By David Moriah
If it’s true, as some say, that baseball is a dying sport, they forgot to tell the 50,000 or so fans who rallied in Cooperstown on the weekend of July 23-24 for the annual Baseball Hall
of Fame induction ceremony.
Attendance was second only to the massive crowd of 75,000 who besieged the village in 2007 to watch Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn enter baseball’s hallowed hall. This year the stars of the show were Mike Piazza and Ken Griffey Jr. The latter having set a record for highest percentage of votes cast in a HOF election (99.32 percent), missing out on only three ballots of 440 cast. Piazza cleared the 75-percent threshold on his fourth attempt, appearing on 83 percent of votes recorded. (Note: Each qualified voter from the Baseball Writer’s Association of America can name up to 10 candidates on his/her ballot.)
Though each player wore several uniforms during their careers, Piazza is pictured on his plaque wearing a cap from his years with the N.Y. Mets, while Griffey’s is adorned with the Seattle Mariners logo. Reflective of those choices, Cooperstown was flooded with fans sporting Mets and Mariners caps and jerseys. For Mets fans, it was a rare opportunity to cheer one of their own in Cooperstown, as Piazza joined Tom Seaver as the only two Mets in the HOF.
Fans Flock to Cooperstown
Seattle fans faced a far more daunting trek across the continent, but a surprisingly large contingent showed up despite the challenge. Griffey became the first Mariner to earn a spot in Cooperstown, and his electrifying debut in Seattle as a 19-year-old phenom in 1989 brought baseball to life in what had been a notoriously sleepy baseball town. Griffey spent 13 years altogether in Seattle, beginning and ending his career there, and was a fan favorite while clubbing 417 of his 630 home runs in a Mariners uniform.
Another reason the crowd swelled to a near record this year was the continuing growth and popularity of the baseball bus touring industry. There are several companies that specialize in organized tours of ballparks and games throughout North America, and some offer an Induction Weekend package that includes lodging, or at least camping, near Cooperstown.
The company with the best position in the competitive sports travel industry is Sports Travel and Tours (sportstravelandtours.com), which is in partnership with the HOF and offers various benefits that the HOF provides. This year Sports Travel and Tours brought about 800 fans in a total of 15 buses, arriving from starting points in New York, Washington and nearby Albany, N.Y.
Another 800 came in straight from the Citi Field parking lot in conjunction with “7 Line
Army,” the independent Mets fan club that provides a ubiquitous orange-shirted presence at many Mets home and away games. Their package, which featured Saturday night camping on the Ommegang Brewery grounds, was organized by Rally, which bills itself as a technology company that facilitates “crowd-powered event travel” (http://rallybus.net/www). Whew! It’s a brave new world, sports fans!
HOF Greats Also Gather
Of course, once fans arrive in Cooperstown, for many the hunt is on for autographs. The weekend affords a mind-boggling array of opportunities to add to your collection, not only for HOF signatures but for dozens of lesser stars and players who have worn MLB uniforms as well. Main Street is awash in players signing at makeshift sidewalk tables and inside air-conditioned shops, at prices ranging from modest sums like $20 (e.g., 1969 Miracle Mets stars Cleon Jones, Ron Swoboda, Ed Kranepool and Art Shamsky), all the way up to $599 to coax Randy Johnson to sign your jersey.
Most of the 52 members of the HOF who were in town took part in the game of signing for hire, with MAB Celebrity Services booking a whopping 32 of them. MAB landed all four of the 2015 HOF class (Biggio, Johnson, Martinez and Smoltz), as well as 2016 entrant Piazza. Griffey Jr. was not on their roster, nor was he signing anywhere else in town for a fee.
You were also out of luck if you were hoping to pay for a Sandy Koufax signature, as the Dodger great continued his practice of avoiding the autograph scene. Another big name who passed up the lucrative market was Cal Ripken Jr., who has yet to appear in Cooperstown for a fee.
Ripken and Griffey Jr. did sign for free to many fans in front of the HOF museum at the conclusion of Saturday afternoon’s parade down Main Street. Players arrive one at a time in open-air vehicles, and many sign for the fans before heading in for an exclusive reception.
