The day began at nine, but I made sure every morning to get through the staff entrance by 8:45, in order to spend at least a few moments watching the sun rising through the windows of the plaque gallery. The morning sun bathed the bronze faces of past heroes in a soft light that matched the soft silence of a room normally bustling with sound and activity despite inspiring an awe reserved for [church altars] and cathedrals.
Soft cushioned benches, like church pews, lined the hall, beckoning me to sit and reflect for a few moments before heading upstairs to my internship in the library of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. I have had my share of disappointments, of idols brought down to earth and the true face of heroes exposed. Long ago I gave up any notion of expecting anything from ballplayers that I would expect from any person. But the plaque gallery in the morning was a place where I could suspend reality for a short while and get lost in the mythos.
The stairwell to the second floor of the library took me to a hallway at the end of which was my office. It led past the file room, overwhelmed with dozens of stacked file cabinets filled with alphabetically arranged folders on every man and woman to play or be associated with the game. Crammed into those drawers were the real lives strewn on paper of the gods’ one floor below.
My job did not require a moment of Zen in order to prepare – every facet of the work was a joy. Though I often retreated to the file room to conduct a quick survey of a player or team’s file to support a finding aid or prepare for a museum talk, I spent most of my time in the tiny office down the hall. There I processed collections and wrote draft obituaries, talked baseball with permanent staff and gazed out the window that looked over the small town of Cooperstown.
From that window I could see the rooftops of the cafés, souvenir shops, collectibles shops, hotels, and churches. I could see a tiny glimpse of Pioneer Street as it sloped down to the banks of Lake Otsego, and I could see the end of the short alley running from the staff entrance of the Hall of Fame along the side wall of Cooley’s Tavern.
Unlike many of the interns that summer, I had decided to stay in downtown Cooperstown rather than the student housing offered in nearby Oneonta. This meant that I could walk to work and avoid a half hour drive every evening down Rt. 28, past the Dreamparks and cow pastures, barns filled with antiques and the waterfall, and instead stop in to Cooley’s for a beer.
Though occasionally overwhelmed with summer tourists, the staff and regulars that typically comprised the crowd were genuine and engaging. Besides talk of the Mets or Yankees, the place was an island in a sea of baseball history, a welcome refuge to escape from the ghosts of heroes and periodically to reality.
It was there during Hall of Fame weekend that several octogenarian fans of Dick Williams got into it with some thirty-something fans of Goose Gossage. The reality of the pavement hit the Gossage fan harder than the fists of Williams’ buddies.
However, like my daily sojourns to the plaque gallery at dawn, I was not in Cooperstown necessarily for the sake of reality. As much as I enjoyed hours in the file cabinets lost in the detailed history of forgotten leagues and anti-heroes, the whole town was steeped in myth, surrounded by hills and set on a lake, like something out of a fairy tale. Traveling to the town is an almost medieval adventure, and the goal of the journey is more often than not to revel in all things heroic, legend, and fantasy. So when Cooley’s was too crowded, I would head to the water and the Glimmerglass Queen.
“Rapunzel! Rapunzel! Let your hair down.” The tinny quality of her voice was the result of the overused recording bursting out of the speakers loud enough to rise over the sound of the breaking waves. The trip lasts about an hour.
Up and back from the banks of the Otsego to Kingfisher Tower at its epicenter, the voyage of the Glimmerglass Queen takes you off the solid footing of Cooperstown and into the mystic lake that is ultimately the reason for the existence of the town that houses the legends of baseball.
Council Rock, a meeting place of Native American tribes long before the arrival of the Coopers, as in James Fennimore and family, still resides in the same place as it always has, only a hundred yards from the dock of the Glimmerglass Queen, a tour boat running up and down the lake on the hour. The rock brought civilization, which attracted the settlers, attracting Cooper on down the line to Edward Clark, who made his fortune as the money man for the Singer Sewing Machine Company.
Edward Cabot Clark, you see, had died during the construction of his masterpiece, the Dakota apartment building on Central Park West. But not before establishing a home base along the shores of late Otsego and leaving all of his money to four grandchildren, including Stephen.
Stephen turned the home base into a town bestowed by Clark money. In 1939, he had worked with the fathers of Major League Baseball to turn his small baseball exhibit based on Abner Graves dreams into a Depression-era celebration of baseball mythology. Only decades and decades of chipping away at those legends left the Hall what it is today, serving to promote a true history of the game amidst the pageantry of its lore.
But not too long before Stephen was born, Edward had bestowed upon the town something equally magical. Jutting out at the midway point of the lake, just across from Three Mile Point at Point Judith, he built a sixty-foot gothic revival tower that played a starring role in the girlhood dreams of the pilot of the Glimmerglass Queen.
You learn of her dreams over the loudspeaker as the vessel drifts out of the small dock next to a breakfast joint and meanders past the Leatherstocking golf course at starboard and the tree lined Route 31 off port side. It’s an old audio recording of the pilot meant to narrate the sites, but that quickly delves into the fantasy world of her past.
It’s easy to get lost in the fantasy. My dreams of being a ballplayer melting into my dreams of meeting ballplayers finally melting in grounded dreams of working, in some way, around them and their legacy. I no longer looked up to those ballplayers as idols, as gods, but couldn’t help but worship them despite my better instincts.
As the Glimmerglass Queen approaches Kingfisher Tower, you learn that, as a girl, the pilot would climb the rocks and wander about Point Judith, all the time seeing herself in the high tower waiting to be rescued. She builds the story into a dizzy rapture before singing “Rapunzel! Rapunzel!” as if she is still that young girl dreaming on the shore.
Every visit to Cooperstown is dreaming on the shore. Me in my castle at dawn watching the sunrise illuminate bronze tributes. Alone at my desk, a lowly intern looking over the rooftops of tourist traps and memorabilia shops. Together at the bar, drinking a beer and letting it all sink in.