Stephen Clark had plenty of good reasons to found the National Baseball Hall of Fame, then called the National Baseball Museum, in 1939 in Cooperstown.
The myth that baseball was founded in the village by Abner Doubleday was still accepted by many people as true. Clark had passion as a collector and a philanthropist and had recently expanded his baseball collection. His hotel on the lake, the Otsega, needed customers, and the depression had hurt the tourism industry.
They were all good reasons to build a baseball museum, but Clark’s plans may have gotten an extra boost from his wife, Susan.
Clark bought his prized piece of memorabilia in 1935, but the so-called Doubleday baseball, a ball found in nearby Fly Creek that dated to the 1800s, wasn’t appreciated by Susan.
“He brought that ball home,” said Clark’s granddaughter, HOF Chairman Jane Forbes Clark, “and I think my grandmother saw this old, dirty baseball, and said ‘uh-uh. Not in here.’ After that he brought it to the village offices across the street and put it on the mantelpiece.”
Not long after that, Clark started to develop an idea he had to preserve all of his baseball memorabilia in one place. The idea grew quickly. By 1936, the museum and the first Hall of Fame class had been announced.
On June 12, 1939, 100 years after Doubleday allegedly played the first game of baseball on a cow pasture in Cooperstown, the National Baseball Museum opened. The members of the first four classes were officially inducted and the 12 living members attended although legend has it Ty Cobb was late, a victim of “food poisoning” in Utica.
The Doubleday myth was debunked, but as hundreds of people crowded into the Hall of Fame Plaque Gallery yesterday, 75 years after the opening, to join Clark’s granddaughter, HOF President Jeff Idelson and inductees Cal Ripken, Jr., and Phil Niekro in an anniversary dedication, it was clear that the idea of Cooperstown as America’s baseball village has outlived the myth and outgrown the original vision.