I saw very quickly why people call the trip to the National Baseball Hall of Fame a pilgrimage.
Cooperstown, New York, is very far off the beaten path. You leave the main highway at Herkimer, drive through the quaint town of Mohawk onto a winding minor highway that passes through many small towns, reach the city, and try to find a parking place that is valid week-round on skinny Main street. Depending on the time of year, you may need to deal with driving snow, bitter cold, unploughed roads, and Amish buggies.
When you reach Cooperstown, you are immediately struck with the impression of a classic country-side town, full of friendly residents and picturesque houses. Shining at the centre of it all is the holy grail of this quixotic quest, the mecca of baseball, the Hall of Fame.
Surrounded by baseball-themed businesses, the Hall of Fame radiates humble splendour. The building is regal, yet not flashy; honest, but not boring. It does very little to publicize the fact that immense treasures lie inside, yet does very little to discourage it.
The Hall of Fame staff recommend that all visitors view the thirteen-minute long video about "The Baseball Experience" on the second of three floors before entering the museum itself. The film does an incredible job getting the viewers into the mood for a comprehensive tribute to the game, and then the pilgrims are led through windows showing, quite simply, the history of baseball from Ancient Egypt to the present day, featuring famous baseballs, gloves, jerseys, bats, shoes, and much more. There are also biographies of notable players, and exhibits detailing Babe Ruth, the history of African-Americans in baseball, and the history of women in baseball.
On the third floor, one is treated to vignettes of baseball off the playing field. Whether looking at the original costume of the Philly Phanatic, observing the structure of baseball's earliest stadia, listening to various renditions of Take Me Out To The Ballgame, posing with wax figures of famous baseball fans, trying to find your favourite player's baseball card, or rolling over in gut-busting laughter at a video of Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" skit, the third floor gives you an entertaining look at anything baseball.
The third floor is not devoid of game memorabilia, though; it has the game ball from every no-hitter thrown since 1940, a room containing the all-time and active leaders in various statistical categories (raise your hands if you knew that Eddie Cicotte holds the record for lowest career ERA, or that Carl Crawford has the third-most triples out of any active player). There is also a memorable celebration of the World Series, where one can view the most epic moments in Series history, ranging from Enos Slaughter's mad dash to Kirk Gibson's pinch-hit homerun.
Then, you move onto the most majestic and stoic part of the Hall of Fame on the first floor: the Plaque Gallery. Featuring a bronze portrait and biography of each honoured member, the plaques are relatively simple yet extremely poignant. They are ordered by the year they were inducted, with the exception of the original five members, who are shown on a curved rotunda at the centre of the room. The room gives fans an opportunity to connect with their boyhood idols, letting them stop and pose for pictures with their heroes. The hall also has the flags of every country with players represented in the hall, and thanks to Fergie Jenkins I got to see the maple leaf in its glory in the Hall of Fame.
After the Hall of Plaques, there is a bookstore, a souvenir shop, and a gallery of paintings, sculptures, and stunning photographs of baseball. There is also a little display honouring the sportswriters and commentators of baseball, as well as movies about the sport.
Despite my being only a peripheral baseball fan, I quite easily became enraptured in the magical qualities of the Hall of Fame. The building was seeping with history symbolic of lazy summer afternoons, heroic efforts, and the dreams of fans of all ages. Despite being a lifelong Yankee hater, I got choked up when I read about Babe Ruth's unfulfilled dream of being the manager of the New York Yankees and his final autograph, as well as Lou Gehrig's battle against ALS. I marvelled at the way baseball used to be played, and giggled at Barry Bonds' asterisked home run ball.
The only issue I have with the Hall of Fame is that they gloss over the rough bits of baseball history. The only mention of the Black Sox Scandal is a few artefacts in a tiny, walled off box, and the only mention of the steroid era is a tiny blurb saying that some records may be due to performance-enhancing substances. There is absolutely no visible mention of the Pittsburgh drug trials, or Pete Rose's gambling scandal.
All in all, that is a minor quibble. The National Baseball Hall of Fame is an excellent place to visit, whether you are a diehard baseball fan or a not quite as diehard baseball fan. Either way, you will get caught up in the magic of the place, making the pilgrimage well worth it.
If you do go, go to the Cooperstown Diner for lunch. They have the biggest hamburgers you will ever see, and they are juicy and delicious.