Thursday, May 30, 2019

Cooperstown -- Americana home run -- May 30, 2019 column


When Eppa Rixey visited Cooperstown, N.Y., in retirement in 1959, he wrote a postcard home: “I finally made it!”

It was a joke, but Rixey later achieved the high honor of becoming the first Virginian elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. I didn’t know of him or his poignant story until I visited Cooperstown last week.

If you make it to Cooperstown, a village of nearly 2,000 people and one stoplight on beautiful Lake Otsego, you too likely will learn something about Americana, baseball and yourself.

I expected plaques of the baseball greats at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum but never imagined I’d get teary watching a film there. More on that in a minute.

Let’s pause with Rixey, “an atypical ball player,” as “The Baseball Hall of Fame Almanac” for 2019 says.

Born in Culpeper in 1891, Rixey went straight to the big leagues after graduating from the University of Virginia in 1912 with a degree in, of all things, chemistry.

In the off season, he earned a master’s in chemistry and studied Latin and math at U.Va. Few players went to college then, and, the almanac says, Rixey “fought off the resentment the other players had for his education by engaging in their hazing.”

Playing 21 seasons, he set the record for the most victories by a left-handed pitcher. And when Warren Spahn broke Rixey’s record in 1959, Rixey graciously said he was glad -- because people would remember he had set it earlier.

Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1963, Rixey sadly had a heart attack and died before his induction.

Four other Virginians also made it to the Hall of Fame. All were born before 1916 and played in the Negro Leagues: Ray Dandridge of Richmond, Leon Day of Alexandria, Pete Hill of Culpeper and Jud Wilson of Remington.

Cooperstown, the hometown of 19th century author James Fenimore Cooper, has a large teaching hospital and an excellent art museum. 

But its main draw – for about 300,000 tourists a year – is the Hall of Fame. I wonder how many visitors underestimate, as I did, the emotional pull of the national pastime.

“Generations of the Game” – the museum’s introductory film, new last year – tugs at heartstrings with shots of crazy home runs, impossible catches and ecstatic fans. The fans’ hairdos and clothes speak of the past, but their joy is timeless.

There’s heartbreak too – in the grainy, black-and-white footage of legendary Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig’s farewell on July 4, 1939.

Gehrig, nicknamed the “Iron Horse” for his streak of playing in 2,130 consecutive games, had just been diagnosed at 36 with a little-known fatal disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS. We know it as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Yet he courageously stands before more than 60,000 fans at Yankee Stadium and says, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Gehrig’s record lasted until Cal Ripken Jr., broke it in 1995. In an interview for the film, a damp-eyed Ripken recalls from memory Gehrig’s farewell, pausing, as Gehrig had, for the echoes caused by the loudspeakers. It’s enough to make you cry.

But there’s no crying in baseball.

The Hall of Fame casts baseball in rosy light but doesn’t ignore its problems, including race.

One exhibit quotes a letter from Richmond in 1883 to the manager of an integrated, minor league team in Toledo, warning him not to play Moses Fleetwood Walker, a black catcher, in Richmond “as we could mention the names of 75 determined men who have sworn to mob Walker if he comes on the ground . . . We only write this to prevent much bloodshed, as you alone can prevent.”

Walker didn’t go to Richmond; he was released from the team before the trip due to injuries.

Soon, Jim Crow would halt integrated baseball until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier on April 15, 1947.

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives,” Robinson once said.

As the first black player inducted into the Hall of Fame, Robinson opened the door to other deserving black players – including the four Virginians. Dandridge was inducted in 1987, Day in 1995 and Hill and Wilson in 2009.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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