By Scott Pitoniak National Baseball Hall of Fame Special to the Crier
---- — Visitors flocked from far and wide, many arriving by car and train, some by horse and buggy, some by foot and still others by seaplanes that landed on Otsego Lake.
Newspaper estimates put the number of tourists in Cooperstown on June 12, 1939 as high as 20,000, swelling six-fold the population … They had come – this late spring day 75 years ago – the attend the dedication of the National Baseball Museum and a major league exhibition game at Doubleday Field … They also had come to catch a glimpse of major leaguers like Hank Greenberg, Mel Ott and Dizzy Dean, as well as the 11 living members of the Hall of Fame – a lineup headed by the legendary Babe Ruth.
The christening proved to be the high point of a four-month-long celebration of Baseball’s Centennial that saw high school, college American Legion and professional games played at Doubleday. To ensure that the national focus would be on Cooperstown that day, MLB Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis decreed that no big league games be scheduled.
On that manic Monday, Cooperstown officially became the home of baseball’s history and soul – and remains so to this day. On that day, the village and the sport became synonymous.
By the time the ribbon-cutting ceremonies commenced – appropriately with the singing of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” shortly after noon – more than 4,000 people had shoehorned into the limited space in front of the dignitary stand on the steps leading to the museum’s entrance. The throng included several major leaguers who had spent their own money to journey to Cooperstown to take in the festivities. Many of them carried cameras and extra baseballs they had purchased from local vendors for $.50 apiece in hopes of snaring autographs from Ruth, Ty Cobb, Connie Mack and the eight other living Hall of Famers scheduled to take part in the ceremonies.
At the appointed hour, Landis presented scissors to National League President Ford Frick, his American League counterpart, William Harridge and minor league baseball President William Bramham and asked them to cut the red, white and blue ribbons stretched across the entrance. The door then was unlocked and the key was presented to Landis.
Amid a ruffle of drums, a roll of the 14 deceased and 11 living members of the Hall of Fame was called. Cobb, who reportedly suffered a bout of foot poisoning the night before, in nearby Utica, was late in arriving and missed the ceremony. The Hall of Fame speakers included Honus Wagner, Tris Speaker, Nap Lajoie, Cy Young, Walter Johnson, George Sisler, Eddie Collins, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Mack and Ruth.
Collins, surveying his fellow Hall of Famers, said he “would be happy to batboy for so great a team.”
Pitching great Alexander joked that he would love to be backed by so potent a lineup. “I’d like to pitch for these boys,” he said. “I’d let the opposing team hit line drives all afternoon with this team behind me.”
Not surprisingly, the Bambino received the biggest ovation of the day. “Babe Ruth made the biggest hit,” wrote syndicated New York World-Telegram columnist Dan Daniel. “There were loud cheers for Honus Wagner, there was an ovation for Napoleon Lajoie, a wave of cheers for Walter Johnson. But the Babe brought the house down.”
Ruth told the spectators: “This is an anniversary for me as well as for baseball. Twenty five years ago yesterday, I pitched my first game for the Red Sox.” He was mobbed by autograph seekers once the ceremony concluded and continued to be besieged a few hours later during the exhibition game at Doubleday Field. But Ruth wasn’t complaining. Although he had retired four years earlier, he clearly remained baseball’s towering figure.
“This was like the old days – my arm got terribly tired writing so many autographs,” he said. “I didn’t know there were so many people who didn’t have my signature.”
Following the parade down a Main Street swollen with spectators, two reenactment games were held. The first featured boys from Cooperstown High School, clad in 1839-style outfits playing a baseball-like game known as town ball. The second involved soldiers from the U.S. Army infantry. They dressed in uniforms of the New York Knickerbockers and Brooklyn Excelsiors, who in 1848 became the first uniformed teams to play the modern-style game.
The third game of the triple-header was a seven-inning exhibition between current major leaguers. A team managed by Wagner defeated one skippered by Collins, 4-2. The ball park’s capacity was 10,000, but on this day roughly 12,000 showed up, so many the fans had to sit on the outfield grass just beneath the wall.