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It is a haunted game, in which every player is measured against the ghosts of all who have gone before.
Geoffrey C. Ward, Baseball
The psychiatric ward of the Selma Wellmix Sanitarium in Cooperstown, New York, sits back on a hill on a cozy street called Fair. Its windows, though barred, grant an inspiring view of the Susquehanna River as it flees the confining womb of Lake Otsego. The river runs south over four hundred miles, through dairy farms and woodlands, to Pennsylvania. There, east and west branch merge, rushing onward toward Havre de Grace, Maryland, where the river flings itself hopelessly into the Chesapeake Bay.
It is on the banks of the Susquehanna, on a June morning in 1957, that a stocky thirty-nine-year-old man called Francis (Frank, if you know him well) stands with a group of tourists, swatting mayflies from his neck with a battered baseball cap. He has been explaining to these city folk that the river is prone to flooding but that when she behaves, the Susquehanna is a wonderful source of recreation for swimmers, canoers, and fishermen in search of bass and muskellunge. At this exact momentFrank has it timed to a Tthey coo, delighted to witness the reconstruction of history: the General James Clinton Canoe Regatta. The canoers paddle seventy miles from Cooperstown to Bainbridge, the same journey made by Clinton in 1779.
The tourists have come to Cooperstown to escape the trials of city life, to ingest some clean country air and a good old-fashioned dose of Americana. "For this," says Frank proudly with arms open wide, "is where the national pastime was born." He says it with grand authority, as though he had invented baseball himself. It makes the tour seem more authentic, which means more money for Frank. Not that he is in it solely for the cash. To him, baseball is the reason for everything. It's the reason he has the kind of job that allows him to work outdoors in comfortable clothing. It's the reason he thanks God each morning that he abandoned a brief attempt at city life to take up roots once more in his hometown: here, where he belongs with his friends, his woman, and his history. It's the reason for his audience, and they play their part, oohing and aahing as he explains that baseball wouldn't exist were it not for good old Cooperstown.
The tourists feel their guide is special, unexpected. It hasn't occurred to them before now that of course people live in Cooperstown, a place as magical as Disneyland. They are here because their heroes are here, the spirits of ballplayers past, to bring their children, or because they came here with their own parents when they were kids. The men throw their arms lovingly around their wives, who smile contentedly, having read about this pristine country town in the pages of some stylish magazine. They request photos of Frank, who charges a buck for headshots, and two for full-body poses. He looks just like they imagined a Cooperstonian would: weathered, elfin, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye and a thick gray beard. The beard is actually the victim of a bad frost job, an accident that occurred when Frank's wife attempted to enhance his appearance, but they don't need to know this. It's good enough for them that their puckish guide wears saddle shoes and a funny tie portraying Roy Rogers, whose TV show Frank is sad to lose to "all those Wagon Train-type westerns." He sports one of those fancy electric watches and little pea-green woolen shorts that look out of place in small-town America, but the tourists don't mind, because they are not yet sure what is and isn't part of the show. The reality is simply that pants annoy Frank; they're hot and they itch. He bought the shorts years ago at the garage sale of a German neighbor and has been wearing them ever since. He dons a baseball cap that's one size too small and thus seems to perch on top of his balding head. The cap is pointed on top from being pulled by its wearer, which only serves to make the elfin effect more pronounced. The tourists take snapshots of the canoe race, quickly, for Frank says there is plenty more to see. They haven't even gotten to the best part, the foremost sports museum in the world: the National Baseball Hall of Fame!
