Baseball HOF Rebounds as Cooperstown Looks Forward to Street Paving

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It was not quite 2019, but Cooperstown Mayor Ellen Tillapaugh basically said this National Baseball Hall of Fame induction weekend “felt more like normal.”

Well, not quite. The crowd at the ceremony behind the Clark Sports Center for seven inductees, headlined by David “Big Papi” Ortiz, looked to be about half the 55,000 who showed up for Mariano Rivera three years ago.

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Even in 2015, when Ortiz’s fellow Dominican and Boston Red Sox teammate Pedro Martinez was honored, the hills and pastures around the Center were alive and chocked with fans. Those same hills were empty on Sunday.

Still, Ortiz was moved as he opened his speech and looked out on a sea of Dominican flags and Red Sox colors, saying later he was glad he hit seventh.

“Hello, my people of Cooperstown,” Ortiz said addressing a crowd estimated at 35,000. “I love and adore you.”

COVID-19 federal funds helped both the village and Hall of Fame and Museum through lean times.

The Hall received $4.7 million in a national museum grant reflected in its 2020 Form 990 federal tax returns, which are public because the Hall is a non-profit.

The village of 1,852 received $178,000 in American Recovery Plan Act funds during the past two years, amounting to $89,000 a year. That money will help repave streets and complete civic projects that have been left fallow by a shortfall of tax dollars because of the pandemic.

The 30% drop in revenue of close to $1 million in 2020 and an additional $400,000 in 2021 had a ripple effect on all city services, the mayor added.

“It was 100% of all projects,” Tillapaugh said. “I had a resident call me and ask when we were going to repave her area. I said, ‘Do you realize we had no real street projects done in the last two years?’ We did a little bit of paving in 2021 because we saw a slight uptick in funds. But nothing in 2020. We’re in a northern clime. We need to be repaving our streets a lot.”

Tillapaugh said the village has cautiously budgeted $400,000 in street repairs out of the $3.8 million general fund for the current fiscal year, which began on June 1.

A $5.8 million project to renovate the famous Doubleday Field has been long delayed, but it’s finally in its third and last phase, as steel bleachers replete with seatbacks are about to be installed down the left-field line in front of a new red-brick edifice.

The home plate grandstands and parking lot were restored prior to the pandemic, “and we couldn’t rent it once during the 2020 season because of restrictions on sports teams, so we took a significant hit,” the mayor said.

Former Mayor Jeff Katz was on a committee that raised about $5 million to complete the project.

The Hall of Fame Museum was closed for three months in 2020 as well as two other museums in town run by the Forbes Family Foundation because of New York health and safety protocols. The induction featuring Derek Jeter, Larry Walker and others was canceled. It was delayed again and finally staged on Sept. 8, 2021, during the middle of the week.

The crowd was estimated at 20,000 for the ceremony, but there appeared to many fewer people on hand. It didn’t help that there was no Class of 2021. The Baseball Writers’ Association of America didn’t elect anyone, and the ERA committee elections were cancelled.

“It’s not a great time here,” the banished from the Hall Pete Rose said back then. “It’s been pretty dead the last few years.”

Rose spends hours every induction weekend selling autographs at the Safe at Home memorabilia shop. During a visit with Rose this weekend, he was seated at a table in the back of the shop and there were no takers.

At a tent in the Doubleday parking lot where Denny McLain, who  was the last 30-game winner 52 years ago, always sets up shop, there were no autograph buyers. McLain slumped in a folding chair.

Historically, the induction weekend is a financial catalyst for the town. But even as the country has been besieged by the pandemic and sky-rocketing gas prices, local motels/hotels were charging $500 a night with a three-day minimum. The weekend may have simply priced itself out.

The Hall and Museum on Main Street was so hard hit it was eligible for federal money under a program entitled the Shuttered Venues Operators Grant. The Hall closed quickly when Major League Baseball shut down for four months on March 12, 2020. MLB began an abbreviated 60-game season sans fans in late July.

The Hall also reopened with restricted capacity that summer. It drew 51,371 during 2020 compared to 275,000 in 2019, with 90% typically visiting during the summer months. A Hall official said  management is anticipating a return to about 160,000 this year.

“They were badly impacted because they’re open all year,” Tillapaugh said.

According to the federal tax form, the Hall showed an increase in assets of $56.2 million in 2020 from $52 million in 2019 largely because of the $4.7 million grant. At the same time operational revenue declined from $7.5 million to $2.9 million as attendance plummeted.

“Museums were among the first to shut down at the start of the pandemic and will be among the last to fully recover,” New York Sen. Chuck Schumer said at the time the grant was awarded. “I am proud to deliver this vital federal funding for the National Baseball Hall of Fame that’s nothing short of a home run for Cooperstown, Otsego County, and baseball fans across America.”

The next induction ceremony is scheduled for July 23, 2023, and Carlos Beltran is the most noteworthy new name eligible for the BBWAA ballot.

Although the town and hallowed Hall are not yet completely back to pre-pandemic levels, it’s all trending in the right direction. Let’s see what happens.

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