My Best Baseball Fan Moment

I grew up in Rochester, N.Y., which has seen its fair share of big leaguers and Hall of Famers passing through. In Little League, I was a catcher and a pretty good one. My idol was Johnny Bench. Despite an oversized passion for baseball, I never took the just-under-three-hour drive to Cooperstown until the summer of 1989. The exact date was July 22. I know this because the next day, my baseball hero Johnny Bench was going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, along with Carl Yastrzemski, Red Schoendienst, Harry Carey  and umpire Al Barlick.

I arrived the day before, planning to pitch a tent in a KOA campground and mill about the old stomping grounds of James Fenimore Cooper and to see the hallowed halls of the museum. I came 10 feet away from Mr. Bench, on the other side of a four-foot chain-link fence while he was being interviewed by ESPN. There would be no autographs here, as Johnny was whisked away to another port of call.

The next part of the story would never happen today, which makes it all the more magical. I noticed that the lawn on the grounds of the National Baseball Hall of Fame was beginning to be populated by people – people with tents. I walked over and talked with a couple while they were pounding the last of their tent pegs.

“Is it okay to camp here?” I asked, adjusting my Reds’ cap.

“We don’t know, but we’ll find out,” said the woman, peering from under the visor of a hat with the Boston B.

I chatted with them briefly, and asked, “Can you save me a space here while I run to my car and get my tent?”

That’s how it came to pass that I camped on the lawn of the Baseball Hall of Fame barely 50 feet away from the stage where Bench and Yaz and the others would be feted at the 50th anniversary of the museum. But that wasn’t the best part.

I set up camp surrounded by a multitude of Royal Rooters, some of whom were still bitter over the ’75 loss to the Reds and all of whom were still smarting from their first runner-up status at the end of the ’86 Fall Classic. The conversations were laced with “Do you remembers” and “What ifs,” and “Who was better, Bench or Yaz.” It was decided that the question was unfair, but we were the luckiest baseball fans on earth to be in Cooperstown having that debate. But that wasn’t the best part.

As we talked, ESPN was setting up a huge scaffold tower. Chris Berman was there, and he would climb to the top of the tower to cover the event. The lawn filled up with camping people. Main Street filled up with fans and vendors and handful of former players who had a bronze bust inside. The camaraderie grew between the Reds and Red Sox people and the lawn party continued to well after dark. I waited for security to come and kick us out, but they never did.

Here’s the best part.

My memory tells me it happened at the stroke of midnight, under the glow of the lampposts of the Hall of Fame Grounds.  A voice yelled out, “Anybody want to play?” I could not believe what I was seeing. In front of the stage in an area clear of all the campers, these crazy baseball people started an impromptu game of wiffle ball. From this hodgepodge of humanity, we walked down to take a turn at bat or in the field. It was more ceremonial than competitive, but there was a pitcher, a batter and makeshift bases. Under a nearly full waning gibbous moon, players played. The tent people watched and cheered. Then, a most magical thing happened. At the end of the half inning, people started singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Everybody sang.  I can’t say the singing was good, but it woke the villagers in Cooperstown. And it was wonderful.

My first visit to Cooperstown was unforgettable. Maybe I’ll always hold a special place in my heart for Reds’ fans, Red Sox fans, Bench and Yaz and Red and Harry and the ump, Al Barlick. More than that, God bless the wiffle-ball man.

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Joe Carriero
10 months ago

Great story Kerry. On my first visit to Cooperstown, I had a great time visiting the museum. On my second visit I played in an over-40 baseball tournament for a team from Rochester (yes, your Rochester NY), who had picked me up as a ringer. We were guaranteed at least one game at Doubleday Field—exciting! But we had to play our first game on a lousy auxiliary field. In the first inning of our first game, I was running out from my third base position down the line for a popup when the left fielder, without calling for the ball, ran into me, kneeing me in the head. I woke up hours later in the Cooperstown hospital where I spent almost 3 days. I had to wear a neck brace for about a month. But here’s the sad part. I was released from the hospital just in time to see my (?) Rochester team walking off right after the conclusion of their game at—Doubleday Field! So please forgive me if the only Rochester I remember fondly is Gracie Allen’s and George Burns’ butler.

Joe Carriero
10 months ago
Reply to  Joe Carriero

Correction: Rochester, played by Eddie Anderson, worked for Jack Benny, not Burns and Allen, on Benny’s TV show way back when— in the 50s. Sorry about that.

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Chip Atkison
9 months ago

Okay, just signed up. Let’s see if I’ve got this right:
As far as favorite baseball moments, I’ve got so many I’ll try posting them off and on. So, to begin with, 1986 when there were just 26 ML teams, I visited all of the of those stadiums which included a trip to Cooperstown, one stop in Memphis at Tim McCarver stadium to see Bo Jackson’s 1st week in pro baseball and attending the All Star game in the Astrodome.

I do have an unsolicited/unsold manuscript detailing the whole trip and the 91 games I saw that year. I may post a few of those chapters as we go along.

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