HOF classes matter a whole lot to Cooperstown
In 2017, when Cassandra Harrington interviewed for a job at Destination Marketing Corporation for Otsego County, which promotes tourism to Cooperstown, New York, she was asked about her experience overseeing and marketing nationwide events. Even though it was three years away at the time, the village was already preparing for when Derek Jeter would surely become a first-ballot Hall of Famer just as soon as he was eligible.
A star of that magnitude, who spent his whole career with a big-market team driving distance from Cooperstown, would be a business bonanza for the baseball-famous, picturesque village in upstate New York. While the town is normally home to a population around 1,800, a dynamic Hall of Fame class could inspire as many as 75,000 people to pass through Cooperstown on a single day on induction weekend in July.
Although natural beauty abounds and there’s even a summer opera festival, the Hall is Cooperstown’s calling card. It’s what makes the less than two-square-mile town synonymous with the history of a sport steeped in nostalgia. When it comes to driving business to the inns, eateries and memorabilia shops along Main Street, the Hall “is a big deal,” said Tara Burke, the executive director of Cooperstown’s chamber of commerce. “It’s an anchor.”
“In January, we start to get an idea for what our July might look like based on who’s being inducted,” Harrington said in an interview with Yahoo Sports. Although famously one vote short of unanimity, Jeter was elected his first year on the ballot. That was January 2020; you might remember what came next.
There was no induction ceremony in 2020 and no summer-long annual baseball tournament at Cooperstown Dreams Park, which drives weeks of tourism to the area, either. In August of that year, the Hall of Fame received a $4.7 million grant as part of a COVID relief bill, but CNBC estimated that the lack of tourism cost merchants between $50 million and $150 million.
“That was expected, pre-COVID, to be the biggest induction, a humongous induction,” Burke said. “They were expecting a lot of people.”
Jeter ended up being inducted the following year in a ceremony postponed until September and still pared down due to safety concerns. An estimated 20,000 people attended, a quarter of the 80,000 who’d been expected to make the trip for Jeter, if not for the pandemic.
“We thought that was going to be the moment that really gave Cooperstown the shot in the arm that it needed to get through the next couple of years, when classes might be slim,” Harrington said.
The classes have, indeed, been slim — with some notable exceptions. In 2021, no one was elected, though that year the Hall hosted the belated Jeter ceremony. In 2022, it was just David Ortiz, but proximity to Boston brought in plenty of Big Papi fans.
In December, the Contemporary Era Committee, which doesn’t generate nearly as much attention, elected Fred McGriff, who played for six organizations, most of them nowhere near Cooperstown. But a ceremony that lacks a headliner — or simply wider appeal — is bad for business. And there was concern that this year’s combination of steroid-marred players such as Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez, borderline candidates such as Todd Helton and the first test of bestowing enshrinement on members of the 2017 Astros sign-stealing operation in Carlos Beltrán would yield another empty class.
With all due respect, a marquee with only McGriff’s name on it would motivate only so many people to make the trek.
“The expected number of fans is kind of contingent on who’s being inducted,” Burke said.
Which makes this week an important one for the tourism community in Cooperstown. Ahead of the annual announcements, Harrington prepares promotional material pegged to potential inductees who have a shot at clearing the 75% threshold and then pares back based on who does or does not make the cut.
“We wait to form a good chunk of our marketing plans for that announcement. So I’m deferring a lot of sales folks who are calling up asking me to advertise with them because I’m waiting to see which markets we need to be talking to this year,” she said a few days before Tuesday’s reveal.
“We don’t expect that this summer is going to be one of our biggest classes by any means.”
Well, it might not be much, but at least McGriff won’t be alone on that podium in July. In his sixth year of eligibility — players fall off the ballot after 10 or if they’re on less than 5% of ballots — third baseman Scott Rolen eked over the top Tuesday. He was named on 297 of 389 ballots, good for 76.3%. South Philly, where he spent the first six years of his career and won a Rookie of the Year award, is less than 4.5 hours from the Hall of Fame, assuming traffic isn’t too bad.
The Class of 2023 induction won’t be a national event that sets attendance records, like Jeter’s might’ve been under better circumstances. And there won’t be the caché of a first-ballot electee, as will probably be the case next year, when Adrián Beltré makes his eligibility debut. But Cooperstown will host devoted fans of the Phillies, Cardinals, Reds and — more broadly speaking — baseball this summer.
The ceremony is on a Sunday, but Harrington recommends visitors come to town a day ahead. That way they have more time to enjoy the community and, more importantly, because they’re permitted to put down chairs and blankets as early as Saturday to secure a good view of the lectern.
“So that on Sunday you don’t have to get up and be there hours before start time,” she said. “Your spot is as saved as the people around you are courteous.”
Follow Yahoo Sports’ Hannah Keyser on Twitter @HannahRKeyser.
Source: Yahoo Sports