Sapakoff: Cooperstown’s Baseball Hall of Fame gets it right, from steroids era to Veeck

October 18, 2017 GMT

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — They are good at adjusting to adversity in this tiny Ostego County village tucked amid rolling New York farmland and lakes. Just two weeks ago there was a stir at the Price Chopper grocery store on Chestnut Street when a young buck deer strolled through the automatic front door.

No problem. A quick-thinking Cooperstown store clerk coaxed the startled animal back outside with Cheez-Its.

It’s the same way over on Main Street at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. The Steroids Era and Pete Rose gambling flap taint the sport but are properly accounted for among splendidly arranged exhibits and memorabilia that cover three expansive floors.

Rose, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens are not Hall of Famers. But they are in the Hall of Fame.

Feisty debates are for the Baseball Writers’ Association of America and America itself.

But the best museum in sports captures all the glory and scandal with just the right tone.

Look, it’s Clemens’ Toronto Blue Jays ballcap from July 5, 1998, when he made Tampa Bay’s Randy Winn his 3,000th career strikeout victim.

The Rose display includes a poster, video, cleats and scorecard from Sept. 11, 1985. That was the night Charlie Hustle broke Ty Cobb’s big league record for base hits with a single off San Diego’s Eric Show.

McGwire’s St. Louis Cardinals jersey — the one he wore while breaking Roger Maris’ single-season home run record with No. 62 in 1998 — is enclosed in a glass booth along with a bat and scorecard.

But feats and cheating are balanced for the historical record in correct context. The McGwire exhibit includes a disclaimer: “Soon, however, rumors surfaced that performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) played a part in breaking the hallowed mark, leading many to question his record achievement.”

Bonds and Aaron

Cooperstown also gets it right with Bonds. He is recognized for his career home run record (762) and single-season mark (73).

But an entire Hank Aaron Gallery, complete with 16 displays on the third floor, is dedicated to the real Home Run King.

That’s exactly the way it should be, the reality of what happened in baseball captured under the same roof as the grand meaning of it all.

And never mind that Abner Doubleday had more to do with starting the Civil War during his U.S. military assignment at Fort Sumter than reportedly inventing baseball in a Cooperstown cow pasture in 1839. The rest of the Hall of Fame is full of truth and art.

A jersey celebrating former Atlanta Braves pitcher Phil Niekro is made of baseball cards. The Locker Room features a clubhouse stall representing each Major League franchise. There is a baseball thrown by Jack Chesbro, the pitcher who set the record for wins in a season with 41 in 1904.

Of course, there is fresh Chicago Cubs stuff. The classic Abbott and Costello “Who’s on First?” video bit plays continually in a small theater. If you can’t get here, the Hall of Fame’s online collection at https://collection.baseballhall.org is more fun than an old-school doubleheader with free hot dogs.

Outside the hallowed ground, some Main Street businesses are mini-museums, too. The F.R. Woods Baseball Store, open since 1947, features dozens of classic bobbleheads for sale. And a motel.

The Veeck plaque

Back at 25 Main Street, the Hall of Fame folks are well aware that Alex Rodriguez hit 696 home runs and had 3,115 hits from 1994-2016. They display one of his bats from 2002, the season A-Rod set a home run record for shortstops (57).

As for A-Rod’s Hall of Fame induction chances, refer to more of the words contained in the McGwire display: “Some have admitted to using PEDs, while others remain under a cloud of suspicion that may never be dispelled.”

But baseball is mostly about the fans. The Hall of Fame understands that.

“Created heightened fan interest at every stop with ingenious promotional schemes, fan participation, exploding scoreboard, outrageous door prizes …” reads the official Hall of Fame plaque of former Major League club owner Bill Veeck. And: “A champion of the little guy.”

That trickled down to his son, Mike Veeck. The former Charleston RiverDogs co-owner based his “Fun is Good” mantra on minor league baseball promotions and fan-friendly marketing that spilled over to other professional and college sports venues.

Cooperstown revolves around the Bill Veeck plaque, joy that trumps controversy in any context.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff