We all find ourselves so caught up with the Yankees and the races for both the American League East and the wild card that we sometimes lose sight of some of the most enjoyable and nostalgic events on the baseball calendar. One of those is Hall of Fame Weekend, just completed on Monday here in Cooperstown. Here’s a simple bit of advice: if you live anywhere near Cooperstown and have never experienced Hall of Fame Weekend, make sure you attend this celebration at least once in your lifetime.
As a Cooperstown resident, I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to soak in Hall of Fame Weekend each year. There are so many different events going on—from autograph signings to clinics to the actual induction ceremony—that the weekend becomes a non-stop whirlwind of baseball activity that has something to fit fans of just about any sort, from casual to diehard.
One of the best and most underrated events of Hall of Fame Weekend took place last Friday. Sponsored by the Major League Baseball Players’ Alumni Association, the Hall of Fame’s annual youth clinic gave children ages five to 12 the rare opportunity to learn the game from some of its masters. Ten former major league players led approximately 150 children in a variety of instructional drills, including baserunning, pitching, outfield play, and catching fundamentals. Four headline names participated, including perennial Hall of Fame candidate Lee Smith, former Big Red Machine component George Foster, longtime Montreal Expos ace Steve Rogers, and old favorite Jim “Mudcat” Grant. (My nephew Brandon, who took part in the clinic, particularly enjoyed listening to Foster, who has become his new favorite player. After the clinic, we went to a local baseball shop, where Brandon soon asked me if the store had a section containing cards of Foster. Sadly, the store didn’t, but that didn’t quell Brandon’s passion.)
As I watched from the third base dugout at venerable Doubleday Field, I took note of how well organized the clinic seemed to be. Each group of youngsters spent 15 minutes at each station, as former players offered hands-on instruction, before moving on to the next post. The kids completed seven of eight stations, as some late afternoon thunder and lightning forced organizers to cut the event short by about ten minutes. The early termination didn’t matter; by then, the kids had received nearly two hours of instruction at the cost of exactly nothing. Yes, the event was completely free of charge.
Frankly, I’m surprised that more parents don’t sign their kids up for the experience. In addition to being free, it features outgoing instructors who all have a desire to teach youngsters about the game. There are few scenes more uplifting than watching a 75-year-old Mudcat Grant telling five to 12-year-olds stories about his playing days while emphasizing the important of getting an education. Grant did this despite his continued recovery from recent knee and hip surgeries. Mudcat walked with the assistance of a cane, but aside from the effects on his gait, he still looks good some 36 years after last throwing a pitch in a major league game. Mudcat is truly a modern day marvel—and a phenomenal ambassador for the game.
Then there were the unusual sights supplied by everyday fans, some of whom stand out for being a bit unusual. If you ever visit Cooperstown during Hall of Fame Weekend, you’re bound to see anything, from Babe Ruth look-alikes to banjo-playing figures in full Oakland A’s regalia. I also noticed some fans wearing specially made Colt .45s jerseys, an interesting sight considering that the Houston franchise hasn’t been known by that nickname for 45 years. Not surprisingly, the dominant colors seen on Main Street featured the green and gold of the A’s (Rickey Henderson’s primary team) and the red and blue of the Red Sox (Jim Rice’s club). I noticed only a scant number of Mets jerseys and caps, and almost no Yankee memorabilia, a decidedly odd occurrence on induction weekend. There were certainly plenty of former Yankees in attendance, including Henderson, Frick Award winner Tony Kubek, Paul Blair, Ron Blomberg, Roger Clemens (in town to watch his son play at the local Dreams Park), Dwight Gooden, Ron Guidry, Scott McGregor, Luis Tiant, and the venerable Moose Skowron.
For those who prefer to encounter Hall of Famers, the weekend provided plenty of chances. As folks made their way down Main and Pioneer streets during Hall of Fame Weekend, they could not help but bump into the omnipresent Bob Feller, who appeared at practically every store that features any kind of autograph signing. Feller receives his fair share of criticism for being one of those old-fashioned “get off my lawn!” kind of guys, but the man is always accessible to the media, willingly engages fans, and has an impeccable resume as both a player and American war hero. During my years at the Hall of Fame, I interviewed Feller more than any other player, and he never failed to treat me with fairness and respect. And there is no one who loves the Hall of Fame more than Rapid Robert.
As good as Hall of Fame Weekend was, there were some pitfalls. One of those was the incessant tardiness of players scheduled to appear at signings. For example, Rickey Henderson was supposed to sign at the local CVS on Monday, beginning at 12 noon and ending at 1:30. Those fans who had formed a lengthy line that wrapped around the block on Main Street needed to exert extraordinary patience, since Henderson arrived about 40 minutes late for his signing. And he didn’t stay past 1:30 to make up for the lost time. Unfortunately, Henderson’s tardiness is typical of many ballplayers who routinely arrive late for autograph shows. It is simply amazing to me how many players, whether retired or active, pay so little attention to start times. As someone who occasionally does book signings, the idea of arriving late for any of them strikes me as thoroughly rude and completely unprofessional, but I get the feeling that it’s the norm in the autograph business.
Crowd control was another concern during the big weekend. Working as a volunteer for one of the Cooperstown retailers that hosted a slew of sidewalk autograph signings, I soon realized how difficult it was to keep people on the sidewalks and out of the middle of the street. Unbelievably, one fan asked me why he couldn’t walk in the middle of the Main Street. I patiently tried to explain to him that walking in the middle of Main Street could result in being hit with a car! (That would seem obvious, no?) Frankly, the village should have done what it has done in recent years and completely shut down Main Street to vehicular traffic. That would have eliminated many of the safety concerns, while allowing people to walk freely in the streets and sidewalks without the same level of congestion. It would have also given the town the feel of a block party, a nice atmosphere to have for something as festive as induction weekend.
But the issues of crowded streets and lateness didn’t detract from what was mostly a wonderful experience. All in all, Hall of Fame Weekend came off as a success, especially artistically. The rains, except for the heavy downpours on Friday, stayed away for the most part, Henderson delivered a surprisingly good and funny induction speech; and fans had plenty of opportunities to acquire autographs of both Hall of Famers and retired standouts. The youth clinic was a big hit, thanks to impeccable organization by the Hall and the MLB Alumni Association, and the enthusiastic presence of a group of former major leaguers. From an economic perspective, Hall of Fame Weekend provided a needed boost of energy to a town that has been hit hard by both the national and state economies. Bolstered by an estimated 20,000 fans and a cast of nearly 80 former ballplayers, Cooperstown felt revitalized over the last five days.
As someone who has been living in Cooperstown for the past 16 summers, I never get tired of this special weekend. For a baseball fan and for someone who wants to see Cooperstown thrive and prosper, Hall of Fame Weekend remains a worthy endeavor.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.