A Memorial to Mythical Founder Abner Doubleday Lays the Groundwork for the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown
In part 2 of his four-part series on the founding of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Womack explains how the building of Doubleday Field as a memorial to the mythical founder of baseball laid the groundwork for the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
Legend has it that Abner Doubleday created the current game of baseball. However, the claim was never made by Doubleday himself but rather by a 5-year-old.
Source: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog
In the first few pages of his 1994 book, The Politics of Glory, Bill James focused on the Clark family of the Singer sewing machine fortune, their administrator Alexander Cleland, and then-National League President Ford Frick as driving forces in getting the Hall of Fame and its accompanying museum built.
But, as one-time Hall of Fame Director Ken Smith pointed out in his 1952 book, Baseball’s Hall of Fame, had work not been diligently maintained years before to build Doubleday Field “there might not have been a Hall of Fame, for it was the ball grounds that gave root to the entire venture.”
Precursors to Cooperstown had included Harry Pulliam’s private hall of fame in his New York offices while he served as president of the National League from 1903 to 1909. Hugh Chalmers had also attempted to honor excellence in baseball by having sportswriters vote on most valuable players for each league from 1911 to 1914. These and other early efforts to create a hall of fame didn’t focus on Cooperstown, however.
This began to change in 1917. Southern Utah University associate professor of history James A. Vlasich noted in his 1990 book, A Legend for the Legendary, that in a 1917 book on Cooperstown a man named Ralph Birdsall identified the area where Abner Doubleday supposedly invented baseball in 1839. Vlasich described it as “an area opposite the Village Hall ‘which extended east and south to the rear of the buildings on Main Street, and included part of the Phinney lot.’”
The same year that Birdsall’s book came out, five men hatched an idea at Michael J. Fogarty’s cigar store in Ilion, New York, a village roughly 25 miles from Cooperstown. The men, as Smith wrote in his 1952 book, were Hardy Richardson, who’d hit .351 for the Detroit Wolverines in 1886; Deke White, who’d pitched three games for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1895; fans George Oliver and Patrick Fitzpatrick; and Fogarty.
According to Smith, the men “decided to chip in a quarter apiece to start a fund among fans all over the country to build a memorial to Doubleday.” They wrote to Sam Crane of the New York Journal—a former MLB second baseman, as John Thorn noted in a 2014 MLB.com piece—who wrote articles to drum up support. Society for American Baseball Research member Dennis Corcoran wrote in his 2010 book, Induction Day at Cooperstown, that Crane visited Cooperstown many times between 1917 and his death in 1925.
Crane also recruited a few powerful allies. Stephen Kennedy, a New Hampshire baseball researcher and memorabilia collector, wrote on his website 1939baseball.com that Crane’s articles were well received by Cooperstown and Major League Baseball. Smith wrote of former New York Giants owner Harry Hempstead and former National League President John Tener’s visit to Cooperstown in 1919.
Meanwhile, a local dentist named Dr. Ernest L. Pitcher led a group that began raising funds to lease Phinney’s field—the cow pasture where Doubleday had supposedly invented baseball. The group raised $3,772 and leased the field for two years on June 2, 1919. “Dirt and ashes were dumped on the swampy portions as fill-in and by 1921 the field was beginning to take shape,” Smith wrote. “Grass was growing over the filled-in creek bed.”
Tener encouraged two fundraisers, Dr. Harry Cruttenden and businessman Loren J. Gross, to invite his successor as National League president, John Heydler, to officiate the first game at Doubleday Field on September 6, 1920. Heydler had served as secretary to past league president Harry Pulliam between 1903 and 1909 and perhaps remembered the early hall of fame he had in his offices. Heydler was also a former umpire. He “donned mask and pads for the first inning” of the game, an intertown match between Cooperstown and Milford, Smith wrote.
