By David Moriah
The late, great Bill Veeck, the member of the Hall of Fame (HOF) and colorful owner of several baseball teams, used to tell a humorous story about the time he owned the hapless St. Louis Browns. The Brownies attendance was dismal, and Veeck recalled the time he answered the phone and a caller said he and a few buddies wanted to attend that night’s game.
“What time does the game start?” the caller asked.
“What time can you get here?” Veeck responded.
The story came to mind in regard to this year’s Baseball HOF induction ceremony, held July 28 in Cooperstown, N.Y. Indeed, the HOF might have used Veeck’s line in the run-up to the event.
The official statement from the HOF noted an attendance of 2,500 at the free, open-air induction ceremony. A typical year draws about 15,000, and attendance has ranged as high as 75,000 for popular stars like Cal Ripken Jr. Some observers thought that even 2,500 was a generous estimate this year, especially after a rain delay of almost one hour chased many fans back to town to the shelter of souvenir shops or the HOF Museum.
The dismal attendance was no surprise considering none of the three new inductees lived past 1939. Nineteenth century player Deacon White and early 20th century umpire Hank O’Day were two of the trio, neither of whom were known by anyone but family members and the most diligent baseball researchers and historians. The name of the third member of the 2013 class, Jacob Ruppert, was only slightly more recognizable for his role as the early 20th century New York Yankees owner who engineered the famous purchase of Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox.
Why no familiar names? The answer to that question is easy – PEDs, or performance enhancing drugs. This year’s ballot was over-stuffed with some of the most dominant names in recent baseball history – Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa – each of whom has been strongly suspected of or admitted to PED involvement. Their vote totals ranged from 8.8 percent (Palmeiro) to 37.6 percent (Clemens), all well short of the required 75 percent. Even a couple of first-ballot stars who have not been seriously accused of PED involvement, Mike Piazza and Craig Biggio, fell short in the generally sour mood of the writers this year.
Thus, the 2013 event was something of a snoozer, with speeches delivered by distant relatives of the inductees, none of whom were alive before the deaths of their ancestors. The HOF did its best to enliven things by incorporating official inductions of a dozen players who never had a ceremony in Cooperstown either because of World War II travel restrictions, or in the case of Lou Gehrig, absence due to his terrible illness at the time of his selection. The format had the 12 players’ HOF plaques read by current HOF members on stage. The highlight was hearing Cal Ripken Jr. reading the plaque of Lou Gehrig, the “Iron Man” who Ripken supplanted, formally welcoming the great Yankee legend into the Hall.
As for HOFers on stage, there was a paucity there to match the meager crowd in attendance. Only 32 of the 62 living members of the prestigious fraternity were on hand, a marked contrast to the 50 or so who usually attend. Notable absences included Yogi Berra and Willie Mays, who both appeared frail and unsteady at the 2012 event. It might turn out that 2012 will have marked their final appearances in Cooperstown.
Other MIAs included usually reliable attendees George Brett, Lou Brock, Fergie Jenkins, Bill Mazeroski, Paul Molitor, Jim Palmer and Ryne Sandberg. Another face nowhere to be seen was that of Reggie Jackson, who has not attended since publication of a controversial July 2012 Sports Illustrated article where he notoriously called out several HOFers by name as not being qualified to be on the HOF team. Awkward!
The good news for autograph collectors was that many of the 32 were active with the Sharpie throughout the weekend, signing both at paid storefront appearances and for free at the usual locations savvy collectors frequent. The drastic decline in weekend attendance overall made only a slight dent in the ranks of autograph seekers, however. There was still a vigorous scrum of collectors angling for a freebie at the golf course on Saturday morning and outside the HOF Museum Saturday evening, as players entered and departed the formal reception.
If Yogi Berra once famously said of a St. Louis hot spot that was a favorite with Yankee players, “It’s so crowded nobody goes there anymore,” a fitting line for the autograph crowd in Cooperstown this year was, “It’s so empty everybody showed up!” Perhaps thinking this would be a great year to gain advantage for seeking signatures, the ranks of fans with pens was almost as thick as usual.
Many of the HOFers took time to please the crowd, even usually tough signers like Rod Carew, Rickey Henderson and Joe Morgan. Cal Ripken Jr., as usual, spent the most time moving down the line, and Jim Rice was similarly generous at the golf course and at the Museum. Others who signed at least a few included Wade Boggs, Orlando Cepeda, Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, Pat Gillick, Goose Gossage, Phil Niekro and Ozzie Smith.
Signing at several locations and pocketing $20 “for my charity” was Carlton Fisk, though he also signed for some who did not offer the requested donation.
Many of those same players also appeared at paid autograph signings around town, along with others who were not as willing to sign for free, including Roberto Alomar, Johnny Bench, Jim Bunning, Ralph Kiner, Barry Larkin, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, Frank Robinson and Billy Williams. At the low end of the price scale was a $30 fee for Perry; $40 for Fingers, Kiner and Marichal; and $45 for Cepeda and Smith. At the upper level was $89 for Tony Gwynn, $99 for Eddie Murray and topping the crowd was Henderson at $109. The longest line in town was for 90-year-old Ralph Kiner, still officially a member of the New York Mets broadcasting team, appearing a few times a season, but who is definitely slowing down.
