Doubleday Field tour separates fact from fiction

Greg Klein | The Daily Star Scott Wilson of Silver Spring, Md., looks at a rendering for the new third-base bleachers and building at Doubleday Field during a tour given Wednesday, June 26, by historian Tom Heitz, center, and Friends of Doubleday Field President Jeff Katz.

COOPERSTOWN — It is just before 8 o’clock on a morning last week, and Scott Wilson of Silver Spring, Maryland, is getting a different kind of eye-opener at Doubleday Field.

“In terms of a historic baseball field, I think it stands on its own,” said Tom Heitz, a former librarian at the National Baseball Hall of Fame who was giving Wilson the first official history tour of the stadium. “It doesn’t need Abner (Doubleday), anymore.”

The myth that Abner Doubleday — a Union officer from upstate New York who commanded troops at Antietam and Gettysburg — invented baseball by playing the first game on a cow pasture in Cooperstown has been long debunked.

“The myth tended to get in the way of the real history,” Heitz said. “In debunking the myth, I think we legitimized the history of the field in other ways.”

The tours are offered by the group Friends of Doubleday Field, which is raising money to help with the 100th anniversary reconstruction of the stadium. Wilson and his wife were the only ones to sign up for the first tour, and Wilson ended up attending on his own, a personal tour he said he enjoyed.

Former Cooperstown Mayor Jeff Katz took over for Heitz as president of the Friends group, and has recruited Heitz, former Hall of Fame curator Ted Spencer and baseball historian and Baseball Nostalgia co-owner Pete Henrici to give the early-morning tours. The field is booked for baseball games all day, most days, necessitating the early morning history lessons.

“Ted, Pete and I all have different specialties,” Heitz said. “My specialty is early Doubleday Field and how it came into existence. Pete and Ted know much more of the history of the players and when they were here. So when people talk to Jeff about booking a tour, they can get something based on their area of interest.”

In the early years of the United States, publisher Elihu Phinney owned the land; he was drawn to the village by his friend, William Cooper. Heitz said because Cooperstown was the county seat, a field was needed to graze horses while their owners were in the courthouse. But it was the myth of Doubleday’s game that led village officials to preserve the area and turn it into a real baseball field.

The original plan was for a community park, and the baseball field was only to be a small part of the park. Then, when the first Hall of Fame induction was scheduled for 1939, the field’s wooden grandstand was upgraded into a steel and concrete structure with a brick facade, turning the area into more of a baseball stadium. That upgrade was a Works Progress Administration project.

“It was kind of a magic idea that grabbed people,” Heitz said.

The field that began from apocryphal history has hosted 100 years of baseball history, including visits by Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle and a famous dugout meeting between Hank Aaron and Satchel Paige.

The official dedication and new “first game” in Cooperstown was played in September 1920, but even that history carries a revision, Heitz said. The real first game on the field was played 13 months before the dedication, in August 1919, when Milford beat Oneonta, 4-0. The proceeds from the tours will help pay for the $5.8 million renovation of the stadium and field. State grants will pay for most of the project, but Katz and the Friends have been seeking to fill a nearly $1 million gap in funding. The village of Cooperstown owns Doubleday Field, and Katz stressed he and the Friends are not part of the renovation decisions. However, he said, small parts of the project, including extra bathrooms, could get cut based on a fundraising shortfall. The renovations are timed to be finished for the 2020 Hall of Fame Induction in July and the field’s 100th anniversary of its dedication in September 2020.

The renovations include new third-base bleachers, including amenities behind that area, such as an office space, a press box and public rental space. The stadium will get a major upgrade in ADA accessibility throughout the stands, including the historic grandstands. There will also be improvements to the area outside the stadium entrance, including a walkway from Main Street to the stadium. The Sandlot Kid statue, which is near the Key Bank building, will be moved closer to the stadium. Museum space will be added to the grandstand area, and the bathrooms will be moved to behind the third-base building. It is possible there will also be bathrooms built down the first-base line, near the outfield grandstands.

The tours are $20 per person and continue through the summer. Go to friendsofdoubleday.org or email friendsofdoubleday@gmail.com for more information.