The architecture of barns varies from region to region, climate to crop. The Connecticut River Valley has tobacco sheds, Appalachia the cantilever crib barn. The Amish built pole barns. On our drive to Cooperstown, New York, the landscape is scattered with barns in various states of utility. They’re beautiful to behold, even the ruins.
Cooperstown is home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, located on Main Street. It is an idyllic setting, a lakeside town nestled in the hills of upstate New York. Though the hall’s presence in Cooperstown is based on the myth that baseball was invented here by Abner Doubleday, the museum itself is a great one, historically grounded and full of amazing artifacts. The hall tells the comprehensive story of our national pastime and, in doing so, also tells the story of our country—including tales of pride and prejudice. Baseball is uncanny that way, maybe more than any other American sport.
But the museum isn’t why we’ve come. We’re here for the induction ceremony, the annual rite, held every year, on July’s third Sunday, in a huge field outside Coopertown’s community center. It’s free and open to the public (bring your own lawn chair and flags). Specifically, we’re here to see Mariano Rivera, the great Yankee closer, but there are five other inductees as well: Harold Baines, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Lee Smith, and the late Roy Halladay.
There’s a crowd of about 55,000 people, which is massive for a town with just 1,800 year-round residents. It stretches all the way back to a grassy knoll a quarter-mile from the stage, which is festooned in red, white, and blue. But other colors abound: the Panamanian flag (in honor of Rivera), the flag of Puerto Rico (Martinez’s home island), team banners, and all sorts of homemade signs.
Before the ceremony, the MC introduces the members of the Hall of Fame in attendance. The loudest ovation comes for 85-year-old Henry Aaron. But it’s the induction speeches by the players and Halladay’s widow that are surprisingly moving. None are gifted speakers; they’re all nervous and humbled. And they’ve probably had some help with their prepared remarks, which they read earnestly.
Each has a life story, a deep connection to his community. As it turns out, two didn’t even dream of careers in professional baseball, let alone induction into Cooperstown. They wanted to play basketball or soccer. Mussina was forced to take piano lessons. Smith sneaked away to Louisiana fishing holes. All had parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, wives, children, and grandchildren to thank.
But they shared something else: teachers, coaches, mentors, neighbors, people who saw something in them that they may not have even seen in themselves in their youth. And the values those communities imparted—whether it was a small town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, a Pennsylvania farming community, or fishing village in Panama—were universal ones: Put your head down and work hard. Be respectful. Treat others as you wish to be treated.
Doing your best and getting sent back down to the minors (as Rivera was), after a brief stint in the majors, raises questions: Am I good enough? Can I do this? Should I just give up? These are questions to which their respective communities already knew the answer. Both Martinez and Rivera directed parting remarks, in Spanish, to their extended families back home. The crowd received the comments in both languages with thunderous applause.
In the face of a blazing hot day or a fierce rainstorm, injury or disappointment, the unbuilt barn must be raised. And doing it is always a collective effort. On this sunny summer day in Cooperstown, during a time when many communities have lost their sense of self, this is an excellent life lesson to be reminded of. The architecture of a dream can be a shared responsibility. These hall-of-famers weren’t born champions. (None of us is, regardless of talent.) Like barns, they were raised.
Featured image: 2019 induction ceremony, via the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, New York. All other photos by the author.