For 51 weeks each year, Cooperstown, N.Y., readies itself for the weekend that defines the tiny village in the minds of baseball fans. This year that weekend stretched from July 22-25, featuring a blizzard of baseball events surrounding the crown jewel of Hall of Fame Weekend – the induction ceremony for the newest members of its prestigious club.
The 2011 HOF class included second baseman Roberto Alomar, voted in by the Baseball Writers’ Association in his second year of eligibility, pitcher Bert Blyleven, finally getting the call on his 14th try, and team executive Pat Gillick, nominated by the Expansion Era Committee, the Hall of Fame’s latest scheme for expanding membership beyond those voted in by the writers.
There is a year-to-year ebb and flow to HOF weekends. Some are blockbuster events celebrating enormously popular players that attract legions of fans who overrun the tiny village like swarming locusts. Other years, the ones which honor less noteworthy players (or managers, umpires and executives), are noticeably quieter and less crowded.
This was a quiet year. There was an enthusiastic contingent of Puerto Ricans celebrating Alomar’s selection, as he was only the second Hall of Famer from Puerto Rico, following the great Roberto Clement. There was also a contingent of Canadians remembering Alomar’s contributions to the 1992-93 Toronto Blue Jays world championships. The streets of Cooperstown also saw more Minnesota Twins caps and jerseys than any time since Kirby Puckett’s 2001 induction, as Blyleven was a key contributor to the Twins 1987 world championship and has served as the team’s broadcaster for many years.
Nevertheless, the sidewalks and the plethora of memorabilia shops on Main Street were easy to navigate, and the announced attendance of 17,500 for the ceremony stands at the low end of a spectrum which reached a peak of 75,000 in 2007 when Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn entered the hallowed Hall of Fame.
As a result, it was a banner year for those fans, and especially for autograph collectors, who made the trek through the rural countryside to Cooperstown.
Autograph hounds rejoice
Imagine a one square-mile area populated for four days by a whopping 51 of the 65 living Hall of Famers! Add to that an impressive gathering of former baseball stars, such as Dwight Gooden, Dale Murphy, Ron Guidry and Tony Oliva, who were on hand either for the constant stream of autograph sessions or to celebrate a former teammate’s induction. With fan attendance low and player availability high, you could easily call Cooperstown 2011 autograph heaven.
In addition to the buffet of paid signing sessions that ran from as early as Thursday and through Monday, there were unusually abundant chances to land free autographs, as many HOFers generously satisfied fans when their paths crossed. Two great opportunities were the Friday and Saturday morning golf outings and outside the Saturday evening members’ private reception at the Hall of Fame museum. Players who signed at these times included Wade Boggs, George Brett, Rod Carew, Orlando Cepeda, Rollie Fingers, Carlton Fisk, Goose Gossage, Fergie Jenkins, Bill Mazeroski, Paul Molitor, Phil Niekro, Jim Rice, Ryne Sandberg, Ozzie Smith, Don Sutton, Billy Williams and Robin Yount.
Another notable signer, spotted by a small group of fans emerging from a Main Street restaurant late Saturday night, was MLB Commissioner Bud Selig. Surrounded by burly and aggressive security men (“Stand back! I mean way back!”), Selig waved his heavies off and worked to satisfy everyone seeking his signature.
Down the block a few hundred yards, Selig’s arch villain Pete Rose was back again this year, signing at the Safe at Home shop where he’s become a fixture over the years. Rose continues to draw a loyal following, and this year his cause was loudly championed by baseball writer Bill Conlin during a new awards ceremony for writers, broadcasters and winners of the Buck O’Neil lifetime achievement award, in a separate ceremony from the induction event. Conlin concluded his remarks, with HOF officials and many HOF members looking on, by calling for the end of Rose’s ban for HOF membership.
