MLB pulls the plug on the HOF Game

It’s a sad time for Abner Doubleday. Starting next year, the Cooperstown field that bears his name will no longer host the annual Hall of Fame Game.

Citing scheduling difficulties, Major League Baseball (MLB) has decided that the June 16 contest between the Cubs and Padres will be the last ever, ending a 67-year tradition in the Birthplace of Baseball.

For fans, the announcement is a blow to the heart, because Doubleday Field is the perfect setting for people to get up close, interact with and obtain autographs from some of the game’s biggest stars.

“In 1986, I saw the Royals and Rangers,” said Brian Bouyea, an avid fan from Clifton Park, N.Y. “That was my first experience at a real major league game, and all the players were accessible. I got George Brett’s autograph out in the parking lot. It was just an incredible atmosphere. People were sitting on rooftops, out beyond the right field fence, trying to catch balls in the home run derby. You could tell that the players were happy to be there in Cooperstown.”

Two years later, Bouyea got an autograph from Indians hurler John Farrell, who has gone on to become pitching coach for the World Champion Red Sox. To Bouyea, a die-hard Boston fan, the ball Farrell signed is all the more special now.
“I’ve still got it,” he said. “It was very cool, definitely a great memory.”

Such experiences will no longer be possible once the Hall of Fame Game leaves Cooperstown for good. The upsetting thing to fans who have long supported the game at this venue is that MLB has sanctioned a spring training game in Beijing, while opening the 2008 season in Japan’s Toyko Dome, with March 25 and 26 contests between the Red Sox and A’s.

“We hope that the wonderful fans of Central New York can understand the practical considerations that contributed to this decision,” said Robert DuPuy, MLB president and COO. “Cooperstown remains a beacon for our national pastime. We will continue to work with the Hall to find ways to promote it and Cooperstown throughout our season.”

Some people, however, aren’t buying it, such as Cooperstown shop owners whose stores will take a severe hit.

“Our store is right in front of Doubleday Field,” said Drew Taylor of Legends Are Forever. “It’s the second biggest weekend of the year. The impact will be in the thousands of dollars.

“The general consensus here is that MLB and the players just don’t want to be bothered. It’s not worth their time.”
Ted Hargrove has one of the most impressive memorabilia collections in town at his business, TJ’s Place/The Home Plate restaurant. A Cooperstown mainstay for the past half-century, it’s filled with countless photos, paintings and artifacts signed by dozens of baseball immortals.

“I know almost every living Hall of Famer,” he said. “Many of them are very close friends. Yogi Berra, Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew. I always look forward to seeing my friends. The same people come back every year. They’ve become like family. It’s sad that they’re not going to come.”

Many Hall of Famers still show up for Induction Weekend, but the sheer size of crowds makes it almost impossible to meet them, outside of paid formal events.

Hall of Fame Game Day activities include a parade down Main Street to the ballpark, where fans quite often can get current and former stars to sign while entering the field or during pre-game festivities. Hundreds of kids reach over fences down the first and third base lines, getting players to sign everything from programs and caps to baseballs and souvenir bats.

It’s a pressure-free setting where even the most prominent stars take time for autographs, because there’s little at stake during the exhibition game, other than a good time and a chance to have fun. Both big league teams are also given Hall of Fame tours, allowing current players to see equipment such as bats, spikes, uniforms and gloves used by their boyhood heroes. Of course, every major leaguer has a favorite Hall of Famer whose plaque they can’t wait to see.
Hargrove has no use for players who don’t care about such things.

“Is it just about money or do they really have a love of the game and a love of the history of the game?” he asked. “This is what players used to play for, to aspire to the Hall of Fame.”

MLB says the increased number of teams, interleague play and more travel have made it extremely difficult to bring two clubs together on the same off day. The Cubs will be stopping in Cooperstown en route to Tampa Bay following a weekend series in Toronto. The Padres are going from Cleveland to New York to play the Yankees.

At its inception in 1940, the Hall of Fame Game was designed to help pay for the Hall’s 1939 opening. Since then, the shrine has become firmly established.

“The Hall of Fame Game proceeds have traditionally been shared by the museum and the Village of Cooperstown,” said Brad Horn, the Hall of Fame’s communications director. “The museum’s portion of game revenue has been allocated for operational expenses. The loss of the game does not present a hardship to the museum, as we will continue to deliver programs for all audiences and events throughout the year.”

Cooperstown High School students are crying foul, however, because the senior class uses Hall of Fame Game concession sales for class trips and a senior prom.

“If there’s any additional money, it’s distributed to charity,” said Superintendent of Schools Mary Jo McPhail. “There’s a lot of work and time that goes into all the ordering and planning. It’s not just being there selling food.”

Students will still get concessions from Hall of Fame inductions, but the game itself raised about $10,000 annually that will no longer be available.

“Plus, it was a fantastic learning experience for kids,” McPhail said.

Hall of Fame officials offered a gracious response to the game’s termination.

Former HOF President Dale Petroskey said, “We’re grateful to MLB for making an annual Hall of Fame Game possible for so many years, but we also understand their enormous scheduling challenge today, which makes continuing this exhibition game impossible.”

Chairman Jane Forbes Clark added, “The Hall of Fame Game has been an important community-wide event since 1940. We’ve been extremely fortunate MLB has gone the extra mile all these years to bring two major league teams to Cooperstown. We recognize that the game has been wonderful family entertainment for area residents, and been an important fundraiser for Cooperstown Central School, as well as area non-profits and the business community. We will continue to be creative and innovative in looking for ways to host wonderful baseball events in the absence of the game.”
But somehow, things won’t be quite the same. Chicago Cubs great Ryne Sandberg, a 2005 Hall of Fame inductee, was enamored with Cooperstown during a visit here.

“Everything is just amazing, the whole town with all the neat little stores,” he said. “It’s one of a kind. Just to the see the history and the names, it’s incredible.”

Unfortunately, one of the most important days of the year is now history, too.

Paul Post, a freelance writer from Glens Falls, N.Y. He can be contacted at paulpost@nycap.rr.com.

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