In 1903, a skeptical English-born journalist suggested baseball was a form of rounders, a British children's game. (Isn't it? many Britons would still ask.) An investigative commission was set up, which found in 1839, Abner Doubleday invented the game in Cooperstown, a village in upstate New York 300 kilometres from Manhattan. A well-battered ball found in a farmhouse attic in 1934 cemented the legend, though historians were doubtful. Soon afterwards, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and a museum opened in Cooperstown.
The place evokes nostalgia for a time that never really existed. Main Street, with its single traffic light, has a Hardball Cafe and quaint shops called Seventh Inning Stretch and Line Drives and Lipstick. Several sell baseball memorabilia, such as vintage cigarette cards and valuable autographs. Children in Little Leagues play on Doubleday Field, a small ballpark that has also hosted games played by professional greats. Almost everyone strolling along Main Street wears baseball T-shirts, some commemorating long-gone Negro League teams.
The Hall of Fame holds an annual induction ceremony where the sport's greats are honoured. This year, for the first time since 1965, no living player was enshrined. Several retired players with especially impressive (albeit questionable) playing records, such as Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, were eligible for entry. Many, however, were suspected or confirmed steroid users. The hall's voters, all sports writers, clearly thought cheats should not be celebrated.
Which is all well and good, but inductee weekend is a big moneymaker for the hall and the village shops. In 2007, when Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn, two baseball legends, were honoured, 80,000 people descended on Cooperstown. Crowds of 10,000 to 25,000 are routine. This year, the turnout was a paltry 2,500. Shop owners, and the mayor, are hoping it was just a blip -- and that things will improve next year, when a strong, not to mention clean, group of players will be eligible. But they are still worried. Attendance at the Hall of Fame has been falling: In 2008, there were 301,755 visitors, last year 262,816 came. Drugs are still affecting the game. On Aug. 5, Major League Baseball handed down suspensions to a dozen players for use of performance-enhancing drugs. Most were suspended for 50 games. Alex Rodriguez, once considered a future Hall of Famer, was suspended for 211 games. He has not admitted wrongdoing and may play while he appeals against the decision. But he is unlikely to be venerated in Cooperstown.