SPORTS WATCH

Pilgrimage in the Adirondacks

Raucous Cooperstown and gentle, almost sleepy Saratoga Springs are vivid reflections of the games they celebrate

TRENT FRAYNE September 14 1992
SPORTS WATCH

Pilgrimage in the Adirondacks

Raucous Cooperstown and gentle, almost sleepy Saratoga Springs are vivid reflections of the games they celebrate

TRENT FRAYNE September 14 1992

Pilgrimage in the Adirondacks

SPORTS WATCH

Raucous Cooperstown and gentle, almost sleepy Saratoga Springs are vivid reflections of the games they celebrate

TRENT FRAYNE

The arms of towering old maples and cedar trees envelop the leisurely throngs at the Saratoga Race Course where thoroughbreds entertain throughout the month of August, and, down the road an hour or so’s drive at Cooperstown, baseball bats and gloves and flannel shirts and long wool stockings cry for space in the windows of almost every retail store. Now that autumn beckons, the crowds are thinning, but last month, as always at this time of year, sightseers milled everywhere.

For a fan of baseball or horse racing there is no place quite like this gently rolling segment of upstate New York greenery that nestles in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. In Cooperstown, the apocryphal tale of Babe Ruth’s most famous home run lives on, and so does the dubious yarn that a Civil War army general named Doubleday invented baseball. A hundred kilometres northeast in Saratoga Springs, the Canadian-bred colt Northern Dancer forever on film keeps his nose in front of fast-closing Hill Rise in winning the 1964 Kentucky Derby.

The towns are vivid reflections of the games they celebrate (make that deify). Cooperstown is raucous with small darting boys and endless lurching traffic, reminding visitors of the hubbub that surrounds big-league ball parks half an hour before game time. In contrast, Saratoga Springs is almost sleepy, a town of big, gabled, quiet houses, of deep, perfectly trimmed lawns and foliage not unlike the manicured infields of race tracks everywhere. In August, Saratoga’s leafy charm carries on an ancient tradition of gentility. At the track, where red-and-white striped awnings flap gently in the afternoon breeze above concession booths, horsemen, horseplayers and tourists with picnic baskets spread themselves out on blankets and deck chairs on the lawns under the tall old trees, and call to jockeys while the horses are being saddled a few feet away. Along paths approaching the paddock, artists line up paintings and caricatures of horses

and racing scenes for sale to passers-by.

The bustling village of Cooperstown is nestled at the southern tip of Lake Otsego, a tranquil sliver of glistening water that was dubbed “Glimmerglass” by the American novelist James Fenimore Cooper, whose father founded the village in 1788. Nowadays, the baseball theme is overwhelming, not just in the threestorey, redbrick National Baseball Hall of Fame but along Main Street in window displays stretching from the Home Plate restaurant past the Doubleday Cafe and the Where It All Began Bat Co. (“Get your name stamped on your own personalized baseball bat”), two or three blocks to McEwan’s Hardware, Walker’s Gallery Custom Framing, and the F. R. Woods Baseball Town Motel.

The exploitive theme is relentlessly pursued in games halls outside Doubleday Field where each year two major-league teams play an exhibition to accompany the annual induction of retired players newly elected into the game’s Hall of Fame. Kids of all ages pay to stand in batting cages and swing a rented bat at baseballs spit from a pitching machine 60 feet, six inches away. Around them, cards and photos are sold of old stars and tall moments, including piles of cards bearing a trumped-up painting of Babe Ruth pointing to the centre-field

bleachers in Chicago’s Wrigley Field where he may have called his shot and belted a home run to the very spot.

Well, maybe he did and maybe he didn’t. The immortalized incident occurred during the 1932 World Series when the Babe assuredly hit the Wrigley Field homer (in fact he hit a pair that day during the third game of the Series), but whether he pointed is a different matter. “I was there,” the New York Herald Tribune's columnist Red Smith said in Toronto years later, smoking a Camel and drinking a scotch one night during Queen’s Plate week, “and if he pointed, I missed it. So did everybody else for two or three days, and then a guy wrote it and another guy picked it up and pretty soon a lot of guys were writing it.”

These days, a life-size likeness of the uniformed Babe carved from basswood and even reflecting a five-o’clock shadow on his chubby kisser is a centrepiece in the baseball museum, along with Ty Cobb’s spikes, Christy Mathewson’s shirt, a Hank Aaron collection and 6,000 other fragments of the game’s history.

Lore is the principal ingredient in the appeal of Saratoga Springs, too, although the town doesn’t make nearly the fuss over its racing eminence that Cooperstown does over baseball. You can stroll several blocks down Broadway, which is Saratoga’s main street, all the way to Union Avenue, where the track lies with its wide spread of trees and grass and space, without once being accosted by a store window reminding you that Secretariat raced here or Man o’ War either. Each summer, the best horses on the continent run here six afternoons a week during August, a month when racing occupies neither Belmont nor Aqueduct, the two big New York tracks, and the thoroughbred population moves north.

The migration has been going on for just under 130 years. In 1863, tourists found this new attraction to add to Saratoga’s medicinal mineral springs, which had been famous since colonial days, springs heavily charged with carbonic-acid gas and health-giving minerals. There were gambling casinos then, too, and for half a century it was a leisurely and elegant place to be. Lillian Russell, the belle of the Broadway stage (the other Broadway), sat in a box at the track, and Victor Herbert conducted the orchestra in the fashionable Grand Union Hotel. The story goes that the composer, strolling between numbers under a soft, starlit sky, “caught the sibilance of a woman’s whisper,” as Joe H. Palmer wrote in This Was Racing. With her whisper as a beginning, Herbert penned the classic Kiss Me Again.

Nowadays, there is still an easy feel to Saratoga. The Grand Union, with its broad veranda where horseplayers often passed an evening buried deep in the next day’s Daily Racing Form, is gone now and a vacant supermarket occupies its old site. There are no gambling devices, either, unless you count the four-legged ones, but there is still a kind of enchanted, genteel air in stately old Saratoga Springs. Of course, this is especially so if you happen to take your imagination with you.