The Baseball Hall of Fame opens in Cooperstown, New York.
The special two-car excursion train chugged cautiously along rusty tracks into sleepy Cooperstown, N.Y. It had been 18 vexing miles from Colliersville, a dicey journey across a railroad spur virtually unexplored since the turn of the century.
But this was no ordinary passenger train and its riders no ordinary travelers. And after that day, June 12, 1939, Cooperstown would never again be an ordinary upstate New York farm town.
Stepping off the train just inside the village that morning were Babe Ruth, Connie Mack, Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Honus Wagner, Tris Speaker, Eddie Collins, Napoleon Lajoie, George Sisler and Grover Cleveland Alexander. Ty Cobb would arrive later. So would 32 major leaguers to play an exhibition game.
Sixty years ago tomorrow, the National Baseball Hall of Fame staged its first induction ceremony, an event that has become a standby of the American summer.
They came that day in 1939, 11 honorees and nine eventual Hall of Famers still in their primes, to celebrate something unprecedented: a sports Hall of Fame. How they spent that day is a story of a different America and its pastime.
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Ruth, for example, arrived in the village needing a shave. He marched up Main Street in a tan double-breasted suit and buck wing shoes with a retinue of children following at a respectful distance. At the lone Main Street barber shop, the line was long for the three chairs inside. Ruth waited at the back of the line.
Cobb, meanwhile, came into town in a mad dash, like a man trying to steal second base, gate-crashing the ceremony by climbing over a railing and jumping down onto the makeshift dance band stage.
Mack, born during the Civil War, stood throughout the proceedings as resolute as the high, white-starched collar he wore beneath his three-piece blue suit.
The concept of a baseball Hall of Fame had been created three years earlier but the museum was built to open in 1939 so that baseball could mark the 100th anniversary of the game’s founding. A recent special commission verified the allegorical tale that placed Abner Doubleday in a Cooperstown cow pasture laying out the ground rules for the game in 1839. And even if subsequent research has proved those findings specious at best, 60 years ago it went largely unquestioned.
Each of the country’s major league ball parks closed for the day and NBC radio broadcast the festivities nationally. It was 22 days before Lou Gehrig had his famous day at Yankee Stadium, 80 days before Nazi troops would storm Poland, and 186 days before ”Gone With the Wind” had its Atlanta opening.
Fifteen thousand people choked Cooperstown’s Main Street.
”I took a lot of pictures because none of us could believe this was happening in our town,” said Homer Osterhoudt, who as the 21-year-old son of a local farmer worked on the construction of the three-story brick museum mixing mortar for the three-story colonial edifice.
Catherine Walker, a lifelong Cooperstown resident who has worked as an attendant at the Hall of Fame for the last nine years, remembers sitting on her father’s shoulders as an 8-year-old.
”I was watching Babe Ruth walk up Main Street heading for the barber shop,” Walker said at the Hall of Fame this week. ”My eyes were as wide as saucers.”
Howard Talbot would become the Hall of Fame’s director for 25 years, but in 1939 he was a 14-year-old escorted to Cooperstown by his father from his nearby home.
”It was a pretty big day for a little burg like Cooperstown,” Talbot said. ”You have to remember there was no TV. It’s safe to say that at least 90 percent of the people there that day had never seen a major league game played. I know I hadn’t.”