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June 16, 2012

1937 a turning point year for Baseball Hall of Fame


Daily Star

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Part of the job description for Jeff Idelson, president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, is the enviable task of going to Major League Baseball cities to bring historic memorabilia, for loan or to keep, to Cooperstown for public display.

Alexander Cleland had that similar enviable task 75 years ago, in a year when the new museum was experiencing a major turning point toward its success.

From the sports page of The Oneonta Star on Monday, May 3, 1937, came news that, "Denton Tecumseh Young -- known to baseball fans as 'Cy' because of the cyclonic destruction he left in the ranks of opposing teams -- caressed his loving cups today and announced he was going to give them to Baseball's Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y."

"I don't need them," Young simply told the Associated Press.

It wasn't reported, but one can imagine that a pumped fist in the air and a loud whoop of delight came from Alexander Cleland in Cooperstown upon news of Cy Young's donation. Cleland was then the secretary of the recently established baseball museum, then found in a room of 20-22 Main St., today's Village Library building.

The Freeman's Journal reported on May 12 that Cleland had returned from a trip to Dover, Ohio, to accept Young's trophies and other memorabilia, including a complete uniform and glove Young used during his years in the big leagues.

"Mr. Cleland stated that he was royally received not only in Mr. Young's home in Dover, but in Cleveland, where the fame of the Base Ball Museum had preceded him."

For Cleland, obtaining this memorabilia was quite a triumph for the young museum. Ever since Stephen Clark had brought Cleland on board to implement the museum in Cooperstown, getting donations of historic items had been a struggle. While Clark financially backed the idea of a museum, Cleland is credited with the idea for its inception, according to James Vlasich's book, "A Legend for the Legendary: The Origin of the Baseball Hall of Fame."

Oddly enough, Cleland was no fan of the sport to begin with. He came to the U.S. from Scotland in the early 20th century and was hired by Stephen Clark in 1931 to become the director of the Clark House in New York City, which was founded by the Clark Foundation. It was a settlement house designed to provide services for immigrants, in obtaining temporary housing and employment.

Cleland was brought to Cooperstown in 1934 to meet with Mr. Clark on matters of the Clark House. After finishing his business meetings, Cleland walked through the village and noticed the construction going on at Doubleday Field. The expansion and improvement project was one under the Works Progress Administration program. An enthusiastic worker apparently asked Cleland what he thought of the project and told him that the village was preparing for a 100th anniversary of the game of baseball in 1939.

It was on the train ride back to New York when Cleland pondered the construction worker's remarks and thought of the idea of a museum of memorabilia. When back in New York, Cleland had a formal memorandum typed and sent to Stephen Clark, regarding his idea.

Clark saw the potential of his employee's idea, and suggested he assemble a committee to "formulate a policy and plan of action for furthering of the Memorial plan." A proposed building to house the memorabilia was part of that plan. The library building was meant to be a temporary home.

With the momentum of the collections on the rise in 1937, it was announced on Monday, June 9, that a new fireproof building would be built. The Star reported the next day, "The site of the museum will be the Leo block on Main street, adjoining the ACC gymnasium, which was recently purchased by the Clark estates. The new structure will be connected by a passageway with the gymnasium building.

"On the strength of many voluntary expressions of baseball lovers in all parts of the country to contribute to a project for a perpetual memorial to the national game, and for the secure keeping of the fast growing valuable collection of curios, the Board of directors of the museum have arranged to finance the proposition through a mortgage, which it has been able to secure on favorable terms and which may be retired in the future when funds are available."

The museum opened in 1939.

On Monday: Another museum in Howes Cave grew in 1992.

City Historian Mark Simonson's column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.