Your own list of the top 10 attractions inside this wondrous museum is going to look a lot different than mine. This is my third trip here, and my own list changes each time. Today I saw that helmet and bat and it took me back to that same year, when the coach of my Indiana age-14 baseball team took us all on a van trip over to Cincinnati and I saw the bright green expanse of a big-league park for the first time.
I saw Pete Rose at old Riverfront in the midst of greatness. He made a lot of hits, and then of course we learned that he made a lot of bets. That is the reason he does not have an official plaque in the Gallery here, but the great thing about this museum is that all fans can appreciate the full scope of baseball history and savor what they love most. Here are the other nine ultimate attractions on my list:
2. Babe Ruth's plaque and exhibit. It is just unbelievable how packed the Gallery is on this Saturday, and the crowd always moves toward the wall in the back of the room that features the first induction class. Upstairs in the Bambino's own room, it was the most densely packed crowd that I found throughout the museum. Everyone still wants to see everything about the Bambino. You can watch his video over and over and hear his narrative on the "Called Shot" homer of the 1932 World Series, and amidst this Barry Bonds chase, one has to really appreciate the passage that says: "When Babe left in 1935 with 714 career homers, only three other players had hit more than 300."
3. Honus Wagner's bats. It was approximately the 25,000th time this weekend that I had chills down my spine, and this time it was because of the sight of the Pirates legend's bats. The handles look like the barrels of the modern bats. Just imagine the ruggedness and how he'd have to wrap big paws around those weapons. I brought my three sons here last December, and my oldest son said he remembered Wagner's trading card the most (along with the Ichiro and rings exhibits). I'd love to own his Holy Grail card, too, but I could just stare all day at the size of those bat handles.
4. Pride & Passion. The African-American Baseball Experience exhibit is poignant and breathtaking, especially the entire wall devoted to Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier 60 seasons ago in Brooklyn. I love seeing his wool Dodgers warmup jacket and his blue "B" cap, along with his glove and stirrups. But most of all, I am captivated by the hate mail that was donated by his widow, Rachel. The one letter reads: "ROBINSON WE ARE GOING TO KILL YOU IF YOU ATTEMPT TO ENTER A BALLGAME AT CROSLEY FIELD -- THE TRAVELERS." Baseball is about cultural history and our own evolution. I hope people always remember a letter like that to appreciate how far we've come and why progress is good.
5. Cy Young's 500th win ball. It was used 97 years ago this month in a 5-2 complete-game victory over the Washington Senators. Tom Glavine is on the brink of his 300th victory, and if that is magical, then just consider that 500th victory. Beneath that dark-tinted ball is Young's quote: "A man who isn't willing to work from dreary morn to weary eve shouldn't think about becoming a pitcher."
6. Cal Ripken's 2,131-game homer ball. I was looking at the baseball that Ripken pulled into the seats during that game when he broke Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games played. I was at that game. I had tears in my eyes like everyone else. For him to not just "show up" but also to go deep ... it was just unthinkable. I remember when the kid caught that ball and how they announced to us in the press box that he would be brought up to the box for interviews. That's how big it was that night. There are many Ripken items in his exhibit, including his jersey he wore as 2001 All-Star Game MVP.
7. Tony Gwynn's bat. Across the room from the Ripken display is the Gwynn exhibit, and I especially liked the bat Gwynn used in 1994, when he batted .394. It is the closest anyone has come to .400, last reached by Ted Williams (.406) in 1941. I talked to Gwynn for a while during All-Star week recently in San Francisco, and apart from asking him about his speech, we talked at length about the "94-94" year. "Two more hits," he told me, shockingly. "If I get two more hits at the end there, it could have been different." One of the coolest things I have ever done in my career was when I was with The Sporting News in the 1990s, and I sat down with Gwynn and Stan Musial for a cover story and helped mediate maybe the best batting conversation I've ever known about. "After that," Gwynn said, "for the rest of my career I always had this little voice on my shoulder at the plate, and it was Stan, telling me, 'Look for the curve.'"
Important note: A trip through the Hall of Fame will stir up just about every memory that is important to you in life. Be prepared to turn over every stone again, to get a little wispy, to feel things that you haven't felt for years, to be young again if you're not so young in the first place. This is the magic of Cooperstown.
8. Tools of the Game. "Fingerless gloves padded the hand while allowing for accurate throws. Catchers and infielders often wore a pair similar to these, circa 1887." Is anything more jaw-dropping than looking at ancient mitts? It is that constant question begging to be asked: "How did they possibly play the game with these?" And while we're in the area of wayback history, I also loved the "Crazy for the Game" exhibit and especially looking through the old "stereoscopes" that people used in the 1800s as a precursor to motion pictures -- including baseball imagery.
9. Women in Baseball. Half a typical Major League crowd today is female, and since I joined the MLB family in 2002, I believe that more and more women are passionate about the game. It is a movement that never stopped. And just as every societal barrier breakthrough starts with baseball, it is a given that one day it will cease to become a game played at the top levels by males only. I can say as a marathoner that it is silly to think women have any less athletic capability. Someone is just waiting to lead the way, as Jackie did on another front. It will happen. For now, this exhibit shows how women have been involved in the game, and not just in the World War II era when they played and became the subject of Penny Marshall's "A League Of Their Own" movie. I especially like it because I played in high school on the same Bosse Field where much of the movie was filmed.
10. Hank Aaron's shoes. You can't walk a mile in these, because they are behind glass in the Hammer's own exhibit (which should be much, much larger). But oh if you only could. They are noticeably scuffed up on the front, needing some shoe polish. He wore them for home runs No. 714, 715 and 716. Close your eyes, and you can see Hank with these on his feet as he circled the bases at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, where those fans approached him while he was trotting toward third on his way to home plate and immortality as the man who broke the Babe's fabled record.
Now Bonds is on the verge of breaking Aaron's record of 755 homers. Maybe one day there will be a Bonds exhibit that everyone will crowd around to see on a weekend like this. Maybe it will be small and off to the side, unpopular. Only time will tell. Everyone has a different experience when they come to the museum, and it's very personal. Many people will point to the Ichiro exhibit, or the Ted Williams statue in the lobby, or the history of championship rings, or the entire wall devoted to no-hitters.
Trying to narrow it down to 10 things is like being told to choose only seven wonders of the world, but this is my attempt, and for me it starts with Charlie Hustle. Because that's how my own baseball experience began, admiring that huge green expanse at Riverfront and watching the guy in the No. 14 jersey whack hit after hit.