By BILL FRANCIS
---- — Some eight decades ago, before there was a National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, folks in and around the game were hoping to somehow honor the national pastime with a centennial celebration at what was thought to be the birthplace of the sport.
Thanks to some recently processed papers discovered at the Cooperstown museum’s library, one can contrast the worldwide attention the Hall of Fame enjoys today with an idea then only in its embryonic stages.
The collection of eight letters, donated years ago by the National League office, were all composed in the summer of 1934. The correspondence — involving a pair of sporting goods executives, a Cooperstown businessman and the National League president – all revolve around the theme of honoring Cooperstown on what was then considered the upcoming 100th anniversary of the birth of baseball in 1939.
Cooperstown had been deemed the “Birthplace of Baseball” in 1907 as the result of findings by the Mills Commission, which was appointed to determine the game’s origin two years earlier. The Commission stated specifically that “the first scheme for playing baseball, according to the best evidence available to date, was devised by Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown, N.Y. in 1839.”
The exchange of letters begins with a missive, dated July 25, 1934, in which Cooperstown resident W.T. Sampson “Sam” Smith, owner of the aircraft firm Mohawk Giro, asks a favor of his friend, A.G. Spalding & Bros. Vice President William Thayer Brown.
“When you come up, I want to show you and tell you about a certain project,” Smith typed, “which if successfully developed, will be a great thing for Cooperstown and also the institution of baseball.
“It is my feeling, as it is also with many others, that professional baseball would be very anxious to establish here a sort of shrine to baseball, if they only appreciated the circumstances.
“I am writing to you about it, and giving you the little outline because you are of course closely associated with the profession, and because I would like to have your opinion as to what could be done, and how to go about it. My interest in the matter is partly because of Cooperstown, and partly because of my great interest in baseball since childhood.”
In Brown’s quick response, dated July 26, he says:
“The plan that you have in mind for getting official recognition for Cooperstown as the birthplace of baseball sounds very interesting … I will try to get in touch with some people who may be influential in the right direction.”
The papers show that Thayer passed along Smith’s original letter to A.G. Spalding & Bros. Chairman Julian W. Curtiss, who soon forwarded it to National League President John Heydler.
On National League letterhead dated July 30, Heydler responds to Smith’s pleas via a letter to Curtiss.
“At Chicago last December I brought this subject before the Joint Meeting of the American and National Leagues. As result, Judge Landis, Commissioner of Base Ball, and Mr. William Harridge, President of the American League, and I, representing the National League, were appointed a Committee to work out and present a plan for making this 100th birthday a memorable occasion.
“With the date five years off, there naturally is no occasion for hurried action. The thought is, however, that the three members of Base Ball’s Committee go to Cooperstown some day in 1935; meet with the local people and go over the ground in a preliminary way.
“It will be 1938 before any real work and planning could be done.”
According to an Aug. 8 letter written by Smith to Brown, the contents of Heydler’s letter, which appeared in “The Otsego Farmer,” helped with the enthusiasm of the Cooperstown citizenry towards a 1939 celebration.
“I know that the spirit of the whole affair was very much changed after his letter was received,” Smith said, “and published in the local paper.
“So you see our small efforts in the matter, had a great deal of effect and as it turned out I couldn’t have written to you at a more opportune time, and any number of the local people have expressed their appreciation for your part in getting this thing well under way. You may not realize how much help it was, but I can assure you that it meant a good deal.”
By 1935, Stephen C. Clark, a Cooperstown resident and philanthropist, had purchased the “Doubleday Baseball” for $5 and placed it, along with other memorabilia, on exhibit in the Village Club, a building that sits on the corner of Main and Fair streets today. He hoped the exhibit would draw visitors to Cooperstown.
As interest in the exhibit grew, Clark sought support for the establishment of a National Baseball Museum. Ford Frick, then president of the National League, was enthusiastic about the idea and suggested that a “Hall of Fame” be part of the museum complex. With the financial support of Clark, the enthusiasm of the Cooperstown community, and the official backing of organized baseball, plans to build a new museum to house the baseball collection were announced in 1937.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum was officially dedicated in ceremonies on June 12, 1939. Of the 25 immortals that had been elected to the Hall of Fame up to that point, 11 were still living; and all of them journeyed to Cooperstown to attend the centennial celebration.
It was a journey that started with a few far-sighted letters — and a journey that continues today.
Bill Francis is a Library Associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum