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BASEBALL TOWN : Hall of Fame, on Its 50th Anniversary, More Than an Identity for Cooperstown

Doug Walker had just rung up a $110 sale for a framed and signed photograph of Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca, and he paused to look at a clutch of customers peering into the window of his high-priced (a signed Don Mattingly bat and ball: $525) baseball fine-arts shop.

“People are in a state of grace here,” said Walker, a native of Cooperstown who ventured into merchandising baseball art and artifacts four years ago. “People seem to be praying at the store window. They really are pilgrims.”

On a breezy morning a week before the ritual induction of players Carl Yastrzemski, Johnny Bench, Red Schoendienst and umpire Al Barlick into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, hundreds of pilgrims moved in a reverential mass along Main Street toward the national pastime’s shrine, the main attraction of this central New York village of 2,500.

Real estate agent Don Olin, a dead-ringer for ex-major league manager Dick Williams, gazed at the growing herd of Hall-bound fans. Families. A troop of Boy Scouts. Nearly everybody wearing a team cap or shirt. Well-behaved folks.

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Olin, who only recently visited the Hall for the first time since he was a boy, said, “No question about the Hall’s effect on business here. If not for the Hall, people wouldn’t be walking the streets of this quaint little village. They say there are 80 bed and breakfasts in the area. None of them would be here without the Hall.”

This is the Hall of Fame’s 50th anniversary, a half-century since benefactor Stephen Clark Sr. built the museum in a small village best known, until then, for its historic link to “Leatherstocking Tales” author James Fenimore Cooper, whose wealthy father, William, founded Cooperstown.

Today, despite the Hall’s serene, rural location, five hours from New York City, it is drawing record crowds. Attendance grew to a best-ever 308,995 last year, a 50% increase since 1984. By the start of the peak vacation seaon in early July, it already had jumped 32% from 1988.

Maybe it’s the ever-surging interest in baseball, publicity about the 50th anniversary (celebrated June 10 with a Main Street parade and the unveiling of a Lou Gehrig stamp by the U.S. Postal Service), the popularity of Bench and Yastrzemski or, simply, word-of-mouth. The Hall must rely on what others say and write about it because of its modest advertising budget.

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“I see no reason for spending big on advertising,” said the Hall’s director, Howard Talbot Jr., who started work at the Hall as its accountant in 1951. “We’re out of the way and there’s a limit to how many people we can handle.”

The best advertising is media coverage of the annual induction on the steps of the Hall’s library, where as many as 6,271 fans have gathered. Now a three-day affair, Hall of Fame weekend stretches from golf and tennis tournaments on Saturday to the induction Sunday to the Hall of Fame Game Monday between the Boston Red Sox and Cincinnati Reds. The weekend’s $150,000 cost is underwritten by a $90,000 contribution by the Equitable Financial Cos.; the Hall covers the difference.

Many in the crowd will see the first expansion of the Hall since 1980. A new wing, unveiled last month in an old gymnasium donated by the Clark family foundation, adds 18,000 square feet of office and display space, including a new ornament: A 200-seat theater designed like an old ballpark that features a slickly-produced 15-minute film extolling the childlike joys of baseball.

The $7.5-million expansion probably wouldn’t have happened without the Hall’s growing bottom-line success. On top of $1.2 million donations from Boston Red Sox part-owner Jean Yawkey and former Detroit Tiger owner John Fetzer, the Hall used a revenue surplus and more than $2 million in bank loans to finance construction of the modern new wing.

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“If we had to go out and buy that building on our own, it would have cost three or four million dollars,” Hall president Edward Stack said. “So this whole expansion is really worth more than 10 million dollars.”

On deck is a planned modernization and expansion of the library--the foremost repository of baseball research in the world with 5 million newspaper documents and 125,000 photographs--which won’t come until 1991.

“We want to make it easier for the staff to locate things,” Talbot said. “Computerization will make it easy to keep track of material, make copies of photos and documents. We want to open up more area to researchers, and put valuable documents on microfilm.”

For all its swelling attendance and stature as the key attraction in this affluent village of well-tended Victorian, Colonial, stone and simple frame houses, the Hall is a fairly small business, dwarfed by the nearby Mary Imogene Bassett Hospital. Cooperstown is also the seat of Otsego County, bringing in 500 county workers daily.

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By contrast, the Hall has only 45 full-time, year-round employees, a staff that has increased to 140 for the peak vacation time. It will operate this year with a budget of about $3.25 million, which Talbot says will increase in 1990 with full-year costs to maintain the new wing.

The Hall made $1.2 million in admission fees in 1988, which could reach $1.6 million if the current attendance trend continues. Gift shop and catalogue sales, which made $2.5 million last year and are already up 80% in the first half of 1989, will probably approach $3.5 million.

Another $1 million should come from several licensing deals, up from $783,000 in 1988. The bulk of the licensing money comes from a deal with Leaf Donruss to make Hall of Fame trading cards, puzzles and postcards from artist Dick Perez’s Hall of Famer paintings. In addition, the Hall should get about $12,500 from its take of Hall of Fame Game receipts, and another $15,000 from Major League Baseball.

Hall officials are exploring other licensing agreements, but Talbot and Stack are not in a hurry. Stack is negotiating with a car company to sponsor the new theater.