Frank takes advantage of the photo op to nibble the sandwich his wife packed for him. It is smothered with margarine; he's about to ask if the newly popular sandwich spread is big in the city as well, but before he can open his mouth he is interrupted by a tap on the shoulder and a gruff voice saying, "Hey there, tour guide." This annoys Frank, because he prefers the title "historian," one he intends to win fair and square from his friend Charles, who runs the local history museums and who Frank thinks is more of a "curator." And it is Charles who addresses him now, his young son in tow. One might assume they've appeared innocently out of the blue, but Frank knows nothing is spontaneous with Charles, who is somewhat of a control freak. He hands Frank a note, crushing it against his chest with an urgency that makes Frank uneasy. He's about to shove it back when he sees Charles's boy handing out brochures to the Farm Stead museum. Frank isn't falling for it, no way. He shoves the note in his pocket, motioning for the intruders to "git," because he isn't being paid to pass notes on the street like a little girl.
He opts for the scenic route, guiding his guests down River Street, which slopes gently toward Lake Otsego, known locally as Glimmerglass. Frank says the name comes from a book by James Fenimore Cooper, "America's foremost frontier author whose father established this very town." He says the book is The Last of the Mohicans, although he is not sure that is true. He has told these stories so many times that everything, fact and fiction, gets muddled together, and the more he muddles them the better they sound. He knows from a display at one of Charles's museums that that book is 131 years old and still selling, so it seems as good a source as any.
He shepherds the tourists down a stone staircase that leads to the shore, gesturing for them to stop when they reach a granite veranda imbedded with a white arrow that indicates north. They take pictures of the Sleeping Lion, Cooperstown's modest mountain, and of Kingfisher Tower, a local landmark teeming with gulls.
Frank speaks quickly, mumbling a myth about an unflappable missionary who lay beneath a rock in the water during a game of Test Your Faith with some Indians. "'My god is bigger than your god,' each claimed. Whoever lay under the rock and was rescued, won." The tourists want to know who won, they always do, and Frank says the Indians, because he hates this part of the tour. He hates the dinky little boulder, Council Rock, that lies at the end of his prompter, because only someone who is soft in the head would believe a whole tribe of Indians once sat on it or that a grown man got stuck beneath it, unless they were all midgets. He can tell these are not the type of people to fall for it anyway. They're clever people. City slickers.
He takes them upriver and is about to point out his home, which he is proud to claim is among the oldest buildings in town, evidenced by the fact that the front is painted one color and the sides another, an old Cooperstown tradition. But his wife pokes her head out the kitchen window just then, and Frank fears she will come out and start interrogating people, which she does sometimes, being a curious and friendly person. He needs her to stay inside today, for she has a puke-green beauty mask slopped all over her face, which she made out of bad oatmeal, and it looks like she has dyed her hair again, this time the color of apricots. He shakes his fingerno, noin her direction, softening the command by blowing her a kiss, which she snatches from the air, smiling a smile that sends Frank's stomach down around his knees. He thinks about how lucky he is to have a gal like her, how pretty she looks even with a puke-green face and orange hair. She is his girl. His beautiful girl.
He gestures with his prompter toward a row of old stone mansions that line River Street and begins to talk about ghosts. As if on cue, blind old Dr. Buckner, with his uncanny sixth sense for fresh blood, toddles out of his Victorian Gothic-style house and ushers the tour right out from under Frank's nose. He takes the tourists inside, where for a buck-fifty a head they behold a portrait of Judge William Cooper, the town founder, whose eyes follow wherever they move. They do seem to, the tourists think before stepping back outside. A pack of kids fly down the street on their bicycles, nearly knocking one or two of them over. When the kids reach the wall that lines Dr. Buckner's front lawn, they peddle faster and avert their eyes. Frank says this is because beneath that wall more Indians are buried upright. He says to "watch your step now," because if a stone comes unfettered and falls into the street, "you can bet your great aunt Martha it's a peeved native eager to stand." The tourists seem nervous until Frank explains, "This is a town built upon myths." His voice is full of confidence and showmanship, a pride in all things Cooperstown: "A place where spiritsthe ghosts of farmers, warriors, pioneers, and ballplayersshare farmhouses and pastures, shoreline and barrooms with the living. And leading the way are the Holy Trinity: Judge William Cooper, James Fenimore Cooper, his son, and Abner Doubleday, who invented the sport that embodies our nation." He says the controversial Judge Cooper founded the town in 1786 and then clod-hopped his way toward early capitalism, surviving everything from a stint in the U.S. Congress (and, subsequently, a near impeachment) to the death of his beloved daughter. He also raises the question of whether all the land the judge doled out so eagerly along the way belonged to him in the first place. He calls Cooper "an old sugar-pusher," touting the tastiness of New England's maple products to the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson: "From land to maple sugar, and from potash to politics, Cooper took full advantage of the new American republic." A republic that, according to Frank, meant land was a free-for-all, and "too bad for you if you if you didn't step up to the plate and grab some for yourself."
