Cooperstown braces for slow Baseball Hall of Fame induction weekend

Written by David Sommerstein | Jul 26, 2013 3:41 AM
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Photo by David Sommerstein

Main Street in Cooperstown, New York, where business owners are fearing thin crowds for this weekend's induction ceremony.

(Cooperstown, NY) -- On Sunday, baseball will hold one of its most sacred and enduring rituals. Three men will be forever enshrined in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

The problem is none of them are alive.

For the first time since 1996, not one living player received the 75 percent of baseball writers’ votes needed to gain entry. Many interpreted the result as a collective protest vote over the steroids era.

Induction weekend is huge for the village that lives and breathes baseball, and for its region’s economy. David Sommerstein of North Country Public Radio visits Cooperstown to see how people are trying to make the best of an uncomfortable moment in the sport's history.

You could say the soul of Cooperstown is not the Hall of Fame, but around the corner, tucked behind Main Street. Doubleday Field is the mythical, if not actual, birthplace of baseball.

"No more of an iconic ballpark in the world than right here," says Ron Perry. It’s a place fathers take their kids to share something special, like Ron and Vladimir Perry, from Kerhonkson, New York. They take in the green grass and crisp white bases. "This is his first year playing Little League, and I just wanted to bring him up here and see the history," Perry says.  But now steroids are a part of that history. It feels like contaminating a special moment to ask, 'What do you think of the fact that no one was voted into the Hall this year?"  Perry sighs. He says they were hoping Mike Piazza would get the call.

"You know, we’re Mets fans in my house. I think he got robbed but, what are you going to do? The writers took a stance against something that’s wrong," he says.

This was the year that some of the game’s biggest suspected or confirmed steroid users became eligible for the Hall of Fame. Barry Bonds. Roger Clemens. Mark McGwire.  "There were so many people on this ballot, who, under normal circumstances, if there had been no steroid story at all, would have sailed in," says Joe Posnanski, columnist for NBC Sports and a long-time writer for the Kansas City Star. He's one of the 569 members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America who voted. "We’re talking probably seven or eight people on this ballot who would have been a first ballot choice. It really was a year where it was very very difficult for anyone to get their arms around what any of it meant," he says.

Houston Astros lifer Craig Biggio came the closest to the 75% threshhold, with 68.2%. So, how do you pull off an induction ceremony without a bona fide, living breathing baseball hero? That’s the job of the Hall of Fame’s Brad Horn. "It roughly would be right about here. This would be very close to the center front of the stage, where we’re standing at the moment," says Horn. 

Horn took me out to the induction site one windy day. It’s the exact spot of the largest induction ceremony ever, in 2007, when almost 80,000 adoring fans watched commissioner Bud Selig welcome Cal Ripken into baseball’s most exclusive club. "He hit .336 lifetime in 28 post-season games. Welcome to the Hall of Fame, Cal!" said Selig at the cereomony.

By comparison, last year’s Barry Larkin and Ron Santo induction drew 20,000 people. This year, three posthumous inductees top the bill - a catcher/third baseman from the 1880s named Deacon White, umpire Hank O’Day, and Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert, the guy who bought Babe Ruth from the Red Sox in 1919.

Horn says they’re filling out the program by honoring 12 inductees who never got a ceremony because of World War II, including Lou Gehrig and Rogers Hornsby.

"It forces us to look inward, and that’s why we’re taking this opportunity to honor our history, so for the families that come, for the friends, for the so many members of the baseball community, it’s still the annual rite of passage in Cooperstown and will be so," he says. 

Horn says nearly all of these honorees have one thing in common -- a New York State connection. So he and the Hall and Cooperstown are hoping to pull in New York crowds this weekend.  "Lou Gehrig, a New York icon, Jacob Ruppert, owner of the New York Yankees, Deacon White, from Caton, New York. We’re going to look at celebrating New York baseball this summer," he says.

But on Cooperstown’s Main Street, some business owners aren’t buying what the Hall is selling. Induction weekend fills hotels, bed and breakfasts, stores, and restaurants. Inside the 7th Inning Stretch, a baseball gear and souvenir store, manager Barry Renert is downbeat. "People are not happy about it. It’s not good for baseball, it’s not good for the fans, it’s not good for the store owners here," he says. "What else can I say? It’s not going to be a good summer for us."

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Photo by David Sommerstein

Vincent Russo, owner of Mickey’s Place across the street from the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, says there’s a formula to a successful induction weekend.

Vincent Russo owns another baseball shop, Mickey’s Place. He’s more even-keeled about the whole thing. In his 23 years on Main Street, Russo counts just three truly epic induction ceremonies. And he says there’s a formula to them. "A mega-star elected to the Hall who played most of his career in one market and that market is within driving distance of Cooperstown," he says. 

By that measure, there’s a potential baseball cavalry on the way. Detroit’s Jack Morris is in his last year of eligibility. There's the first year of eligibility for Greg Maddox and Frank Thomas. Of course not far down the road, the holy grail of induction weekends -- the Yankees' Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter.

That’s why Cooperstown mayor Jeff Katz isn’t worried, even if this year his village will be mentioned in the same sentence as “steroids” again and again. "In this year, Cooperstown and baseball stories are tricky. I do think over the next ten years, we’re going to see high-profile, well-attended inductions," he says. 

As for The Game itself, the Hall of Fame’s Brad Horn says baseball has weathered other scandals, stains, and awkward moments. He says the Hall of Fame induction ceremony remains the gold standard for baseball dreamers. "This is the culmination of that dream," he says. "And it shows that it’s extraordinarily hard even for the best athletes in the world to earn election to the Hall."

Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Mark McGwire may never make it in. But it sure wouldn’t hurt this village if they did.

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