For many, summer is a time for enjoying your favorite sport or pastime at a leisurely pace. This month, William Gildea embarked on his own American Summer--a visit to three hallowed sports venues: the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and St. Louis, where baseball and Mark McGwire are kings. Today he writes about Cooperstown.
In 1996, a Californian named Ben Fernandez flew across the country to visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. The trip was arranged by Fernandez's wife, who for years had endured his passion for the game and took the opportunity to indulge it when she read an advertisement for a trip in a travel magazine.
Fernandez, an insurance broker in his mid-sixties, grew up in a house one block from a little ballpark with a signboard outfield fence near Oakland, Calif., that was home to the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. It was there on long summer afternoons that Fernandez's love of baseball took root. And like many children who fall under the game's rhythmic trance, there was one player who became his hero.
His name was Mike Christoff, a swift, power-hitting outfielder on the Oaks' teams of 1940, '41 and part of '42. Fernandez had neither seen nor heard of Christoff after that, but the image of the player still clicked vividly to mind whenever he thought of his youth and baseball and the Oaks. He had loved Mike Christoff. More than half a century later he still did.
The group of people Fernandez accompanied to Cooperstown were interested in library science and had come to inspect the Hall's archive. Fernandez was here to see the museum, but he found himself following his fellow travelers past the exhibit on broadcasters and into the A. Bartlett Giamatti Research Center, named for the late commissioner. Almost immediately, he saw a scrapbook, open on a table, that contained newspaper clippings of the early 1940s Oaks. Fernandez was amazed.
He lingered with the scrapbook, separating from the group as it continued on its way. He saw a team picture of the old Oaks. Surely, he thought, his favorite boyhood player was in the picture. Fernandez looked hurriedly at the faces and the names in the caption and, yes, there was Mike Christoff.
"How come this is here?" Fernandez, picking up the scrapbook, asked a librarian.
"One of the players from that team just brought in material to have copied and donated to the library," came the response.
"Which player?" Fernandez asked.
"He was my favorite player. You mean he's here!" Fernandez exclaimed. He was 3,000 miles from home and more than 50 years removed from the days he watched Christoff play. Fernandez was stunned. It seemed like a miracle.
"If you hurry, you can probably catch him," the librarian said. "He should be out in the museum somewhere."
Unlike most halls of fame, baseball's is not easily reached. Getting to this crossroads of 2,200 residents takes time and planning. Following the major league players' strike of 1994, which caused cancellation of the World Series and shortened both the '94 and '95 seasons, the numbers of visitors to the Hall dropped. But late last summer, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa reignited interest in baseball with their home runs, Hall of Fame attendance shot upward. It continues to rise.
People come to the Hall for an assortment of reasons: for a family vacation or a parent-child bonding; or to look up the records of a relative who once played in the minor leagues; or to see the McGwire-Sosa-inspired home run exhibit or the entire array of displays; or because of a rekindled interest in baseball's history; or for the abiding lure of a community in the American imagination stretching back to the time of its founding by William Cooper and the stories written by his son, James Fenimore Cooper, the best known being "The Leatherstocking Tales," five novels about Natty Bumppo, a frontiersman.
A visit to the Hall often evolves into a uniquely personal experience. Fans of certain teams and players focus on their favorites and usually discover some arcane fact that pleases them. Even people who have made their names in the game, for whom the game is a business, come to Cooperstown to be transformed into fans. Mike Hargrove, the Cleveland Indians' manager, drove here from Ohio in February with his son, Andy, to wander the museum and spend time together. During the most recent all-star break, New York Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens, who usually plays in the all-star game, found himself with time to travel here to watch his son play in a baseball game.
Though this is a hall of fame, it may be just as notable--and special--for casting its light on people who are important to baseball but less known. A couple from St. Louis had no idea they would find in the "Women in Baseball" exhibit a memento recognizing their daughter--Susan Perabo, who in 1987 became the first woman to play NCAA baseball, with Division III Webster University in St. Louis. Relatives of the late pitcher Van Lingle Mungo learned about--and were delighted to hear--a song by Dave Frishberg entitled "Van Lingle Mungo," filled with onomatopoeic names he found in the Baseball Encyclopedia.
Then there was Ben Fernandez, who, to his shock, was on the verge of finding in the museum's hallways his boyhood hero, still alive, somehow here.
Mike Christoff could chase down a fly ball and hit for average and power. For much of the 1941 season he led the Coast league in batting, staying at about .350. The league was a springboard to the majors, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams already its most famous alumni. Christoff dreamed of being promoted soon. What he did not--and could not--know was that someone else held precisely the same hope for him, and with no less fervor. It was a boy in the stands.