Several non-HOFers, including former Mets Jerry Grote, Jerry Koosman, Jeff Reardon and Rusty Staub, also signed on Main Street for modest fees. In keeping with the “down year” in Cooperstown, there were fewer sub-HOF stars than normal in town this year, too.
Back in town, and back in action at the autograph table was perennial Main Street figure Pete Rose, signing for hire at the “Safe at Home” store which has hosted him for many years. Though fans seem to be evenly split on the merits of his candidacy to be in the HOF (Note: He is ineligible as long as he remains on baseball’s permanently banned list), his appearance provoked many enthusiastic comments and encouragement from his supporters.
Safe at Home also boasted the most impressive collection of baseball treasures in Cooperstown outside the walls of the HOF itself. Newly displayed and available for purchase by collectors with a surplus of disposable cash were several items of superb desirability at the store. Included were World Series “presentation trophies,” small replicas of the actual World Series trophy given to players and team officials of the championship team. One was a 1998 trophy given to Yankee player and potential HOFer Tim Raines, even engraved with his name ($15,000), as well as non-personalized trophies from the Yankees 1978, 1998 and 1999 teams ($12,000 each). As a bonus, all trophies came with press pins issued by both winning and losing teams.
Other premium items at Safe at Home included a game-used Yogi Berra catcher’s mask ($32,500) and World Series rings from 1996 ($35,000), 1998 ($50,000) and 1999 ($50,000). A ball from the 1939 opening of the HOF signed by Base Ruth, Honus Wagner, Lefty Grove, Tris Speaker, George Sisler, “Home Run” Baker, Walter Johnson, Connie Mack, Eddie Collins, Bill Dickey and Al Simmons (wow!) was displayed and priced at $37,500.
The weekend produced all the usual collectibles associated with an induction event, including bats, balls, pins, postal cachets, etc., and once again the HOF did a superb job in producing a 48-page program distributed for free at the induction ceremony. Given the lack of recognizable stars this year, however, demand for these commemorative items is sure to be light.
Cooperstown 2013 is in the books, and for the most part it was not a pretty sight – gray clouds, a rain delay, a crowd reminiscent of the old St. Louis Browns and a light turnout of HOFers.
Fortunately, the sun promises to come out brighter next year (see sidebar) and in years to come when players like Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter take their place on the stage.
It’s a wrap!
A Look Ahead to 2014
If 2013 was a down (some would say dismal) year for Cooperstown’s “Induction Weekend,” 2014 is shaping up to be a blockbuster. Several big names, most not associated with the sprawling PED scandal, come up for a vote, and the stage in Cooperstown is liable to be a crowded one. Predicting exactly who will be on it when the dust settles is a tricky task, however.
There appears little doubt that Atlanta Braves hurlers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, both 300-game winners, will get the call in their first year on the ballot. Slugger Frank Thomas is another good bet for first ballot victory. Newcomer Mike Mussina is a possible inductee eventually, but probably not a first-ballot choice.
One wonders if the voters who punished Craig Biggio and Mike Piazza, perhaps for the steroid sins of others, will soften a bit and push them over the threshold. They came close in 2013, the first year of their eligibility, but fell short in bringing home the proverbial cigar. Another possibility is that voters will reassess the candidacy of Jack Morris in his 15th and final year of eligibility. Morris garnered 67.7 percent in 2013, ordinarily making him a good prospect for induction for his last call, but he might be overlooked with all the other top candidates on the ballot.
Next year is also the time when the Veteran’s Committee, the other pathway to join the HOF club, takes up candidates from the “Expansion Era,” considered to be 1973-present. Though the ballot has not been released yet, it’s a good bet that eligible managers Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa and Joe Torre will be considered.
There are several other potential inductees from the Expansion Era group based upon vote totals the last time this candidates were considered for 2011 induction. George Steinbrenner is in this category, and recently deceased players’ union executive Marvin Miller came up just short for 2011. Given his enormous impact on the game, it’s hard to see how much longer Miller can be kept out of the HOF.
If Maddux, Glavine and Cox all get the call, it means a monster year for Braves fans, with many likely to make the trek north to cheer one more time for the stalwarts of some great Atlanta teams. Torre is beloved by the more proximate New York fans and would surely draw busloads of the Yankee faithful to Cooperstown. Should Piazza squeak through, even more New Yorkers – Mets fans – should show up as well. Rabid Cardinals fans may add to the throng if LaRussa gets in.
Depending on how the respective votes by the writers and the Veterans Committee turn out, Cooperstown may be inundated in 2014 by crowds that approach historic levels for the tiny village.
This reporter’s prediction of the winners: Maddux, Glavine, Torre, Cox and LaRussa, but not quite yet for Biggio and Piazza. Morris is a tough call, but I’ll go out on a limb and predict he falls agonizingly short.
Finally, the crystal ball sees Marvin Miller finally being recognized for his contribution to the game, though sadly, he will not be around to enjoy it.
You heard it here, sports fans!
David Moriah is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at email@example.com.