By David Moriah
The fans were back, 48,000 strong, for this year’s Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies after a dreary event in 2013 that featured no living inductees and microscopic attendance.
The reception for the Class of 2014 more than made up for last year’s dud, as no less than six new members were enshrined, each boasting significant fan support. Players Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Frank Thomas all entered on their first ballot appearance after waiting out the mandatory five years after retirement. A trio of recent managers, Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa and Joe Torre joined them on stage before the enthusiastic audience, constituting the largest crowd since Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn entered in 2007.
With half of the new members – Cox, Glavine and Maddux – spending the greater part of their careers with the Atlanta Braves, there was a strong contingent of Braves fans in the crowd. La Russa’s managerial career included stops in Chicago, Oakland and most recently St. Louis, with Cardinal fans in particular showing up to support him. Frank Thomas spent most of his career with the White Sox and a smaller contingent of his fans came in from the Windy City.
The unofficial star of the show, however, was Joe Torre, and with New York City located only a few hours’ drive from Cooperstown, Yankee fans arrived in force. Though Torre’s managerial resumé includes time with four other teams, it was his run with the Yankees from 1996-2007 that earned his ticket to HOF glory, and thousands of Yankee fans were there to make sure everyone knew it.
HOF induction weekends are known for the extraordinary opportunity fans have to add to their autograph collections, both from the HOFers in town, as well as an ever-growing number of “sub-HOF” players who arrive for the weekend. This year a record 44 HOF members, plus the six new inductees were present, and many were on the rosters of autograph shows up and down Main Street.
Especially notable this year was the army of sub-HOFers wielding pens. Perhaps it was the connection many had to the six inductees, or perhaps it’s that retired players and their agents have discovered the Cooperstown marketplace on induction weekends; whatever the reason, this year saw more former MLB players in town on the autograph circuit than ever before.
A SCD reporter tried to keep track of all those in action throughout the weekend, but might have missed a few. The ones he’s sure of included Maury Wills, Ryan Klesko, Denny McLain, Ron Blomberg, Darryl Strawberry, Lee Mazzilli, Dave Stewart, Carney Lansford, Jose Cardenal, Bob Watson, Ron Guidry, Art Shamsky, Willie Randolph, Paul O’Neill, Chris Chambliss, Bobby Shantz, Frank Howard and John Montefusco.
A few others merit special mention. John Smoltz, in town primarily as a broadcaster but also to support his pitching partners Glavine and Maddux, signed for a few hours at $60 for balls and flats. Smoltz will be eligible for his own HOF election next year, and many believe he will also gain first-ballot entry. (See sidebar on “Who’s up for 2015?” below)
Also signing at a Main Street table was the original Frank Thomas, not to be confused with the new inductee. This Thomas was a formidable slugger in his own right in the 1950s and 1960s. This Frank Thomas was an original 1962 Met, and had a distinguished 15-year career in the National League, including three All-Star appearances. Thomas, age 85, a serious baseball card collector and SCD reader, was an entertaining presence on Main Street, frequently accosting people wearing Mets garb and calling out, “Hey, don’t you want my autograph? I was an original Met!”
Another notable autograph guest was Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells. Parcells was on the roster of MAB Celebrity Services, a New York area promoter that puts on the biggest autograph show in Cooperstown. Parcells appeared for one session and did a brisk business at $89 for a flat or ball.
The notorious John Rocker, former relief pitcher who had a few good years and a few ugly incidents to go with them, was on hand for the first time in Cooperstown. In a move that many thought tacky, the promoter for Rocker’s appearance raffled off at $20 the opportunity to go out for a beer with the infamous “bad boy.”
Of course, baseball’s ultimate “bad boy” is also its all-time hit king, and Pete Rose was once again on Main Street throughout the weekend. Rose always is a popular autograph at $60 for flats and balls, $85 for jerseys and equipment. For $300, you could purchase the “Charlie Hustle Jersey Package.” As the sun sets on Commissioner Bud Selig’s term in office, Rose is hoping a new face may provide him a new chance to enter the HOF without having to buy an admission ticket.
In addition to the non-stop opportunities to secure signatures at the various shows and tables set up along Main Street, adventurous collectors always seek out the two reliable venues where HOF members often sign for free – the golf course on Saturday morning and in front of the Museum on Saturday evening when all HOFers arrive for a special reception.
