JIM THIELMAN: That ‘Call From The Hall’ Is Backed By Intrigue

When former Minnesota Twins Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat “got the call” from Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame this month, it came from Jane Forbes Clark.

Few ask, “Who is Jane Forbes Clark?” Well, she chairs the Hall of Fame’s board in Cooperstown, N.Y., where in 1839 Abner Doubleday was said to invent the game of baseball.

He did not, of course, although a bigger baseball misconception remains: Many think MLB has operated the Hall since it opened in 1939. It never has.

The Singer sewing machine has a stronger connection to the Hall’s origin than the lords of baseball. It’s a story strewn with interesting characters, starting with Jane Forbes Clark’s great-great grandfather.

Edward Cabot Clark was the visionary who saw possibilities along relatively new Central Park West in 1877. He built the Dakota, which is still the most famous apartment building in New York City. The location was so remote that New Yorkers supposedly said Clark should have built it in the Dakota territories. Hence, the name.

Edward Clark could afford to buy all that land in streets from the West 70s to 80s because his net worth grew beyond half a billion in today’s dollars after Isaac Singer sought Clark to defend him in a patent lawsuit in 1849.

Singer had improved Elias Howe’s invention of the sewing machine, when Singer wasn’t unabashedly riding in a carriage through Central Park with one of his mistresses. He fathered at least 24 children.

With all those mistresses and kids, Singer couldn’t pay his patent attorney.

So Edward Clark became a business partner who then dreamed up America’s first installment plan. Soon, millions of American women  could afford to put expensive sewing machines in their homes. Clark got richer.

A dirty old baseball

Edward (1811-1882) begat Alfred Corning Clark (1844-1896), who led a dual life. One was as benefactor to male artists in Europe, where Norwegian tenor Lorentz Severin Skougaard was his companion. Alfred’s other life was a married one in America, which begat Stephen C. Clark (1882-1960), who begat the Hall of Fame.

Stephen C. Clark, was Jane Forbes Clark’s grandfather. Born in Cooperstown, Clark was a World War I veteran, attorney and politician whose interest ran to collecting expensive art.

One day he bought a sad, aged baseball for $5 from a man at nearby Fly Creek. Not long after that, Clark was peddling a grand idea to baseball’s brass, an idea based on the lie of a 90-year-old murderer who had gone west for the 1849 California gold rush.

Abner Graves was 90 when he shot his 48-year-old wife in 1924 because she wouldn’t agree to sell their house. Born in Cooperstown, Graves died in a Colorado asylum in 1926 wearing a “criminally insane” wrist band.

Back in 1905, Graves had ginned up a story after he heard that former baseball player and sporting goods entrepreneur Albert Spalding sought to discredit the notion that baseball had evolved from cricket and rounders.

Graves, who claimed to have once been a Pony Express employee, wrote to Spalding from Colorado that he remembered being in Cooperstown when boyhood pal Abner Doubleday created the game in 1839.

No one bothered to check that Graves was 6 years old that day and “boyhood pal” Doubleday was 20, and at West Point, N.Y. A Civil War officer who died in 1893, Doubleday’s extensive writing included 67 diaries. He never mentioned baseball.

What followed was a petri dish of indifference, buck-passing and speculation among men on a committee armed with careless research and musty correspondence that was lost in a 1911 fire.

The real reason for the Hall

When the Great Depression was gaining steam in the 1930s, Stephen C. Clark was every bit its match.

Clark was a trustee of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art as well as the Museum of Modern Art. Accustomed to paying a fortune for artwork, he paid five bucks to a relative of Abner Graves for a filthy baseball that was said to belong to Abner Doubleday.

What if this remote, pastoral, summer resort for the well-heeled  where rail service had been canceled could become a destination for everyone?

Clark began buying baseball artifacts for a museum. He canvassed baseball officials about staging a centennial celebration in Cooperstown. Baseball’s attendance hadn’t been so low since 1918, the last year of World War I. Then Clark kicked the idea onto another level.

Through the winter of 1938, Bedford Construction Co. laborers fashioned a building with Clark’s $500,000. It wasn’t the Dakota, but the building’s clean, vertical lines conveyed stately power. It’s unlikely baseball owners would have constructed anything so grand.

The Hall has flourished under the Clark Foundation. Cooperstown remains a Norman Rockwell brushstroke because of it.

The Clark Foundation owns acres of undeveloped land on the east side of Lake Otsego, a sliver of yesterday near where James Fenimore Cooper — hence, Cooperstown — set novels such as “The Last of the Mohicans.”

Clark was viewed as a retiring gentleman whose life lacked the fireworks of Issac Singer or Abner Graves, but he did leave a small intrigue.

Clark’s son, the eponymous Alfred Corning Clark, died at age 45 in 1961, just 13 days after his sixth marriage. His widow was the former Alicia Purdom, who claimed she had been engaged to John Kennedy. FBI files frame a story that she tried to extort the Kennedys.

Heirless, Alicia Corning Clark died in 2016 with a $17 million estate. Mostly, Alfred’s. One of her wills left $1 million each to three doormen at her upscale Fifth Avenue apartment building.

The Clark’s colorful story is ending. They have been the prominent family in Cooperstown since the Civil War. Jane Forbes Clark, 66, is the last. She never married, and has no children.


Going to the Kaat/Oliva induction?

The 2022 Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony is set for Sunday, July 24, on the grounds of the — you guessed it — Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown, a fun little burg on jeweled Otsego Lake in upstate New York.

Even baseball haters are likely to enjoy this pleasingly rural resort area, with “Hay 4 Sale” signs tacked to posts en route to town and shops with “Berries for sale” when you get there.

Pat yourself on the back if you arrive to see Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva speak. Cooperstown is fairly timeless because it’s long been passed by canals, railroads and major highways.

You can fly into Syracuse, Albany or Ithaca, but it’s still more than an hour’s drive to the Hall. My advice? Make a weeklong road trip out of it. You’re need a car. And a trunk for chairs.

The tradition is to claim your piece of turf with chairs the evening before the ceremony. When you arrive for the Sunday event, that’s your spot. Have a landmark. It’s hard to find lawn chairs in a crowd.

Reserve lodging now. There could be 75,000 or so celebrants in the village of 1,800.

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