By David Moriah
Approximately 45,000 delirious baseball fans brought tiny Cooperstown, N.Y., to life for the 2015 Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony and related events throughout the weekend of July 24-26.
For the first time since 1955, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America selected four players for HOF immortality, resulting in a class of recently retired players who were quite familiar to today’s fans. The result? A crowd that ranked in the top five of all HOF inductions, easily topping the average yearly attendance of about 15,000 fans.
Craig Biggio turned out the largest contingent, as the streets of Cooperstown were flooded with the bold orange and yellow colors of Astros jerseys and hats. The popular Biggio played his entire career in Houston and is the first player in the franchise’s 53-year history to earn a ticket to Cooperstown wearing an Astros cap. As a result, Astros fans turned out in force to cheer for their hero.
Slightly fewer in number but decidedly louder and more enthusiastic were fans of Pedro Martinez, only the second HOFer to hail from the Dominican Republic. Pedro’s election ended a 32-year Dominican drought dating back to the election of Juan Marichal in 1983, and Dominican pride was on display with flags, music and loud cheering, which Martinez enthusiastically encouraged. He broke into a Latin dance move when called to the podium, and finished his remarks by calling on Marichal to join him in hoisting the flag of their native country.
Fewer fans were present to support the other two inductees, John Smoltz and Randy Johnson. Smoltz spent almost his entire career with the Atlanta Braves and might have attracted a larger turnout but for last year’s Atlanta bonanza featuring the inductions of Smoltz’s pitching partners Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, along with Braves manager Bobby Cox. It seemed Atlanta fans blew their travel budgets in 2014 as Smoltz attracted a more modest collection of followers this year.
Randy Johnson saw action in no less than six home cities – Montreal, Seattle, Houston, Arizona, New York (Yankees) and San Francisco – and though his plaque features him in a Diamondbacks cap, his career has no obvious geographic anchor, a fact he acknowledged somewhat ruefully in his induction speech by contrasting himself to Biggio. As a result, hardly any “Big Unit” jerseys were seen in town, and though the crowd treated his induction respectfully, there was little “Johnson-mania” in evidence.
Of course, a Cooperstown induction weekend always offers an all-you-can-eat buffet of autograph opportunities, and 2015 was no exception. With 49 living HOF members welcoming the four newcomers, there was an abundance of stars signing at various locations in the tiny, walkable village. Forty-five of the possible 53 HOFers in town were listed as autograph guests, meaning fans had an extraordinary opportunity to add some of the greatest names in baseball history to their collections.
Unfortunately, a select few HOF greats typically opt out of the paid autograph sessions, and again this year there were no signings on tap for Hank Aaron, Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Cal Ripken Jr. and Tom Seaver. Ripken, however, was a willing signer for many outside the HOF on Saturday evening as players entered the museum for a private reception.
The four new HOFers all were available at sessions on Monday following their inductions through MAB Celebrity Services. MAB had by far the largest stable of players signing throughout the weekend, and ran the table by landing all four new HOF members on Monday. Prices ranged from $99 for flats and balls of Biggio and Smoltz, to $169 for Martinez and $199 for Johnson. At the highest end of the price spectrum, Johnson claimed a whopping $599 for a single-signed jersey!
The “bargain basement” for HOF autographs was set at $30-$49 for players like Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, Whitey Herzog, Gaylord Perry, Ozzie Smith and Bruce Sutter. Most others were clustered from $50-$99, while breaking the $100 barrier were Whitey Ford ($125) and Rickey Henderson ($119), in addition to Martinez and Johnson, as noted above.
As has been the case in recent years, a number of former stars with something less than HOF credentials also were in town signing. This squad included a couple of potential HOFers in Vlad Guerrero and Luis Tiant, and lesser luminaries like Bert Campaneris, Bucky Dent, George Foster, Dwight Gooden, Ryan Klesko, Dale Murphy, Lou Pinella and Mike Torrez.
One Main Street shop delivered a “rogues gallery” of signers featuring disgraced former Braves reliever John Rocker signing next to Mets and Phillies outfielder Lenny Dykstra. Dykstra, recently released from a federal penitentiary, was signing for $25 a pop. Rocker’s price was $20, though he would add profanity on the ball for an extra $5. Yes, you read that correctly – an additional $5 for profanity!
On a more positive note, throughout the weekend many fans were delighted to receive free autographs from several HOFers who took time to sign outside of the formal autograph sessions. Martinez, in particular, signed hundreds of free autographs for fans, both outside the HOF as he arrived for the Saturday evening reception, and after the induction ceremony upon finishing an MLB television interview. It helped your chances if you could call to him in his native Spanish language or were waving a Dominican flag, but he signed freely for anyone in the vicinity, whether Spanish speakers or not.
In addition to Martinez and the aforementioned Ripken, numerous other “good guys” signed at the Saturday evening reception and at the golf course on Saturday morning. Biggio signed a lot at the golf course, as did Wade Boggs, Carlton Fisk, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Tony La Russa. Also signing outside the reception were Boggs, Rod Carew, Fingers, Fergie Jenkins, Henderson and Phil Niekro. The Saturday evening crowd has swollen over the last few years to a mob six to eight deep near the HOF entrance, making it unlikely for any but those who spend the entire day waiting in place to land a signed treasure or two.
Signing as well at both the golf course and for a small cluster of fans outside a Main Street restaurant on Friday evening was Reggie Jackson, with the evening event erupting into a brouhaha that landed on the front pages of New York’s tabloid newspapers. Jackson is notorious for paying close attention to those he grants free autographs, and he doesn’t hesitate to call out people for whom he has already signed if they approach him again.