There's no whole answer why a young person chooses a hero, but baseball always has been a landscape on which idols roamed. They are rarely forgotten, even as time erases so many other fancies, perhaps because the worshiper is so young he thinks of the player solely as the bigger-than-life figure doing what seems impossible. "You want to be that person," said Perabo, author of a newly published collection of short stories entitled "Who I Was Supposed to Be." She knew, from rooting for the St. Louis Cardinals as a youngster, that there's no room in a young person's imagination for any other aspect of the player's character other than his on-the-field heroics, nothing that would diminish him. A young person can imitate the player's batting stance or pitching form day after day, heightening his or her impression to a brightly burning flame--a flame that endures.
Ben Fernandez took to Mike Christoff in part because of his right-handed stance, a replica of DiMaggio's, with feet spread and bat back, and Christoff's level swing, also like DiMaggio's, that often connected and drove baseballs deep into the bleachers of the Oaks' park. A baseball bond, innocent and unshakable, was forged in a boy's mind.
That day at the Hall, Fernandez found a son-in-law of Christoff, who fetched the old player who had come to Cooperstown with his wife, three of their four daughters and their husbands. As Christoff approached, Fernandez recalled his lasting impression of a robust Oakland Oak. Fernandez, who grew to be 6 feet 2, saw before him, as he recalled later, "a sweet little man" of more than 80.
The two were introduced, but Christoff was disbelieving.
"You don't know me," he said.
"I saw you play," Fernandez insisted. "You were my favorite player." He still could visualize Christoff playing the outfield between another forgotten player, Loyd Christopher, who later got into 16 major league games, and Smead Jolley, a bit more famous for having played earlier with the Chicago White Sox and Boston Red Sox.
"Who pitched in the shutout game?" asked Christoff, whose home run in the 18th inning enabled Oakland to beat Portland in a 1941 contest memorable, it would seem, to a dwindling few.
"Ralph Buxton and Frank Dasso," Fernandez replied without hesitation. "I was there."
"You were there," Christoff said.
For good measure, Fernandez imitated Christoff's batting stance.
Christoff was visibly moved, Fernandez choked up as well.
Although he needed no further verification, Christoff asked: "Who beaned me?"
Fernandez knew that to have been Ray Harrell of the San Francisco Seals, late in '41. Christoff was taken from the field by ambulance.
Afterward, he never hit a baseball as well, in Fernandez's opinion. His average fell off and he missed the batting title that season. Cincinnati took him to spring training in 1942, but he didn't stick. Shortly, he was back with the Oaks and later that season vanished into the Texas League.
The two left Cooperstown that day buoyed as they hadn't been in a while. Time had trimmed their difference in age, which had once seemed so extreme to the youthful Fernandez. Now, the player was 83, the kid 65.
Both had led full lives, Fernandez always close to Oakland and Christoff in Whitehall, Pa., near Allentown, where he worked for years as a beer distributor and then as an innkeeper. After they parted, they kept in touch by exchanging letters. Reminiscing about the Coast league and the Oaks. Sharing opinions about baseball. Other small things.
"It was something like a believe it or not [by] Ripley, after 56 years you remembered seeing me get beaned," Christoff wrote in his first letter. In another, he enclosed photographs and clippings of the Oaks for Fernandez to keep, since the team had meant so much to him. Now Christoff was rooting for the current Oakland team, the A's.
Fernandez wrote back: "A real treat came on my birthday, July 2. The Giants played the A's at Candlestick. I went with some cronies and had a great time. It is hard to watch a game when you are really rooting for both teams. . . . I am sorry you are not feeling well. Anyone who can hold five baseballs in his hand has a lot going for him."
They kept writing. The idol became "Your pal, Mike."
One day in February 1998, the phone rang in Ben Fernandez's house and the woman on the other end identified herself as Mike Christoff's daughter. Her father, she said, had died. He was 85. Fernandez called Christoff's wife, Mary, and the two talked. Her words, while filled with sadness, conveyed a joy--and thanks. An impossibly chance meeting at the Baseball Hall of Fame, a place that can make an old man young, produced a radiant effect on her husband in a way he could not have expected. "You'll never know what that meeting meant to Mike," she told Ben Fernandez. He understood.
Tomorrow: Racing at Saratoga
CAPTION: Baseball fans in Cooperstown take steps to view annual Hall of Fame Game without the trouble of paying admission.