By David Moriah
Baseball’s Hall of Fame welcomed five new members under a sunny sky in picturesque Cooperstown, New York on July 30. The five inductees swelled the ranks of baseball’s immortals to 317. An estimated 27,500 fans were on hand, a crowd a bit lighter than seen in most recent years. As a result it was a weekend full of opportunities for visitors to load up on autographs, photographs, memorabilia, and of course, memories of the historic occasion.
The town was especially awash in Houston Astros gear as it was clear new inductee Jeff Bagwell, who played his entire 15-year career in Houston, drew more fans than any of the others. Catcher Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez attracted a noisy collection of fans, many waving flags of his native Puerto Rico. The third player on the roster of inductees was Tim Raines, who split his 23-year career over six teams. Raines entered wearing a Montreal Expos cap as 13 of his seasons were spent north of the border. With baseball long gone in Montreal, Raines’s crowd was somewhat smaller than that of the other two players.
Also being inducted were two from the category of baseball executives. John Schuerholz was the mastermind behind the great Atlanta Braves dynasty from 1990 to 2007. He also served a nine-year stint as general manager of the Kansas City Royals, bringing them a World Series championship in 1985.
The final inductee was the most controversial of the lot. Allan “Bud” Selig served as Commissioner of baseball from 1992 to 2015, a tumultuous period that included a bitter work stoppage and the dark cloud of the steroid era, but also tremendous growth and dramatic changes in the game. His tenure was marked by post-season expansion, the advent of instant replay, and ultimately a long-lasting period of labor-management peace. Through it all Selig inspired strong and often negative reactions from fans, and there was significant booing when his turn came to receive his plaque.
A Cooperstown induction weekend is an autograph mecca for fans, both in commercial signings as well as a few opportunities to garner “freebies” for fans willing to put in time and elbow for position in an increasingly crowded scrum of autograph seekers. Long gone are the days when Hall of Famers walked down Main Street and casually signed along the way.
Two golden opportunities to collect the old fashioned way remain, however, though both are well known and crowds of autograph seekers are thick at each. An induction weekend tradition is a Saturday morning golf tournament at the 18-hole course adjacent to the Otesaga Hotel, weekend home for the Hall of Fame members and their guests. Since the hotel is secured from the public throughout the weekend, the opportunity for autographs occurs at a few spots where golfers come into proximity with the public highway. Collectors cluster at these spots and often land a few from willing players in the tournament. Ozzie Smith once again did his best to satisfy the fans, as did Craig Biggio.
One interesting player in the tournament was Chi Chi Rodriguez, the 81-year-old golfer who was the first Puerto Rican inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. Chi Chi teed off with his Puerto Rican counterpart Pudge Rodriguez, making it the foursome with the most colorful nicknames. This reporter did not witness Chi Chi signing autographs and he was not booked for signings on Main Street, though he may have signed a few somewhere during the weekend.
The other spot where fans are often rewarded for time spent staking out prime locations is in front of the Hall of Fame Museum on Saturday evening. For about an hour a parade takes place on Main Street featuring most returning Hall of Famers arriving at the museum in open-air vehicles for a private reception. This innovation, begun about five years ago, has become wildly popular and people stake out spots as much as 24 hours in advance of the parade.
Although positions on either side of the entrance to the museum have turned into VIP areas, ordinary fans and autographs seekers still cluster immediately across the street from the entrance and a surprisingly large number of Hall of Famers take time to sign for them. Waiting around until players leave the reception can also yield results.
This year an especially large number of Hall of Famers took time for autographs, including some who are usually tough signatures. Here’s the roster of those who signed, often for dozens of fans: Fergie Jenkins, Ozzie Smith, Dennis Eckersley, Phil Niekro, Wade Boggs, Ryne Sandberg, Bruce Sutter, Goose Gossage, Bert Blyleven, Rickey Henderson, Jim Rice, Andre Dawson, Pat Gillick, Bobby Cox, Tom Glavine Greg Maddux, Frank Thomas, Randy Johnson, John Smoltz, Craig Biggio, Ken Griffey Jr., and Mike Piazza.
George Brett dramatically raced over to a fan wearing his #5 Kansas City Royals jersey and hugged him. He signed the jersey but not much else before disappearing into the museum. Surprisingly, none of the new inductees took time to sign, a marked contrast to the 2016 class of Mike Piazza and Ken Griffey Jr., who each spent considerable time satisfying fan demand.
Not listed above, but the one who outshone them all, was Cal Ripken Jr. Baseball’s Iron Man, perhaps the game’s most popular icon, went up and down Main Street in a valiant but ultimately futile attempt to sign for everyone in town in a marathon effort that lasted about 45 minutes. Ripken interacted warmly with the crowd, and even those who couldn’t get their item signed called out thanks to Ripken for doing his best to sign for all.