At least 37 of the 51 HOF members appeared at paid signing sessions, with prices ranging from $30 for Perry, Jenkins and Red Schoendienst; $40 for Juan Marichal; $45 for Cepeda; $50 for Rice; $55 for Gossage, Tony Perez and Jim Bunning; $69 for Blyleven, Boggs, Fisk, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, and Tom Seaver; $79 for Alomar, Sandberg and Lou Brock; $89 for Reggie Jackson and Tony Gwynn; and a top price of $99 for Rickey Henderson and Eddie Murray. In the case of Henderson and Murray, it appears the price point is not determined by demand for their autographs, as much as it is their distaste for the process.
Signing at $20 a pop on Sunday afternoon was singer/songwriter Terry Cashman of “Mickey, Willie and the Duke” fame. In 2010, the HOF invited John Fogerty to the stage to sing his baseball classic “Put Me in Coach,” and this year Cashman serenaded the crowd at the awards ceremony with his ode to baseball penned 30 years ago during the notorious 1981 baseball strike.
Commanding an $80 fee and the most attention of all HOF signers, was the legendary Yogi Berra. The 86-year-old Berra needed help getting to his seat at the induction ceremony and looked especially frail signing and posing for photos at a sidewalk autograph session. But his smile was warm and he seemed to enjoy the attention. Each time he went to work, and he signed four times from Thursday through Monday, foot traffic stopped and the crowd swelled around his table. Clearly, Yogi still has the magic!
Collectibles here, collectibles there
While induction weekends qualify as autograph paradise, they also provide an abundance of other collectibles. While some are connected to the induction event, there are cards, autographs, yearbooks, photos and all manner of historical memorabilia residing in dozens of baseball themed shops, sidewalk sales and card shows.
It’s hard to single out a particular shop or show, as several offered merchandise dazzling to the average or even advanced collector, but this year a reporter wandered into Pioneer Sports Cards on Main Street and discovered a treasure trove of modern baseball card royalty.
A large display case boasted more than 50 specimens of the hot 1-of-1 or 3-of-10 autographed chase cards coming primarily from Topps’ and Bowman’s Sterling and Triple Threads brands.
Store owner Mark Wolpert explained how most came his way.
“We opened a lot of product, and we got lucky,” he said. Others came through trades or outright purchases, including the one he considers king of the collection, a 1-of-1 Thurman Munson from the regular 2010 Topps set. He purchased it from a father and son who walked into his shop, and was offering it for resale “in the $5,000 range.”
The HOF itself produces several items related to induction, including pins, annual yearbook and the venerable plaque postcard of each new inductee, offered to the public immediately after the inductions take place. A fan favorite is the official induction program, distributed free on-site at the Clark Sports Center, which hosts the outdoor induction event. The program continues to grow in quantity and quality, and features 50 full-color pages this year.
Another item produced by the Hall of Fame is the long-running “Signature” bats, so named as they display a replica signature of each year’s new inductees. Bats date back to the HOF’s first year (1936), which were produced retroactively, and are typically issued in a quantity of 1,000, 500 to series subscribers and 500 released for sale on induction weekend. At press time, less than 100 bats remained available at the HOF gift shop for a retail price of $125, along with a handful of unsold bats from several recent years.
Changing of the guard
As the 2011 HOF weekend wrapped, veteran Cooperstown watchers sensed a changing of the guard in the elite HOF fraternity. The previous year saw the death of six members – Robin Roberts, Harmon Killebrew, Dick Williams, Duke Snider Bob Feller and Sparky Anderson.
In addition to Berra, several others are battling Father Time in the late innings of their own games. Stan Musial, age 90, long a perennial Cooperstown regular, missed the events once again, as did 80-year-old Willie Mays. Surprisingly, Bobby Doerr, the oldest living player in the HOF at 93 did appear, and he even participated in an autograph session on Main Street.
The wheel turns. As one generation of baseball greats passes, the next rushes in. This time it was Alomar, Blyleven and Gillick taking their place. Fans who were there not only witnessed history unfold but had ample opportunities to bring home a bit of that history in the form of autographs, photographs, memorabilia and memories.
David Moriah is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at email@example.com.