Let’s play ball: Golf and baseball make a perfect combination at Cooperstown

The following story by Ian Cruickshank appeared in our Spring 2010 issue.

I’m a big fan of Babe Ruth.  Instead of steroids, the Bambino slugged all those home runs on a diet of hot dogs and beer. Even better, he was a golf nut who regularly traded his traditional Yankee pinstripes for plus-fours and white spats and hung around with fellow bon vivant Walter Hagan.

The Babe first picked up the game as a 21 year old pitcher with the Red Sox. It didn’t come easily and he became famous for his innovative use of old Anglo Saxon words when he missed a shot. The scouting report on the Babe was long and wild off the tee with bouts of streaky putting.

To find out more about the Sultan of Swat as a golfer and to tee it up at the terrific Leatherstocking Golf Club, I made the trip to Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Cooperstown is a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. Just a six hour drive from Toronto, it’s snuggled on the edge of Lake Otsego, beneath the heavy shouldered hills of upstate New York. The village is sprinkled with museums, galleries, old inns, a nearby opera house and an architectural mix of gingerbread and colonial red brick.

Even better, city fathers have permanently turned back the clock by outlawing all fast-food restaurants, chain stores and multi-story hotels. The pace of life is stuck somewhere between slow and sleepy and the local traffic requires only a single traffic light. (No right turn on the red either.)

The village’s roots reach back to the 1780’s and the Cooper family who bought 250,000 acres in and around the lake. Their son was James Fenimore Cooper, America’s first international writing star. Using the American Revolution and the local scenery as inspiration, he penned, The Leatherstocking Tales – the main characters are Hawkeye and Chingachgook, last of the Mohicans.

Later it was the Clark family who became the area’s most influential clan. They made their dough when they teamed up with Isaac Singer, inventor of the Singer sewing machine. The family unofficially adopted Cooperstown and among other things donated a string of museums and the local hospital. They were also instrumental in bringing the Baseball Hall of Fame to the village. (According to local legend, Abner Doubleday invented baseball in the village in 1839. Historians aren’t so sure.)

The Hall of Fame and Museum, which is housed in a handsome, red brick building on Main Street, opened in June of 1939 and both the Babe and Ty Cobb were there for the celebration. Sometime during the weekend, Cobb slipped a note to Ruth with the following challenge, “I can beat you any day of the week and twice on Sunday at the Scottish game.”

The two baseball giants took their golfing rumble down the street to the Leatherstocking Golf Course which is attached to the Otesaga Resort. It was and still is a beautiful layout that was designed in 1909 by Devereux Emmet, who also was responsible for Congressional GC outside Washington DC.  The course, which owns a 4.5 star rating from Golf Digest, is on the shortish side, just 6,416 yards from the tips but is post card pretty. It curls around the western shore of Lake Otsego and climbs through the high ground, looking out to the water and the adjacent art museum and farmer’s museum. The 18th is a fun ride. You drive from an island tee box and the 505-yard par-5 doglegs left around the lake and finishes just off the edge of the resort’s grand verandah. The hotel, which also dates back to 1909 is a member of the Historic Hotels of America. The resort offers good play and stay packages and also allows play for non-guests. www.otesaga.com

There is no record of who won that grudge match between Ruth and Cobb, but you can find a record of Ruth’s other golfing triumphs in the Babe Ruth Room at the museum. It holds half a dozen of the Babe’s golfing trophies. His favourite was one given to him by his buddies in 1940, celebrating their friendship. The inscription reads, “Presented to the Babe”. Not the ballplayer but the golfer and regular fella.

Fairways Magazine

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