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Visiting Sacred Ground

The Hall of Fame exhibit on ballparks

Any time the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum (HOF for short) opens a new exhibit, you can bet it's worth seeing. When that exhibit is about baseball parks, you need to drop everything and get to Cooperstown as quickly as you can!

Sacred Ground stats

Location: Third floor, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, NY
Opening day: May 15, 2005
Size: 1,800 square feet
Number of artifacts: over 200
Playing surface: carpet
Betcha didn't know: Brooklyn's Union Grounds is considered to be the first "real" ballpark, in that it was enclosed and the team charged for admission. The first image of it I've ever seen is in this Sacred Ground exhibit!

No, it's not a temporary exhibit. That's not why you need to hurry. I'm thrilled to say that the HOF intends to keep this area in place indefinitely. No, you need to get to Cooperstown as soon as possible because the exhibit is nothing short of fantastic, and you need to see it for yourself!

The exhibit is known appropriately as "Sacred Ground." That baseball fans bestow a great deal of reverence on the edifices where their favorite game is played is well documented (I devoted a chapter to this in my book, Joe Mock's Ballpark Guide). Evidence of this reverence abounds, such as the series of calendars published by Bill Goff, Inc. called Hallowed Ground and the book by Phillip Lowry entitled Green Cathedrals. Do I need to tell you the subject matter of these works? The love of stadiums even convinced one fan to devote an entire website (with over 400 pages and almost 400,000 words) to baseball parks!

This "review," which loosely follows the format I use for in-depth ballpark reviews, simply shows you some of my favorite aspects of Sacred Ground. By no means will this ruin your enjoyment if you visit it yourself. Quite to the contrary, I hope it raises your interest level to the point where you'll plan a trip to the beautiful village at the base of Lake Otsego (the lake James Fenimore Cooper referred to as "Glimmerglass") as soon as possible.

I had the good fortune to be given a personal tour of the displays and artifacts by John Odell, the Hall's Curator of History and Research. I'm to the right of John in the right-hand photo below. I am certainly indebted to him for taking the time to do this. Please don't think, though, that if you go through the exhibit without such a knowledgeable guide that you won't enjoy or understand what you're looking at. No, the displays are quite self-explanatory and are organized in a very logical manner.

Note the structure behind John and me in the picture below. This is a ticket booth, one that has been lovingly restored. This isn't just any booth. It dates back to the opening of Yankee Stadium in 1923, and was used there until the park was rebuilt following the 1973 season.

Also take note of the sign attached to the booth. It reads in part:

Ballparks are baseball's sacred ground, each a unique mix of sights, sounds and stories ... The total ballpark experience goes beyond hot dogs, luxury boxes and video scoreboards. Ballparks provide the stage for the game, a frame for memories of games past, and the promise of future games enjoyed with family and friends.

This introduction to the exhibit is certainly beautifully written, and is indicative of the brilliance behind the organization and description of the artifacts.

The photo on the left above shows papier-mache figures standing watch just outside the entry "gate" of the exhibit. Each represents a specific fan, such as the cowbell-clanging Hilda Chester, who is depicted at the far left of this shot. The object of this legendary fan's devotion was the Brooklyn Dodgers. These clever mannequins are a very nice touch!

Note the attention to detail in the brick facade behind the figures and around the entryway to the exhibit in the picture at the top of this page. It really does look like a classic ballpark!

Some parks, naturally, receive special treatment in Sacred Ground. When you first enter the main exhibit room, you are greeted by a large, colorful mural of Ebbets Field, one of the most treasured sports facilities ever. In addition to the large, panoramic scene, you'll also find a plaque which gives background information on Brooklyn's beloved park as well as a home plate used in its bullpen. Farther back in the exhibit is an artifact that is a true treasure: the actual cornerstone from Ebbets Field, saved from the wrecking ball when the park was demolished in 1960.

Just beyond the Ebbets mural is the first of the six "themed" areas within Sacred Ground. As is the case with any good museum exhibit, the artifacts are organized into well-thought-out areas which allow visitors to skim the highlights or zero in on the items of most interest to them. Frankly, it was all of interest to me!

