HOF induction brings fans, collectibles to Coopers

Like a great orange-and-black flood, the multitude of Baltimore Orioles fans in their No. 8 jerseys swept over the tiny village of Cooperstown, N.Y., filling sidewalks, pouring onto streets and covering every square inch of the spacious lawn of the Clark Sports Center for the induction of their hometown hero, Cal Ripken Jr., into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The river of orange and black was joined by a smaller stream of Tony Gwynn fans in the more ambiguous colors of the San Diego Padres (at one point in his speech Gwynn remarked, “I wore brown. I wore the brown and gold. I wore the blue and orange.”)

All in all, by the time the induction of the two baseball greats commenced on July 28, an estimated 75,000 people had joined the throng, making it the largest crowd in the almost 70-year history of Cooperstown induction ceremonies.

There was a fittingly large crowd on stage, as well, with 55 of the 63 living members of baseball’s elite fraternity present, also setting a record for attendance.

In addition to fans and ballplayers, this year’s events drew a small stable of celebrities and swirls of rumors hinting at the imminent appearance of still more luminaries. John Travolta did appear with his wife, actress Kelly Preston, and though surrounded by security, he did pose for photos and sign a few autographs. Actor Richard Gere and the former Wonder Woman actress Lynda Carter added still more Hollywood luster to the proceedings.

Autograph opportunities
On the eve of the induction ceremony, Ripken gave a remarkable demonstration of why he is arguably the most beloved athlete in America, on par with the likes of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. A huge crowd had gathered outside the Hall of Fame museum to observe Hall of Fame (HOF) members as they entered and exited a private reception held in their honor. It is one of the few opportunities autograph collectors have to secure a freebie during the weekend, as there are always a few players who take a moment or two to satisfy the crowd with their Sharpies.

This year, a handful of the 55 HOFers in attendance took time to sign, including Paul Molitor, George Brett, Ryne Sandberg, Dennis Eckersley and Rollie Fingers. But it was Ripken, the newest kid on the block, who stole the show.

As he often does in such settings, Ripken went down the line of fans attempting to sign every outstretched ball, bat and photograph. In a display of endurance worthy of his “Iron Man” moniker, he spent close to 30 minutes on task signing several hundred autographs, arousing cheers and appreciation from all present. Though the sheer volume of fans made it impossible for him to satisfy everyone, even several of the unfortunate few who missed out commented on what an extraordinary effort Ripken had made.

Throughout the weekend, there were plenty of other opportunities for collectors to load up on autographs, as long as they were willing to lighten their wallets in the process. In anticipation of the huge crowds, local shopkeepers, as well as-out-of town promoters, lined up even more autograph guests than is normal for a Cooperstown induction weekend, and fans seemed to have an insatiable appetite for their products.

The most impressive lineup was that of MAB Celebrity Services of Fairfield, N.J, which set up shop at the historic Tunnicliff Inn down the block from the HOF museum. Throughout the weekend, MAB featured a whopping 33 HOF members, including new inductee Tony Gwynn, along with Ralph Branca, Brady Anderson and Goose Gossage. Gwynn’s price of $99 for flats and balls, a price matched by Willie McCovey and Eddie Murray for similar items, represented a general inflationary trend for HOF autographs this year.

Also signing in town was one familiar face for induction weekend regulars, and one notably new face. After a year’s absence, Pete Rose was back in town, signing again at the Main Street store which once bore his name but now is known simply as Safe at Home. A window sign notified customers that Rose would not be inscribing any balls as “Charlie Hustle” or with the notorious statement “I’m sorry I bet on baseball.”

Across the street from Rose and appearing for the first time in Cooperstown was Detroit Tigers legend Denny McLain. He was signing autographs, bantering with fans and drinking voluminous amounts of his trademark Pepsi-Cola. McLain was hard to miss on Main Street, sporting a girth of at least 300 pounds!

Commemorative collectibles
In addition to autographs, induction weekends feature a host of commemorative collectibles that are always in high demand, especially for an induction class as popular as that of 2007. At the high end of the price gauge, the HOF offered hand-painted baseballs of Ripken and Gwynn, each priced at $450. These “no two are exactly alike” items remain available through the HOF gift shop at baseballhalloffame.org or 888-HALL-OF-FAME.

Sold out at the HOF, but quickly available through the secondary marketplace, were the coveted subscription series bats featuring facsimile signatures of the year’s inductees. Known as the subscription series because the HOF issues them annually to 500 registered subscribers, an additional run of bats are sold at the HOF gift shop during induction weekend.

Typically, the 500 subscriber bats are matched by an additional 500 sold to the public at $125 each. This year, the total run was expanded to exactly 2,007 to satisfy the expected increase in demand. A few bats were on sale around town at prices ranging from $200-$250, a level which held on eBay in subsequent days.

Another desirable item for high-end collectors is the HOF press pin, issued to credentialed media, along with special guests and HOF employees. The pins are not for sale in Cooperstown, but they often appear on the secondary market in ads and auctions, along with similar pins marking the World Series and All-Star games. Though the market for pins has been soft in recent years, the few pins that surfaced on eBay in the days following the induction attracted spirited bidding and sold for better than $100 each.

For budget-oriented collectors, distribution of the official program on the day of the induction event is always a highlight of the weekend. The programs have been a staple of induction weekends since 1982, and the HOF once again continued its popular tradition of providing them free of charge. For the second year in a row, the programs were produced as a special-edition of Memories & Dreams, the six-times-per-year publication of the HOF’s membership program. The result has been a dramatic upgrade in the quality of the program, as it has expanded to a 32-page, yearbook-style magazine bursting with information and photographs of the new inductees, as well as current goings-on at the HOF museum.

Of course, in addition to the commemorative balls, bats, programs and pins issued by the HOF itself, there was no shortage of other memorabilia for sale up and down Main Street throughout the weekend. Card shops abound in Cooperstown, and sidewalk tables selling photos, autographs and every conceivable manner of baseball-related collectible were ubiquitous. There were even individuals standing on street corners with hand-made signs hawking their particular ware. One fellow was attempting to sell a fistful of All-Star ballots from Gwynn’s and Ripken’s rookie year at $3 each!

The flood has come and gone from Cooperstown, leaving local merchants quite a bit richer but also somewhat relieved to have their town back. The next few years promise to be much calmer in the little village. In fact, veteran HOF watchers not only marveled at what was the largest gathering ever in Cooperstown, but wondered when — if ever — such a crowd would be seen again.

The consensus? There’s only one possibility in the foreseeable future that the Great Flood of 2007 will be matched. The occasion? The inevitable entrance of Derek Jeter into the hall of baseball’s immortals. Book your reservations now!

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