What is it like to live in Cooperstown, aka: Baseball City, USA? 

July 22nd, 2022

This weekend, the tiny, lakeside town of Cooperstown, N.Y., will see its population swell from roughly 2,000 to nearly 50,000 as great multitudes of baseball fans make their pilgrimage to the Hall of Fame. Fans will fill the nearby hotels, swarm down Main Street and crowd around the Clark Sports Center to watch David Ortiz, Jim Kaat, Tony Oliva, Minnie Miñoso, Gil Hodges, Buck O'Neil and Bud Fowler officially gain entrance into those hallowed halls.

But what is it like to actually live in Cooperstown, the tiny hamlet that becomes the center of the baseball world once a year, and is the permanent home to the greatest collection of baseball memorabilia in the universe?

"People have said it before, but it truly is baseball Mecca," Josh Rawitch, the President of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum said.

Sue MacKay, the Director of Collections for the Hall uses one word: "Magical."

Ellen Tillapaugh, the Mayor and a fifth-generation resident, compared it to someplace else: "It has an element, shall I say, of Disney World. But we're not. We're the real thing."

This may seem hyperbolic to you if you've never been to Cooperstown. But to those who live there or who make annual trips to visit the museum, it's not. Take a stroll down Main Street -- on your way to the Hall of Fame, of course -- and it's like you've been transported to a baseball-centric version of a 1950s town center. You'll pass baseball store after baseball store, each with its own specialties -- from Baseballism's focus on modern T-shirt designs, to Mickey's Place and its endless variety of New Era caps, to multiple baseball card stores and even the Cooperstown Distillery which serves up whiskey from (what else?) baseball-shaped bottles. Even Willis Monie Books, which does not specifically cater to the sports-obsessed crowd, has an entire wall filled to bursting with baseball books.

"This is just like the Norman Rockwell village -- and it is that with baseball," said Kim Johannesen, a third-generation resident and owner of F.R. Woods. Woods holds a special place in town lore: Not only was it opened by Johannesen's grandmother, but it was the first baseball-specific store when it originally opened in the 1960s.

Even in Cooperstown, where all the businesses and their overstuffed shelves would seem to overlap, there's a kind of mutual respect.

"I think we kind of try to have our own thing. I don't carry New Era anymore, because Mickey is the big New Era [dealer] and we're friends. I don't do baseball cards, so I'm not in competition with the card stores. I don't sell baseball bats -- we have the two bat stores which are in town. My thing is trying to have some merchandise for all the teams, even though there's 30 and I really wish there was 20," Johannesen said with a laugh.

It's a baseball town, for sure, but it's a very specific kind of baseball town that you just won't see if you head to Boston for a Red Sox game or Queens to catch the Mets.

"Clearly baseball is kind of the backbone and the heartbeat of this community," Jon Shestakofsky, Vice President of Communications and Education for the Hall, said. "I think anyone who's here understands the power of the game in a different way than maybe the casual fan. They understand that baseball has this power to bring people together, that baseball can really bring this little village together, where, regardless of which team you're rooting or where you personally come from, or your interest level in the game."

Of course, while Main Street is now filled with more baseball memorabilia than any reasonable person's credit card could handle, that wasn't always the case. When Tillapaugh was growing up, there was only F.R. Woods. It took until the 1980s and the baseball card boom before the village of Cooperstown began its transformation into the baseball-crazed center that it is today. And while that has helped tourism immensely, it can be a little difficult when trying to find something like socks without driving to a nearby town.

"[The summer crowds] give an energy that's just really fun," Monie said. "But it also makes it very difficult to live here year round because there's no place to rent. I mean, I have a house, but in the village, you can't find long term rentals anymore."

"I think that what you have to realize is our biggest employer in the village of Cooperstown is actually Bassett Healthcare. Their campus right here in our village employs 2,500. The village population is 1,750. So obviously, we're attracting employees to come work in our community and contribute to our economy," Tillapaugh said. "During the summer seasons, baseball is king and that sort of runs everything. But we're very blessed in the village of Cooperstown because we have a lot of cultural institutions."

Many families now move to the village and while most people reading this on MLB.com are baseball fans, it's not a prerequisite to be one in Cooperstown.

"What's interesting is how Cooperstown as a town is really no different than any other American town," Rawitch said. "When it comes to the makeup of the people, there's probably as many die-hard baseball fans as people where baseball is just not their thing. But I think everybody recognizes the economic engine that it is for the area and what it does for Main Street, what it does for the restaurants, what it does for everything around town -- the good parts and the challenges."

Nor is it just a place to visit in the summer. Sure, some stores won't open up until the baseball tourists come for the summer, but Cooperstown has its own kind of magic in its offseason.

"The winter here is like you're living in a snow globe. It's Americana, it's just this quiet, peaceful, beautiful little village," Shestakofsky said. "And if you want to really spend some time here in the museum -- reading all the displays and really getting a feel for what we have -- there's no better time than the fall or the winter."

Still, for any of the challenges that a small town has when it turns into a tourism destination for a few months a year, there's something about the village that gets into people. Johannesen had moved away when she was younger and returned; Tillapaugh did the same. MacKay was born in Cooperstown and has never left.

Erik Strohl, Vice President of Exhibitions and Collections at the HOF, originally moved to the town for graduate school and was even MacKay's intern. Once he moved in, he never had the desire to leave.

"I mean, Cooperstown has that power, right? It has that pull," Strohl said. "There's never any other place I wanted to be. I love history and I love sports and I love museums. And boy, I guess if I could pick one place, [Cooperstown has] all those things."

Photo from the 2018 Induction ceremony. Notice someone familiar in the bottom row? Yeah, I don't think Vlad Guerrero Jr. is going unnoticed anymore.

Though the town is small, its residents say it certainly doesn't feel that way -- and if you're there for induction weekend alongside 50,000 other deliriously happy fans, you probably won't think that either.

"I like to say all the time that we have a transportation person, who's really our librarian during induction weekend, and we've got hospitality being run by the woman from the mailroom," Rawitch said. "The person who's doing the loan on my house also happens to be running the golf tournament. It just doesn't make sense that it could play this big and yet it does. People step up and [Cooperstown] shines for the whole world to see."