Sports lovers' dream trip: Cooperstown, Springfield, Mass.

2014-01-05T00:00:00Z Sports lovers' dream trip: Cooperstown, Springfield, Mass.By Dan Martin • dmartin@post-dispatch.com stltoday.com

Apples or oranges? Hardball or roundball? Cooperstown or Springfield? The two American sports museums rarely have contact with each other, though they are only 157 miles apart. They couldn’t be more different, and yet, any sports fan should be thrilled to visit either one.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., are world-class museums with priceless artifacts, and are a perfect one-two punch for any St. Louis sports fan driving to the East Coast for vacation.

If you are planning to visit on induction weekend July 27 to see Tony La Russa and Joe Torre receive their plaque, be aware that Cooperstown lives up to its reputation of being isolated. It’s about a 1,000-mile drive from St. Louis and about 30 miles from the closest interstate. If you fly, the best bet is going into Albany and renting a car for the 72-mile journey. But what it lacks in easy accessibility, it more than makes up for in small town charm.

Founded by author James Fenimore Cooper’s father, Judge William Cooper in 1786, at the southern tip of Lake Otsego, it would make scenic vacation destination even if you didn’t know a fungo from a Texas Leaguer. Beautiful homes and postcard-perfect vistas have long made this a playground for the rich, including the Busch family, who still have homes and influence in the area.

But folks don’t travel to the middle of upstate New York to ogle millionaires’ estates and soak up the arts culture. Cardinal Nation makes the trip to ogle Stan’s plaque and soak up the souvenirs.

The reason for the hall being here in this 1,852-person Otsego County village, 3½ hours from New York City, is really by design, not history. Almost all historians agree that Abner Doubleday didn’t really invent the game in Cooperstown in 1839. But he had once lived in the area, and during the Great Depression the town desperately needed an influx of tourism dollars. So hall founder Stephan Carlton Clark deemed Cooperstown ground zero for baseball, and the rest is murky history.

The first class of 1936 included Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson. The first ceremony included 20 more at the original building’s opening in 1939.

This is a one-stoplight town, and the unassuming brick hall looks like it could be just another county courthouse or library. The rest of the quaint three-block Main Street caters to baseball tourists and is packed with souvenir shops and restaurants.

The area has plenty of touristy attractions, but of course it’s the hall itself that draws us here. It’s bigger on the inside than it looks, three stories of jam-packed precious artifacts and exhibits, plus a theater and massive gift shop. It seems every square inch has an item you would love to examine and study carefully. And so would every other fan you’re shoulder to shoulder with, along with many screaming little-leaguers. Sometimes the summer crowds make it tough to experience the museum fully. The collection has about 40,000 three-dimensional items and an untold amount of flat paper items, books and baseball cards. The collection is so vast that only about 15 percent of it is on exhibit at any one time.

Cardinals material is not hard to find. Representations of Hornsby, Boyer, Schoendienst, Gibson, Brock, Dean, Smith and others are easily found along with David Freese’s torn jersey from the 2011 World Series. Perhaps the single biggest must-see for a Cardinals fan would be Stan Musial’s locker from Sportsman’s Park. And of course, the highlight is the Hall of Fame Gallery. Surprisingly small and subtle, almost church-like, you could spend hours reading each player’s bio. And some fans do.

Of note: in the media section you’ll find the familiar names of the Post-Dispatch’s Rick Hummel, Bob Broeg and J. Roy Stockton, along with Jack Buck and Harry Carey.

Senior curator and John Burroughs grad Tom Shieber suggests booking immediately for induction weekend. Start with Cooperstown proper and then work your way out to the towns along the interstates. “Remember, we’re a small town,” he said. Expect sharp price increases over normal hotel rates.

Shieber suggests the best time to visit is now, in the winter, when the tourists are gone and you can have the place to yourself. But if you don’t like snow, he recommends mid-October. “It’s 24/7 baseball. There are minimum crowds, you can watch the postseason games on TV and the trees make it prime leaf-peeping season.” But whenever you visit, he says, “If you’re a Cardinal fan, you probably like baseball in general. And if you’re a baseball fan, you need to spend more than a day.”

