The air was thick with baseball and birds last week, but since they were birds of entirely the wrong variety -- Blue Jays and Cardinals -- we flew the coop. We left the Orioles grounded in Baltimore and headed north to Cooperstown, looking for baseball and foliage. There was plenty of both to be found, but there was also a great deal more: We found Cooperstown itself, and in it a priceless link to the American past.
This visit to the historic New York village was my wife's first and my second, but that previous trip scarcely counted; it was a business occasion that had me hunkered down for several hours of research in the National Baseball Library and permitted only a quick tour through the Baseball Hall of Fame. Last week, by contrast, we had ample time not merely to give the baseball museum its full due, but also to explore aspects of Cooperstown that are not widely celebrated outside the immediate vicinity.
Cooperstown's weekly newspaper, a venerable publication called The Freeman's Journal, bills itself on the front page as "Official newspaper of the hometown of baseball," but this is a claim that no one takes very seriously anymore, even in Cooperstown. Abner Doubleday did many things during a long military career, some of them distinguished, but inventing baseball on the playing fields of Cooperstown almost certainly was not among them. The true father of the game is Alexander Joy Cartwright, a New Yorker who laid out the field of play, devised many of the rules and spent much of his life as a missionary for the game; were the Hall of Fame located where baseball was invented it would be, alas, in Manhattan.
Just about everyone seems agreed, though, that matters of history aside, Cooperstown is the perfect place for what is known, accurately if with excessive reverence, as baseball's "shrine." The town is, as the Hall of Fame Yearbook nicely puts it, "an acceptable symbolic site" for the birthplace of a game that is deeply rooted in the countryside and small towns of the Northeast. Not merely that, but Cooperstown remains so much a 19th-century town (complete with such 20th-century improvements as motels and cable television) that it gives the visitor a palpable sense of what America was like more than a century ago as baseball, and the country itself, began to mature.
As such institutions go, the Hall of Fame is about as agreeable as one could reasonably desire. It contains rather more autographed baseballs than the human mind can comprehend, and on the day we were there none of the filmed displays was functioning, but so much of baseball's past is contained within its relatively limited space that the visitor leaves it sated and somewhat stunned. Rather to my surprise, I found myself less moved and delighted by the countless mementos -- some of them, I was pleased to discover, of occasions at which I was present -- than by the actual Hall of Fame Gallery: the dignified, almost sepulchral room in which are displayed the plaques honoring the 193 men thus far elevated to baseball's equivalent of sainthood. Standing in that room you can appreciate, more fully than anywhere else, what these men accomplished in their careers and what the honor of election really means; it does not seem in the least bit hyperbolic to say that this room is a sacred American place.
But it is not the only such place in Cooperstown. About a mile to the west of the Hall of Fame are Fenimore House and the Farmers' Museum, two of the best, if least known, repositories of American art and artifacts. Fenimore House, a mansion built on land overlooking Otsego Lake once owned by James Fenimore Cooper, contains what is surely as comprehensive a collection of American folk art as is to be found anywhere. Though it is important to draw distinctions between the artful and the artless when viewing such work, there can be no question that what is joyfully celebrated in all these paintings and sculptures is America itself: its people, its land, its heroes, its triumphs. With an innocence and wonder rarely encountered in academic art, the work displayed at Fenimore House addresses itself to, and speaks for, the American spirit.
So too do the artifacts at the Farmers' Museum, though the message it sends is somewhat different. Its brochure describes it as "a living historical farm" featuring "colorful new exhibits that dramatically and realistically portray 19th-century farm and village life in upstate New York," but tourists looking for a Disney World or Williamsburg will not find it here. The Farmers' Museum is not about a sanitized and idealized American past, but about the arduous task of conquering and settling the American wilderness. The crude implements it displays and the systems of land and household management it describes pay tribute to the doughty men and women who created a nation out of little more than their own sweat and ingenuity; it is inconceivable to me that one could stand before these plows and spinning wheels, harrows and cheese presses, and be unmoved.
That all of this is to be seen in Cooperstown is reason enough to visit, but there is even more: There is Cooperstown itself. If there is a lovelier village in all of America, I have not seen it; not for a moment am I prepared to quarrel with its local historian, Louis C. Jones, who calls it "the fairest village that ever had been or ever would be." It is at the foot of Otsego Lake, an impossibly beautiful body of water that at this time of year is garlanded with autumnal reds and golds. Its houses are extraordinary, a harmonious mixture of 19th-century architectural styles, virtually all of them in pristine repair. Its streets are narrow enough to be intimate, broad enough to be comfortable, and paved now with a carpet of bright leaves.
In important respects Cooperstown is a tourist town, yet it seems untainted by tourists. Yes, there are a few small motels along the shores of Otsego Lake, a couple of stores off Main Street describe themselves as boutiques, and some of the restaurants now offer ferns and wicker. But the essence of Cooperstown seems untouched by the tourists whom it tolerates in exchange for the money they spend. Perhaps this is because the town is relatively inaccessible, perhaps because its winters are long and daunting. Whatever the case, in Cooperstown you feel that you are in a real place, not the creation of a theme park tycoon; with its surpassing physical beauty and its omnipresent connections to what is best and most precious in our history, Cooperstown is neither artificial nor contrived, but on its own merits a nearly perfect American place.