He asks the tourists to close their eyes, to imagine the draw of this little village nestled between the Catskill and the Adirondack mountains, to early settlers who poured in from throughout New England and New York: Puritans, Yanks, farmers and surveyors, the ambitious and escapists, all manner of migrants seeking a place to call home. The tourists do as they're asked, closing their eyes to welcome the spirits of those early arrivals, exhausted and elated, by wagon or on foot in time for what Frank calls Opening Day. They view this Eden through pioneer eyes, a land of rolling hills where a great gushing river spills from a crystalline lake surrounded by miles of green. They see it like Frank calls it: Indians packing up to leave the field, white folks gearing up for their own at bat, and a state road built to increase attendance. They see churches springing up, just a few, because "Judge Cooper was a rainy-day Quaker at best." They see settlers, one by one taking their place in "the great green ballpark of independence." They see houses and shopsCooperstown a tight-knit, compact community where neighbor lives on top of neighbor to ensure everyone gets along, that they play nice. Frank explains that back in the day, if your house was brick you batted for team Genteel. And if you squatted in a wood hutch and let your animals run amok? Well, then you were more or less a loser.
The tourists open their eyes as Frank concludes his history lesson with a line about the final score: Pioneers thirty-five, Natives zip. He says, to soothe any critics in the crowd, that of course Cooperstown still proudly upholds certain native traditions, like the annual Tots Turkey Trot, the Singles Snowshoe Slog, and, a plug for Charles's sake, "there's also plenty of basket weaving and loom tinkering to be done at the Farm Stead if you're not one for stimulation." He says the horses that used to race across the frozen Glimmerglass during winter Frost Fest are now pickup trucks and that the birch canoes once used in the regatta are now fiberglass, but the tourists get the idea. One of them remarks that Cooperstown seems to do a lot of racing, which annoys Frank, because anyone can see if you want to sit back and enjoy life, this is the place to do it. A man can watch his life go by and not feel sore about it in a town like Cooperstown; watch it like a motion picture and, if he's smart, take notes along the way. Frank won't explain this to outsiders, though. Nor will he answer offensive questions about why the lake is such an "unripe color," which is thanks to another dye job (the current mayor's bright idea to make aerial shots on travel brochures more enticing).
Frank excuses himself, stepping briefly beneath an elm tree to read Charles's note. Find out what's so damned important that it can't wait until the end of the workday. The note turns out to be from Amos, Cooperstown's wannabe mayor and another of Frank's pals, one he hates to admit is the leader of their posse. The note says to meet him, Charles, and their buddy Duke Cartwright, who coaches ball at the school, in Duke's office in thirty minutes. Frank crumples the note, refusing to end his tour before he is good and ready, even though he can tell from the way Amos has written in large capital letters that the meeting is important. As a compromise, he shuffles his herd a little quicker down Main Street to a footbridge spanning the river. The kids are back, looking smug in the illusion that they're riding on water, like a gang of Jesuses on banana-seat bikes. When they reach the other side of the bridge they slow. The pavement turns to gravel, which means inching their bikes through an iron gate to a narrow path in the woods. "To the left," Frank says, "is Indian Mound." More natives entombed upright. One of the kids tells the tourists that Cooperstown's elementary school teachers bring their classes to the mound each year during Local History Month. The tourists smile, envisioning these little Cooperstown cherubs consuming baloney and Chex Mix on top of the dead. It is an oddly wholesome image at once shattered by a loudmouthed boy with a duck's-ass hairdo who points out the Louse House, a small shack on the riverbank where he claims half the town's youth forfeit their virginity.
