By David Moriah
The fans, 53,000 strong, came to Cooperstown, New York from far and wide – from southern California to Detroit, from Cleveland to Atlanta, and a large group even arrived from the Dominican Republic. All descended on a village of merely 1,852 year-round citizens to celebrate the inductions of the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s six new members – Vladimir Guerrero, Trevor Hoffman, Chipper Jones, Jack Morris, Jim Thome and Alan Trammell. It all took place on the weekend of July 27-30.
The relatively large group of new inductees were joined on a crowded stage by a whopping 51 returning HOF members, a record-setting number including giants of the game like Hank Aaron, Cal Ripken, Jr. and Ken Griffey, Jr. Notably absent were two of the HOF fraternity’s oldest members – 89-year-old Whitey Ford and 87-year-old Willie Mays. Both looked frail at the 2017 event, and given the difficulty of traveling to the isolated central New York location, Cooperstown may have seen the last of those two greats.
As usual, it was a long weekend with events from Friday through Monday, with each day including autograph signings around town. A majority of HOF members present were available, along with a dozen or so lesser stars like Doc Gooden, Dale Murphy and original Mets legend Frank Thomas.
Certainly the most prominent player signing in town who’s outside the HOF looking in was baseball’s all-time hit king Pete Rose. Rose has seldom missed an induction weekend over the past 25 years, and his legion of loyal fans keep the cash register humming at “Safe at Home,” a Main Street memorabilia shop where Rose always sets up camp. As the years go by, however, it seems a plaque in the Hall for Pete is slipping farther and farther away.
The stars of the hour, the new HOF inductees, were well-represented at public signings despite navigating a whirlwind of family, friends, old teammates and a scrum of reporters and photographers. Guerrero, Hoffman, Jones, Thome and Trammell all found time to wade into the “graphing” marketplace on Monday, the day after their inductions. All five were in the lineup of MAB-Celebrity, the company unquestionably the biggest fish in Cooperstown’s autograph pond. In addition, MAB showcased a dazzling 30 additional HOF signers at different times throughout the weekend.
Prices for the new class ranged from $70 for Trammell (flats and balls), $110 for Hoffman, $125 for Guerrero and $150 for Jones and Thome. Morris did not appear at any shows but was on Jack Berke’s list of private signings through pre-orders. It took $75 for Morris to put his pen to a ball or flat in the private session.
Price points for other HOFers began at $30 for Gaylord Perry, $40 for Jim Palmer and Fergie Jenkins, and ran to $175 for Pedro Martinez, topping out at $200 for the “Big Unit” Randy Johnson. Collecting all 35 HOF signers at the MAB show would set a collector back $2,515 on balls or flats, even more if you wanted larger items or customized inscriptions.
In the face of such price escalation savvy collectors have discovered two reliable spots where at least a few, and sometimes a bushel of free autographs can be obtained during the weekend. The first was at several places where the Hotel Otesaga golf course meets up with a public road leading out of the village. Saturday morning featured a golf tournament at which at least a dozen HOFers participated, many signing at least a few for patient fans along the course. Capturing autographs during the tournament has become a well-known opportunity and crowds have been growing there for several years.
This year success for many fans came as new HOFers Jones and Thome stopped to sign, along with veteran HOFers Wade Boggs, Bert Blyleven, Rollie Fingers, and Carlton Fisk. Commissioner Rob Manfred also signed for a group of fans gathered along the fence.
The other location where freebies were snagged was the entrance to the HOF museum for a Saturday night reception for all HOFers in town. It was preceded by a popular parade down Main Street with HOFers riding in open pickup trucks. As each arrived at the red carpet entrance, many broke away to sign for fans, encouraged by the HOF itself as it provided great video/photo images of fan-player contact.
This reporter counted at least 29 HOFers who signed upon arrival, some for just a few fans but others for dozens or even hundreds. As usual, Ripken was the marathon man, signing for about 30 minutes in an effort to satisfy everyone in the crowd of thousands. Others generous with their time and signatures included Rod Carew, Dennis Eckersley, and Phil Niekro. Of the new inductees Hoffman, Morris, Thome and Trammell signed quite a few. Guerrero initially avoided the crowd but seemed to be coaxed by the HOF to sign a few. Only Jones, who was escorting a pregnant wife, darted inside without signing for the fans.
A stop at the HOF museum is a must for any fan, and with 53,000 in town you can imagine how crowded the museum was. Ironically, the best time to visit baseball’s hallowed halls was the few hours when the induction ceremony took place on Sunday afternoon. From about 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. almost every fan in town assembled on the spacious lawn of the Clark Sports Center for the admission-free event, meaning you could roam the museum undisturbed in air-conditioned comfort and catch the ceremony on MLB.TV the next day.
Visitors to the museum in 2018 were met with a few new features. The weekend marked the grand opening of a newly renovated, 189-seat “Grandstand Theater” and a short film titled “Generations of the Game.” The new film replaced the long-running “Baseball Experience,” a 10-minute gem I've viewed probably 50 times over the years. “Generations of the Game” features 19 HOFers narrating, along with contemporary from stars on their way to Cooperstown like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, David Ortiz, Clayton Kershaw and Bryce Harper. It’s a worthy successor to the “Baseball Experience.”
Artist Justyn Farano, a HOF licensee and producer of some spectacular sports art, was on site with a pop-up gallery of his work including a baseball piece he was creating in real-time. The centerpiece of the show was a 30” x 45” painting of the new inductees with the HOF museum in the background, signed by all six players and limited to 18 pieces. One of those 18 can be yours for a mere $5,500. His art can be viewed at www.SportsArtIllustrated.com.(Note to editor: I couldn’t figure out how to copy and send this artwork to you. Perhaps you can pull it off the website.)
Collectors should also take note of an interesting development at the HOF gift shop, also accessible through their online store at https://shop.baseballhall.org. Seemingly under the radar, in recent years the HOF has become a major supplier of autographed memorabilia. Their catalog lists baseballs with the HOF logo and a custom display case signed by 39 different HOFers. Prices are on the steep side. The low end for new inductees includes Trammell and Morris at $199 and rises to $329 for Guerrero, Jones and Thome. Hoffman was not listed.
Many other autographed items – bats, hats, photos, and artwork in addition to baseballs – are offered as well, including a Jeter baseball at $475, Mike Trout at $430 and Kris Bryant on a World Series ball commanding $405. Comparatively, a ball signed by perhaps the greatest living ballplayer of all, Willie Mays, is a bargain at $250.
Visiting Cooperstown during an induction weekend is a collector’s paradise. Whether you’re up for the crowded scramble to score a free autograph or you prefer to line up and pay the going rate, or if you want to browse the ever-changing landscape of memorabilia shops on Main Street, it’s all there for you. Make your plans early for the next few years though as Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter and David “Big Papi” Ortiz are lined up for 2019, 2020 and 2021. As those inductions roll through, the crowds that invade the little village will surely dwarf the 53,000 mark and likely exceed the all-time record of 82,000 set in 2009 when Ripken, Jr. and Tony Gwynn shared the stage.
David Moriah is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.