If there’s a common theme in Hall of Fame history, it’s that some outside event causes delays— from Pulliam’s suicide in 1909 ending his early hall of fame to World War II helping curtail any ceremonies in Cooperstown for several years after the star-studded first induction weekend in 1939. This is, to some extent, speculative, but it’s striking that Heydler’s umpiring appearance came roughly three weeks before a Cook County, Illinois, grand jury began calling members of the Chicago White Sox to testify about their alleged roles in throwing the 1919 World Series.
Baseball would soon need all of its energies to rebrand and survive the greatest scandal in its history. A sooner stab at a hall of fame would seemingly have helped with image rehabilitation for the National Pastime. But perhaps magnates of the game felt the need to refrain from self-promotion during that period of disrepute.
Instead, plans for Doubleday Field proceeded slowly and modestly. On March 12, 1923, Smith wrote that Cooperstown residents voted to buy the lot they had leased in 1919 for $1,238 from the village treasury. The residents subsequently voted 87–10 to become official owners of the field. Work continued bit by bit over the next 16 years and included the construction of a grandstand in 1924. New York Giants groundskeeper Henry Fabian tended the field.
Meanwhile, around 1922, plans reemerged within Major League Baseball for a hall of fame. “It is not a new idea in itself,” the Press and Sun-Bulletin of Binghamton, New York, noted on February 8, 1922. The article reported that the idea of a hall of fame would be discussed at upcoming National and American League meetings. The magnates planned to build a baseball monument in Washington, D.C., for about $100,000—according to James’s calculations in The Politics of Glory.
Honus Wagner and Eddie Collins choose sides for the Baseball Centennial Game to be played in Cooperstown in 1939. Work on the field was completed just in time for the season to begin.
The idea of giving annual Most Valuable Player awards soon resurfaced. The Star Press (of Muncie, Indiana) noted on September 22, 1922, “Election to this pinnacle of baseball fame carries no monetary award, but it entitles the player to have his name inscribed on the monument to be erected in East Potomac Park, Washington, as a memorial to the national sport and a hall of fame in which to perpetuate the memory of its greatest players.”
On August 29, 1923, not long after Cooperstown residents opted to purchase the lot for Doubleday Field, the Oneonta Star of New York questioned the proposed location for the baseball monument.
“The suggestion has been made that instead of placing the contemplated memorial to baseball in Washington, D.C., as the plan now seems to be, that it would be far more appropriate and fitting that this beautiful little village of Cooperstown should have that memorial in connection with ‘Doubleday Field,’” the article noted.
It continued, “The field itself should be greatly improved and should have more entrances and in fact should be a credit not only to the fair city, but to all those who have contributed there in placing baseball where it is today, the loyal citizens believe.”
But, as James wrote, plans for the baseball monument in Washington, D.C., were tabled at the 1924 Winter Meetings. Baseball remained without a hall of fame even through the landmark anniversaries of 1926—when the 50-year anniversary of the National League and the 25-year anniversary of the American League coincided. Babe Ruth could only muse to a newspaper writer in 1928 that he would like to save his bat “Big Bertha for a baseball museum or something.”
When opening day for the field came on August 3, 1934, Cooperstown residents had something to be proud of. New York Lieutenant Governor M. William Bray joined 2,500 people for the formal opening of Doubleday Field. It had been 17 years since five old-timers sat around the hot stove of a cigar store one night, opting to launch a nationwide fund and turn a cow pasture into a lasting memorial to Abner Doubleday.
“Improvements show a fine grass outfield and a smooth infield,” the Press and Sun-Bulletin of Binghamton, New York, noted the following day. “A 10-foot fence surrounds the park. On the left field fence a sign [erroneously] reads ‘Doubleday Field—the Birthplace of Baseball.’ The fence is painted a dark green.”
While some men labored on behalf of the field, other men were working on an idea that would make Cooperstown into something much more.
The Hall of Fame Game started as an in-season exhibition between two major league teams during the weekend of the Hall of Fame Induction. In 2009, the game was changed to the Hall of Fame Classic which features former major league players.
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