Frank tries to shoo the kid away with his cap, but the kid starts hassling him, begging for a part-time job at the baseball museum, where Frank is chief security guard. Frank is about to rip into this young smart aleck when he recalls something his wife said: the kid's ma ran off with a tourist. He holds his tongue, but only until the kid starts poking fun at his beard, asking the tourists if they've seen that new fright film I Was a Teenage Werewolf. The tourists laugh and Frank shakes his stick at the boy, turning red as a beet. The tourists sigh, disappointed, because they liked where this was going. The children pedal off, disappearing into the woods. They leave behind a toy that looks like a plastic pie plate to Frank, who tosses it into the river so it will float down to meet them. He knows they have gone to swim by the old stone bridge. The bridge is where Cooperstown's youth go when contemplation becomes involuntary, to skip school, to lament broken homes or broken hearts. Mostly they go there to get into trouble, and Frank knows this because he used to hang out there too. He steers the tour in the opposite direction, figuring Cooperstown deserves to keep one or two things for itself.
As they walk up Main Street, Frank takes advantage of the lull in conversation to reflect on a bright summer day just like this in '39. He and the guys had rigged a rope around a tree overlooking the Susquehanna and had swung from the bridge to the shore, making bets as to who would fall. Frank had gone first and he remembers being scared, not trusting the rope to keep him suspended above the water, where the snapping turtles supposedly lurked. It's a summer he will never forget. The summer of the baseball centennialtwo members of each of the sixteen major-league ball clubs were in Cooperstown for an all-star game. The centennial lasted all summer, including a couple of exhibition games: Yanks versus Bears and the Philadelphia Athletics versus the Penn Athletic Club. He and the boys were lucky enough to witness the actual induction of eleven out of some twenty greats initially elected into the Hall of Fame who were still living, including four of the inaugural five: Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, and Walter "Big Train" Johnson. Christy Mathewson had passed away. They got autographs from Ruth and they got to meet Cobb, who signed balls for them and gave Amos the idea about keeping a diary, especially to record his finances, no matter how "willy-nilly" things got. In 1940, they got to witness the first Hall of Fame Game, Chicago versus Boston (Cubs 10-9 over Red Sox), and the museum's first exhibit, the Doubleday Baseball. They watched postwar interest in baseball grow and with it many legends develop. In Frank's mind, they were their own inaugural club, the real McCoys, the last of the Mohicans: Amos, ever waging an eternal war against the Coopers, determined to one day run the town; Duke, with his incredible gift of gab; Charles, insisting he be called Chuck, because his father was called Charles and he comes from a long line of sons who butt heads with their old men; and Frank, who would rather be here with them than anywhere else in this world. Soon they'll induct a fifth member into their club, just like Ruth and Cobb. But Frank doesn't know that yet. Nor does he know that it will happen without their permission on this very day. For now he is content with yesteryear, with the image of Cartwright shouting, "Your mama's a Commie!" as he jumps from the old stone bridge, that architectural acknowledgment of their coming of age.
He moves the tour toward Doubleday Field, abridging the tale of its namesake, Abner Doubleday, who he says attended school in Cooperstown before going to West Point, and took it upon himself one day in 1839 to turn the game of town ball into something more substantial, more sophisticated. "Doubleday took a stick, drew a diamond in the dirt, threw some bases around it, and the Lord shone down upon it," Frank says. He says a foolish few may contest this, but a special panel, at the behest of one Albert Goodwill Spalding, proved it so in 1907. "The miracle," he says, was reconfirmed twenty-six years later when a dingy, old cloth-stuffed ball belonging to an acquaintance of Doubleday (one Abner Graves, a Colorado mining engineer who claimed in a letter to the editor of the Akron Beacon Journal in 1905 to have been present when Doubleday invented the game) was found in a farmhouse three miles from town. "A local philanthropist bought it for five bucks, people paid to see it, a museum was built around it, and the rest?" Frank smiles, sensing their anticipation. "Well, I guess you'll just have to follow me to find out!"
