Merritt Harvey has no recollection of the day, but clutches a photo of himself as a 5-year-old, walking in the parade.
Catherine Walker remembers her dad carrying her high above the throng on Main Street.
Howard Talbot can still picture Ty Cobb, a late arrival, cutting through the crowd, while Homer Osterhoudt, already 21, marveled at seeing Babe Ruth — “a big fella” — in person for the first time.
None of them, in their 80s and 90s now, realized at the time that Monday on a packed Main Street in Cooperstown, filled with 15,000 fans and locals, would be historic. Then again, none of them could imagine being back at the Hall of Fame, far removed from its origins as a one-room building, for its 75th birthday.
There were Hall of Famers in the house Thursday, Cal Ripken and Phil Niekro, cutting a birthday cake with board of directors chairman Jane Forbes Clark, whose grandfather, Stephen C. Clark, founded the museum in 1936, three years before it would physically open its doors.
The Hall of Fame today has 40,000 artifacts and three million items in its library.
“We are baseball’s version of the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress, all in one,” Forbes Clark said.
They cut a massive cake, dished out to hundreds of fans crammed into the Hall of Fame gallery. Niekro licked his knife, later agreeing that, yes, membership has its privileges.
Looking on in this repository of history were three who were there when history was made, when Hall of Famers — including icons who still loom large over the game — gathered for the first time as inductees.
“I was on my dad’s shoulders across the street while the induction was taking place. I was 8 years old,” said Walker, 83, of Fly Creek. “I remember the people more than anything else; it was so crowded. That and my brother, Geary Wilmot, carrying Babe Ruth’s suitcase from the train at the other end of the village.”
A volunteer at the Hall, Walker said her brother was mad because he couldn’t take pictures with his camera. Poor kid, having to lug the Babe’s valise.
This is 1939 we’re talking about. Lou Gehrig had just retired on June 12, while Ted Williams was a rookie. Europe was months away from becoming engulfed by World War II; the United States, still mired in the Depression, was two years away from combat. Walker thinks today seems harder. She recalls it as a beautiful time.
Talbot, 89, remembers that day as a return to Cooperstown, having been there the month before for a celebration of baseball’s centennial. The village of 2,500 swelled to six times that size. All of the big three radio broadcasters were on hand.
“The biggest thing I remember was the large number of people for the event. I had never seen that many people in one place before,” said Talbot, who grew up outside of Syracuse, but lives in Cooperstown. After the war, he wondered about his future; it led him back to Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame, where he worked for 42 years, including a 25-year stint as director.
Osterhoudt knew he would back; he always is. The 96-year-old was there that first day, and for 65 out of the 68 induction ceremonies that followed (some years had none). A western square dance meeting, a family gathering and a pastor search for his church are the only things that kept his scorecard from being perfect over the decades.
“I was right up front on the platform where all the Hall of Famers and special people were sitting,” Osterhoudt said. “I saw Ruth. That was something. I never saw him play, just in news reports. He was a big fella, a big man.”
Niekro said the Hall of Fame feels like “family” and “home.” Still, he said in the gallery that bears his plaque, “every time I get here, I get chills and goose bumps.”
This is more than a shrine, more than an evocative wellspring of nostalgia for the game and its players and fans. It is a museum — the first sports museum in the world, Clark said — that is dedicated to history. For those who were there for the first induction of 26 members, including the inaugural five of Ruth and Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson and Honus Wagner, that 1939 day looms larger in memory, as a unique event evolved into history now distant.
“It’s imperative that we keep track of history,” said Osterhoudt, the nonagenarian sharp in mind and wit. “I never realized how big a deal it would be.
“It is quite a thing, don’t you think?”
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