Locals reflect on Cooperstown's transformation
National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum celebrates 75th anniversary
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Catherine Walker was 8 years old and school was closed. She wasn't a baseball fan, but her father had broad shoulders, so she climbed up on them to see what the fuss was all about.
A lifetime later, she treasures the memories from that Monday.
"I was so young then," Walker said on Wednesday, with the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum celebrating the 75th anniversary of its grand opening. "But there were so many people, tons of people, I couldn't get over it. We were a little farming village, more cows than people. It was something you never forget."
Walker is one of a handful of locals who have lived their entire lives in the Cooperstown area, watching fans stream into Otsego County for the annual induction. It's a special badge of honor to have been their for the first ceremony, when Babe Ruth led a parade down Main Street from the train platform to the steps of the just-completed one-room Hall of Fame.
Twenty-six players became Hall of Famers that day, with an estimated 10,000-12,000 watching. It was a Who's Who of baseball greats, all members of the first four classes voted into the Hall by members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.
There were 11 living Hall of Famers in attendance, but some official photos show only 10. Ty Cobb, who was not on the train from Albany, N.Y., with the others, would arrive by car after the program had begun.
"Two things stand out to me," said Howard Talbot, who would later become the director of the Hall. "The first was just how many people were there. I had never seen anywhere near that number of people. The other thing was that Ty Cobb was late getting here. He'd had a problem in Utica, I believe, with his foot. But when he did come, he muscled his way through the crowd on Main Street, then climbed up over the fence, the railing, to get on the platform."
The exact reasons for Cobb to be late in joining the group have been debated for years. Maybe he wasn't comfortable traveling with the guys he played against. Some say he was miffed because four voters left him off their ballots. But the answer is probably simpler -- he didn't want to stay overnight in the Otesaga Resort Hotel, so he booked a later train and it was running late.
Ruth was joined by Honus Wagner, Cy Young, Eddie Collins, Walter Johnson, Tris Speaker, Connie Mack, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Nap Lajoie, George Sisler and, eventually, Cobb.
Homer Ousterhoudt, a teenage laborer who had mixed concrete and arranged scaffolding while the Hall of Fame building was under construction, took his primitive camera to the induction and shot pictures all day. Many of them are now in the Hall of Fame's files.
"I was 14 years old and a baseball fan," Ousterhoudt said. "I didn't have any particular teams or players that I rooted for, but I loved the game. I parked myself down in front of the platform where the dignitaries were going to speak, and I was right there taking pictures. It was quite amazing."
Walker remembers the sight of Ruth walking the streets of her village.
"There was no security," Walker said. "He stopped and talked to people. The kids, he was like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. He'd be walking down the street, 10- or 12-dozen kids behind him. He seemed to attract the kids."
Walker's older brother was walking right beside him.
"My brother carried Babe Ruth's suitcase from the train down to Main Street," Walker said. "That's how that happened. I stayed with my Dad. I was on his shoulders, watching the ceremony. I think the principal of the high school picked who got to escort the players. My brother wasn't usually getting into trouble, so he got picked."
The Hall of Fame grew into being a major part of these people's lives.
Ousterhoudt, a World War II veteran, has attended all but three inductions. Walker, who wasn't a baseball fan, has worked at the Hall as a visitor's guide -- or, in the old parlance, a red coat -- for decades. And Talbot climbed through the ranks of Hall employees to become the director from 1968-93.
Talbot says there were four full-time staffers when he took his job there. The staff is now at about 90.
A lot has changed about the town, too, even if it still looks largely like it did when Ruth and Co. came walking down Main Street.
"I think it's different," Walker said. "I think it has changed considerably. There are all these baseball stores. I wish we still has more of the old stores -- the A&P that was on Main Street, the movie theater. Now it's baseball cards everywhere. I wish we could go back."
Ousterhoudt also sometimes laments how the souvenir shops have replaced clothing stores and laundries. It's a familiar cry for small towns across America, but in Cooperstown, the tradeoff was to become a major destination.
"We're to blame for it," Talbot said, smiling like an insider who was there at the beginning.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.