At the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, the world's best-known sports shrine, on picturesque Main Street in Cooperstown, N.Y., there is a wonderful ground-level photo of a baseball stadium at dusk, with glowing orange-red clouds hovering high above the setting sun and competing players on the field below.
The photo's caption reads: "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game … " (Jacques Barzun, God's Country and Mine, 1954).
With another World Series, this year beginning Saturday, Oct. 22, those words still ring tellingly true. Baseball lives on in the hearts and minds of one generation of Americans after another, and, of course, is now international in scope and flavor.
While the game's image was tarnished badly by a recent steroid scandal, baseball's spirit always manages to survive - and even thrive - because baseball is also the pulse and soul of America. At its core, the game mirrors the nation's avowed values of forgiveness, redemption, second chances and fair-play winning.
We mark our days, good and bad, with baseball as meaningful monitor; we remember our youth through its long, if sometimes cloudy, lens; and we embrace it, as warmly and lustily as anything else truly American in character.
In the end, it's as constant as the seasons. "It Happens Every Spring" (a clever baseball film comedy), The Boys of Summer (a marvelous account of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers) and the "Fall Classic" (another name for the World Series) attest to how we rely on it to measure time.
Baseball fans who go to the Hall of Fame, also known simply as "Cooperstown," understand all of these things are not only true, but also self-evident. First-time visitors leave there having discovered these truths for themselves.
"Baseball and Cooperstown are truly timeless for fans and others because they chronicle and offer reflections of significant events in American life and in American history," said Brad Horn, the Hall's communications director. "And with its one stoplight and no chain stores, the town is a wonderful vision of a by-gone time in America."
James Fenimore Cooper, recognized as America's first novelist, grew up in Cooperstown. William Cooper, his father, founded the town in 1786.
At the Hall of Fame, which completed a three-year, $20 million renovation recently (and which celebrated its 66th anniversary in 2005), baseball is always in season on three memory-filled floors. It's all there - the tools of the trade: the bats, gloves, balls and uniforms of the game's all-time greats, and its great achievers of the moment, from Babe Ruth to the batting helmet worn by Phillies' shortstop Jimmy Rollins during his 36-game hitting streak this past season.
The Hall's three-year renovation added 14 new exhibit and program spaces, including "Sandlot Kids Clubhouse," an interactive area for parents with young children; "The Baseball Experience," screened in the Grandstand Theater; and "Autumn Glory: A History of the Post Season," a retrospective on the history of the World Series and post-season play.
Other new exhibits are "Taking the Field: The 19th Century," the first renovated portion of the historical timeline that includes period-style wallpaper, furniture and music, as well as interactive computer technology; a new exhibit about modern-day baseball called "Today's Game," where items from the recent history of each of the 30 major league clubs are featured; and "Sacred Ground," all about the past and present ballpark experience. More new exhibits are planned for the next two years.
Visitors will also find "The Art of Baseball," featuring paintings and sculptures about the game; "Summer in the City," a photography exhibit on baseball in New York in the 1950s; and the Hall's first Education Gallery, dedicated to year-round museum and education programs for the entire family.
Among the Hall's fabled treasures are more than 35,000 three-dimensional artifacts that include Joe DiMaggio's locker; seats from Brooklyn's Ebbets Field; the well-worn original Doubleday baseball; 5,000 other balls associated with the game's great players and moments; and 130,000 rare baseball cards. The Cooperstown collection also includes 500,000 black-and-white and color photographs, and 12,000 hours of moving image and sound recordings.
A tour of the Hall of Fame Gallery, where the oak walls are lined with bronze plaques that honor every Hall of Famer, is a genuine highlight. The 260 players enshrined represent the top 1 percent of those ever to play the game.
According to the American Jewish Historical Society, the only two Jewish Hall of Famers are Hank Greenberg, elected in 1956. He was a first baseman, who walloped 331 lifetime home runs for the Detroit Tigers. The other was Sandy Koufax, elected in 1973, a left-handed pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers with a blazing fastball and sweeping curve; he was a three-time Cy Young award winner as the National League's best pitcher.
Outside the Hall's fabled doors awaits the picture-postcard town of Cooperstown, nestled between the Catskill and Adirondack mountains, in rolling green hills at the southern tip of Lake Otsego. It has been called "America's Most Perfect Village" for its charming ambiance and peacefulness, characterized by a tree-lined Main Street, small shops and inviting restaurants, and superb 19th-century architecture. A leisurely walk along this street and through other parts of town is a genuine treat and definite must.
Cultural diversity is plentiful in town. The Fenimore Art Museum features American fine art, folk art and North American Indian art, while the Farmers Museum, a living-history museum of the 1840s, has authentic buildings, tools, crafts, animals and plants.
The Glimmerglass Opera, an acclaimed regional opera company, also calls Cooperstown home every summer.
For more information about the Baseball Hall of Fame, call 1-888-HALL-OF-FAME or visit: baseballhalloffame.org, and for general information on the Village of Cooperstown, call 1-888-875-2969 or visit: www. cooperstowngetaway.org.
Info to Go
From Philadelphia take I-476 north to I-81 north to the Binghamton exit. Then take I-88 east to the Oneonta Exit 17, and Route 28 north to Cooperstown.