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Cooperstown: village of legends; the home of baseball legends and the legendary novels of James Fenimore Cooper is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year.


Say "Cooperstown' in a word-association game, and the immediate response is "baseball.' There are good reasons for this: Here the game supposedly originated, and here is the home of baseball's Hall of Fame and Museum, a repository of artifacts, mementos, and records . . . the stuff of legends.

There is more, however, to this sleepy upstate New York Community of one stoplight and 2,300 residents than baseball. Within the confines of the quaint little burgh one has the feeling of entering a simpler era. The quiet neighborhoods, the tree-lined main street, the freshly painted facades of the Victorian houses typify the civic-minded spirit of Cooperstown's people, the proud inheritors and custodians of American lore.

Here James Fenimore Cooper, the first major American novelist and the author of The Leatherstocking Tales, arrived at the age of one. His father, Judge William Cooper, one of the major landowners of the state and a notable figure in New York politics, was killed by a political opponent, but not before giving his name to the frontier village he founded.

Otsego Lake, adjacent to the town, provided the author inspiration for the Glimmerglass, the shimmering lake fed by cold bottom springs that he immortalized in his works. The lake now serves as a leisure-sports hub during the summer's clear, warm weather. Not so inviting are the long winters, often heralded in November by a dusting of snowflakes on the statue of a rather brooding James Fenimore Cooper that stands on the site of the former Cooper home, Otsego Hall.

Because Cooperstown has nearly 200,000 yearly visitors, it has been labeled "the most visited village in the United States.' And baseball aficionados are not the sole reason for this invasion. Cooperstown is also known as "the town of museums.' For example, just a mile outside the town is the Farmers' Museum, where the ambience and lifestyle of a departed era are re-created. An exhibition area, showing Early American farm implements, surrounds the Main Barn, a 1918-vintage structure where costumed employees demonstrate hand productions and trades of the 19th century.

The Fenimore House, a museum housing one of America's finest collections of folk art, is located across the road in the former mansion of the Clark family, the inheritors of the Singer sewing-machine fortune and the philanthropic benefactors of Cooperstown. Selections in the museum range from weather vanes to wood carvings, tavern signs to duck decoys, and ships' figureheads to portraits.

Lest the casual visitor forget the most important "totem' of Cooperstown, reminders of the village's adopted role as the birthplace of the sport of baseball abound. Doubleday Field, sporting a statue of a sandlot kid, and the Cooperstown Bat Company, displaying local hand-finished bats, only touch the surface of what's available. The baseball piece de resistance is, of course, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, dedicated in 1939 to honor its famous heroes. On display are 8,000 artifacts, including the oldest known baseball and Babe Ruth's famous bat. Newsreels of baseball's greatest moments are shown regularly. You have only to enter the museum to become a fan and to ponder the beginnings of the game in Cooperstown. . . .

Tradition has it that in 1839, Abner Doubleday laid out the first baseball diamond in Elihu Phinney's pasture, Cooperstown. There, with a clothstuffed, stitched leather sphere, he conducted the first baseball game ever played. The players were cadets of the military preparatory school where Doubleday was stationed as instructor.

"Not so,' say other baseball historians, who contend the game was invented by Alexander Cartwright. They argue that Cartwright organized the first team, the New York Knickerbockers, at Elysian Field, Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1846. Whatever the full truth, it's safe to say that Doubleday did at least formulate some early rules for playing baseball.

Back in Cooperstown, Doubleday Field features and annual major league "Hall of Fame Game,' in which teams from the National and American leagues perform for 10,000 fans. The small field, in contrast to today's urban multipurpose athletic complexes, gives viewers the impression of returning to the "good ole days' when ballparks were an integral part of most communities.

James Fenimore Cooper predicted in 1838 that the village would become ". . . no mushroom city' but would instead one day "contain a provincial town of importance' as a "resort for the inhabitants of the large towns during the warm months.' He was right. The village, bypassed by canals and railroads in the 19th century and by superhighways in the 20th, has never grown larger than 2,800 souls, but its fame has spread far beyond its village limits. Even its medical center, the Imogene Bassett Hospital, has been described by the Carnegie Commission as a model of rural health care. So if you eat too much popcorn and Cracker Jack, there's a place to go.

This year, Cooperstown celebrates its 200th anniversary. The town has rolled out the red carpet to celebrate its founding in 1786 by William Cooper. Festivals and parades, bazaars and picnics, have added to the charm of the village. On December 22, a candlelight procession to the flagpole on Main Street will mark the end of the bicentennial as townspeople dedicate a time capsule.

If you missed Cooperstown this year, there will always be next summer, when you can expect to find the village as unchanged and as fascinating as the thousands of previous visitors have found it. For, like baseball's "boys of summer,' the American spirit remains forever young in the village of Cooperstown.

Photo: James Fenimore Cooper's Deerslayer once stalked Cooperstown and environs (above). Cooper lore abounds at Fenimore House (left) and around Otsego Lake (right), the Glimmerglass of the Leatherstocking novels.

Photo: The baseball Hall of Fame (left), Doubleday Stadium and its "Sand Lot Kid' (center), and the Farmers' Museum (right) and Cooperstown attractions.
COPYRIGHT 1986 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Kehlbeck, Keith; Stoddard, Maynard
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Oct 1, 1986
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