Someone who had scored one from Jackson at the golf course that morning was among the crowd that approached him as he left the restaurant, and the situation quickly escalated into a shouting match. Jackson delivered a profanity-laced tirade at the two-time autograph seeker and even at his own security detail for not providing better protection for him. Some minor pushing and shoving was involved, though Jackson insisted he did not do any touching himself. Several witnesses to the altercation backed up Jackson’s story that he was being hounded by an aggressive autograph seeker.
The next morning Jackson issued a tweet apologizing for his language – “A sincere apology for my profanity in public to all fans. Certainly not a way to communicate. Mad or not, no excuse.” A link to a New York Daily News article, including a video of the encounter, can be found at www.nydailynews.com/sports/baseball/yankees/reggie-jackson-fight-fan-cooperstown-article-1.2304010.
In addition to autographs, induction weekends offer a cornucopia of memorabilia commemorating the events and the players being inducted. The HOF museum gift shop does a brisk business selling a wide range of items related to the weekend and the new inductees, including postcard plaques of the new members that are put on sale immediately after the induction.
Also available through the museum were HOF logo baseballs signed beneath their logo with an “HOF 2015” inscription by the four new members. While the HOF has a strict policy of not selling any historical items from its collection, they occasionally tip toe into the collectibles world with items such as these signed balls. Still available online (shop.baseballhall.org) at press time were Biggio ($349.95), Martinez ($399.95) and Johnson ($399.95).
At the other end of the price spectrum, another always popular HOF-issued item is the official induction program. For more than 30 years the program was given away at no cost to any and all attending the ceremony. During that time the program grew in size and improved in quality, and in 2014, the HOF finally ended the give-away and began charging a modest $4. This year once again the program, a slick 56-page publication, was sold on-site and is still available at the HOF gift shop for $4.
Both the size and enthusiasm of the 2015 crowd were strong counterpoints to the narrative that baseball is a dying sport. Certainly the passion of Latin American fans on hand for Martinez was a reminder that the sport is alive and well beyond the borders of the U.S. If more proof is necessary for the game’s well being one only needs to wait for the inevitable inductions of Mariano Rivera in 2019 and Derek Jeter in 2020. On those weekends there may be more people in the village of Cooperstown than in the city of New York!
Stay tuned, sports fans!
Where was Pete Rose?
For about two decades now, Pete Rose has been as reliable a feature of HOF induction weekends as “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” is to the seventh-inning stretch.
Throughout induction weekends fans could always count on Pete to be wielding a Sharpie at “Safe at Home,” a Main Street memorabilia shop. Over the years he has probably signed thousands of autographs.
His presence in town during ceremonies from which he is officially banned has been a poke in the eye to Major League Baseball and the Hall of Fame, delighting his many loyal fans but probably not scoring him any points with MLB in his long-standing attempt to have his ban lifted.
This year Rose was nowhere to be found in Cooperstown. Andrew Vilacky, Safe at Home shop owner and close friend of baseball’s banned hit king, has hosted Rose for all his appearances in Cooperstown. He explained what was behind Rose’s decision to skip the 2015 weekend.
“In light of the news that broke with the sealed court documents that were exposed that showed proof that in 1986 he bet as a player, Pete called me up,” Vilacky said.
“He said it was one of the toughest phone calls he’s ever made, that you’re one of my best friends and I love you very much but in speaking with my lawyers it’s probably best that I don’t come this year, and I apologize for that.”
“I said to him that no apology was necessary, that I appreciate him and I want what’s best for his well-being. I said to him that it’s the right decision and as for me, I put friendship above finance.”
And with that, Cooperstown 2015 went on without the presence of baseball’s hit king for the first time in many years.
Who’s on Deck for 2016?
An always lively conversation in Cooperstown is speculation around who’s up next for induction, considering those who will be eligible for the first time, along with those holdovers who came tantalizingly close during the previous year’s balloting.
Top names becoming newly eligible in 2016 after waiting out the mandatory five-year buffer after retirement include Ken Griffey Jr. and Trevor Hoffman, both viable candidates for first-ballot induction. Griffey seems to be a shoo-in with 630 career home runs, though his lack of an appearance in a World Series may count against him.
Hoffman, who had one trip to the World Series, is No. 2 behind Mariano Rivera for lifetime saves but some believe his career is marked more by longevity than dominance as a closer. Spending almost his entire career with perennial also-ran San Diego may be another negative on his resumé.
Carrying over from previous HOF ballots are Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines, all of whom tallied above 50 percent of votes from the Baseball Writers Association of America but short of the 75 percent required for election. Writers are given 10 votes from amongst eligible candidates. Piazza, in his third attempt, came in at 69.9 percent, Bagwell tallied 55.7 percent in his fifth attempt and Raines scored 55 percent in year No. 8.
Finally, the selection process includes a “second look” at previously overlooked candidates based upon the era in which they played. In 2016, the era will be the “Pre-Integration” time frame that occurred before 1947, meaning there are about 100 years’ worth of players, managers, executives and umpires under consideration. Predicting who will emerge from that crowd as a new HOFer is pretty much impossible until the list of finalists is announced.
This reporter has been making predictions in print one year out for the last few years, and in 2015 he went four for five, accurately naming all four inductees but missing on a prediction that Gil Hodges would finally get the call from the “Golden Era” committee.
For 2016, I will stick my neck out with a prediction of first-ballot elections for Griffey and Hoffman, and a fourth ballot win for Piazza. Piazza’s vote totals have been steadily rising through his first three years, while Bagwell’s have been flat. Raines, too, has risen slowly but steadily for his eight years on the ballot but not enough to jump the fence in 2016.
As for a pre-1947 inductee, I will pass until I see the list of finalists. There are just too many names to consider and no one stands out as an obvious and overlooked star.
So remember, you read it here – Griffey, Hoffman and Piazza in 2016.
David Moriah is a freelance and longtime contributor to SCD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.