Cooperstown, N.Y.—It was a sensation I'd experienced while touring plantations in South Carolina and walking the Forum in Rome, that feeling that because I was standing in a certain place, I was linked intimately with the span of human history.
I stared at the bronzed images of Grover Cleveland Alexander and Tris Speaker and Mule Suttles and felt I was communing with figures from my past. I pictured Speaker playing center field only a few paces behind the shortstop. I heard the crowd murmur as an aging Alexander befuddled the mighty New York Yankees in the 1926 World Series. I grew angry that segregation kept Suttles from hitting his colossal homers off major league pitching.
You see, I began memorizing baseball statistics, collecting cards and gaping at books full of old photos long before I kissed a girl or met my best friends or heard a Beatles song for the first time. But I could never convince my parents that they wanted to drive six hours to a tiny town that wasn't near anything else so I could visit a shrine to a game they never prized.
Once I reached adulthood, I kept meaning to make the pilgrimage but never seemed to find the right weekend.
Given that, I was thrilled when my bosses asked me to drive up for the Hall of Fame Game in May.
My wife and I arrived in Cooperstown two days before we toured the museum.
The town is quite lovely, a burg of hushed streets and amiable people, framed by green foothills and Otsego Lake. You can walk the whole town in 30 minutes, and I'd heartily recommend catching a game at intimate Doubleday Field, where home runs carom off the second floors of neighborhood houses.
But as a crazed consumer of baseball history and lore, I looked forward most to the museum. The experience wasn't as uniformly magical as I anticipated.
Have you ever had the experience of returning to a meaningful place from your childhood and realizing just how small it was? I feel that way about the park behind my family's old house in Otterbein, where a Wiffle ball shot that landed in the alley was a home run. I now realize that those homers traveled about 50 feet.
I had an interesting variation of this experience in Cooperstown. I had built up the Hall so much in my childhood mind that I think I expected it to be some endless cavern of artifacts that would pull me closer and closer to the mystical heart of baseball.
To my adult eyes, however, the Hall amounted to a few rooms full of bats, jerseys and gloves, a museum way too small to present anything more than a cursory journey through the game's history.
I felt the last thing I ever wanted or expected to feel upon arriving in Cooperstown - disappointment.
That was mostly my fault, not the museum's. As one colleague said, "You probably could have found the Taj Mahal up there and still been disappointed."
There are some wonderful things about the Hall aside from the plaque gallery.
It's the best place on Earth to trace the evolution of baseball equipment. I'd read about them, but until I saw the 19th-century gloves - basically thick leather mittens with the fingertips cut off - I could not have imagined how hard fielding must have been in the game's earliest days.
The Hall could add an appealing tactile element by allowing fans to slip on early gloves or swing reproduced bats. It would be cool, for example, to heft Babe Ruth's 42-ouncer and then compare it with the thin-handled, 32-ounce piece of ash used by Barry Bonds.
I was also struck by the diminutive stature of the game's early greats. The simple, leather spikes of the 1920s looked like children's shoes compared with the sleek, black-and-orange boats worn by Willie McCovey in the 1960s.