Like the Baby Moses, but in reverse, this summer Cal Ripken Jr. will be delivered from his birthplace of Havre de Grace, where the Susquehanna empties into the Chesapeake Bay, to baseball’s holy land in Cooperstown, N.Y., where the mighty river begins at Lake Otsego.
Many Baltimore baseball fans will be following Ripken upstream for his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on July 29. In fact, the people of Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame are expecting Birds fans to flock in record droves for this year’s ceremony, which also honors San Diego Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn. But it is Ripken’s iconic stature among the Baltimore faithful that has Cooperstown and its surroundings posting no-vacancy signs for the Hall of Fame’s induction weekend, July 27-29.
“We started making a list of people who wanted to be contacted about room availability three years ago,” says reservations manager Jennifer Stickles of the Bayside Inn and Marina, a motel on the west side of Lake Otsego. “People wanted to make reservations even a few years earlier.”
So unless you’ve already secured accommodations, it is unlikely you’ll find a room in Cooperstown for induction weekend. You could always turn the 300-mile journey into a day trip (the ceremony starts at 1 p.m.), but the beautiful upstate hamlet makes for a great— or even better— getaway when there’s not 50,000 fans in O’s hats crowding the streets.
I found a second home in Cooperstown a few years ago, while working for the Babe Ruth Museum, taking its traveling exhibit to ballparks across the country. I was afforded the opportunity to make a few pit stops in Cooperstown, staying long enough to become familiar with the town in a way that exceeded typical tourism. And every September for the past three years, I have stayed in a small lakeside cabin in the woods seven miles north of town to soak up the beautiful scenery and get some writing done.
Although my love of baseball brought me to upstate New York in the first place, I’ve found that it’s the lost-in-time quality of this one-traffic-light village that keeps me coming back. Here are 10 activities and sights around town I’d recommend for any visitor’s to-do list:
Get Out on the Lake The real center of town and its raison d’etre is the sparkling 10-mile-long Lake Otsego, which provides the town’s drinking water and was aptly tagged “Glimmerglass” by Cooperstown’s poet laureate, James Fenimore Cooper, for its spectacular sheen especially in the early morning hours. (Cooper’s father, William, a land speculator, created the village that would become Cooperstown in 1786 , and many sites around town bear names borrowed from his son’s “Leatherstocking Tales.”)
Any number of rental boats, including canoes, skiffs, fishing boats and cruisers, as well as fishing supplies and charter boat tours, are available around the lake. The Glimmerglass Queen (607-547-9511) offers daily boat tours in-season.
Sleep Where Cal Sleeps The series of visits I made in the summer of 2002 rekindled a love affair with the town that began when my father took his baseball fanatic son to the Hall of Fame for my 12th birthday. We stayed at the historic Otesaga Resort Hotel, built in 1909 and whose 135 rooms will be taken over by the Hall of Fame for the weekend and occupied mostly by Hall of Fame players, Major League Baseball dignitaries and select members of the media. (Ripken will likely join the rest of the baseball royalty at the Otesaga.)
The only property in Cooperstown to receive the AAA Four Diamond Award, the Otesaga’s prestigious Leatherstocking Golf Course is among the most popular in the country and has probably been played by more Hall of Fame baseball players than any other. My friend Woody Morgan, formerly the assistant golf pro, played a memorable round with comedian Bill Murray one day, which he described as “just like a scene out of the movie ‘Caddyshack.’” 800-348-6222, http://www.otesaga.com. Rates: $380 to $590.
See Some Shriners The bronze plaques in the Hall of Fame gallery give off an other-worldly glow, appearing almost like headstones in an indoor cemetery. It’s not uncommon to hear kids ask their parents if the players are actually buried behind them. The Hall of Fame museum houses the largest collection of baseball artifacts and memorabilia in the world and takes at least a day or two to fully absorb.
Baltimore baseball fans have made pilgrimages to baseball’s mecca to witness Orioles players receive the game’s highest honor before. The first Oriole inducted into the Hall of Fame was Brooks Robinson in 1983, followed by Jim Palmer in 1990, Earl Weaver in 1996 and Eddie Murray in 2003. Although Frank Robinson played more games with the Cincinnati Reds, he was inducted with an Orioles cap on his plaque in 1982. Ten other players who wore an Orioles cap at one time in their careers are also in the Hall of Fame.
Ripken and Gwynn’s plaques will be installed in the gallery between 6:30 and 8 p.m. following the induction ceremony. Special display cases commemorating their careers will remain in the Hall of Fame gallery’s lobby for the entire year. 888-HALL-OF-FAME, http://www.baseballhalloffame.org.
