To help mark the 75th birthday of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, the Hall turned to three very special people who were in Cooperstown when the site officially opened in 1939.
As part of the celebrations, the museum held a program titled “Memories of 1939” in the Bullpen Theater. The program featured Homer Osterhoudt, Catherine Walker and Howard Talbot, all of whom were at the Hall’s grand opening that year.
The program also featured the museum’s curator emeritus, Ted Spencer, and was moderated by Bruce Markusen, manager of digital and outreach learning at the Hall. Despite the event beginning at 1 p.m. on a weekday, the theater was filled beyond capacity.
Markusen began the event by pointing some other notable facts about 1939, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt being president, “The Grapes of Wrath” being first published, baseball player Lou Gehrig choosing to end his consecutive-games-played streak and Amelia Earhart officially being declared dead after disappearing while trying to fly around the world in 1937. He then turned to Osterhoudt, Walker and Talbot, for their recollections on the Hall’s grand opening.
Osterhoudt, at 96, is the oldest member of the panel. He said he worked as a laborer in 1937 during the Hall’s construction, and has attended 66 of 69 inductions.
On the day of the Hall’s official opening, Osterhoudt said that he spent much of the time with his camera taking pictures. The 11 living members of the Hall of Fame attended the ceremony, and Osterhoudt took pictures of a number of them throughout the day, including Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner.
“A lot of the pictures that I took (were) close up,” said Osterhoudt, adding that at one point he parked himself in front of the platform where the dignitaries gathered.
Pictures that Osterhoudt took at the opening are in the Hall’s collection.
Howard Talbot was 14 years old at the time of the opening. One memory of the day that he shared at the Bullpen Theater was of Hall of Famer Ty Cobb’s arrival, after Cobb had missed the opening ceremony.
“He muscled his way through the crowd on Main Street here and climbed over the fence to get onto the platform,” Talbot said.
In his adult life, Talbot would go on to become director of the Hall.
“I had no idea that I would ever work back here,” said Talbot, when asked if he had any inkling as a youngster that he would be involved with HOF.
Catherine Walker, who was 8 years old at the time, said she spent much of the opening with her father.
“Tons of people, I couldn’t get over it,” said Walker, who noted that Cooperstown was a little farming village then. “It was something you never forget.”
She also described seeing crowds of children follow baseball legend Babe Ruth.
“He was like the Pied Piper of Hamlin,” Walker said.
A longtime employee of the Hall, Walker still works for the Hall as a visitors service staff member during the summer months.
Spencer said that while the Hall had its opening ceremony in 1939, the museum opened itself to the public in 1938, around July 4 of that year. Spencer said that this became known to historians at the Hall around 2006 or 2007.
“So in a way we’re celebrating our 76th anniversary,” said Markusen, who noted that the grand opening, celebration and inductions still took place in 1939.
In addition to speaking about the 1939 opening, the panel also discussed Hall history and took questions from the audience.
Spencer noted that when he joined the Hall in 1982, it had a staff of 16. Talbot said the Hall had four employees when he joined. Markusen said the staff today is about 80 to 90 people.
The event appeared to go over well with both the audience and the panel.
“It was fun to reminisce,” Talbot said. “It brings back memories that I don’t often think about.”