The other noteworthy, and surprising Hall of Famer to sign on Main Street was Whitey Ford, the fourth oldest living member at age 88. Much to the surprise and delight of fans, as Ford left the reception he went to the crowd to sign several autographs before retiring. It was the first time in many years that Ford had been a willing signer outside of an autograph show.
Speaking of autograph shows, as usual there were plenty happening throughout the weekend. For those willing to part with a large wad of cash, it was possible to leave town with a haul of several dozen Hall of Famers. The Hall of Fame announced that a total of 55 members were in town at one time or another out of 73 living members. The turnout of Hall of Famers has been strong in recent years so fans can count on seeing a remarkable number of the game’s greats in one place every year.
MAB Celebrity Services is the undisputed King of the Mountain for autographs in Cooperstown. This year they provided a whopping 30 of the 55 Hall of Famers at one time or another, including the three new player inductees Bagwell, Raines, and Rodriguez. Bagwell signed flats and balls for $99, as did Rodriguez. Raines came in at a slightly lower $79. Others on the MAB roster included lower-end signers Gaylord Perry and Ferguson Jenkins at $30.
At the higher end was the $99 crew of Craig Biggio, Rickey Henderson, Ryne Sandberg, John Smoltz and Frank Thomas. Topping all was Mike Piazza, charging the inexplicably extravagant sum of $179 for flats and balls. Want Mike to put his pen to your game-used item or artwork? Be prepared to fork over $399.
MAB added a few non-Hall of Famers to its lineup as well. Doc Gooden was a $35 signer, Jim Leyritz $25, and Willie Randolph $40. Former players, including a few “near Hall of Famers” appeared at other locations in town. Dale Murphy signed for $40, Steve Garvey $35, Al Oliver $25 and Ruben Sierra $20.
There were notable Hall of Famers in town who didn’t appear with either MAB or one of the smaller venues, however. As usual, Sandy Koufax remained elusive throughout the weekend, coming out from behind the stage at the induction ceremony like the Wizard of Oz. Koufax was one of a few who did not appear in Saturday night’s parade as well, maintaining his mystique of privacy and shyness.
Hank Aaron did ride in the parade and was on stage Sunday, but maintained his practice of not participating in any of autograph signing. Others who declined public signings included George Brett, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Nolan Ryan, Bud Selig and Joe Torre. Despite signing prolifically on the street Cal Ripken Jr. maintained his “streak” of not appearing at paid signings in Cooperstown.
Another streak of sorts was continued by the most notorious non-Hall of Famer of all, Pete Rose. Baseball’s outlaw settled in once again at “Safe at Home’s” storefront that’s hosted him almost every year since the mid-1990s. Rose always attracts a loyal crowd of fans who passionately insist he should have his own plaque in Cooperstown and willingly put out the $65 fee for his autograph.
Jim Spence of JSA Authentication spent the weekend with a team of staff doing a brisk business affirming signatures. JSA runs a special price of $10 for authenticating any signatures obtained during the weekend, as well as doing business on other items in fans’ collections.
Spence told Sports Collectors Digest the most unusual item he saw all weekend was a baseball signed during the filming of “A League of Their Own” when the cast came to Cooperstown for the film’s final scenes at Doubleday Field and in the Hall of Fame Museum. The ball was brought to him by the daughter of a former Hall of Fame staff member who obtained the signatures in person.
The ball contained all the big names in the film, and none of the minor characters. Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Rosie O’Donnell and director Penny Marshall all signed the ball, but the real prize was the unmistakably bold signature of Madonna.
“Madonna was the key,” Spence declared. “She’s a very difficult autograph to obtain. I would estimate the ball would go in the range of $10,000.”
Of course, autographs aren’t the only category of memorabilia available in Cooperstown on induction weekends. A dozen or more stores on Main Street specialize in baseball-related items from current team apparel to vintage items, and the Hall of Fame Museum’s gift shop issues an abundance of induction related items. A popular item is the annual full size replica signature bat with gold embossed facsimiles of the new inductees autographs. A limited edition item, it’s still available through the gift shop catalog (shop.baseballhall.org) at $130.
At a lower price point is the yearbook-style induction program featuring the new inductees along with other material. After many years of free distribution on-site of the program, it’s now for sale at $3.70. Shipping on any gift shop item is free for those enrolled in the friends of the Hall of Fame membership program, beginning at $25 for kids 12 and under, $50 for adults.
All in all, 2017 was an especially good year to be at a Hall of Fame induction weekend. The weather was absolutely perfect and with attendance somewhat down it was easy to get around, and maybe even land a few prized signatures for your collection.
David Moriah is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.