He's Got Games
Radiology is Mark Cooper's profession. But it's the Philadelphia-born physician's hobby that has given him an even clearer look at what's inside the American male. This summer, the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., is displaying hundreds of them in its exhibit "Home Games: A Century of Baseball Games from the Collection of Dr. Mark Cooper."
Radiology is Mark Cooper's profession. But it's the Philadelphia-born physician's hobby that has given him an even clearer look at what's inside the American male.
Cooper, 56, of Wynnewood, collects baseball board and table games the way Pete Rose collected hits - in great bunches and with a relentless gusto. This summer, the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., is displaying hundreds of them in its exhibit "Home Games: A Century of Baseball Games from the Collection of Dr. Mark Cooper."
That quarter-century obsession has earned Cooper a reputation as the nation's top authority on the subject, and inadvertently won him a job as Santa Claus.
Occasionally, he said, old men will call, describe a cherished game they played as children, and ask him to find it.
He usually does. Then the old men, if they live nearby, hurry to Philadelphia.
"They drive down to Methodist [Hospital, where Cooper works] and meet me in the lobby," Cooper said. "They'll usually open it up right there. And then they'll start crying. It's like Rosebud in Citizen Kane.
"I've also had kids who want to get a game for their father's 60th or 70th birthday. The father had always told them about this game he played as a boy, and the kids want to surprise him. They'll get it for him and then send me a series of photos of their father's reaction when he opened it up. It's heartwarming. It really is Rosebud."
Cooper, who grew up above his father's North Philadelphia hardware store, not far from Connie Mack Stadium, always had a red-hot passion for baseball. He studied it, played it, coached it, and raised a son, Noah, who this year was the Ivy League's top hitter at Columbia.
All that, however, didn't spin off into the board-game mania until one Saturday in the early 1980s when he and his wife visited a Lancaster County antiques market.
"She's looking for antique jewelry, and I had nothing to do," he recalled. "I see this old '20s baseball game. It was very graphic and artistically beautiful. I thought it was sort of interesting, so I bought it. I'd never been a collector, but I began to wonder if there were other baseball games out there."
In those pre-Internet, pre-eBay days, Cooper scoured flea markets, old magazines and trade journals. He attended baseball shows and toy exhibits. He sought game references at the Patent Office in Washington, and the microfilm room at the Free Library.
Rapidly, like outfield grass in the spring, the collection grew.
He found board games that used dice, cards, spinners, miniature bats and complex charts. He found a whole family of statistics-based games. He found bagatelle - or miniature pinball - games. He found games endorsed by everyone from Bobby Shantz to Babe Ruth, Willie Mays to Rube Waddell.
He found games whose colorful lithographs and artwork were worthy of a folk-art museum. He found original patent requests. He found games from as far back as 1869 and several variations of that baby-boomer favorite All-Star Baseball.
"Baseball board and table games were played by children and [by] adults wanting to relive their childhood," Cooper wrote in the introduction to his book, Baseball Games. "They were used to replicate action on the field, to nurture our fantasy about being the major-leaguers we idolized."
The games also provide a timeline for baseball's changing uniforms, equipment and rules. Some depict gloveless fielders stationed in foul ground, or pitchers tossing underhanded, or diamond-shaped home plates.
Soon, the memorabilia overflowed the basement room where Cooper stored and displayed it. In 1995, he wrote the book. A year later, Hall of Fame curator Tom Spencer called.
The '96 All-Star Game was in Philadelphia. Spencer was coming. He'd read the book and asked if he could view Cooper's collection.
Spencer was wowed. One day, he vowed, it would be displayed in, appropriately enough, Cooperstown.
"One year passed. Then another. And another," Cooper said. "Finally, after [legendary baseball memorabilia collector Barry Halper] died, his trust and baseball got together and built an exhibit room at the Hall, whose purpose was to present an annual display for each baseball season."
In seasons past, that room housed exhibits on the Negro Leagues, women in baseball, and other subjects. Finally, in 2007, Hall officials announced that Cooper's games would be 2008's subject matter.
What the Hall visitor will discover is a room filled with color and history.
The lid for 1886's Home Base Ball contains a fascinating view of New York's skyline. Chineesed Base Ball, an 1889 game, is noteworthy for its elaborate artwork and its bizarre political implications. A comparatively bland brown box labeled Parlor Base Ball was game-giant Milton Bradley's first venture into the field.
A five-foot version of a working spinner from one of the games hangs on a wall. Hall officials tell Cooper that's the most popular item in the exhibit for youngsters. Other aspects tell the story of Cooper and his collection, and display a baseball poem he wrote.
The exhibit doesn't include the first baseball board game, Sebring's Parlor Base Ball Game. No copy of that game, which sold for the significant sum of $5 in 1866, has ever been found.
"That would be the Holy Grail," Cooper said.
He does have the earliest game in existence, 1869's New Parlor Game of Baseball, whose cover depicts a game from that era.
Among the rarest games, he said, were those endorsed by players in the 19th century. Only three are known to exist. Cooper calls one of those on exhibit, Zimmer's Base Ball Game - named for Cleveland catcher Chief Zimmer - "the Mona Lisa of all baseball games."
Much of its value and beauty lie in the colorful chromolithographic representations of that era's leading players, including the Phillies' Ed Delahanty.
The 20th century, by contrast, is filled with endorsed games. Ruth, Shantz, Waddell, Mays, George Brett, Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, Jackie Robinson, Carl Yastrzemski, Dizzy Dean, Robin Roberts and Bob Feller, among many others, had games named for them. So did popular broadcasters like Red Barber and Mel Allen.
While most of the manufacturers were in Upstate New York or New England, Smith Kline & French, the old Philadelphia-based pharmaceuticals company, once produced the Pat Moran Game to honor the manager of the NL champion 1915 Phillies.
Though the Hall exhibit spans the century from 1860 to 1960, Cooper's collection contains more modern games, like Strat-O-Matic.
"We stopped there  because that's when we started to see electronic games and computer-generated ones that deal with our kids' need for instant gratification," he said. "To me, that was analogous to free-agency in baseball. It was when things changed."
Unable to attend the exhibit's April 12 opening, Cooper drove up the night before. Curator Tom Scheiber escorted him into the display room.
"Seeing it all there was pretty amazing," he said. "It was pretty emotional. It's been a long ride, but this is the culmination. It doesn't actually get much better than this."
Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. at http://go.philly.
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