The tourists trail behind him like obedient ducklings, stopping for another photo op when they reach the Baseball Hall of Fame. A few break off from the group to enter the museum, while others disappear into the bookstore, which Frank thinks should be a part of Amos's mayoral campaign strategy: they should sell less wild beatnik On the Road stuff and more books about staying put, more books about baseball. He considers it a disgrace to display peculiar titles like The Cat in the Hat beside Max Shulman's Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys! and John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage. He's even working on his own book about Cooperstown's local legends and haunts, Don't Bump into Bumppo!
He loses a few people temporarily to the Doubleday Deli, where Amos sits tapping his foot against a barstool to the beat of the Everly Brothers' "Wake Up Little Suzie." Amos is drinking O'Mihops, the local brew, and when he sees Frank he barks, "Don't you have someplace else you're supposed to be?" He doesn't look like he is enjoying his beermore like he's drowning in itand Frank realizes that whatever this meeting is about, it isn't going to be fun. He reminds Amos that cirrhosis of the liver killed Senator Joe McCarthy, and that if he wants to be around for manager Joe McCarthy's induction into the Hall of Fame, he had best lay off the booze. Amos responds with a curt "Be at the school in ten minutes."
Frank exits the deli, ushering his followers through a parking lot to the ballpark that squats just off Main Street. An uncanny gargoyle, a statue called the Sandlot Kid, stands guard at the gate; a barefoot boy with a bat slung casually over one shoulder in a manner that reminds passersby what it means to be young and play ball. The tourists know that Doubleday Field lures people like them each summer in droves. They can almost taste the hot dogs sold in the stands, hear the cheers of the crowd rooting for their team. What they don't know is that to locals, when it's not being used for ball games, the field is a rendezvous point, for teens a make-out joint, or a stead to get sated on bourbon or beer. It's enveloped by houses on three sides, on the north end by the parking lot, which any Cooperstonian knows has only one entrance and one way out. For Cooperstown's youth, a stroll through that lot means a straight shot "downtown."
Frank loses a few followers to the nearby batting cages, where they indoctrinate their swings. A few more step inside a small shop to have bats turned on a lathe, engraved with the initials of beloved ball fans back home to whom they'll be presented as gifts like no other.
Back on Main Street, Frank points out the movie theater, now playing The Bridge on the River Kwai, and blushes when a female tourist says he looks a little bit like Alec Guinness. He points out Sal's Pizzeria, gathering place for Cooperstown's youth. It's there that all young decisions are made: where the party is, Run-Down Hill or the Brushback Forest; who will go skinny-dipping at Three Mile Point; and who will take whom to the annual cotillion. "Ballroom dancing is mandatory for our children, Cooperstown being a place of tradition," Frank says.
A flagpole is stationed in the middle of Main Street. Frank stops the tour there. He gestures quickly left toward the lakefront, where a bronze sculpture of the Indian Hunter and his dog stands on top of a large boulder, safeguarding the boats. He gestures right to Pioneer Street, which means the way to school or the way out. A tourist asks which is north and which is south, and Frank says, "In Cooperstown, if you know which hand to place over your heart during the Pledge of Allegiance, you have every sense of direction you'll ever need, and then some." He feels blue as the tour draws to a close, aware, as he stands in the middle of Main Street, that every restaurant, every store, is gradually being consumed by souvenir shops. He fears that eventually there will be no more favorites. No one to say "My god is bigger than yours." No testing of faiths. He consoles himself with the idea that Cooperstown might one day become a dominion worthy of ancient Greece: a god for everyone, be it the Mick or the Say Hey Kid. He knows people don't have to love baseball to live in Cooperstown, but he feels they had better respect it, that it gets in the pores. It flows from the taps of the bars and from the mouths of the men and women who bond over beers at the Slugger Saloon. The tourists, too, sense this, licking their lips as though they can taste it, a time when a man could feel baseball in his blood. They smell it in the air, an inveterate history that means, at this moment, they belongthat they are more American than any other Americans. And Frank leaves them there just like that, in the middle of Main Street, licking their chops clean of time.