Drink Good Beer Five miles south of Cooperstown is Brewery Ommegang, a Belgian-style farmhouse brewery opened in 1997 in the middle of a pasture that, in fact, was previously a hops farm. Brewery Ommegang produces five Belgian-style, handcrafted ales that are available everywhere in Cooperstown and distributed nationwide. An interesting tour of the brewery takes less than a half-hour and concludes with a tasting of each of the brewery’s ales paired with appropriate snacks, all of which are available in the gift shop. The fourth annual Belgium Comes to Cooperstown beer festival takes place July 21. 656 County Highway 33, 800-544-1809, http://www.ommegang.com.
Catch an Opera I’ve caught a couple of performances— including “The Barber of Seville” last year— at the architecturally inspiring, world-renowned Glimmerglass Opera House. The company’s acclaimed Alice Busch Opera Theater, which opened in June 1987, was the first American hall built specifically for opera 20 years after the opening of New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House in 1966. Ventilated sliding walls are opened before performances and during intermissions, allowing a breeze to blow through the theater while opening up a view to its scenic surroundings.
In the ensuing decades, Glimmerglass has grown to international stature and each season offers approximately 40 opera performances, all new productions, that attract a number of accomplished performers from around the world.
Eight miles north of Cooperstown at 7300 State Highway 80, Glimmerglass Opera House’s seven-week festival season runs from July 7 through Aug. 28, and features four operas inspired by the poet and musician Orpheus as well as a performance of Haydn’s “L’Anima del Filosofo (Orfeo ed Euridice).” 607-547-5704, http://www.glimmerglass.org.
Have a Picnic During my monthlong stays, I always make a couple of trips to the nearby Fly Creek Cider Mill & Orchard for gourmet goodies at its Mill Store Marketplace, including cave-aged cheddar cheese, mustards, preserves and apple salsas. Good libations include its signature apple cider as well as hard ciders and apple wines. The working orchard makes a great place to picnic— or to pick up picnic supplies. 800-505-6455, http://www.flycreekcidermill.com.
Hide Out in a Cave Last September I finally made it out to Natty Bumppo’s cave. Cooper apparently hung out there as a kid and used the real-life setting as a fictional hideaway for the characters Nathaniel “Hawkeye” Chingachgook, and Chief Uncus, in the “Leatherstocking” books. The cave itself is a healthy mile-and-a-half walk through the woods along the east side of the lake and is in effect a tunnel to a rock platform on top. It’s not an experience for the claustrophobic. I had to slither my way 16 feet up tricky hand- and foot-holds, but I eventually made it out the narrow opening in the top of the cave.
Standing on top of Natty Bumppo’s cave I could see clear across the lake. As I was taking in the beautiful scenery, my friend Tim delivered the Cliff Notes version of James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking Tales,” while adding trivial asides like the fact that Hawkeye Pierce on the television series “M*A*S*H” was given his nickname by his father because “The Last of the Mohicans” was the only book he ever read.
Get a Dose of Culture On the site of the former residence of James Fenimore Cooper, the Fenimore Art Museum, off State Highway 80, houses one of the country’s most celebrated collections of folk art and American Indian artwork, with a great portion of its gallery space devoted to touring exhibitions. The current museum was originally built as a residence in 1932 for Edward Severing Clark, one of four grandsons of Edward Clark, a patent attorney who helped found the Singer sewing machine company.
The upcoming museum season highlights include Frederic Remington’s 1880-1890s paintings and bronzes of the American Western frontier. 607-547-1400, http://www.fenimoreartmuseum.org.
The art museum is directly across the street from the Farmers’ Museum, which depicts rural 19th-century life and has itself been a working farm since 1813.
Eat Some Fine Food With an interesting menu including continental/fusion bistro fare prepared by chef Matt Begley, The Hoffman Lane Bistro has been providing me with enjoyable dinners since I discovered it about six years ago. A wide variety of entrees range from Thai-influenced seafood specials to old-fashioned meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy. Although the bistro is located along a back alley in a small town, the swanky atmosphere and décor would not be out of place in a major metropolitan city. Visitors mingle with locals for a lively happy hour just after
5 p.m. every day.
For breakfast I like to start my day either at the Doubleday Café, where I enjoy omelets over conversation with the friendly and quick-witted waitresses, or across the street at Danny’s Main Street Market for hot and delicious breakfast sandwiches on fresh baked rolls and breads.
More and more I find myself hanging out at Cooley’s Stone House Tavern, a great place for a casual lunch or to watch a ballgame on one of its many television screens. (The owner’s mom makes a killer sauce for its Wednesday night pasta dinners but only before and after the tourist season.)
Catch the (Blues) Train On Friday and Saturday nights during the summer, the Cooperstown Blues Express train offers the area’s “only rolling nightclub” with live music, food and a full bar.
The open-air, slow-moving train rocks and rolls for a three-hour round trip from the Leatherstocking Railroad’s Milford station through the Upper Susquehanna River Valley for about 15 miles to Cooperstown and back. It’s a fun trip— and a great way to catch some central New York scenery at sunset. 607-432-2429, http://www.cooperstownbluesexpress.com.
Charlie Vascellaro is the author of biographies on Hank Aaron and Manny Ramirez.