The autograph scene in front of the Hall at parade’s end has evolved over the several years it’s been a fixture of induction weekends. As fans became aware that many HOFers sign at least a few, and in some cases sign quite a few for those waiting behind the barricades, chairs began to be positioned at the front early in the day for prime spots. People guard their prized location from early morning on, and by the time the parade begins, the key areas are jammed five or more chairs deep.
Though the typical summer sun and 90-degree heat challenge the resolve of the stalwarts, many find it worthwhile, as it’s possible to snag a half-dozen or so free autographs from some of the biggest names in baseball. This year both new inductees spent 10 to 20 minutes signing, and most other HOFers put in at least a few minutes. Those who did not included two of the oldest living HOFers, Tommy Lasorda, age 88, and Whitey Ford, age 87. Also passing up the crowd was Rod Carew, only 70 but recovering from a massive heart attack. Carew looked visibly weakened and he reported recently that he is awaiting a heart transplant.
There is always great expectation for the arrival of the new inductees, who arrive in the final two vehicles of the parade. Piazza immediately went to the crowd and spent a long time signing and posing for pictures with hundreds of fans. Griffey at first appeared to be passing on signing, as he headed straight for the museum, but after HOF President Jeff Idelson whispered something to him, he turned and waded into the autograph scrum for 10 minutes or so.
Rallying Around Ripken Jr.
The real Sharpie superstar, as always, was Cal Ripken Jr. His commitment to fans is legendary, and he once again showed why he remains perhaps the most beloved baseball legend fully 15 years after his retirement. Ripken spent at least a half-hour signing up and down the line, interacting in a friendly and easy manner that had even those who missed out on his autograph calling out thanks to him for making the effort.
The other location for free HOF signatures, also well known by savvy Cooperstown
autograph collectors, was the lush Otesaga Hotel golf course. There is an annual Saturday morning golf tournament with a couple of dozen HOFers, and players often sign in spots where they come close to the public road that cuts through the course.
This year was no exception, and Piazza again was a fan favorite, signing prolifically in a few locations. George Brett, Carlton Fisk, Fergie Jenkins, Mike Schmidt, Rollie Fingers and Bert Blyleven were also autograph “good guys” at the course. Unfortunately, Griffey passed all fans by without signing a single autograph.
Memorabilia More Than Autographs
Autographing is not the only sport in play for collectors in Cooperstown. The village is a treasure trove of memorabilia and collectibles, and each induction weekend brings forth a new batch of items related to the new inductees. In addition to what can be found in the multitude of shops and card shows in town, the HOF gift shop churns out a flurry of induction-related items.
Every year it seems the HOF is producing more and more material related to the induction, from pins to photos to caps to baseball cards and all manner of souvenirs adorned with the inductees’ names. The current website for the gift shop (http://shop.baseballhall.org) lists 177 induction-related items.
Included on the list is a wide variety of Piazza-signed material at premium prices. An autograph ball is listed at $329.99, a HOF logo ball at $399.99, a bat at $499.99 and a Mets helmet at $549.99. Those in the HOF membership program can knock 10 percent off those prices, which would essentially pay for the annual membership that features free admission to the museum and a subscription to the HOF’s outstanding Memories and Dreams magazine.
The Induction Day program, which was distributed free of charge at the ceremony each year since the early 1980s, has been folded into Memories and Dreams, serving as the fourth issue of the semi-monthly periodical. Last year free distribution was halted and it was instead sold for $3.70, a price point in effect this year as well.
Magical HOF Moments
Induction weekends are not only a time to amass more “stuff” for your collection, but also a time when spontaneous baseball magic sometimes occurs. On Friday evening a reporter was having dinner in a surprisingly classy Italian restaurant on Main Street when Joe Torre and his wife arrived for dinner. Although all eyes were fixed on their table, folks had the decency to leave them in peace throughout their meal.
As they stood up to leave, however, the house exploded with energy as everyone, including waiters and the chef, all sought out Torre for handshakes, photos and autographs. Torre obliged all comers in the house, as well as several dozen autograph seekers outside the restaurant. Word had spread of Torre’s presence and Sharpie-wielding fans quickly besieged the restaurant.
In the end, 50,000 fans came and 50,000 left Cooperstown loaded up with autographs, photographs and memories. The picturesque village settled back into its quiet charm for another year, marking its calendar for Sunday, July 30, 2017, for the next Induction Day and all its related hoopla. u
David Moriah is a regular contributor to SCD. He can be reached at email@example.com.