The Daily Star, Oneonta, NY - otsego county news, delaware county news, oneonta news, oneonta sports

June 15, 2008

After 7 decades, Fame Game's last hurrah is Monday

By Tom Grace

COOPERSTOWN _ Want to see a Major League Baseball game for $11, or sit in the good seats for $12.50?

Your last chance may be Monday, when the Chicago Cubs meet the San Diego Padres at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown.

Beginning at 2 p.m., the National Baseball Hall of Fame's annual exhibition game, a tradition dating back to 1940, is scheduled to be played one last time.

The game is sold out, but any returned tickets will be made available at 9 a.m. Monday in the Doubleday Field parking lot.

It may be fitting that the Cubs, who lead the Central Division of the National League, help complete the matchup. They were here at the beginning, too, when Franklin Roosevelt was president and teams traveled by train to this quaint village in upstate New York.

In 1940, long before there were Padres in San Diego, the Cubs and Boston Red Sox played a game to support the Hall of Fame, which had opened the year before to honor baseball's finest players. As part of the Hall's 1939 inauguration, an all-star game, including the game's biggest star, Babe Ruth, was played in Cooperstown.

``At that point, Ruth had retired, but no one could keep him from playing,'' said Brad Horn, Hall of Fame spokesman.

The next year, baseball's bosses decided to institutionalize the game in Cooperstown as an annual contest between teams.

As the Hall of Fame reports on its website: ``At the annual joint meeting of the National and American leagues, held at Chicago, Dec. 11, 1940, with Commissioner Kenesaw Landis presiding, it was decided to make permanent the playing of an annual interleague exhibition game between two major league teams, the proceeds of which would be devoted to the upkeep of the national shrine.

``Thus began what Cooperstown and the rest of the baseball world has come to know as a rite of summer, a sunny afternoon ballgame played on the former cow pasture where Major Abner Doubleday was once thought to have laid out the first diamond and formulated the first rules of the nation's pastime way back in 1839.

``Today, the game supports the village of Cooperstown and the Museum, continuing one of baseball's longest-standing traditions,'' the website states.

The Doubleday legend has long since been debunked, but the village of Cooperstown has done its best by baseball, said Cooperstown's Mayor Carol Waller.

``I love the Hall of Fame game and lots of people do. It's great how the players ride in our parade, then play a game where the fans can see them up close,'' she said.

``I plan to enjoy this game and I don't want anything to spoil it,'' she continued, ``but it's going to be bittersweet afterward, knowing that it's over.''

Gary Kuch, principal at Cooperstown High School, also expressed regret that the game won't go on after this year.

For years, CHS students have operated the concession stands for the game, using the proceeds _ some years as much as $15,000 _ to fund an annual trip to Washington and other activities.

``It's a shame it's ending, because it has been great for the students and the community,'' Kuch said.

The profits have been put to good use, but even more, the experience of operating the stands has been highly educational, he noted.

The Hall of Fame announced in January that Major League Baseball had pulled the plug on the game. MLB decided it was too difficult anymore to schedule two teams to play an exhibition game during the season, Chief Operating Officer Robert DuPuy said at the time.

Some political leaders, including Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.; Rep. Michael Arcuri, D-Utica; and Rep. James Powers, R-Butternuts, chairman of the Otsego County Board of Representatives, have tried to intervene, but to no avail.

Horn and Deborah Taylor, Otsego County's tourism director, said officials are working to find a replacement for the game. The search will intensify after Monday, they said.

Local merchants are worried about the pending change, according to John Bullis, executive director of the Cooperstown Chamber of Commerce.

``The weekend leading up to the game has been a good one for us, and we're sorry to lose it,'' he said.

Bruce Andrews, who works for Baseball Nostalgia in the Doubleday parking lot, said many local fans are disappointed.

But those who sell baseball memorabilia have been disappointed with the game's effect on their businesses since 2003, when for the first time, the game was played in June rather than in mid-summer, he said.

``It's never been the same since they moved it,'' Andrews said.

Vin Russo, who operates Mickey's Place on Main Street, concurred.

``Since the game moved to a Monday in June, it's been about as good as a typical Sunday, but nothing like it was,'' he said.

Over the years though, the game has been special and Cooperstown has been lucky to have it, Waller said.

The stars have come and sometimes shone brightly in this ballpark that seats fewer than 10,000 people. In the 1939 all-star game that led to the series' creation, future Hall of Fame pitchers Lefty Grove and Dizzy Dean faced off, Horn noted.

And batters who've homered here, where the center-field wall is 390 feet from home plate, include Ted Williams, Duke Snider, Mickey Mantle, Bill Mazeroski, Hank Aaron, Orlando Cepeda, Ernie Banks, Carlton Fisk, Willie Stargell and George Brett, all Hall of Famers.

On Thursday morning, as he has for 19 years, Doubleday Field's head groundskeeper Joe Harris was getting ready for it.

The grass was manicured, the base paths were immaculate, and the dugouts were being painted.

``I guess we're ready for anything but rain,'' Harris said.

According to the National Weather Service, there is a 50 percent chance of storms Monday.