Cooperstown’s stars come out in record numbers

What a difference a year makes. In 2007, an estimated crowd of 75,000 fans swept through tiny Cooperstown, N.Y., like an invading army to celebrate the induction of Cal Ripken, Jr. and Tony Gwynn into the Baseball Hall of Fame. OK, no disrespect to the talented and popular Gwynn, but about 74,000 of that number were there in Oriole orange to honor the beloved Ripken.

On July 27, 2008, it was Rich “Goose” Gossage and Dick Williams who graced the stage, and though the Goose in particular attracted a noisy throng of Yankees fans who remembered his six standout seasons with the Bronx Bombers, this year’s modest turnout of about 14,000 made it seem more like a sedate, private party compared to the 2007 extravaganza.

To round out the HOF inductee Class of 2008, deceased old-timers Barney Dreyfuss, Bowie Kuhn, Walter O’Malley and Billy Southworth were also honored, bringing membership in the elite Cooperstown fraternity to a total of 286. In addition to the inductions, the annual Ford C. Frick broadcaster award was given to Dave Niehaus, the long-time voice of the Seattle Mariners, and the J. G. Taylor Spink award went to sportswriter Larry Whiteside, veteran correspondent for the Boston Globe.

The ceremony was noteworthy for the appearance on stage of a whopping 56 of the 64 living HOFers, a fact proudly noted by new HOF President Jeff Idelson, who declared it to be the largest number of HOF members ever assembled in one location. The only members not present were Rod Carew, George Kell, Larry MacPhail, Stan Musial, Nolan Ryan, Carl Yastrzemski and Robin Yount.

The combination of so many HOFers in town, along with a relatively small number of fans, was a formula for great autograph hunting, both for signatures purchased at shows as well as the treasured freebies that make Cooperstown weekends a real treat in today’s commercial autograph environment.

The Otesaga Hotel golf course continued to be the weekend hot spot for snagging a few free ones for collectors with abundant patience and Ripken-like perseverance. The list of HOFers who took time to sign at least a few, and in some cases quite a few, was long and illustrious. It included Wade Boggs, Lou Brock, Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, Carlton Fisk, Whitey Ford, Tony Gwynn, Al Kaline, Bill Mazeroski, Paul Molitor, Phil Niekro, Jim Palmer, Gaylord Perry, Brooks Robinson, Ryne Sandberg, Ozzie Smith and Billy Williams.

Especially impressive was the Sunday morning performance of Eckersley, Molitor and Smith, a “power trio” of signers playing together who stopped at every hole that allowed public access and signed furiously, satisfying as many fans as possible.

At the other end of the spectrum, there were those who resisted the pleas of fans and signed nary a single autograph while golfing, including notorious non-signers Reggie Jackson, Frank Robinson and Dave Winfield. You could catch each of them at paid signings however, with Jackson and Robinson commanding $75 and up, Winfield at $79 and higher.

Though not seen at the golf course, another HOFer who signed free of charge for dozens of fans was Ripken, a legendary good guy who always seems to make time for autograph seekers. His unannounced Saturday afternoon interview at the XM Radio tent in Cooper Park adjacent to the HOF Museum attracted more than 100 spectators, most of whom were strolling through the park only to discover a larger-than-life Ripken sitting and chatting only a few yards from them. After his 15-minute interview, he waded into the crowd and signed about 100 autographs, attempting to satisfy everyone before being escorted to his next event.

There were plenty of opportunities for fans to purchase autographs through the weekend, as well, with signings happening from Thursday through Monday morning. Most of the HOFers in town took up the Sharpie at five or six key locations along and around Main Street, and the large numbers of signers in one small vicinity meant lines and waits were minimal. Prices this year, however, were anything but minimal.

Although it’s still possible to secure signatures of HOF “lesser lights” for somewhat modest fees (e.g., Bobby Doerr, Fingers, Bob Feller, Monte Irvin and Perry at $30) there’s been noticeable “price creep” for others. Examples included Yogi Berra, Boggs and Mike Schmidt at $75 and higher, and new HOFer Gossage signing for $89 and up. Dick Williams did not appear at any shows. Mays set up his usual shop at Mickey’s Place throughout the weekend, setting the high bar at $125 for flats and higher still for bats, uniforms, etc.
In addition to members of the HOF, many former stars short of HOF status manned autograph tables as well, including Ron Blomberg, Ralph Branca, Steve Garvey, Dwight Gooden, Mudcat Grant, Ron Guidry, Denny McClain, Greg Nettles and Roy White. Most prices for these names were in the $20-$30 range.

Once again, the biggest name and the highest price realized for a non-HOFer belonged to major league hit king Pete Rose. As he has done since the mid-1990s, the man banned not only from baseball but also from entry through the front door of the HOF took up his position at a Main Street shop just a few hundred feet down the block from the HOF and signed throughout the weekend. Steering straight into the winds of the controversy surrounding his tainted career, Rose signed balls with the inscription “I’m sorry I bet on baseball” for a premium price of $250.

A new development on the Cooperstown autograph scene was the on-site presence of authentication services to validate and register autographs acquired during the weekend.

James Spence Authentication (JSA) had a table on Main Street throughout the weekend, with an added presence at the annual memorabilia show across the street from the HOF in the ancient VFW building run by longtime collector Don Flewelling of Oneonta. (Side note: This long-running event is the best little memorabilia show in America, featuring tables overflowing with treasures dating back to the dawn of the game, concluding with a terrific Saturday night auction.)

JSA had a weekend special that appealed to many collectors. For any item signed anywhere in Cooperstown during the weekend, JSA authenticators studied the signature, considered the situation where it was signed and offered their opinion on its veracity for only $5. The price, which included a registration in the JSA database, was a bargain compared to its usual fee of $20-$40 for a basic certification.

There were, as usual, plenty of collectibles in town beyond the plethora of autographs. Cooperstown continues to boast more card and memorabilia shops per square mile than anywhere in the world, and though prices are a bit inflated (“location, location, location”) it is nevertheless a great place to pick up everything from basic hobby supplies to high-end photos and artwork signed by Ruth, Gehrig and other greats of the game.
Though the HOF museum sells only souvenirs in its gift shop and not historical artifacts, there are plenty of shops and shows in town so there is no lack of ways to lighten your wallet and build your collection. 

One bit of good news for those with thin wallets or tight budgets was the continuation of the HOF tradition of handing out free induction programs to all attending the Sunday ceremony, which is itself a free admission event. The programs, which have evolved and improved since the series began in 1982, had a print run this year of 40,000, of which half were distributed on site and half mailed to members of the Friends of the HOF program.

The 2008 Cooperstown party ended quietly, and the usually clogged highway south from town was pleasantly empty on Sunday evening. A look ahead to next year’s election hints 2009 might be another quiet year in Cooperstown. The most likely first-ballot choice is Rickey Henderson, a stellar player and all-time stolen base champ, but hardly one with a vast or rabid fan following.

It seems the only prospect for a strong fan turnout is the possible election of Boston Red Sox slugger Jim Rice, who came in second to Gossage this year and who’s vote total reached the 72 percent level, just shy of the required 75 percent. It will be Rice’s final year of eligibility with the BBWAA, a factor which might give him a psychological boost with the voters.

No matter who is chosen, or even if no one is given a plaque next year, a statistical possibility but a non-event which hasn’t occurred since 1960, a Cooperstown induction weekend is an adventure that all fans and collectors should experience at least once in their lives. For this reporter, it was his 20th consecutive year, and one he will remember fondly, like all of the others.

Dave Moriah is a regular contributor to Sports Collectors Digest.

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