On a rainy, late-spring day that forced the festivities inside, the Baseball Hall of Fame celebrated its diamond anniversary on Thursday with more than 300 people gathered in the museum’s showpiece Plaque Gallery.
“It’s a significant birthday. It’s well worth celebrating,” Cal Ripken said before he and fellow Hall of Famer Phil Niekro helped cut a piece of a huge birthday cake made for the occasion with the Hall of Fame’s 75th anniversary logo in the middle. “It is the history of baseball.”
Stephen Clark, a Cooperstown native and grandson of one of the founders of the Singer Sewing Machine Co., and National League president Ford Frick were the main movers behind the creation of the Hall of Fame, and they championed the idea based on the myth that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown.
The first sports hall of fame in the world opened in 1939 and has morphed from a one-room building into a 50,000-square-foot shrine with 40,000 artifacts and a library featuring 3 million items.
“We are baseball’s version of the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress, all in one,” said Hall of Fame chairman Jane Forbes Clark, granddaughter of Stephen Clark. “It has made an indelible mark on this region and all of baseball. What a visionary my grandfather was, taking Cooperstown and giving it things that would carry it into the next century.
“Even though he saw the world in a much longer-term fashion than most, I think even he would be in awe of what’s happened,” she said.
The first class of inductees was elected in 1936 — Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner and Babe Ruth — and the Hall of Fame opened three years later — 100 years after the Doubleday idea was born.
Ruth was the centerpiece of that first class, and he attended the Hall of Fame’s official opening on June 12, 1939. He was the last person to speak before Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis officially opened the museum.
“They started something here and the kids are keeping the ball rolling,” Ruth said that day on the front steps of the Hall of Fame as 15,000 fans craned their necks to get a glimpse of the Bambino. “I’m very glad that in my day I was able to earn my place. And I hope youngsters of today have the same opportunity to experience such feeling.”
Ruth, who made his major league debut nearly a century ago — on July 11, 1914 — would be 119 today, and yet his impact remains as profound as ever.
And he was on the mark with his observation. The Hall of Fame has had nearly 16 million visitors since its opening day, and to help mark its milestone birthday a new Babe Ruth exhibit will open today.
The 180-square-foot display — “Babe Ruth: His Life and Legend” — will feature artifacts that tell his whole story, including a trophy presented to him by his so-called “Baltimore admirers” on May 20, 1922. That’s the day Ruth returned to the Yankees after being suspended by Landis for the start of the season for illegally barnstorming after the 1921 World Series. Fans from his hometown made the trip north to New York just to welcome him back.
Also to be included in the revamped exhibit is a recently discovered film showing Ruth at spring training in March 1920. It’s believed to be the earliest known footage of Ruth in a Yankee uniform.
Ruth was a figure larger than life, and his impact on the Hall of Fame has been like no other. The Babe Ruth Room opened in 1992 and quickly became the museum’s most popular exhibit.
The Hall of Fame library has an 8-inch-thick research archive about his life and 140 books that recount his story.
Ruth donated a uniform, spikes, glove, and a special bat from 1927 with 28 hand-carved notches around the trademark. It was whittled in the dugout for each home run he hit with the big wooden stick that record-breaking season of 60 home runs.
Also featured in the new exhibit will be: the agreement that transferred Ruth, Ernie Shore and Ben Egan from the Baltimore Orioles of the International League to the Boston Red Sox in July 1914; the typewritten notes — including “To say ‘Babe Ruth’ is to say ‘Baseball’” — used by American League president Will Harridge for his speech on Babe Ruth Day at Yankee Stadium on April 27, 1947; and Ruth’s jersey from June 13, 1948, when his No. 3 was officially retired.
Hall of Fame officials say research has determined that the jersey is the one Ruth wore throughout his retirement, starting with his cameo appearance in “Pride of the Yankees” in 1942. He died of cancer in August 1948 at age 53.
Ruth and Hank Aaron are the only players to have exhibits devoted solely to them in the Hall of Fame.