Big League Stew

Party on? Cooperstown braces for a Hall of Fame weekend with no living inductees

David Brown
Big League Stew

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Barry Larkin's plaque at Cooperstown, followed by two blank spots. (Big League Stew)

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — The Hall of Fame is not about to go belly up because baseball writers failed to elect any living inductees for the annual ceremony next weekend. Simply by looking at the crowds here on Main Street during the middle of Thursday afternoon, and by talking to people who own and work in businesses in the area, it's easy to tell that the town and the Hall have more going for it than one big weekend a year.

"We were prepared for the eventuality of a shutout," said Jeff Idelson, the Hall's president. "It’s disappointing because there are players on that ballot, some of which belong at Cooperstown, but absent of that we weren’t surprised."

Still, some people here in this village of 1,852 people are apprehensive about what will happen the weekend of July 26-28. How many people will come, and how much money will they spend, given that ceremonies won't feature living inductees for the first time since 1996?

Instead of eligible players like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza — which collectively would have made one of the greatest classes in history — the Hall of Fame will honor long-dead but newly-elected contributors Deacon White, Jacob Ruppert and Hank O'Day. It was difficult for the Hall to find relatives to induct them, and it was even hard to find photographs of the men. (White played before the turn of the 20th century and O'Day began his umpiring career in 1888. Ruppert, meanwhile, owned the New York Yankees until his death in 1939.)

So are there any Deacon White fans out there? And will they be coming to Cooperstown?

"It's scary," a memorabilia shop worker said.

"We're kind of low-balling our expectations," another said.

Jeff Foster of Legends are Forever told the Wall Street Journal back in January that induction weekend accounts for 15-20 percent of annual sales.

"This year is going to be absolutely horrible," Foster said in the article. "It's going to be like a regular weekend, maybe a little bit better than a regular weekend."

Mark Wolpert opened Pioneer Sports Cards in 1989, at the height of the card-collecting frenzy. He's optimistic about sales for his shop, which is situated across the street and a few paces east of the Hall on Main Street.

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(Big League Stew)

"There’s that base, a pretty good-sized group [that comes every year]," Wolpert said. "They’re not going to not show up just because somebody living isn’t going to be making a speech. It’s nice when your favorite player is there, but you’re definitely going to have a core group of people who will be here.

"I don’t think it’s going to be a complete wash. They want to see the living Hall of Famers that come back. That’s a bigger part of the whole weekend and ceremony."

An estimated 20,000 people came to the 2012 ceremony that honored Barry Larkin and the late Ron Santo. Contrast that with 75,000 who came for Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn in 2007. Idelson, who is hoping for perhaps 10,000 fans at the ceremony next weekend, said the Hall has taken measures to give the fans something to enjoy.

Among them:

• In addition to the inductions of White, Ruppert and O'Day, along with the honoring writer Paul Hagen and late broadcaster Tom Cheek in the media wing, the Hall will give the likes of Lou Gehrig and Rogers Hornsby — and the entire class of 1945 — the induction it never had because of wartime travel restrictions.

• Cal Ripken will be among at least 42 living Hall of Famers, of 65 total, attending. He'll read Lou Gehrig's plaque.

• A tribute to Dr. Frank Jobe by Tommy John, along with another tribute to the CEO of Legendary Pictures, Thomas Tull, also are planned.

"Is it going to replace having a living inductee? Of course not," Idelson said. "There’s enough compelling reasons to come. I don’t think there’s any other place you can find 40-plus Hall of Famers in one place at one time."

And even if the low-balling of expectations turns out to be right?

"It’s one of the significant anniversaries on our calendar," Idelson said. "It does matter to our bottom line. But it’s certainly no make-or-break. Attendance numbers will be down a little bit, it doesn’t affect our ability to do business."

Idelson said the Hall's operating budget is $12-14 million a year, and posted a net loss in 2011 and 2010, according to tax records. The entire tourism industry is still recovering, ever-so-slowly, from a recession that began in 2008. Cooperstown's businesses are no different.

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(Big League Stew)

"The Hall of Fame is not remotely in trouble," Idelson said. "It’s a healthy organization. We analyze our business plans and operations every year. Those who get into trouble are those that don’t adjust their business model. And we’ve been very good about adjusting out business model.

"There’s no indication that we’re going to do anything but continue to grow over the next decade."

That requires the ability to adapt. Wolpert says his business used to be 80 percent cards and 20 percent memorabilia. Because of major shifts in the card market through the years, those numbers are now reversed.

As for Cooperstown at large, other businesses have developed to help sustain and grow the town. Many, like nearby Dreams Park, compliment the Hall's existence. Dreams Park is an enormous campus of 20 youth baseball fields where dozens of ball teams at a time play in tournaments throughout the summer. Those 10-to-12-year-old boys have families and friends who also visit Cooperstown and patronize the businesses.

Businesses like that make the tough years easier to stomach.

"Dreams Park — that makes it more consistent than it used to be," Wolpert said. "It’s usually busy for three months straight. We’re not just holding our breath for induction weekend."

And even if they did hold their breath, they might only have to do it for a year. Next year's class could include Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas, along with some of the big-name holdovers. There's also a bounty of familiar managers — including Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa and Joe Torre — who might get elected by a committee. (Managers over the age of 65 don't have to wait five years so that trio will be on the veteran's committee ballot this winter.)

Unless something unexpected happens, next year's class could be among the largest and most famous in the Hall's history. So, the word of the demise of the Hall of Fame, along with Cooperstown, seems premature.

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