Duke pulls up in his truck and leans on the horn. He's been sent to ensure that Frank gets to the school on time. Frank jumps onto the truck, standing on the step below the cab, and, as Duke drives away, he waves his cap at the tourists, who wave back until he's gone. The moment Frank climbs inside and buckles in, he regrets it, because Duke starts chattering away, always the coach, unable to keep still. He talks about the upcoming Hall of Fame Game, St. Louis Cardinals versus Chicago White Sox, Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters, the odds that the Russians will launch a dog into space, "and what's Eisenhower gonna do, send a monkey?" He wonders aloud about how long Liz Taylor can stay married to one man and about the impending destruction of Ebbets Field. He says Jimmy Dorsey's death marks the end of an era, but that Lawrence Welk, "his show ain't so bad." He is talking even more than usual and Frank realizes it is because he's nervous. He can smell it on Duke the way he smelled it on Amos, on his boozy breath. And for a minute he wants to jump out of the truck, to run back to his flock, back in time. He wants to turn off the moment, to drown out Duke, who's now doing his best Buddy Holly imitation and fudging the words to "Not Fade Away," which seems like a portent, but he stays put.
When they arrive at the school, Frank follows Cartwright through the gymnasium to his office. Amos is there. The lights are off. Charles is there too, sitting with his head in his hands like he's hearing for the first time that his beloved wife is dead. He has a heart murmur, and Frank thanks God that someone invented the pacemaker. Chuck looks like he is going to need one.
Frank won't cross the threshold. He's nervous and is about to insist that someone tell him just exactly what the hell is going on when Duke hands him a flashlight. He wishes, for the first time in a long time, that he was wearing pants. He feels suddenly cold. But he doesn't have time to say so, or to say much at all, because it is right there in front of himthe reasonon the paper Chuck hands him, his eyes averted. Frank does not want to read it. He knows he won't like what it has to say. But he accepts it anyway, shining the flashlight upon the paper, because Amos says to. And before he has time to comment, to take a seat, or shout, or faint, there is a gaspsomeone is behind him, behind the door, breathing much too fast. Frank shines the flashlight through the crack and Amos flings the door open. Then they see him, a teenager standing in the dark corner with a bag of baseballs in one hand and a bat in the other. He's been reading over Frank's shoulder.
For a minute Frank wonders if the kid is going to use the bat, but he looks too scared. He looks like Frank feels, like he just got smacked in the gut with a stove poker. Frank tries to place him. He's a friend of Chuck's son, Immanuel somebodyImmanuel, God with us! And suddenly it becomes painfully clear. The boy is glaring back at them, his fear turned to anger, and Frank feels like he's been rammed in the chest with a rifle butt as two generations, two versions of the same tour, collide right there in the room. He squeezes the pocket Bible he keeps in his shorts, recalling Isaiah 7:16: Before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid to waste. He watches helplessly, everything moving in slow motion as the kid runs out of the room. Amos chases him. The paper in Frank's hand feels like it's burning right through his flesh. He drops the flashlight, and the room goes dark. And their worlds, all five, are forever changed.
Standing in the blackness, Frank wonders what he would do if he had a choice: Would he freeze right there, hold his breath, and lick his lips clean of time? Or would he break his own rules, flash forward twenty-some years to see how it all plays out? Because the truth is he can't stand it. He can't stand missing history.
Copyright (c) 2005 by Eugena Pilek