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“We don’t want to commercialize things,” he said. “This is very low-key.”

Said Talbot: “We’re very fussy.”

Despite the presence of more baseball-oriented items in the village each year (even the pharmacy sells baseball memorabilia) and soaring real estate values pushed by the partial Yuppification of the village, Cooperstown, like the Hall, is fussy and low-key. Sure, there’s more traffic than villagers care to have, but Cooperstown is a clean and uncluttered place.

Village ordinances forbid neon and flashing signs (there’s only one traffic light), and signs deemed too large, too high or too close to the sidewalk. Three old-fashioned trolleys (dubbed Deerslayer, Natty Bumppo and Hawkeye) move without San Francisco-like clanging for 50 cents a ride. Main Street’s retail strip is quiet by 9 p.m.

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Harold Hollis, the 75-year-old mayor of Cooperstown, who covered the first Hall of Fame Game in 1939 for the local newspaper, the Freemen’s Journal, said: “We don’t want to look like some kind of tourist trap like Lake George.”

But tourism is crucial to Cooperstown’s business life, and the Hall is the primary destination. For every three people who visit the Hall, one-and-a-half visit the village’s other main attractions, the Farmers Museum and the Fenimore House (on the site of Ambrose Clark’s private horse-racing track). The more music-minded Hall pilgrims also attend the Glimmerglass Opera, which earlier this month featured William Schuman’s opera, “The Mighty Casey.”

Even if the village would survive as a pleasant rural burg without it, the Hall provides considerable economic impact. No studies have been done, but a rough calculation shows that if each person spends an average of $50-a-day on food and lodging, the impact would be $20 million, which doesn’t account for how many times those dollars turn over locally or spending by Hall employees.

Without the Hall, the bed and breakfast would not be as prevalent although some of the inns, motels and hotels such as the stately Otesaga Hotel would surely survive because of Cooperstown’s aesthetic charm.

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“I didn’t move here because the Hall was here,” said Michael Jerome, owner of The Inn at Cooperstown, “but I don’t think I’d be in business without it. Eighty to ninety percent of my guests come to see the Hall. But once they’ve been here, they’ve come again for other things.”

Added Hollis, the mayor: “I was talking to a woman about 80 years old the other day. She’s got no interest in baseball. But she said, ‘I’d rather have it like this than the average small village. The other places, shoot, don’t have this kind of activity.’ The Hall give Cooperstown a lot more recognition.”

Without the thousands of artifacts of baseball contained within its display cases and archives, the Hall wouldn’t generate much outside recognition. It is the perfect museum for its fans. The value of its collection is seen as incalculable by adoring baseball fans. And if destroyed, it is irreplaceable--especially in the current climate of soaring trading cards and memorabilia sales.

There’s Babe Ruth’s red locker stall. Bob Feller’s first no-hitter ball. Lou Gehrig’s address book. A watch Connie Mack gave to Clark Griffith on the latter’s 50th wedding anniversary. Shoeless Joe Jackson’s shoes. Rube Waddell’s shotgun. Christy Mathewson’s Bible.

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All this is insured for a “fair value” of $2.12 million under a fine-arts policy. Put everything on the market, and they could be worth $20 million. Maybe more. Who knows what somebody would pay for the locker used in different eras by Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle?

“The evaluation is less than the items would bring on the open market,” Talbot said. “But if we valued it that way, we couldn’t afford it. We put a fair value on it. Rates are up drastically. If it continues, it will hurt us. That’s why we’ve spent $75,000 to upgrade our fire and security system.”

Which brings Talbot to a sticky subject: paying for artifacts. The Hall never has, existing always on donations. The memorabilia market has roiled that policy, with reports such as Pete Rose selling some of his history-making bats and balls and the competition for other important pieces such as George Brett’s pine tar bat (owned by a collector but now on loan to the Hall).

Even shopkeeper Doug Walker owns a 1939 baseball, autographed by Ruth, Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg, Mel Ott and others, who were all present at the first Hall of Fame game. Not that the Hall has missed too many notable pieces and quick work by team officials at the site of a major occasion usually gets most of what the Hall desires. But profit-motivated dealers want what the Hall used to get automatically.

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“We will never pay for anything,” Talbot said.

Said Stack: “I’m not saying we’ll never pay. But I’d hate to get into that routine. People have to be sensible about it. The players who achieve records should look to the Hall as the place where their things will be enjoyed and preserved forever.

“They shouldn’t look for a chance to make money. We’re preserving the future. Even some of the collectors who’ve paid for things we’ve missed are coming around. After some have enjoyed having something, they’ll give it to the Hall of Fame. They’ll get a tax deduction and feel they’ve made a contribution.”

THE INDUCTEES

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Johnny Bench, Red Schoendienst and Carl Yastrzemski have their day at Cooperstown. Bill Christine’s story, Page 13.

ATTENDANCE: 1980-89

YEAR ATTENDANCE +/- 1980 213,516 NA 1981 205,715 -0.4% 1982 210,254 +2.2% 1983 220,725 +4.9% 1984 205,380 -6.9% 1985 222,120 +8.1% 1986 251,870 +13.3% 1987 281,755 +11.8% 1988 308,995 +9.6% 1989 113,215 +33.3

Source: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

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