BASKETBALL

HALL OF FAME

If you drive the Griswold family Truckster east only about 2½ hours, jogging across the Hudson south of Albany, you’ll arrive in Springfield, Mass., home of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. And unlike Cooperstown, the hall actually has a historical reason for being here, but more on that later. Springfield, a metro area of about 700,000, is an urban, historical New England manufacturing center that feels like Manhattan compared to Cooperstown.

Sandwiched between the Connecticut River and bustling Interstate 91 in downtown Springfield, the hall began on the campus of nearby Springfield College in 1959 and moved into its stunning present-day home in 2002. Its spectacular design looks like an artist’s conception of NASA’s first moon colony. Its 15-story-high spire has an illuminated giant basketball at the top and stands near a nine-story-high giant sphere that is attached to the hall itself.

If Cooperstown is about cherishing precious relics, this hall is about playing. Its 80,000 square feet have about a dozen interactive displays and 13 interactive video programs. The most popular interactivity is the court itself inside the giant sphere. It’s a regulation court with an additional ring of seven baskets on one side that span the history of the game. Plenty of basketballs are available, and you can shoot hoops into a peach basket or through a modern version. Or you can shoot hoops on the rest of the court or have a dunking contest or a pickup game. It can be a giant free-for-all for fans of all ages.

You cannot escape the thud-thudding sound of everyone playing at the same time. Suspended from the center of the sphere is a regulation scoreboard and looking down on the court, lining the top half, are the back-lit portraits of the 325 inductees. And unlike Cooperstown, eligibility extends worldwide and all the way down to preps.

Matt Zeysing, the hall’s curator and historian says, “A visitor spends on average about three hours per visit. And about 1½ hours of that time is on the court. It’s a sweating museum,” a perfect way for the car-weary backseaters to burn off some energy. Also of note: former Post-Dispatch reporter Dave Dorr was a charter member in the writers wing.

But not every moment should be spent playing. Plenty of artifacts from the 30,000-item collection are worth seeing. Everything from James Naismith’s college graduation gown to Dennis Rodman’s feather boa. But basketball items are not quite so revered as baseball’s artifacts.

“Basketball doesn’t have the history that baseball has. We don’t have a Babe Ruth.” says Zeysing, “ but people are very interested in players like Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.”

Perhaps the most precious item is the jersey that Wilt Chamberlain wore in 1962 on the night he scored 100 points against the New York Knicks in Hershey, Pa. “If that doesn’t impress you, I don’t know what will,” says Zeysing.

The reason the hall is in Springfield is a pretty darn good one. About three miles northeast of the hall, at the intersection of State and Sherman streets, sits a McDonald’s. It was on this site in a building owned by the School for Christian workers that Springfield College P.E. instructor James Naismith invented the game of basket ball (as it was then called) in 1891. Across the street from the McDonald’s is a memorial commemorating the event. Naismith’s boss assigned him the task of coming up with an indoor game to occupy his restless group of cooped-up New Englanders. The result is one of the most popular sports in the world.

Springfield College moved its campus south about a mile in 1894, where it exists today. There you can find Naismith Court, Naismith Green, Naismith Circle and even a statue of him, sitting and holding a peach basket and ball. A perfect photo op. Behind the Naismith statue is the Judd Gymnasium building containing the Springfield College museum, which houses some remarkable Naismith items as well as the East Gymnasium, a restored basketball court on which Naismith coached in 1894-95.

“I like Naismith because there are all these myths about him,” said Springfield College archivist Jeffrey Monseau. Unfortunately, Springfield is a small college and cannot open all areas to the public all the time. But for devoted hoopsters interested in the game’s origins, Monseau suggests you email museum@springfieldcollege.edu before you arrive in town and request an appointment.

So, two worthy museums, within easy driving distance from each other, designed for the hard-core and even the casual fan. And if you really want to alienate any sports-hating tripmates you have, the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, is right on the way.

IF YOU GO

The National Baseball Hall of Fame • baseballhall.org

Cooperstown, N.Y., visitors guide • thisiscooperstown.com

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame • hoophall.com

Greater Springfield (Mass.) Convention and Visitors Bureau • valleyvisitor.com

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