He had received 222 of a possible 226 votes by the Baseball Writers Association in the inaugural admission into what was to become the Hall of Fame. But where was Ty Cobb on this summer day in 1939, the day he and 10 other living legends would pose as the “first class of the National Baseball Hall of Fame?”
Cobb didn’t turn up until after the ceremonies and speeches were long over. The Georgia Peach was less interested in pleasing the 10,000 that had gathered in a quaint New York village than in making sure he did not have to be polite to his ancient enemy who had dared question his integrity, Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis. It was the only blemish on what Jim Reisler calls “A Great Day in Cooperstown.”
It was Alexander Cleland’s idea in 1934 that Cooperstown should be the site for the Hall of Fame. He was passing by the renovation of Doubleday Field, named for the former resident and Civil War general Abner Doubleday, who was said to have invented baseball in town. Cleland worked for the Clark Foundation, a philanthropic organization run by Stephen Clark, who like Cleland, knew nothing about baseball.
What both men did understand, according to Reisler, was the value of publicity for a small town ravaged by the Great Depression. “He (Cleland) anticipated that the concept, with proper publicity, could raise funds for old players, while attracting ‘hundreds of visitors ‘¦ to the shopping district right in the heart of Cooperstown,” writes Reisler. “The village would benefit, he said, as would the baseball clubs ‘from a publicity point of view’.”
Reisler takes the reader to a front row seat of the day’s festivities. The plan was for Landis, other baseball officials, and the new Hall of Famers to emerge one by one from the doors of the museum into the NBC microphones, due to carry the ceremony nationwide. The event had a small-town feel to it. The Cooperstown High School Band launched into “The Star Spangled Banner” listened to by thousands who climbed trees and sat in car tops for a better view of the raised, wooden platform adorned with red, white and blue bunting outside the museum.
The speeches and subsequent anecdotes of the Hall of Famers are the highlight of the book. The speeches were remarkably short compared to those of today. There was no thanking of family, coaches and others who helped these stars achieve great heights. Egos were held in check. Instead, you get the feeling that these 10 men were humbled to be among such greatness in a small town that would preserve baseball history.