The history of the Baseball Hall of Fame

7 Jan

The history of the Baseball Hall of Fame which is located in Cooperstown, New York is a story of passion, generosity, and some very coincidental circumstances. The Hall of Fame didn’t begin as we see it today, some argue it really began in a single room put together by a private collector who supplied the idea for the mecca for baseball fans the world over and the most coveted address among people that have made professional baseball their life. While the “unofficial” Hall of Fame began as little more than a collection of memorabilia designed to attract people to walk through the doors of a privately owned business, on June the twelfth of 1939 that all changed.

In 1934 a baseball which would become known as the “Doubleday ball” was found in an old trunk in a Fly Creek farmhouse about three miles from Cooperstown. The ball was falling apart and it’s wool and cotton yarn interior could be easily seen. If you ever wondered why the called a period of baseball the “dead ball era” cotton and yarn ball interiors should answer that question. Stephen Clark was a Cooperstown businessman and philanthropist who purchased the ball for five dollars with the idea of displaying it along with other pieces of memorabilia in a single room in the Village Club. The more items Clark gathered to display, the more he realized he was running out of room. He contacted an associate named Alexander Cleland to continue hunting down bits of baseball history anyway as the exhibit was beginning to draw people to Cooperstown to view it which was good for business for everyone in the town.

In 1935 baseball commissioner Ford Frick was planning a celebration to be held in Cooperstown to commemorate what was then being considered the games anniversary. This only made sense as Cooperstown was the home of the man credited with creating the game, Abner Doubleday. Frick conceived the idea of creating a Baseball Hall of Fame (Or so his memoirs claim despite dispute) but it was only with the generosity of Stepehen Clark’s contributions of memorabilia and historically significant pieces of baseball history this worked. Clark put out more feelers and finally the MLB came on board soliciting memorabilia which began arriving from all over the country.

To decide who would be the first players inducted to the Hall of Fame Frick turned to the Baseball Writers’ Association of America to carry out the process, a process still in place to this day. In January of 1936 the first ballot was completed and it was decided five players would be inducted; Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, and Christy Mathewson. Of course the Hall of Fame only existed on paper at this point, the closest thing to a Hall of Fame was Clark’s collection still. The process had begun however but it was lagging and there was considerable fighting at the time among relevant parties as to what the Hall of Fame would and would not be which slowed things down.

The official dedication was on June twelfth of of 1939 and it was presided over by Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Ford Frick, Harridge, and William G. Branbam who carried out the ribbon cutting ceremony. At that time twenty five players had been selected for the Hall of Fame. Of them though only eleven were alive but they all showed up for the ceremony to the pleasure of their fans. Most notable among them was Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb who according to reports at the time seemed to actually behave for the most part, by Cobb standards of course. To further commemorate the day a U.S. postage stamp for the Hall of Fame was released in Cooperstown that day, and is on display to this day at the Hall of Fame.

The Hall of Fame is a stone that gathers no moss. It is always expanding and upgrading in size as well as the number of exhibits. It is the home to somewhere in the neighborhood of 35,000 horizontal artifacts and 130,000 different baseball cards. Each piece has been donated as the HOF does not purchase anything. The first artifacts acquired were Gabby Hartnet’s catchers glove and mask. Part of the Hall of Fame is the National Baseball Library which is the largest collection of baseball information in the world and has served the needs of fans, historians and great baseball writers like Roger Angell free of charge since the day it opened. All told the hall of Fame contains 2.6 million items and 10,000 hours of baseball footage both audio and video.

From humble beginnings a single baseball led to the idea of what is considered the premiere professional sports Hall of Fame on earth. Young and old alike some 360,000 visitors flock to Cooperstown to walk the exhibits, view the plaques dedicated to the greatest men that were ever involved in the game, and for some of us revisit a point in youth where our heroes were larger than life, the game was still a game, and life seemed much simpler. You can see that had it not been for Clark’s simple idea to draw attention happening at the time baseball was searching for a way to promote the game year round the Hall of Fame as we know it may never have gotten off the ground. Clarks hard work and generosity in making it all happen is often overlooked but we should never forget all his efforts in making the Hall of Fame a truly great place.

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