They gathered again this year - none of them young, some very old, a few in wheelchairs - on the Veranda of the Otesaga Hotel at sundown.
Spry Stan Musial led the laughter. Dapper Burleigh Grimes, 85, told tall tales. Cool Papa Bell said he could score from first on a sacrifice bunt when he was 45 and Robin Roberts answered, "Yeah, without touching third."
Stan Coveleski shifted a 1925 Washington Senators World Series ring from his scrawny ring finger to his middle finger to keep it from falling off. And Rube Marquard - yes, Rube Marquard of the John McGraw Giants - held a baseball in his huge gnarled tograph for a child.
There were moments of silence for Red Faber, the last legal spitballer, and Phil Wrigley, day baseball's best friend, men who would never join them on this veranda again. And there were toasts - for Ernie Banks and five others on the eve of their induction into the Hall of Fame.
Jim Gavin, a grandfather himself, watched them from a short distance and thought of his own grandfather, Pud Gavin, who won the first of his 361 major league games in 1875. Five generations of Gavins and more than a century were on his mind.
"They're happy and they're sad," Gavin said knowingly, looking at the celebrating Hall of Famers. "They feel rejuvenated tonight, but in the back of their minds they don't know who'll be back next year."
Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn said today, "This Hall of Fame induction is the greatest day we have. Opening Day, the All-Star Game and the World Series are all special. But this is the premier event of baseball's life. Cooperstown makes it so."
To those who have never been here, such statements must seem disengenuous and even a little pathetic. What can a tiny, inaccessible village and a cramped old museum stuck next door to a five-10-cent store have to offer?
Today, a new inductee, Joe Sewell, spoke for many a former player and many a fna when he said, "I've never been here before. I can't believe what I've missed. If I live, I'll be here every year."
The village of Cooperstown manages to be both quaint and grandiose. "This area is an oasis of wealth and cultivation in what is really a very poor rural county," pointed out Hall of Fame curator Peter Clark.
Cooperstown is a gorgeous, historically preserved village because the Clark family (heirs to the Singer sewing machine fortune) make sure it stays that way."
The Otesaga, the huge old fortress of a hotel that sits with its toes in spectacular Jake Otsego, is the symbol of Cooperstown's relaxed, poignant marriage with baseball.
For the lifelong baseball man, the Otesage is a well of memories, an unchanging touchstone. From its backorch, generations of Hall of Famers have looked up the nine-mile length of the lake, the body of water that James Fenimore Cooper called "Lake Glimmerglass."
The hills on either side, including Sleeping Lion Mountain, have trails down to the edge of the water. The Leatherstocking Golf Club runs along the lake's left bank with its finishing hole - a duplicate of Pebble Beach's 18th - curling to a conclusion at the very steps of the verenda.
The Great Gatsby would surely have seen his longed-for green light had he looked across this Dlimmerglass.
"I once saw a seaplane fly the length of the lake and set down just by the 18th hole," said Bob Fischel, a National League official. "Joe Dimaggio got out of the plane and walked up the dock to the Otesaga. It looked like he had come down from heaven to pay us a visit."
Years later, Fischel, a smallish man with prominent glasses, rented a plane and duplicated the Yankee Clipper method of arrival. "No one can say I went through life without doing something in style," he said quietly.
If baseball has a commons room, it is the Otesaga lobby. On induction eve, the old-timers assemble, names on lapels ("We change so much, we need a little help," explained Earl Averill), to chat and sign autographs.
In one corner, the gregarious Grimes, 85, flirts with the young women and puffs on a sinfully big cigar. A handsome middle-aged woman, his wife of two years, asks gently, "Honey, isn't the ash going to fall on your suit."
Grimes regards the precarious ash sagely and announces. "No, it ain't."
Lloyd (Little Poison) Waner also rules a corner. He is a living testimony to sit-ups, Grecian Formula, $300 suits and a briar pipe. He looks 30 years younger than his 76, and he knows it. This is his yearly showcase. Age? What age?
Perhaps most delighted in Joe Sewell, signing everything in sight. "This is the greatest thing that ever happened to Dad," says Sewell's daughter Mary. "It's come at just the right time of his life to give him an enormous boost. He gave up making the Hall years ago when his old friend Ty Cobb died. Ty was doing everything to help Dad get in, but after that . . . nobody."
Only one man in the room signed more balls that Sewell, who seemed suddenly to have discovered the stamina that helped him play 1,107 games in a row.
"Even dad wanted to know who the fellow was," said the daughter. "I went over and asked him who he was and he said, 'I'm not a player.I'm the town butcher.'"
Ironically, the village's central attraction, the Hall of Fame itself, has a very hard time competing with the splendor of the century-old houses and the winding streets of Cooperstown, and the ambience of the Otesga Hotel.
"The exhibition are rather helterskelter," said curator Clark, who is delighted that the Hall is scheduled for an overhauling next year when a new wing is finished.
"Perhaps baseball appeals to that instinct. Fans like to wander around the rooms and come across Ty Cobb's sheepskin sliding pads or one of Babe Ruth's huge 42-ounce bats. But we also have people who come away and never realize that they completely missed the actual Hall of Fame, which is in the basement. And people who know nothing about baseball must be completely dumbfounded by the whole thing."
The charm of the Hall is in the marvelous, sophisticated items that are seemingly hidden among the scores of redundant old uniforms and unabashedly cornball paintings.
A sly mind, for instance, was at work behind the Ted Williams display. The three photos of "The Splinter" show him: 1) missing a pitch and accidently sailing his bat into the stand (homer on next pitch); 2) striking out slugger Rudy York in a 1940 stint as a relief pitcher and, 3) hitting a homer in his last at-bat with the photo showing unequivocally that both his eagle eyes are closed.
For every cliched exhibit there seems to be a delightful surprise, for example, a four-picture sequence of Mickey Mantle missing a fly ball, a photo of Woodrow Wilson's wife laughing hysterically as her intellectual husband struggles with his "first pitch." Catfish Hunter's one artifact is the 39-cent pen he used to sign his $5 million contract.
Typically, major leaguers and the sort of devoted fans that the Dutch originally called baseball "kranks," find the Hall most rewarding. "I never dreamed that Cooperstown was such a beautiful," said Rod Carew today. "I liked the museum exhibits. It's amazing that they could catch the ball with those old pancake gloves."
The anticlimax is the Hall of Fame gallery. The 86-by-43-foot room of brick and steel with its black Vermont marble columns and 25-foot-high ceiling seems small and less than imposing. The room is first of all designed to be child-proof. Dennis the Menace himself would need a jackhammer to do a nickel's worth of damage in the austere gallery.