By David Moriah
The sun shone on the 2012 Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies and throughout the weekend of July 20-22 in Cooperstown, N.Y., where Barry Larkin and Ron Santo headlined a jam-packed baseball celebration. The HOF has been putting on this show for 73 years, experience which showed in a well-run, multi-stage extravaganza that attracted approximately 18,000 fans to the tiny, picturesque village in central New York.
Attendance was at the low end of the spectrum for HOF induction weekends, as neither Larkin nor Santo command mass popularity or the loyalty of East Coast fans from the baseball towns of Boston, New York, Baltimore or Philadelphia. As a result, Main Street was a bit less crowded and opportunities to garner autographs a bit easier, either at paid signing sessions or at certain times and places where HOFers often oblige.
Shopping for memorabilia was also a bit less hectic. Cooperstown is a town teeming with shops and shows featuring cards, photos, bats, balls, autographs, etc., both from today’s game as well as material stretching back through the long history of the sport. From signed photos of Derek Jeter to letters penned by Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth, Cooperstown has it all, and unless an item is part of the sacred collection of the Hall of Fame itself, just about every one of those items has a price tag attached.
Returning Hall of Famers
This year, 44 Hall of Famers returned to Cooperstown for the weekend, a statement of the high regard which HOF members hold for the annual welcoming of the newest members to their elite fraternity. It’s not an easy trip to the “centrally isolated” village, situated about 50 miles from the smaller airports of upstate New York. Kansas City Royals legend George Brett remarked to reporters that he endured two flight delays on his pilgrimage to Cooperstown, and then looked ahead to future induction ceremonies.
“In a few years, we’ll start seeing private jets coming into Cooperstown,” Brett predicted. “When I broke in, the minimum salary was $14,000 a year, but today’s players make a fortune. It won’t be the same here in coming years.”
Meanwhile, the weekend retains its charm, and Brett was one of many players who signed for fans who waited patiently in the two places where free autographs can sometimes be obtained – along the stone fence of the golf course during the Saturday morning golf tournament, and in front of the HOF museum as players enter and exit a private reception on Saturday evening.
This year, more than half of the Hall of Famers in attendance made time to sign at these locations, although the crush of fans made it hit or miss as to whether you would be lucky enough to bag a signature. A few autograph “toughies” lowered their guard and ventured toward the crowd, signing at least a few before retreating, including Johnny Bench, Rickey Henderson, Al Kaline, Joe Morgan and Dave Winfield.
A few HOF “good guys” always make an effort to satisfy as many fans as possible in the time available. Once again, Wade Boggs, Fergie Jenkins, Paul Molitor, Phil Niekro and Ozzie Smith did their best to send fans home happy. Last year’s inductee, Pat Gillick, heroically signed as many as possible, and although he entered the Hall as a baseball executive and not a player, he nevertheless owns a HOF plaque and fans eagerly sought his signature.
As usual, the highest demand was for the newest inductees, and Larkin didn’t disappoint at the golf course, signing quite a few before moving on to the next hole. Santo, this year’s other inductee, died shortly before his election and was represented by his widow, Vicki, at the Sunday awards ceremony.
In and around Cooperstown
In addition to the limited opportunities to engage with HOF members in hope for a “freebie,” there was an abundance of autograph sessions around town throughout the weekend, beginning as early as Thursday and carrying through to Monday. At least 35 of the 44 Hall of Famers in attendance participated in these sessions, including Larkin, who signed flats and balls for $79.
Also signing and attracting a sizable sidewalk crowd of buyers and gawkers was 87-year-old fan favorite Yogi Berra. Berra moved slowly and with help, but he cranked out many signatures at a fee of $90 for flats and balls, or $175 for bats and jerseys.
One elder HOFer who did not appear at autograph sessions, and also required considerable help to get around was 81-year-old Willie Mays. For several years, Mays was a fixture on the Cooperstown autograph scene, always commanding the highest fee in town while alienating no small number of fans with a reportedly surly demeanor. Those days seem to have passed, and for those who recall the youthful exuberance of the “Say Hey Kid,” it was a sad sight to see how much he has slowed down.
In addition to the plethora of HOFers signing for hire, induction weekend attracts a
broader cast of baseball notables, often teammates or former managers of current inductees. This year was no exception, and new faces on the weekend autograph scene included Lou Pinella, Larkin’s former manager, and teammates Dave Parker and Eric Davis. Others on the 2012 autograph roster included former Mets Dwight Gooden, Howard Johnson and Art Shamsky; former Yankees Ron Blomberg, Elliot Maddox and Roy White; Denny McLain; Cecil Fielder; and Tim McCarver, who was in town to receive the HOF’s Ford C. Frick broadcaster’s award.
The most famous player who’s not in the HOF, Pete Rose, signed down the block from the shrine at the Safe at Home store on Main Street. Rose has been an on-again, off-again figure in recent years, and this was an “on” year. Baseball’s hit king, banned from baseball and HOF voting, attracted a steady stream of autograph seekers and well-wishers, most flattering him with their opinions that Rose belongs in the HOF. Unfortunately for Pete, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig holds the only opinion that counts.
In addition to former teammates and baseball officials, the Sunday induction ceremony always attracts politicians and celebrities with connections to the inductees or their teams, from John Travolta (for Cal Ripken Jr.) to George W. Bush (for Nolan Ryan). This year the tabloid magnet on the scene was Hollywood bad boy Charlie Sheen, a rabid Cleveland Indians fan who portrayed fictional Indians relief pitcher Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn in the classic film Major League. Sheen arrived to a media frenzy, answered a few questions, visited the MLB Network television set, then disappeared behind his security team. He signed a few autographs for well-connected MLB TV personnel, but no others.
A sea of memorabilia
Induction weekend events always provide collectors with multiple opportunities to spend their money on products associated with the HOF’s newest members, from induction bats to pins to HOF edition replica jerseys, and the HOF’s gift shop was a beehive of activity. However, don’t look for autographs at the gift shop. The HOF draws a firm line on that front, along with a prohibition on selling any historic items donated to the museum’s collection.
This year, the U.S. Postal Service entered the collectibles game, coordinating its first-day release of new stamps featuring Major League Baseball All-Stars with the induction weekend. The stamps and related products featuring HOFers Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Stargell, and Larry Doby were on sale at the Cooperstown post office, immediately across the street from the HOF museum.
Along with all the “stuff” you can buy in Cooperstown, induction weekend also offers
serendipitous experiences that can’t be predicted or scripted. One reporter’s favorite this year was coming upon the sight of Rickey Henderson strolling down Main Street in the middle of the afternoon, smiling and posing for pictures with dozens of fans as he walked. Rickey has always been a notoriously tough signature and a moody personality, but on this sunny Cooperstown afternoon, he was “Mr. Personality.”
Cooperstown 2012 is a wrap, and many if not most of the 18,000 who attended left with autographs, photographs, memorabilia, memories and smiles.
David Moriah is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at email@example.com.