This is not a museum, it's a church. These are not rooms, they're chapels. The visitors themselves aren't really visitors but devotees, meditative and fervent. I hear one of them asking, in a low voice, if it's true that the greatest champions are buried here—beneath our feet, as if we were at Westminster Abbey, or in the Imperial Crypt beneath the Kapuziner Church in Vienna. And every effort is made to sanctify Cooperstown itself, this cradle of the national religion, this new Nazareth, this simple little town that nothing prepared for its election and yet which was present at the birth of the thing. An edifying history, told in the exhibition rooms and the brochures, of the scientific commission created at the beginning of the twentieth century by a former baseball player who became a millionaire and launched a nationwide contest on the theme "Send us your oldest baseball memory." He collected the testimony of an old engineer from Denver who in 1839, in Cooperstown, in front of the tailor's shop, saw Abner Doubleday, later a Northern general and a Civil War hero, the man who would fire the first shot against the Southerners, explain the game to passersby, set down the rules, and, in fact, baptize it.There's an analogy here.
It was in honor of this story that the year 1939, exactly a century later, was chosen for the inauguration of the museum. In a well-known article in Natural History, the paleontologist and baseball fan Stephen Jay Gould recalled that a long-ago exhibit at the museum noted that "in the hearts of those who love baseball" the Yankee general remains "the lad in the pasture where the game was invented."
The only problem, Tim Wiles, the museum's director of research, tells me, is that Abner Doubleday, in that famous year of 1839, wasn't in Cooperstown but at West Point; that the old engineer, who was supposed to have played that first game with him, had been just five years old; that the word "baseball" had already appeared in 1815, in a novel by Jane Austen, and in 1748, in a private letter found in England; that a baseball scholar, an eminent member of the Society for American Baseball Research, had just discovered, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, an even older trace; that the Egyptians had, it seems, their own form of the game. The only problem, he says, is that we have always known—since 1939, in fact, since the museum's opening—that baseball is a sport of the people, and even if, like all sports of the people, it suffers from a lack of written archives, its origin is age-old. The only problem is that this history is a myth, and every year millions of men and women come, like me, to visit a town devoted entirely to its celebration.
Two hypotheses to work from. Either the visitors in question are ignoramuses who believe, in good faith, that it's all true; or, on the contrary, they are in the know. They know that the story doesn't hold true... They are all in full agreement about the falsity of the legend; they celebrate a myth, not believing for an instant that it's true.
To revere a counterfeit as if it were real. To rewrite the history of an age-old pastime as if it were a national sport. What is at stake in each case is a relationship to time, and in particular to the past—as if, with this nation so eminently oriented toward its present and, especially, its future, regret for the past occurs only on condition that the past can be reappropriated with well-calculated words and deeds. As if with all one's strength—including the strength and power of myth and forgery—one had to reassert the power of the present over the past....
For those, like me, who believe the Exodus occured preciesly as the Bibles says it did, though no evidence supports the account, Pesach holds a special charm. When we sit at the seder, and repeat the maggid we celebrate, not just the redemption of the Jewish people, but the creativity of our great sages, and the wonderful, reassuring myths of Jewish history. It's when we recognize that Seder isn't merely a celebration of the past, but of the ideas that were invented to give the past meaning. The facts of the Exodus are believable but unknowable and, anyway, completely beside the point. What we admire is the message that was attached to those facts.
We don't really care exactly how baseball began. We simply love the game.