back to the beginning of time. The committee based its finding solely on the recollection of a man named Abner Graves, who would later murder his wife and end his days in an insane asylum. Graves identified baseball as the brainchild of the Abner Doubleday who, as a Union officer at Fort Sumter, would offer the first return fire of the Civil War.
But Tom Heitz, librarian of the National Baseball Library next door to the Hall of Fame, says that the Abner Doubleday who Graves would have grown up with in Cooperstown must have been a younger man, a cousin to the war hero, and that there is no further evidence that this man was the founder of baseball, either. Heitz objects to the whole notion that baseball could be invented. It evolved, he says, in Boston, in Camden and Philadelphia, in countless rural communities and in New York City, where the New York Knickerbockers under the leadership of Alexander Joy Cartwright transformed the game into what it is today – drawing the foul lines, setting the bases 90 feet apart, establishing nine men on a team and nine innings to a game, hardening the baseball and eliminating the practice of throwing it at the runner.
Cartwright is in the Hall of Fame as the ”father of modern baseball.” Doubleday was never inducted. ”That says it all,” says Heitz. It was Cartwright who led his Knickerbockers across the river to Hoboken in the spring of 1846 to play another Manhattan team, the New York Nine, in the first match game of baseball as we now know it. It was a very significant event in the evolution of baseball, says Heitz, but just that.
”Hoboken ought not to overstate their case,” he cautions. ”If they study the lesson of Cooperstown, they will see the danger in that.”