Cooperstown is best known as the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Legend states that in 1839, Civil War general Abner Doubleday played the first game on his field here in Cooperstown.
Ever since spending 4 years in St. Louis, Missouri, the self-proclaimed Baseball City, USA and home of the 11-time World Champion St. Louis Cardinals, I have wanted to visit Cooperstown.
Cooperstown is quite remote- it is more than 3.5 hours from New York City. Albany, just 75 minutes to the east, is the closest city. Since I was going to Albany to visit the NY State Capitol, I figured that Cooperstown would be a perfect day trip.
April 2, 2022: Baseball City, USA
The drive from Albany was easy along a 4-lane US highway. The final 10 minutes cut along a rural road alongside Lake Otsego one of the most famous and historic lakes in the state.
As I pulled into Cooperstown, I couldn´t help but blast Take Me Out to the Ballgame from the rental car´s speakers.
To the sound of baseball´s anthem, I cruised through the two blocks of downtown historic Cooperstown. At first glance it looks like any idyllic small American town. An American flag flies high on the main roundabout on Main Street lined with shops. But a closer look reveals that this town is different.
Shoeless Joe´s is next to the Wax Museum which is next to the bat shop. Every shop was either a baseball memorabilia shop, ice cream/fudge shop or restaurant. The passersby on the street are not just normal people, but middle-aged men donning their MLB team´s uniform, sometimes dragging their families along. Everyone is a kid in Cooperstown!
I parked just off Main Street next to Doubleday Field, one of the oldest baseball fields in existence.
After snagging a cinnamon roll at the 100-year-old Schneider´s Bakery, I walked into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Baseball wasn´t actually invented in Cooperstown by Abner Doubleday – that was a myth spread to bring the Hall of Fame here. The game is older. It originates from a series of bat and stick games in England such as stoolball and rounders. These games came with colonists to the New World. The first written mention of baseball was in Pittsfield, MA in 1791. However, it was in the athletic clubs of New York City that the game became codified. The first written rules of “base ball” were published by the Knickerbocker club and its organizer Alexander Cartwright in 1845. However even since then, the rules varied widely depending on the teams and leagues until the creation of the National League in 1876. In 1903, the National League formed an agreement with the rival American League to have similar rules and have the champions play each other. That even would be called the World Series. The two leagues would officially remain separate entities until the year 2000.
The history of baseball is too complicated to explain in this blog post, but the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown tells the story. The museum is so extensive that it took me 4 hours to complete. It is so detailed that there is even an exhibit on Tommy John surgery!
The Hall of Fame has an endless treasure trove of artifacts. One cabinet has every single World Series ring. Another has all the rarest baseball cards including the 7-figure T206 Honus Wagner card. There are artifacts from every obscure baseball record, analytics, films of baseball, female executives in MLB. The list is exhaustive.
In my mind the only thing that was missing was the non-MLB game (the Negro Leagues are covered in the museum). There is nothing about the college game, Little League and the Minor Leagues. That is baseball too.
At the end of the museum is the Hall itself. The most famous and best baseball players, managers and other contributors to the game are elected to the Hall by a committee of sportswriters. Each inductee receives a bronze plaque with a paragraph about his achievements. As of April 2022, there are 236 MLB players, 35 Negro League players, 31 executives, 22 managers and 10 umpires for a total of 333 inductees.
Back on Main Street, I wandered over the Cooperstown Bat Company. What I thought was a tiny bat shop turns out to be the 3rd largest bat producer in the US. The store manager, a 3rd or 4th generation member of the owning family, gave me a tour of the shop. He explained that the bats are made in a factory about 10 miles away. While the shop is quiet now, he explained that the shop is swamped all summer. Cooperstown hosts Little League tournaments for 12 consecutive weekends. In a normal summer 17,000 Little Leaguers will play in Cooperstown.
Cooperstown Bat Company is a big part of the Little League tradition. When teams arrive, they rush to Cooperstown Bat Factory to give the store a team pin. In exchange, the kid will receive a Cooperstown Bat Factory pin. The shop´s wall has thousands (yes thousands) of pins from over the years. They have so many pins, they can´t store them all and have the rest in a series of bins.
Cooperstown is not only a baseball town. On the outskirts of town are two museums, the Farm Museum and the Fenimore Art Museum. I visited the art museum which is built on land once owned by James Fenimore Cooper, the author of Last of the Mohicans. The museum, appropriately, had a spectacular Native art collection. The highlight was a special exhibit on Greenland, which I visited during the summer of 2020.
Just south of town is the Ommegang Brewery, a nationally famous brewery specializing in Belgian ales. I ordered a flight and took some a whole bunch of cans of sour beers. In non-COVID times, they offer brewery tours.
My final stop was Brook´s House of Bar-B-Q in the nearby town of Oneota. Brooks is a historic restaurant known regionally for its BBQ chicken. Recently, Brook´s won the coveted James Beard American Classic award, given to historic restaurants. While not visible, the grill is reported to be the longest single grill in the country.
After eating my chicken, I was checking out the old pictures on the wall when a middle-aged couple approached me. The woman said she was the daughter of the owner. Her grandparents founded the restaurant. Her brother runs it and her 90 year old mother still works in the kitchen. Today she made the coleslaw. Truly incredible!
I then headed back to Albany for my final day at Howe´s Cavern.
Cooperstown drips with nostalgia. It is impossible to leave without feeling inspired by the game of baseball. The museum is top rate and alone is worth the trip. But the atmosphere of the town – the baseball card shops, the classic small town American architecture the middle-aged male pilgrims wearing their team´s jersey makes Cooperstown a true pilgrimage site.
Cooperstown has more than just baseball with the other museums, the lake itself, and the brewery. Therefore, I would highly recommend Cooperstown to not only fans of the game of baseball, but also families.