When I first saw the Hall's press release, I thought, "How cool for the kids!" And then I thought, "Wait, that would be cool for me, too." And not only because I'm a baseball fan. My grandfather is 1972 Hall of Fame inductee Yogi Berra, and I was thrilled by the idea of getting to sleep under his plaque.
I have vivid memories of attending Hall of Fame induction weekends with my family, and getting to spend the Friday night before the ceremony roaming around the museum with my Gramp and all of his baseball buddies and their kids and grandkids, listening to all the "remember-when" stories brought on by the photos and memorabilia. That was after-hours access with the best of tour guides, but even then, the Museum staff eventually made us leave. But not this time.
Elliot Stein of New York brought his 9-year-old son, Will, clad in a Babe Ruth T-shirt, to spend the night.
"My son is excited, for sure," Stein said. "But I've been a Yankee fan my whole life and I love this place, so I'm probably more excited than he is."
Stein caravanned up from Manhattan with fellow dads Larry Roberts and Scott Antin, their sons Caden and Drew, both 11, and pals Finn Kaplan-Morse, 10, and Eli Forant, 9. The five boys, Yankees fans all, are friends from Midtown West Elementary School in Hell's Kitchen.
Upon arrival at the Museum, kids and parents alike set out their sleeping bags -- many even brought full-sized AeroBeds -- to stake claim to a plot of real estate under their favorite Hall of Famer's plaque. I arrived plenty early to secure my spot in the annex Grampa shares with, among others, Roberto Clemente, who was another of my childhood heroes.
Cory Robeson's stepdaughter Brooke Tenbrink had different priorities. Robeson, from Syracuse, N.Y., had his eye on the alcove that includes Ted Williams' plaque, but Brooke, 10, chose a bay with a power outlet for her iPad instead.
The night began with a scavenger hunt to complete in the Plaque Gallery, with clues like, "No, I am not Superman, but my plaque does say that I was 'faster than a speeding bullet.' Who am I?"
Answer: Rickey Henderson.
The kids and their parents were then invited to explore the museum on their own, and to visit special exhibits set up for their enjoyment. In the museum's Learning Center, they were able to try on replica baseball uniforms and catchers equipment from different eras, swing a reproduction of Babe Ruth's bat and play catch with old-time gloves and brown leather lemon peel baseballs.
On the third floor, set amid the Hall of Fame's new Photo Gallery, kids were able to visit a hands-on history cart called "Tools of the Trade." They touched baseballs from different eras and saw what was inside them. There were also several bats being shown; a Don Mattingly bat had a thin handle with one side shaved flat, to better fit in the fingers, while Willie McCovey's bat was much heftier.
Hall of Fame manager of distance learning Bruce Markusen entertained the families with a presentation about American presidents and their involvement with baseball. They saw photographs of Woodrow Wilson at Griffith Stadium in Washington; Wilson, who played baseball as a freshman at Davidson College in North Carolina, attended 16 baseball games while in office, more than any other president. They also viewed a copy of the famous "Green Light" letter sent by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis in January 1942, encouraging him to keep baseball going during World War II, and a 1948 photo of President George H.W. Bush, then captain of the Yale Bulldogs baseball team, accepting an original manuscript of Babe Ruth's autobiography for the Yale University library from The Bambino himself.
Markusen also pulled items from the Hall of Fame's archives to show the kids, including a glove used by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a bat belonging to Lou Gehrig and the Yankees jacket worn by my grandfather during the 1981 World Series.
The night culminated with popcorn and a screening of "The Sandlot" in the Hall's Bullpen Theater.
At around 11:30, the lights went out in the Plaque Gallery, leaving the bunch of us in our sleeping bags alone with the members of the Hall of Fame. I could see the outline of Grampa's head on the plaque that talks about his 14 pennants and 358 home runs. The coin fixed to the wall beneath it commemorates his military service in WWII, as a gunner's mate on a U.S. Navy landing craft during the Allied Invasion of Normandy.
He's a baseball hero and a war hero, and by that hour, he was long asleep; he doesn't start staying up late until the Yankees start having road swings on the West Coast. He would have scoffed at my nostalgia, told me to hit the sack. But I stayed awake for a while, just taking it all in.
In Grampa's induction speech 42 years ago, he said, "I hope my being here will be an inspiration for every boy in America."
But if the crew from Midtown West Elementary is any indication, the Extra Innings Overnights program is helping Gramp and his fellow Hall of Famers inspire a whole new generation of kids.