Five Siblings Plough Untried Ground And Find Brotherly Love Is Precious At HOF
After what has often seemed like a lifetime of road trips, the most recent one proved to be the ultimate road trip of a lifetime. The timing was right, the traveling party as unique as it was united, and the destination was absolutely perfect.
If you traveled the country on the baseball beat over the last few decades as I was fortunate enough to do, and were charged with setting an itinerary for five brothers who just happen to be best friends, this was a no-brainer. There could be no better place to visit as a group than the quaint and picturesque village that serves as home to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
It was October, perhaps not even arguably the most beautiful month of the year in Cooperstown, showcasing the spectacular area at its colorful best in spite of an occasional dose of liquid sunshine. Baseball was in its postseason mode. League playoffs were winding down, so the game was still in full bloom. And the crowds, while heavier than one might expect for the time of year, reflected the Hall of Fame was definitely well into the offseason. What better time for a visit and some serious “brother bonding” over a long fall weekend.
Before moving into the details, please indulge a personal explanation/introduction. Included among the nine siblings in our family are five brothers. Along with our four sisters, we all grew up in the same row house within eyesight of Memorial Stadium. But with 22-plus years separating the oldest from the youngest (a span of 20 years for the guys), there were only a handful of times when we all actually shared the same meal at the dining room table (surviving with one full bathroom is a story only the girls could explain).
As the years, and families, have evolved, we have often been in one another’s company at weddings, funerals, some vacations and most notably Thanksgiving, when we traditionally gather to celebrate with extended families (with the individual count now routinely more than 100). But through it all, the five brothers — myself, Chuck, Bob, Bill and John, ranked by seniority — had never done the “male bonding” thing as an exclusive group. There had been some memorable occasions over the years, some notable, some probably forgettable, but never just the five of us … until last month.
So, having endured much more than a five-year wait, Cooperstown was an easy decision for our first road trip together, a safe haven of sorts for our Oct. 21 departure, a significant date as three of us would later be reminded. Brother bonding was definitely the first order of business, and we found just the right place, renting a two-level, four-bedroom refurbished barn (named “The Wooden Tulip”– we didn’t ask why) on the outskirts of town.
“Actually, the real purpose is to find out if we can spend a weekend together and still be speaking when it’s over,” Bill quipped as he, Bob and I met Chuck at his South Central Pennsylvania home to begin our journey.
The first stop was Reading to pick up John, who brought a box of shrimp and 11 sandwiches on board the van Bob had borrowed from his daughter, Mary, who admonished the group with this warning: “Remember what your mother told you: ‘No eating in the car.'”
“Why 11 sandwiches?” somebody asked.
“Three for Bob (he had a well-earned reputation) and two for everybody else,” John answered, shortly before the warning went unheeded.
Next question: “How many rest stops for five guys with AARP cards?”
Only one, as it turned out. Not a bad start. We had dinner that night with my longtime friends Richie and Becky Myers at Brooks’ House of Bar-B-Que, which has become a must stop in Oneonta, N.Y., about 20 minutes from Cooperstown.
With a visit to the Hall of Fame planned for the next day, the remainder of that first day was relatively uneventful until we got to the outskirts of Cooperstown and tried to find “The Wooden Tulip”(mostly hidden by large hedges) in the dark, even though we did have the advantage of a GPS.
Once settled in, there was only mild debate about who would sleep in which room, which everyone agreed was a much different attitude than might have prevailed in earlier years. It really was very simple: The older guys got the upstairs bedrooms, while Bill and John were in the basement, exactly where they had spent many years in the row house on Yolando Road.
When John and I went out to pick up some essentials, I felt obliged to grab an 18-pack of beer, which was promptly doubled by my younger brother.
“What are you thinking about?” he asked rather incredulously, not accepting my explanation we weren’t as young as we used to be.
“You don’t think we’ll need 36 beers in three days? You’re crazy.”
Once settled in, John asked how far away the nearest grocery store was.
“Not far,” said Bob, without giving specifics because he didn’t really have any.
Awake before the crack of dawn, John continued his mission, walking to the supermarket (“I saw a delivery truck and just followed it”), which proved to be about a quarter-mile away. It must have seemed a lot longer when he traipsed back to the house with bags containing $70 worth of groceries.
