I’m having a tough time sitting still. As I sip a beer at the Otesaga Hotel in Cooperstown, N.Y., watching game four of the Yankees-Angels playoff series, I look down the length of the bar to see Johnny Podres, the Hall of Famer who later became the pitching coach for the 1993 Philadelphia Phillies, just sitting there. As you may remember, the Phillies won the National League pennant that year, and their ragtag style kept me spellbound for the whole season.
At a table directly behind me sits Robin Roberts, perhaps the greatest of all Phillies pitchers, arguing about curveballs with Roger Kahn, the author of The Boys of Summer, the classic retrospective on the 1940s and ’50s Brooklyn Dodgers that is widely considered one of the best sports books ever written.
I’m itching to interrupt Roberts to ask him about what the Philadelphia fans were like when he played back in the ’50s. Were they as brutal as they’ve been in recent years — throwing snowballs at Dallas Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson and raining boos down on everyone from Phillies great Mike Schmidt to a guy dressed as Santa Claus?
I want to look into Podres’ worn, weathered face and ask him what he was thinking when he and manager Jim Fregosi put in Mitch Williams to pitch in the ninth inning of game six of the ’93 World Series — a move that gave Joe Carter the chance to hit the game-winning home run, and crush the hopes and dreams of baseball-loving Philadelphians like myself.
Instead, I keep it classy, order another drink, and decide not to release the annoying fan lurking inside me.
It’s not as if I hadn’t got great insight into the world of baseball from these guys. Just an hour ago, I was watching Roberts, Podres and Kahn — along with former Dodger pitcher Carl Erksine — at the Legends Roundtable at the Grandstand Theater at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Museum. In front of about 75 people, they discussed the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers and their World Series win over their crosstown rivals the New York Yankees. Larry King moderated the event via satellite from his CNN studio and questioned the panel about playing ball in Brooklyn, game seven of the World Series and even how much money they were able to make as pro athletes.
Although I gave the former players their space at the bar, I did catch up with Kahn after the event at the Hall of Fame. He is a Jewish native of Brooklyn and remembers that Sandy Kofax — who along with Hank Greenberg is one of two Jewish Hall of Famers — was hardly even a factor for the Dodgers while they played in the heavily Jewish borough.
“He was not a significant person,” said the white-haired Kahn in a deep voice with just the right raspiness. “They had Cal Abrams and Goody Rosen — they were okay players. It was not as if there had never been a Jewish player in Brooklyn. There had been.”
Kahn noted, however, that while the Dodgers were in Brooklyn, an excellent Jewish player could have made all the difference.
“Walter O’ Malley [former president of the Dodgers] said a number of times to me, ‘In all the years I was in Brooklyn, I would’ve given my right arm to have a great Jewish player — not Rosen, but a great player. I come out here I can fill the ballpark with nine Chinamen and what do I get? Kofax.’ ”
At a desert reception in the Plaque Gallery after the event, many of the men from the crowd walked around with wide smiles, beaming over the chance to see so many baseball immortals up close. While families took pictures next to their favorite Hall of Fame plaques, one of the most prolific base stealers of all time, St. Louis Cardinal left-fielder Lou Brock, joked around with some teenagers. Although he was not part of the panel, some Hall of Famers just seem to hang around Cooperstown — sometimes for paid gigs, like signing autographs or making appearances, but other times as spectators, like Brock at this event.
A Lure of Its Own A sign reading “Welcome to Cooperstown, America’s Most Perfect Village” greeted us as we made our way toward Main Street, passing small bed-and-breakfasts and waiting a while at the town’s only traffic light on the corner of Chestnut and Main. Every shop lining both sides of the street seemed to be selling something related to baseball: memorabilia, jerseys, warm-up jackets. And there were at least three stores that will help you design your very own custom-made bat. At Doubleday Field in the center of town, two men’s teams from Westchester, N.Y., played a competitive regulation-style game, complete with umpires and wooden bats, with some gray hairs peaking out from under their Pirates and Yankees caps.
A couple of miles from Main Street, you can experience more than just baseball. The Farmer’s Museum features a replica of an 1845 village, made up of small stone houses. With a blacksmith shaping medals in one building and a “pharmacist” creating pills out of ginger root and other extracts in another, the village is quite a functional place.
A little farther from the Hall of Fame is the home of the Glimmerglass Opera Company, a large gray structure that boasts an intimate setting of only 900 seats. Although it may seem tough for an opera house located in such a remote area to draw large crowds, general director Michael MacLeod said that attendance has generally been good — and is even on the rise.
“It’s a destination opera,” attested MacLeod. “You can’t come home from work at 5:30 on a Friday and say, ‘Let me go to Glimmerglass.’ You have to plan months ahead.”
Cooperstown has other attractions like the Brewery Ommegang, the Fenimore Art Museum and the 9-mile-long Lake Otsego.
But for all its rustic beauty and small-town charm, Cooperstown is still where baseball is king. More than 350,000 people visit the museum every year, and during spring training, two major league teams play ball in the Hall of Fame game at Doubleday Field.
Cooperstown remains devoted to the sport even though baseball has been marked in recent years by a labor strike, steroid use and exorbitant player salaries. But Roger Kahn and many visitors and residents of Cooperstown still believe that baseball is the same old game.
Said Kahn: “When I was a kid, the ball was round and the bat was cylindrical. And so it is today.”
Jared Shelly participated on a three-day press trip sponsored by Nancy J. Friedman Public Relations and the Clark Estates Inc.