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The card collector who became mayor of Cooperstown

Baseball card enthusiast Jeff Katz is a lucky man. For six years, he served as mayor of Cooperstown, a New York town synonymous with baseball, where once a year the cardboard gods he once idolized as a kid literally walked the streets.

Katz displays his 1957 baseball card set.

Katz displays his 1957 baseball card set.

From 2012-2018, Katz had a chance to rub elbows with the greats of the game. An honor some would say for which he has been preparing his entire life.

Born in Brooklyn and raised in Long Island, Katz loved all sports but none more than baseball, particularly through his baseball card collection, which totals around 100,000 cards. “I was always a card collector,” Katz recalls of his childhood, listing the Topps baseball card sets of 1967, 1970 and 1971 as transformative. “Something about those sets always spoke to me—they take me all the way back to when I was a kid.”

He continued card collecting through adolescence. Even though on occasion, he says, “My mom would throw them out—but with permission.”

After graduating from the State University College in Binghamton, Katz worked as a broker and trader in Chicago until 2003 when he, his wife and their three sons moved to Cooperstown. There he authored two baseball books: “The Kansas City A’s and the Wrong Half of the Yankees,” which was published in 2007, and "Split Season 1981: Fernandomania, the Bronx Zoo, and the Strike that Saved Baseball" in 2015.

Katz in front of his many boxes of baseball cards. He has around 100,000 cards.

Katz in front of his many boxes of baseball cards. He has around 100,000 cards.

As mayor, Katz fulfilled many of the duties you’d expect of a small town mayor: attending ribbon-cuttings and other events. But this was Cooperstown, and that meant working with the Hall of Fame in an official capacity. Memorizing the backs of baseball cards were one thing, but now Katz would be working with some of the same legends he collected on cardboard.

“The interactions were crazy,” Katz explains. “I tried not to fan out but sometimes I’d catch myself thinking, ‘I’m in a meeting with Brooks Robinson’! The access I got to the ballplayers made the experience that much more enjoyable.”

Like the time a casual conversation during Hall of Fame weekend with Ernie Banks revealed the slugger’s fascination with ghost stories and haunted buildings. Wanting to put the town in the best light possible—that’s what Mayors do after all—Katz went to a local bookstore and grabbed a few books on the topic as a gift for Banks.

“I remember presenting the books to him and I got a tap on the shoulder. It was Rod Carew,” Katz recalls. “He just wanted to say hello to Ernie.”

Or the time during a crowded Saturday night cocktail party, he found himself face-to-face with Nancy Seaver, wife of Tom. “This was a big moment for me,” Katz says. “Seaver was my guy. I tried to be cool.”

After getting Nancy a club soda for Tom, Katz happened to find myself next to his idol at a food table a little while later.

Katz speaking at the Hall of Fame.

Katz speaking at the Hall of Fame.

“We’d talked for a while about how fame wasn’t his motivation. And he ended the conversation with, ‘Where’s my plaque again?’

“I took it as a sly joke.”

Looking back, Katz admits being the mayor had its perks.

“Because people knew my title, I got invited to do things and be a part of certain events,” he explains.

Like Shoebox Treasures, the baseball card exhibit that debuted at the Hall last year. Shoebox Treasures tells the history of baseball cards, dating back into the mid-19th Century. The exhibit features more than 2,000 of the Hall of Fame’s collection of nearly 200,000 baseball cards.

And guess who served as a consultant on the exhibit?

“Nobody enjoyed being mayor as much as I did,” he says.

COVID concerns

When SCD caught up with Katz, the historic village was grappling with COVID-19 and the unprecedented decision to postpone the village’s marquee event of the year: Hall of Fame weekend. As virus-related concerns enveloped the U.S. in March, Cooperstown began canceling events such as the Cooperstown Dreams Park, home to one of the country’s largest little league tournaments. From then, it was only a matter of time before the historic village postponed its marquee event: the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

Making matters worse was that this year’s induction ceremony—featuring the enshrinement of Derek Jeter—promised to be the largest event in the village’s storied history surpassing even 2007, when Cal Ripen and Tony Gwynn were honored.

The star-studded class was estimated to attract more than 100,000 people that weekend for a village of roughly 1,800.

That’s a chilling economic hit for the area’s restaurants, hotels and attractions. According to New York State Association of Counties, postponing the event is estimated to result in a $50 million to $150 million economic hit.

“Canceling the event hurt the psychology of the village,” says Katz, who still speaks like a caretaker of the historic community.

“It was the correct thing to do,” he says. “Postponing the event is perhaps the only way to preserve the event. We’re all nervous on what the business is going to be like. It’s very distressing.”

In this very different year for all involved, Katz has fond memories of Induction weekend. Traditionally, the mayor has no official duties relating to the ceremony. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t involved.

Like the time the Hall of Fame “inducted” Homer Simpson in 2017 as part of a ceremony that celebrated the 25th anniversary of the classic Simpsons episode, “Homer at the Bat.”

“I made a speech with a mayor sash, just like Mayor Quimby on the Simpsons. It was a big hit.”

As mayor of Cooperstown, Katz participated when the Hall of Fame “inducted” Homer Simpson in 2017 to celebrate the 25anniversary of the “Homer at the Bat” episode of the “Simpsons.”

As mayor of Cooperstown, Katz participated when the Hall of Fame “inducted” Homer Simpson in 2017 to celebrate the 25anniversary of the “Homer at the Bat” episode of the “Simpsons.”

All in a day’s work for Katz, who, it turns out, had been preparing for the role since he first started card collecting as a kid.

“Nobody enjoyed being mayor as much as I did.”

The Katz File

Modern or vintage: Vintage

Favorite card: 1957 Topps Randy Jackson. “That set is beautiful, and the Ebbets Field cards are almost all great, but there's something about this one that has always won me over.”

Favorite set: 1967 Topps Baseball

Favorite athlete: Tom Seaver

If money were no object: “I'd buy the complete 1965 Topps Football set. It's weird to me that I never got the Namath rookie as a kid.”

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