USS Cooperstown honors HOFers who served in US military

May 7th, 2023

NEW YORK -- For the last half of the 19th century and practically all of the 20th century, baseball and the U.S. Navy were tied at the hip. The national pastime began as the preferred recreational activity for active sailors in the late 1800s, and the commanding brass hoped the sport would provide a positive outlet in their off hours. The Navy’s interest in baseball was sustained and fostered as the decades went on, especially as Major Leaguers joined the ranks to serve in the armed forces.

“This [is a] quote from Chief Petty Officer and Hall of Fame pitcher, Bob Feller; he was known for being succinct and direct,” said Jane Forbes Clark, the chairman of the board of directors of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. “‘Baseball in the Navy was always much more fun than baseball in the Major Leagues.’”

On Saturday, it was ensured that the relationship between baseball and the Navy would continue in the 21st century. The USS Cooperstown, named after the hometown of the Baseball Hall of Fame, was commissioned and joined the active fleet as the newest littoral combat ship.

Naval officers salute and board the USS Cooperstown at Pier 88 in N.Y. (Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty)

Adorned with the motto, “America’s Away Team,” the vessel honors the 70 Baseball Hall of Famers who served in the military during the Civil War, World War I, World War II and the Korean War.

The list of baseball icons who double as military veterans might shock the uninitiated. At the dedication ceremony, MLB’s Special Assistant to the Commissioner Joe Torre, who himself was an airman second class in the Air National Guard, gushed about his fellow veterans and Hall of Fame compatriots.

Speaking before hundreds of the Navy’s top brass, personnel and their families, the legendary manager emphasized the importance of the momentous recognition.

“As we commission the USS Cooperstown today, I’m thinking about my family and some of my dear friends,” Torre said, mentioning his brother Rocco, Stan Musial and Yogi Berra. “There are so many others, like Phil Rizzuto, Larry Doby, Buck O’Neil, Chief Petty Officer Bob Feller -- my hope is that when everyone looks at the USS Cooperstown, they think about the great ballplayers who represented something much bigger. American courage, sacrifice and togetherness.”

The commissioning of the USS Cooperstown was a jewel event -- anchored at Pier 88 off the west coast of Manhattan, the ship was adorned in red, white and blue regalia, resting as it waited to be manned. The clear sky allowed the sun to glisten off the band’s flutes and trumpets as they played the anthem and the honored guests took the stage.

The rows of lily white chairs, both sections reserved for honored attendees (including the families of Doby, Berra and Gil Hodges) and public spectators, were filled to the brim as hundreds came out to witness the vessel’s unveiling.

The impressive stature of the battleship makes it worthy of the “Cooperstown” moniker (a funny juxtaposition to a town with a population of less than 2,000 and a singular traffic light), but the interior is where the 70 HOF veterans' legacies are truly honored. Each stateroom of the USS Cooperstown is named after one of the veterans, with a replica of their HOF plaque placed on the door.

The ship’s bridge is stocked with an artifacts display, exhibiting information about the Navy veterans in the Hall of Fame, along with tributes and quotes from the players added to the walls.

“This is the first United States ship to bear the name Cooperstown, as you know. It’s meant to honor the members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame that have served our nation’s armed forces,” Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro said. “These men answered the call of duty. When you stop and think about how these men were either at the top of their game or aspiring to reach it, there are just not enough ways to say thank you.”

Joe Torre (left) and Johnny Bench pose in front of the USS Cooperstown. (Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty)

Speeches from New York Governor Kathy Hochul, Chief of Navy Reserve and Vice Admiral John Mustin and the USS Cooperstown’s Commanding Officer Daxton Moore bookended the ceremony. But the resounding moment occurred before the manning of the ship. As the masts were raised and the USS Cooperstown’s flags flew for the first time, Reds Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench rose from his seat to present the long glass to the crew.

The officers and crowd rose from their seats to cheer on the crew as it boarded the ship, while Bench pulled out his phone to capture the moment for posterity, ensuring that he would never forget the occasion.