By David Moriah
They came and they left – 51 members of baseball’s Hall of Fame and approximately 21,000 fans of the game – but for three days in late July, they occupied the village of Cooperstown, N.Y., and made it the center of the baseball universe. The occasion was the annual induction of the HOF’s newest members, complete with pomp and circumstance, events like a youth skills clinic conducted by former big leaguers, a minor league baseball game played at historic Doubleday Field and a dizzying array of opportunities to add autographs, photographs and memorabilia to any fan’s collection.
This year’s inductees were Rickey Henderson, Jim Rice and deceased legend Joe Gordon. Rice, elected in his 15th and final year of eligibility, drew a large and vocal crowd of Boston faithful. The Red Sox slugger entered as the 47th HOFer to spend his entire career with one team, representing a dwindling breed in the modern era of free agency.
Henderson, by contrast, wore nine different uniforms during his lengthy career, depriving him of both geographical identity and a loyal fan base rooted anywhere in particular. Gordon played for the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians, but with a career that ended almost 60 years ago in 1950, there were few on hand who had seen him play.
Of course, many fans make the inconvenient but scenic trek to rural Cooperstown no matter who is inducted, as the weekend is a non-stop baseball celebration. It is also an unbeatable chance to “pick up stuff,” whether such stuff means autographs, up-close photographs of baseball’s greatest players, souvenirs that commemorate the weekend or memorabilia for sale around town. There are dozens of baseball-themed shops lining Main Street and spilling onto side streets from one end of town to the other, featuring something for every budget from 99-cent card packs to elaborately framed autographed items of Ruth, Gehrig, Cobb and the like, priced in the thousands of dollars.
Autographs, of course, are a prime focus of the weekend for many fans, as so many baseball greats are in the same spot at one time in an autograph bonanza that stretches over several days. And it is not just HOFers who are in town, but many are stars in their own right from their days in the game, visiting town to honor a friend being inducted or appearing themselves at one or more of the in-town autograph shows.
This year, that group included Dwight Evans, in town for teammate Rice, Dave Stewart, supporting his friend Henderson and autograph show signers like Ron Blomberg, Paul Blair, Ralph Branca, Dwight Gooden, Ron Guidry, Dave Henderson, Scott McGregor, Denny McLain and Bill “Moose” Skowron.
The most notable weekend signer not in the HOF – as he has been for almost all of the past 15 years or so – was Pete Rose. Rose remains controversial amongst HOF members, but often signs alongside former teammates and opponents and maintains friendly relations with many. This year he appeared with Mike Schmidt at the same Main Street store, “Safe at Home,” where he regularly sets up shop. Post-weekend speculation hinted that Major League Baseball might be dusting off the appeal of his lifetime suspension and reconsidering his case, a necessary step for the all-time hit leader’s possible enshrinement in the HOF.
Rose’s fee was a relatively modest $60 for a flat or ball, rising to $95 for bats, jerseys or other equipment. The range for HOF signatures ran from a low of $25 for the ageless Bob Feller, $59 for new inductees Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice, $75 for Yogi Berra, $89 for Reggie Jackson, and up to the stratospheric and almost incomprehensible prices charged by Willie Mays.
Mays, once an infrequent visitor at induction weekends, has lately become a fixture at Mickey’s Place on Main Street. This year he arrived with a friend – the legendary Topps baseball card pioneer Sy Berger, who acts as an agent of sorts for Mays. Each year Mays’s prices seem to creep higher, this year settling in at $200 for flats and balls, $400 for bats and $600 for jerseys. For an extra $75, Mays added an inscription like “Say Hey!” or his HOF year.
Many in town were turned off by his fees and marveled that anyone was willing to pay such prices, especially as Mays has long had a reputation for rudeness with fans, but there are always some willing to pay the fare. The traffic for Mays was not brisk and there were no visible lines of people waiting, but at those prices he didn’t have to sign many to make for a lucrative weekend.
All in all, most HOFers appeared at paid signings one time or another throughout the weekend. There were a few notable exceptions, however, as notoriously hard-to-get players Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax and Carl Yastrzemski kept their reputations intact by not appearing at any paid signing session.
Of course, there are always fans who manage to snag free autographs. There are still a few windows of opportunity in Cooperstown for the old-fashioned autograph hunt, and some come focused on just those chances. Each morning crowds gathered at strategic locations near the hotel golf course where players would pass by in their carts, and the Saturday evening gala reception at the HOF Museum proved another productive spot.
“HOF Good Guy” awards for attempting to sign as many as possible went to Paul Molitor, Wade Boggs and Ozzie Smith. Others who stopped to sign for at least a few included Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Whitey Ford, Dennis Eckersley, Phil Niekro and Mike Schmidt (though Schmidt refused to sign not only bats but baseballs as well.)
Two new twists have emerged on the Cooperstown autograph scene in recent years. One is the appearance of authentication services ready to provide COAs on the spot at paid signings. James Spence of James Spence Authentication went further and offered a $5 special for authentication of any item obtained any time or place throughout the weekend, a considerable discount off his regular prices. Spence manned a table at the Cooperstown XXX memorabilia show and impressed one collector who brought in two “mystery balls” hoping Spence could help him remember whose names were behind a couple of indecipherable autographs. It took Spence only a few seconds to identify Brady Anderson and Larry Walker as the culprits, jogging the collector’s memory and leaving him delighted with the identification.
The other new development is a more complex one, possibly yielding good results but also pushing the envelope in ethics and perhaps the law. Upon arriving at the golf course, a reporter was informed by autograph seekers that Carlton Fisk signed only for donations to “his charity,” though no one seemed to know what that charity was. When Fisk arrived, he did collect cash for each signature he gave, but did not offer receipts and kept no apparent record of cash he received. The scene produced a startling image of dozens of collectors holding out balls and bats along with $20 bills, and one collector got Fisk’s attention – and an autograph – by shouting, “I’ll double my donation.” Gary Carter also collected money for charity, though he signed a few without receiving donations, and again there were no receipts or apparent record of the transactions.
It is surprising high-profile players would put themselves at legal risk in such public situations, especially since it was failure to declare income from autograph signings that put Pete Rose and Darryl Strawberry in jail. There is no reason to believe the money collected did not go to a worthy and tax-deductible cause, but there didn’t seem to be much accountability for a significant amount of money that changed hands.
Indeed, plenty of money changed hands throughout the weekend, and most storekeepers as well as dealers at Cooperstown XXX reported strong earnings, despite the well publicized recession. In fact, this year’s crowd of 21,000 was up by about 6,000 from last year’s estimated 15,000 attendees.
What 2010 holds for Cooperstown is an open question. Unlike years such as 2007 when the elections of Cal Ripken, Jr. and Tony Gwynn were forgone conclusions, there are no similar front runners on the ballot next year. The new group of eligible players includes three bona fide candidates for eventual induction, Roberto Alomar, Barry Larkin and Fred McGriff, but none seem assured of winning prestigious first-ballot status.
Perhaps it will be time for the long wait to end for Bert Blyleven, who fell just short this year and is nearing the end of his eligibility after 12 years of frustration. Andre Dawson hasn’t waited quite as long, and came even closer than Blyleven in the 2008 balloting, so he stands a good chance of selection. Both will be holding their breath until next January’s announcement.
Finally, there may be a selection by the Veterans Committee in the category of managers, umpires and executives.
Stay tuned, sports fans. And as always, expect a grand celebration in Cooperstown in 2010 no matter who gains entry into baseball’s most exclusive fraternity.
David Moriah is a SCD columnists and annual reporter of the Hall of Fame induction weekend.