Celebration 75

Museum marks the day in 1939 when Cooperstown became the home of baseball

June 12, 2014
Hall of Famer Cal Ripken recounts what it is like to be a a part of Cooperstown duing the Museum's 75th Anniversary celebration. (Milo Stewart, Jr./NBHOF)

Seventy-five years to the day after a beloved Cooperstown institution devoted to the National Pastime officially opened its doors for the first time and held its first-ever induction ceremony, Cooperstown celebrated again.  

“I stand in an institution that has grown from a one-room museum to an iconic site that has made an indelible mark on this region and on all of baseball,” said National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum Chairman Jane Forbes Clark before a standing-room-only crowd of special guests and visitors packed into the Hall of Fame’s Plaque Gallery, the first speaker at a late-morning event on Thursday that was forced indoors due to a wet weather forecast.

“I’m very proud of my grandfather, Stephen C. Clark. He was born in Cooperstown, was a visionary for the creation of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, the very first sports hall of fame in the world, and he was its first president. Much of the Museum’s collection of baseball artifacts, at that time, were donated by him to the museum, including the iconic ‘Abner Doubleday baseball.’ And the Museum’s collections have continued to grow since then.

“We are baseball’s version of the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress all in one.”

On June 12, 1939, the first four classes of the Hall of Fame were inducted on the front steps of what was then known as the National Baseball Museum. Approximately 12,000 fans, national press and three national radio broadcast were in place at noon on Main Street in front of the newly opened Hall of Fame.

“Since for 100 years this game has lived and thrived and spread all over our country and a large part of the world, it is fitting that it should have a museum, a national museum,” said Major League Baseball’s first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, at the beginning of the 1939 ceremony. “I should like to dedicate this museum to all America. To lovers of good sportsmanship, healthy bodies, keen minds, for those are the principals of baseball. So it is to them, rather than to the few who have been honored here, that I propose to dedicate this shrine of sportsmanship.”

Today, continuing on Landis’ themes, Clark talked of the path the Baseball Hall of Fame has taken over the years.

“Yes, we began as a one-room gallery of plaques and mementoes – now we’re a state-of-the-art 50,000 square foot internationally renowned history museum,” she said. “And as baseball has unfolded, the Hall of Fame has been with it every step of the way to document it and use it as a lens to show how America has grown up through the decades, in many cases parallel with baseball.”

Besides Clark, Thursday’s dais included two of the sport’s 306 Hall of Fame members – Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. and longtime Atlanta Braves knuckleball pitcher Phil Niekro – as honored guests to commemorate the historic anniversary.

“And he never called in sick,” said Clark in her introduction of Ripken, who played in a record 2,632 consecutive games. Ripken’s joking response: “I have one thing to say after all those games: I’m tired.”

Ripken then shared with the crowd a little of what it feels like to be in the Hall of Fame.

“I remember back in 2007, after you’ve retired, after five years of not playing, you get used to not playing anymore. And you’re looking back over your career because that’s all you have,” Ripken said. “I think all of us hoped that we had made some sort of contribution to the sport. And to be elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame is an affirmation of that. That’s an honor.

“When you’re expressing your gratitude and you’re reflecting, it can be a very emotional experience. You’ve seen many players up there giving their speech where they actually can’t contain themselves and they start crying. That certainly was the case with me as I was trying to express my feelings,” Ripken said. “But I will tell you the coolness of this group comes in being with the group. It’s wonderful.”

Niekro’s address began by kidding about his nearby bronze plaque: “I was here early this morning putting a little polish on it and making sure it wasn’t sliding down.”

The veteran of 24 seasons spent atop a big league mound then shared with those attending that every time he visits the Hall of Fame he gets chills and goose bumps.

“A lot of people ask me what I feel about the Hall of Fame and I like to call it the connection of baseball for me,” Niekro said. “It gives us the chance to come up and connect with you people, shake some hands, make some new friends, take some pictures, sign a few autographs. That’s the connection for me. We’re made to feel like family here. This is like our second home.

“Enjoy this little magical village. I know there’s a magical something down in Florida, the kingdom I think they call it. This is the magical village of, I think, the USA. It’s so enjoyable to be here.”

Before the event was over, Clark returned to the microphone and said to those attending, “Today is our birthday, and birthday’s mean cake.” Within a few minutes, more than 100 voices were singing “Happy Birthday” and the birthday cake was served.

Bill Francis is a Library Associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum