October 13 2009
Late autumn, when the leaves are beginning to fall and there’s a tang of wood smoke in the air, is forever synonymous in the minds of American sports fans with the time-honoured rituals of the World Series. Baseball’s end-of-season climax pits the winners of the American League playoffs against the National League victors in a best-of-seven-game shoot-out played at night under floodlights. The 2009 finale begins on October 28 and the millions of fans who will be watching worldwide will be fervently hoping that this year’s contestants match up to the hallowed standards of the many great teams and players of the past.
Baseball is the US’s nearest equivalent to cricket, and similarly wreathed in history and tradition. Basketball may be the sport of choice for a majority of the nation’s youth and American football may be awash with money, but baseball has chords that resonate deep within American culture; at its best, it’s perceived to embody the virtues of courage, camaraderie and grace under pressure.
All of these aspects are celebrated in the fascinating National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown in upstate New York. The three-storey, red-brick structure, built on neocolonial lines, dates back to the 1930s and began life as a one-room museum. It was devised by a local philanthropist in an attempt to boost tourism to the area at the end of the Depression. The much expanded 21st-century version – which is open all year round except for Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Thanksgiving – welcomes more than 350,000 visitors annually and, with its collection of 2.6m library items, 35,000 artefacts and more than 130,000 baseball cards, is arguably the most comprehensive sporting museum in the world.
There are currently 289 Hall of Famers (both alive and dead). Former players have to be voted for by a combination of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America and a veterans committee. The first five were inducted back in 1936 and among them was the most famous baseball player of all time, George Herman Ruth, better known as Babe. Other honoured pitchers and strikers include Jackie Robinson, the first Afro-American to be elected in 1962, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle and the incomparable Joe DiMaggio, the Italian immigrant’s son who joined the New York Yankees in 1936 and led them to nine titles in 13 years. “Joltin Joe”, who made history with a record 56-game hitting streak in the summer of 1941, became the second husband of Marilyn Monroe and was immortalised in the 1967 Simon & Garfunkel song Mrs Robinson: “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”
There are both heroes and villains remembered in the museum, none more poignantly than “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, one of eight members of the Chicago White Sox who were banned for life after admitting throwing the 1919 World Series at the behest of a gambling syndicate. The “Black Sox” story and the distraught fan who allegedly confronted Jackson as he left a hearing and pleaded – “Say it ain’t so, Joe. Say it ain’t so” – is the backdrop to the 1989 film Field of Dreams. As the museum demonstrates, the sport has featured in many books and movies including The Great Gatsby, The Natural and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, which has a famous scene where Randle P McMurphy tries to encourage his fellow patients to defy the tyrannical Nurse Ratched and insist on being allowed to watch the World Series on TV.
At the time of writing, the contestants in this year’s Fall Classic had yet to be decided but the New York Yankees were looking particularly strong. As an American League side is due to enjoy home field advantage in the first two games, a wager on the Yankees claiming the World Series for an unprecedented 27th time in their history makes sense at 2-1 with Paddy Power. The Boston Red Sox, who also play in the American League, are trading at 13-2 with Power and the Philadelphia Phillies, who are the best team in the National League, at 11-2 with Bet365.