“You don’t think we’ll go through three dozen eggs, two pounds of bacon and sausage?”he asked.
As it turned out, John cooks a lot better than he drinks. The eggs, bacon and sausage were easily consumed over three days of home cooking. But more than a six-pack of beer went back to Reading.
The tour of the Hall of Fame was highlighted by a side trip to the artifacts room, where some 35,000 items are stored in a climate-controlled environment. Everyone is required to wear gloves while handling anything stored. Arranged by Brad Horn and Craig Muder of the communications department, and with the help of Hall president Jeff Idelson, we spent an hour looking at items dating back to the 19th century.
As we looked at the evidence of the evolution of gloves, Chuck observed: “This is something Dad (William Sr.) would have really enjoyed, especially the difference in the gloves.”
The first one Horn showed us was little more than the old half-glove golfers used to wear. But even when he showed the glove Brooks Robinson wore in the 1970 World Series and the glove Cal Ripken Jr. used in his last game when he was also playing third base, all of us were surprised at the difference in the size of the gloves, a stark reminder there was a divergence of three decades.
That night there weren’t any tears shed as we watched the Yankees get eliminated in the ALCS. But there were a lot of laughs and many stories, some undoubtedly enhanced by memories sometimes less than reliable. One staple in all of the stories was what a great time it was to grow up in the vicinity of Memorial Stadium, part playground, part home-away-from-home for all of us. It wasn’t uncommon for kids to knock on Brooks’ door on Chestnut Hill Ave. and, rather request than an autograph, ask him to play catch.
Bill recalled the time he was entrusted with the chore of making sure John got home (never an easy task) and forgot until he got home in the midst of a heavy rain and realized “Little Bro” wasn’t there. As he began to retrace his steps, a car pulled up in front of the house and dropped John at his front door.
“Do you know who that was driving the car?”Bill asked.
“Yeah, it was ‘Johnny U,’ ” replied John.
Years later, when Bill told the story to John Unitas, the legendary quarterback shrugged his shoulders: “That’s just how it was back then.”
The conversation spilled over to the breakfast table the next morning after chef John and dishwasher/dryer Bill (I’m sure the sisters will doubt some of this) were finished with their chores (age does have its privileges). The five of us sat around a table probably bigger than any we had ever seen at home, and talked about the days we helped Dad on his milk route (I think we all did that) or made deliveries for Hohman’s Grocery Store.
One thing we determined was because of the differences in our ages, the five of us undoubtedly spent more time at the table together on this trip than we had in our lifetimes. Thoughts like that definitely cause you to step back and take a deep breath.
Somewhere in the midst of the conversation, our trip took on a life of its own. We realized it was the two-year anniversary of John being the donor of a stem cell transplant for recipient Chuck, who was recovering from a bout with leukemia. The two participants of course were fully aware, but it was a reminder to the other three how rapidly we travel life’s path. Suddenly, there was an emotional and unanimous feeling; while this was the first road trip for the Henneman boys, it wouldn’t be the last.
Bob, Bill, John and I managed a round of golf at the Leatherstocking Golf Course, a great, old traditional course with a magnificent setting, while Chuck had an R&R afternoon before enjoying a bonus highlight in the evening. Howard Talbot, president emeritus of the HOF and a close friend for almost 30 years, visited with us as we watched Game 6 of the NLCS (after considerable trouble trying to solve remote difficulties and schedule changes).
A native of the area and involved with the HOF for all but five years since its establishment in 1939, it is safe to say Talbot knows more about baseball’s Hall of Fame and its storied past than anyone. The night passed much too fast as he regaled us with stories, including the time Tom Seaver passed up a function to go back to the house and play bridge with Howard and his wife, Alice.
“Watching ball games together”. . .”Telling stories for the billionth time and laughing at them all over again”. . . “Having all of us be able to make this trip together”– those seemed to be the consensus final thoughts of five brothers who did something for the first time in their lives.
“I always looked at you guys as Hall of Fame brothers and friends,” said Bill, showing his politician side, “so I can’t think of a better place for us to do this. I knew it would be great, but it was better than I ever expected.”
Special place. Special stuff. Special people. A special time. A super-special trip.
Everyone should be able to experience a Road Trip of a Lifetime.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com
Issue 155: November 2010