Lifelong baseball fan present at first HOF induction returns to Cooperstown 78 years later

Written by: Alex Coffey

Twelve-year-old Betty Roxborough arrived in Cooperstown on June 12, 1939 well-informed. As a child who had fallen asleep listening to Red Sox broadcasts on the radio, she was quite familiar with the likes of Nap Lajoie, Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson. But as big of a baseball fan as Betty was, she had never seen the players in person.

“We were walking down the street, and my father was saying ‘Betty Betty – there’s Ty Cobb,’ ‘Betty Betty – there’s Tris Speaker,” she said in an interview with the Hall of Fame. “I didn’t recognize these people. How he did, I don’t know – there was no television. My dad must have loved baseball.”

Now 90-years-old, Betty Roxborough still has vivid memories of her first trip to 25 Main Street – which just so happened to coincide with the first Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in 1939. Seventy-eight years after that day, she’s returned to the place where players she’d once listened to on the airwaves came to life.

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“After the speeches I went up for autographs, and the first one I got was Walter Johnson,” she said. “And he just smiled at me. I can still see that. He must have liked children. My father and I were then walking down the street, and Ty Cobb is across from us – nobody is bothering him. Just me. You’d never find that again.”

On her recent trip to Cooperstown, Roxborough brought the program Johnson signed, complete with the lightly-penciled signatures of Eddie Collins, Cobb and more Hall of Famers. Inside it is her scorecard from the first Hall of Fame Game, during which a recently retired Yankees legend made a guest appearance.

Fans line the streets of Cooperstown for the first Hall of Fame Induction in 1939. (Homer Osterhoudt / National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

“I remember as a surprise, Babe Ruth put on a uniform and came out and pinch hit,” Roxborough said. “Somebody told me he popped up – I don’t remember that. It was such a thrill to see him. You could tell it was Babe Ruth. I took out my little camera and I took a picture and I sent it to him, like an innocent child. And he sent it back, autographed. And I gave it to one of my sons.”

But this would not be her final run-in with baseball legends. Although Roxborough has lived everywhere from Toronto to South America, the National Pastime has accompanied her at every stop. She’s seen Chief Bender at the tail-end of his career.

“I went to a game with my father at Jamestown, New York,” she said. “Chief Bender was a star. My father was like a big kid, I had never seen him like that.”

And Ralph Kiner at the very beginning of his.

Betty Roxborough poses next to a plaque commemorating the first Hall of Fame Induction on June 12, 1939. (Milo Stewart Jr. / National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

“When we lived in Albany I used to go see the Albany Senators, a minor league affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates,” she said. “I was 14 then and I thought ‘Oh Gee!’ Every game I went to - and it was two bus rides to get there - I’d stop and get his autograph. And he was so shy. Nothing ever came of it. He didn’t recognize me, from being there all the time.”

Roxborough was even on-site for Joe Carter’s unforgettable walk-off home run, leading the Toronto Blue Jays to their second straight World Series title in 1993.

“We had season tickets for the Blue Jays from the first day they started in the snow until they moved (into the Skydome),” she said. “We did see the World Series – back to back – in 1992 and ‘93. Joe Carter! Oh that was a moment, wasn’t it. I can still see him jumping up in the air. He hit a walk off home run.”

The ironic part of all this is that Roxborough, who made her recent visit to Cooperstown with two friends, only made a quick stop at the Hall of Fame's Museum Store, where she just so happened to tell a Visitor’s Services employee about her first trip to the Hall of Fame. But the beauty in Betty’s story is in how she undersells it.

“How I would have loved to have had a special tour of the Museum, but since I was the only baseball fan in the group I felt I couldn't do that,” she wrote in a follow-up email. “When we went into the gift shop, Steve from Visitor’s Services got this going. I suppose it is a bit unusual that I’m back here after I’ve lived all over. Thank you for making me feel special.”

If anyone needs to be thanked, it’s an unexpected visitor who shed new light on an important piece of baseball history – just in time for our 78th birthday.

Alex Coffey is the communications specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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