At last month’s Baseball Winter Meetings in Nashville, the first three members of the Hall of Fame Class of 2013 were announced by Chairman of the Board Jane Forbes Clark and the Pre-Integration Era Committee. As the names of Hank O’Day, Jacob Ruppert and Deacon White were read to the half empty ballroom at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center, no one assumed for a single moment the three newest members of the Baseball Hall of Fame would be the only inductees celebrated during Hall of Fame weekend this upcoming July. Who would have thought three men who had last walked the earth in the 1930’s would be the main attractions at Cooperstown this summer?
As the final results from the Baseball Writers Association of America’s election will be announced in a matter of hours, there is a prevailing concern that no one will receive the necessary 75% of the vote to gain enshrinement into the Hall of Fame. Tyler Kepner’s article in The New York Times earlier in the week stated that in a poll of 92 ballots, not one of the 37 eligible ball players would receive enough support to surpass the required threshold and join a 19th century ball player, a wildly successful owner of the New York Yankees during the days of Babe Ruth and a former umpire who last worked behind home plate in 1927. While Kepner’s article is meant to prepare us for something that could quite possibly happen, it also only represents approximately 15% – 20% of the precincts counted since there are an estimated 600 baseball writers involved in the voting process.
If the Baseball Writers Association of America does decide that no one will gain entry into the Hall of Fame this year from their election, it would mark the third time since 1970 the baseball writers have failed to produce a single candidate worthy of enshrinement. In 1996, Phil Niekro had finished with the highest percentage of the votes at 68.3% while in 1971 Yogi Berra had earned the same dubious distinction by securing 67.2% of the votes in his first year of eligibility. While it’s quite uncommon for a situation of this magnitude to occur, failure to select a single ball player this year could speak volumes for the Hall of Fame voting in the years to come. Besides adversely affecting select candidates as they approach the end of their eligibility (Jack Morris and Dale Murphy) on the ballot, it can also have a devastating influence on tourism and museum attendance in Cooperstown.
The recently filed tax return for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum became public knowledge a few days ago and it provided readers with the sobering realities of debt and low attendance. In eight of the past 10 years, the Hall of Fame has operated at a deficit. The Baseball Hall of Fame has posted a $2.08 million net loss in 2011 and yearly attendance is approximately 270,000. While the attendance figure is quite disappointing, there is actual marked improvement from the 2010 tax return. Total revenues in 2011 saw an increase of 7% ($9.23 million) and in the previous year’s filing, the Hall of Fame was operating at a net loss of $2.36 million. No matter how you look at it, a strong induction class in 2013 could only help bolster sagging attendance figures and provide the Hall of Fame with additional opportunities for revenue growth and economic stimulation throughout the tiny upstate New York village on Otsego Lake.
If anyone has ever visited the Baseball Hall of Fame, one of the unique charms about a visit to Cooperstown is walking along Main Street and shopping in the quaint baseball-themed boutiques and stores. When you talk to the local merchants and citizens, you immediately get the sense that Memorial Day through Labor Day is a period of great importance to the community. The Cooperstown Dreams Park and the Hall of Fame Induction weekend are integral components to the village’s economy. The weekly youth baseball tournaments that run throughout the summer normally attract 500,000 visitors per year. The induction ceremonies at the Clark Sports Center is synonymous with thousands of people sitting on the green grass or in folding chairs enjoying the speeches and celebrating the achievements of their favorite baseball immortals.
The Cooperstown economy is also identified with the Hall of Famers partnering up with the local stores and hosting autograph signings throughout the summer. The initials “HOF” inscribed on a baseball by the likes of Yogi Berra, Goose Gossage or Phil Niekro not only provide a lifetime of memories for fans, but it’s also a necessary vehicle for revenue opportunities for business owners. The Baseball Hall of Fame fully understands the importance of bringing traffic into the village and the creation of the Hall of Fame Classic weekend five years ago has been a novel idea that features a parade, an exhibition game, skills clinic, and interactions with Hall of Famers and former major league players.
The village of Cooperstown is just as anxious to hear the Hall of Fame results as the candidates themselves. Cooperstown’s hospitality and tourism industries are inextricably tied to the Hall of Fame’s fortunes. They can ill afford to have a half empty dais on Hall of Fame weekend due in part to protest or lack of interest. Likewise, they need Main Street to be bustling with visitors who are spending their disposable income at the local restaurants, shops, motels and inns. A summer without a single living member of the Class of 2013 or a boycott of any kind by fans or current Hall of Famers could be detrimental to business owners that rely heavily on the allure of baseball’s history.