Every trip to Cooperstown, N.Y., home of baseball's Hall of Fame, is special. If you've been there, you understand. If you haven't, you should take the word of those who think it just might be the most perfect village you could find anywhere.
It might not be the birthplace of the game, a myth historians long ago dismissed, but it would be hard to argue it's not the proper place for the cradle of baseball history. The place is magical, and every visit brings a memory of its own -- and a guarantee of nostalgia with each and every return.
That message came across with particular emphasis last month. I long ago stopped counting the number of times I've been to Cooperstown, but I remember the first (almost) like it was yesterday. It was the first of 21 Hall of Fame Induction ceremonies I've witnessed -- and it was 50 years ago.
The inductees that day were legendary manager Casey Stengel and a left-handed hitter who was called "The Kid" before he became "Teddy Ballgame" -- Ted Williams, the best hitter of his time.
One of those inducted this year (along with Mike Piazza) was also known as "The Kid" before "Junior" became the accepted nickname -- Ken Griffey Jr., the best all-around player of his era.
There are many memories stored between the bookends of those two inductions, probably none more intriguing than the circumstances that led to that first memorable trip. By some accounts it could be described as an accident -- and initially at least, somewhat of a disappointment.
One of my assignments back in
The News American days was to accompany (chaperone?) two teenage Baltimore representatives to play for a U.S. team against a team of New York stars in the Hearst Sandlot Classic, played originally in the Polo Grounds and later Yankee Stadium.
A New York newspaper strike in 1965 resulted in the demise of
The Journal-American -- and the Hearst Classic, which had produced many major league players, including Baltimoreans Al Kaline, Jim Spencer and Ron Swoboda. Rather than disband the program in Baltimore, it was decided to come up with an alternate reward for Baltimore's 1966 All-Stars -- outfielder Mark Radom and pitcher Brice Dowell.
The trip to Cooperstown quickly became a no-brainer when it was discovered Jimmy Kerr, a retired lieutenant in the Baltimore Fire Department and a member of the selection committee, had been a minor league teammate of Williams, who was a frequent house guest whenever the Red Sox were in town. Kerr rounded out the foursome that went to Cooperstown. After the ceremonies, highlighted by Williams' plea for the Hall of Fame to open its doors to the great Negro League players during a speech that had historic implications, we had unprecedented access, including a memorable photo opportunity.
(from left to right) Ted Williams, Jim Henneman, Brice Dowell, Casey Stengel, Mark Radom and Jimmy Kerr at the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Brice Dowell)
For two impressionable 18-year-old teenagers, the trip probably seemed like a blur and soon became a blip on life's radar. They played together the following year for Leone's national championship team and then went on to have excellent college careers -- Dowell at Johns Hopkins, Radom at what was then Towson State, now Towson University. And, as so often happens in life, we went separate ways, never very far, but falling out of contact.
In the interest of honest disclosure, as the years went by, I couldn't remember the names of the youngsters I had accompanied to Cooperstown. Not being able to recount the entire story without making contact, with
The New American, long out of business and without access to the archives, I was in scramble mode until remembering good friend Mike Lurie was the media relations manager for the University System of Maryland -- which had inherited what was salvageable of
The News American files.
Lurie put me in touch with Laura Cleary, whose Special Collections staff at the University's Hornbake Library was able to scan stories that barely revealed the names of Dowell and Radom, each of whom proved easy to track down. In an almost eerie coincidence, within a week of my discovery, Radom reached out with an email, which helped speed up the process.
That was four years ago, so obviously there weren't any hastily made plans. The three of us re-connected about a month later. After a series of discussions playing catch-up, we eventually got around to talking about another Cooperstown trip. Neither of the two had been back, and a return visit was tentatively scheduled -- but it took awhile to put it together, until the looming 50th anniversary of the 1966 induction finally made it a natural.
Experiencing an induction as we had 50 years ago, when we sat on the stage, was out of the question -- but a special Cooperstown experience wasn't. Appraised of our experience half a century ago, Jeff Idelson, president of the Hall of Fame, Brad Horn and Craig Muder, communications directors, expressed interest in a story for the current issue of "Memories and Dreams," the Hall's quarterly magazine, making the journey even more attractive.
The three of us enjoyed "The Cooperstown Experience" again last April, complete with an extensive guided tour of the Hall of Fame with Muder, along with a look at a few of the thousands of items that make up the archives. It was only a two-day trip, about the same as the one 50 years ago, only this time made with the help of the Interstate System.
The red light at Main and Chestnut Streets is still the only one in Cooperstown. But this time the accommodations were luxurious in the Cooper Inn, as opposed to the second floor of a rooming house. And the Hall of Fame has a modern look to go with the original stone building that served as the museum then but now houses the offices. Beyond that, there is little difference between the village today and the one Radom and Dowell could remember.
"Playing in Yankee Stadium would have been special, but looking back on it, and after making this trip back ... to have been part of history is incredible," said Radom, who was nationally ranked as a junior table tennis player -- and still has that distinction as a senior now that he is retired.
"When we walked down Main Street 50 years after seeing the 1966 ceremony, it was like we were returning home," said Dowell, who still has a law practice in Towson. "Baseball has always been a constant in my life. Things change, circumstances become different, but baseball is always there and I still enjoy it."
Fifty years later, the commanding voice of Williams and Stengel's infectious kindness and humor ("he made a wisecrack when the picture was taken," Dowell said) are indelible memories. At the post-induction gathering, as the group photo was being set up, Williams fretted the commotion might be too tiring for Stengel, who quickly dismissed the thought.
"I told these boys we would take a picture, and one day they might play for the Mets, and we're going to do it," said Casey, staying loyal to his most recent team, not his most successful.
That was the beginning of 50 years of Cooperstown memories. As Casey would say: "You could look it up."
Fortunately, I did.