COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Look at that dateline. Joy. Over the years, sportswriters have argued over drinks and food about the most romantic sports dateline in the United States.
There are those who argue for AUGUSTA, Ga. and the Masters
And those who will fight for LOUISVILLE, Ky., and the Kentucky Derby.
There’s something special about TUSCALOOSA, Ala., or GREEN BAY, Wis., or PEBBLE BEACH, Calif., and dozens of others. But I don’t know, it seems to me that COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. has to be on the shortlist. You know how the right summer song can take you back to a specific moment of childhood? That Cooperstown dateline just evokes so many happy memories. Every time I come here, I have at least one moment of transcendent joy.
On Saturday, Mike Schur and I (and Mike’s son William) hung out in Cooperstown. I did a Baseball 100 book event. We recorded a PosCast in front of a live and forever haunted audience. We watched the Hall of Fame movie “Generations of the Game” that I wrote with my friend Jon Hock (and people applauded afterward, which was just the best). We wandered around the museum, and seeing William run from exhibit to exhibit trying to get as many pictures as he could before his camera ran out of power was just the best.
As I mentioned, there’s always one moment of transcendent joy in Cooperstown, one surprising and overwhelming moment that makes me feel like Emily in “Our Town” shouting, “Oh earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you!”
I admit that this moment usually happens when I get to go on the backstage tour into the archives. I wish everyone could go on this tour because it’s the greatest; but I guess that’s not practicable.
If I can, let me try to take you back there with us.
Hall of Fame Senior Curator Tom Shieber takes all of us through a maze of stairs and turns and twists until we come to a door somewhere in the bowels of the Hall of Fame. This is like the moment when Willy Wonka is about to take everybody into the Chocolate factory. Tom is required to give us a bunch of ground rules — can’t touch anything, can’t lean on anything, can’t wander off without the group, can’t film anything.
Mike asks if it’s OK if we steal a few items. Tom says it is not.
Then we walk in, put on protective gloves — we are allowed to touch items that Tom hands us — and are surrounded by the most remarkable treasures imaginable. The very best baseball artifacts are, of course, in the actual museum of the Baseball Hall of Fame. But those are, for the most part, items you would expect to see. What makes the archive room so glorious is that you might see anything in here. I was once in here, and we went down some aisle and opened up some seemingly random box, and inside was Wonderboy, the bat Roy Hobbs used in the movie “The Natural.”
So first, we see a few items that were pulled for special audiences — Yadi Molina’s 2006 World Series catcher’s mask is here and so is a special catcher’s mask made for the baseball spy Moe Berg (it didn’t have any spy gadgets on it, but it did have a hole specially located so catchers could spit tobacco without taking off their mask). We see the last football jersey Bo Jackson wore in the NFL (amazing story, that one) and the bat Mike Trout used to hit his 300th home run and the oldest known New York Yankees cap.
And then comes the extraordinary part — as if that stuff is not extraordinary enough. Now we wander together to randomly find treasures. William wants to see some batting helmets, so we wander down an aisle labeled “helmets” and the first door he opens has Juan Soto’s helmet. We wander down another aisle called “trophies” and first thing we see is the special World Series trophy the Atlanta Braves gave Henry Aaron in 1995.
Then we go look at bats. And casually, I ask Tom if he can find a Ted Williams bat for Mike and William to hold. He pulls out a couple of Ted Williams bats, but then says, “Wait, there might be one here that you will really like.”
He is not wrong.
So, let me throw a date out at you — Sept. 14, 1951. There’s no reason for you to know that date no matter how big a baseball fan you might be … and yet two absolutely remarkable baseball things happened that day in Boston.
The Red Sox were still in contention that day — they ended the day just three games behind the Yankees in the American League but they pretty quickly faded. The Browns, meanwhile, were typically awful and seemingly interested only in gimmicks and stunts to keep fans interested. Less than a month earlier, owner Bill Veeck had sent 3-foot-7-inch Eddie Gaedel to the plate against the Tigers.
So what were the two remarkable things?
The first involved a rookie named Bob Nieman who was playing in his first big league game. Nieman was 24 years old, and even though he always hit in the minor leagues, he was not convinced that he could make it as a big leaguer and so he was attending Kent State University in the hopes of becoming, yes, a sportswriter.
“It looks like a good job, all right,” he told reporters.
Nieman stepped to the plate in the top of the second against Boston starter Mickey McDermott — and smashed a long home run to left field. That was pretty great; not many players in baseball history have homered in their first at-bat.
But I said remarkable — Nieman came up again in the third inning against McDermott. And … he homered again. That had never happened before. He became the first — and still the only — player in baseball history to homer in his first two plate appearances in the same game. Forty-nine years later, a St. Louis Cardinals player named Keith McDonald would homer in his first two plate appearances, but they were in different games.
And, still, Neiman’s feat was only the second most awesome thing to happen in that game.
The first most awesome thing involved, obviously, Ted Williams. He homered in the game, but that wasn’t unusual. In 1951, Williams again led the league in on-base percentage and slugging percentage — he pulled that double nine times in his career. The Red Sox were up by three runs in the eighth when Williams stepped to the plate. There was one out.
And Satchel Paige was on the mound.
Paige was at least 44 years old. There is no guessing how many pitches he had thrown in his life by then. He was already a walking, breathing, living myth, and Ted Williams idolized him. As you might know, 15 years later, Ted Williams would dedicate a portion of his Hall of Fame speech to his hope that Paige (and other great Negro leaguers) would be inducted into the Hall themselves.
In any case, Paige got two strikes on Williams. Of course, there has never been a better two-strike hitter than Ted Williams, and he stepped in there prepared for whatever junk the old legend was going to throw.
And then Satchel Paige threw a fastball right by Ted Williams.
And Williams utterly lost his mind. He smashed his bat on the railing leading from the dugout to the clubhouse. And then he threw the bat against the bat rack. And then he WENT BACK, picked up the bat again, and bashed it hard against the floor of the dugout.
And all the while, on the mound, Satchel Paige watched and laughed his head off.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in the big leagues,” Paige said.
And some sportswriters asked Bob Nieman if he would like to give the sportswriting thing a try and get a quick interview with Williams. He shook his head.
“I don’t think I’ll go anywhere near Williams right now,” he said.
I mean … how good a story is that? Well, it gets better. Now we go back into the magic room at the Baseball Hall of Fame. And Tom Shieber reaches into a cupboard of bats … and pulls out the bat that Ted Williams used that day. It’s broken. You can see at least two dents in it from Williams’ Bamm-Bamm routine.
But then you turn it over and you see this — the bat is autographed and dated by Satchel Paige himself.
The Hall of Fame normally doesn’t care for autographed items. They want the bats and balls and jerseys and helmets and gloves and all the rest exactly as they appeared in the game. The Eric Hosmer Royals’ jersey in the Hall of Fame still has the dirt on it from when he slid home to score the big run against the Mets in the 2015 World Series. The Wade Boggs glove in the Hall has clearly been repaired countless times. They aren’t “collecting” baseball things. They are telling baseball history. And autographs don’t enhance the history.
Except … in this case it does. Because that autograph tells you something. It tells you that after Ted Williams struck out swinging on a Satchel Paige fastball, and after he went bananas and threw the ultimate temper tantrum, the greatest hitter who ever lived went up to Satchel Paige and asked him to autograph the bat.