At the golf course, several HOFers took time between swings to satisfy the throngs of autograph seekers camped out at the locations where the course came close to the road. New inductees Glavine and Maddux both signed at least a few, and Carlton Fisk continued his dubious practice of collecting $20 bills for his signature, letting fans know he was donating it to his foundation.
The scene in front of the museum on Saturday evening was thick with people, with autograph seekers crowding the barricades six or seven deep, making it difficult to land a signature for anyone but those who waited for hours at the front of the pack. Cal Ripken Jr. and Paul Molitor won the prize for spending the most time signing, satisfying at least a hundred or so before heading in for the reception. Surprisingly, Ricky Henderson also took quite a bit of time signing, along with Goose Gossage, Phil Niekro, Ozzie Smith and Orlando Cepeda. There were a few who signed only a few, and only when the HOF video camera was trained on them, including Dave Winfield, George Brett and Rod Carew.
HOF weekends also produce several forms of memorabilia associated with the events and the new inductees. The big news on that front is that 2014 marked the end of free distribution of the official HOF Weekend Program, a run that lasted for 30 years. What began as a four-page, scorecard-style program handed out gratis on-site of the Sunday induction ceremony has evolved over the years into a lengthy and colorful yearbook-style magazine.
Obviously, the cost of production has increased, along with the size and quality of the program, which in recent years has been folded into the semi-monthly Memories & Dreams magazine sent to 30,000 dues-paying friends of the HOF. This year the HOF decided to pull the plug on free distribution and instead made the program available in the gift shop at $3.99 – still a bargain for the 56-page collectible.
Also this year, a new alternative to the Memories & Dreams induction program was produced by Baseball America and sold at a higher price point: $9.99. The program was available at the HOF gift shop, as well as on iTunes and at Zinio.com.
Another popular collectible issued each year by the HOF is the “Induction Subscription” bat, aka the “Signature Series.” These full-size bats feature a stamped, gold autograph of the year’s new inductees on a rich brown Louisville Slugger. Until 1988, there were only 500 produced, all scooped up by subscribers to the series. From 1989 forward, an additional 500 were produced and put on sale at the HOF gift shop on induction weekend. A few bats remain available at the gift shop at $130. Collectors interested need to call the HOF directly (607-547-0242), as they are not in the online inventory.
Prompted by the demand for the Signature Series lumber, a few years ago the HOF added an additional bat commemorating the annual induction. Known by collectors as the “Logo Bat,” this unlimited edition features the official logo of each year’s ceremony and is produced by the Cooperstown Bat Co. The bat is available at a lower price point – $94.50 – that reflects the lesser desirability of this unlimited product.
Of course, these are only the memorabilia of the weekend produced and sold by the HOF itself. The entire village is bursting at the seams with all manner of collectibles related to the weekend’s events and the new inductees, along with all the autograph opportunities.
Induction weekend in Cooperstown is a collector’s paradise, as 48,000 discovered this year.
Who’s up for 2015?
It doesn’t take long when visiting Cooperstown for the conversation to turn to the speculative question, “Who will be the inductees next year?”
The conversation involves looking at those who came closest in the previous year’s balloting, as well as who becomes eligible for the first time following the five-year waiting period after retirement. The real challenge is predicting the results of the “second chance” ballot, the process that considers managers, umpires, executives and long retired players from three different eras. Next year will consider those from the “Golden Era” of 1947-72.
From the 2015 ballot, it’s hard to believe 3,000-hit man Craig Biggio will not garner the one additional vote next year that would have put him over the top (75 percent of ballots cast) in 2014. Trailing Biggio’s 74.8 percent with 62.2 percent was Mike Piazza, putting him within striking distance of the magic number. Both men have suffered from whispered suspicion of PED use, but neither has been directly implicated.
The only other two returnees from the 2014 ballot who have a chance are Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines, each hovering around 50 percent.
The new names in the game becoming eligible for the first time include Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Gary Sheffield and John Smoltz.
From the Golden Era, speculation centers around players like Rocky Colavito, Minnie Minoso and the name that evokes more speculation than any other – Gil Hodges.
This reporter’s prediction – Biggio jumps over the fence; Piazza falls just short; Johnson, Martinez and Smoltz get in on the first ballot, while Sheffield falls short; and Gil Hodges, finally and posthumously, joins the club.
David Moriah is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.