This first themed area is devoted to Fans, as it displays promotional give-away items, typical concession items and signs and banners made by fans. There is also a display devoted to scorecards, including "Spalding's How To Score A Base Ball Game" from 1913. Here you'll also see the actual microphone used by Bob Sheppard, who is now in his 55th season as the Yankees' public-address announcer (see the lower center of the right-hand photo above). Known for starting announcements with "Your attention please, ladies and gentlemen," the batting order for Sheppard's first game in 1951 included both Joe DiMaggio, in his final season, and a young rookie named Mickey Mantle.

The second area is on Ballpark Business, and features not only the way teams make fans feel welcomed and comfortable, but also the way tickets have evolved over the years. There are also examples of ballpark advertisements (did you know that the Green Monster used to be covered with ads?) and a genuine turnstile from the Polo Grounds (see left-hand photo below).

The area on business is followed by Evolution of the Ballpark, which was the most captivating of the six to me. After I was glued to these artifacts and images for quite awhile, my wife eventually gave up on me and went shopping in the incredible museum shop.

This "evolution" area does the best job I've ever seen of visually tracing the way ballparks evolved from simple wooden grandstands to the incredible "superstadiums" of today. One image of particular interest to me was of Union Grounds in Brooklyn (above right), which is considered to be the first park where admission was charged. The image was from 1862. I'd searched everywhere in attempt to determine what Union Grounds looked like, because I lecture at a college class on baseball and I've always wanted to show the class some kind of image of the first park. Now I can!

Some of the most fascinating artifacts are found in the Ballpark Entertainment area. Team owners have come up with many ways of keeping fans entertained, including mascots and exploding scoreboards ... and here you'll find one of the exploding pinwheels from Bill Veeck's innovative scoreboard at old Comiskey Park (below right), as well as a life-size suit of the Philly Phanatic, and items from Max Patkin and the Famous (San Diego) Chicken.

The ways teams and fans honor players or the stadiums themselves are featured in the Reverence area (see above right). Here are items representing retired uniform numbers, anniversaries of stadiums, bricks from demolished parks, fan-initiated campaigns to save ballparks ... even intricate models and miniatures of parks created by fans.

The final of the six themed areas is called Stadium World, and it contains historical elements from parks, such as signs, bat racks, bases and home plates. Nearby is a kiosk (photo below) with numerous interactive elements, all based on audio clips, like renditions of the national anthem, Take Me Out To The Ballgame, seventh-inning-stretch songs played only at specific parks, etc.

This brings up one of the most welcome aspects to the Sacred Ground area: interactive exhibits. They are located throughout, and they include guessing the sound clips, identifying parks from photos (above right), even taking a whiff of the smells of a ballpark. And make no mistake about it, these will help keep your kids occupied while you're examining the display cases.

I've saved perhaps the most exciting part of the Sacred Ground exhibit until last. Near the entrance to the area is a large projection screen which shows a computer-generated animation of a ballpark that hasn't existed in over a century. Boston's South End Grounds was a remarkable facility in its day, which was from 1888 until 1894. This animation takes you on an incredible, detailed journey around and in this ballpark, all based on an enormous amount of research using various photos and articles from the period. If you've ever wanted to go back in time to see what a vintage ballpark was like, do not miss this part of the exhibit. You'll never see anything else like this. This same type of treatment will be added for a couple of other now-demolished parks in the future, and I can't wait to come back to Cooperstown to see them.

Sliding into home -- Summary

Not since I visited B's Ballpark Museum in Colorado have I been so surrounded by fascinating artifacts of ballparks. For fans of baseball stadiums, Sacred Ground at the Hall of Fame is a must-see exhibit. From the Evolution of Ballparks to the high-tech interactive tour of Boston's South End Grounds, you'll have as much fun as at any "real" park.

By the way, there is a "real" ballpark in Cooperstown, and it's right down Main Street from the Hall of Fame. Doubleday Field is one of the prettiest old parks in the land, and when you come to Cooperstown, make sure you spend some time there.

Again, many thanks to John Odell for giving me the tour of the exhibit and assisting me with this review!

Last but not least, if you're a baseball fan, consider becoming a Friend of the Hall Of Fame by making a donation to your favorite sport's official home. I did!