COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — The banners are out, adorning the brick facade of baseball’s spiritual home. The commemorative pint glasses, patches and T-shirts are on display in the gift shop. It’s time for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum to celebrate its Class of 2013, with all the usual trimmings.
But for the first time in nearly 50 years, none of the guests of honor will be present.
A collision of the Hall’s two-tiered voting process and the first real referendum on baseball’s Steroid Era has produced an induction weekend unlike any in recent memory.
Oh, the people will come to this pastoral New York village this weekend, as they always do — “You’ll have your historians who look to come regardless, you’ll have the fans that come to every induction,” said Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson.
What you won’t have, though, are fans with any firsthand memories of Hank O'Day, Jacob Ruppert or Deacon White, who Sunday afternoon will be immortalized in bronze relief in the Hall of Fame Gallery like 295 men and women before them.
Their achievements in the game are notable — O'Day as a onetime pitcher who went on to umpire the first World Series, Ruppert as the owner of the Babe Ruth-era Yankees, White as a barehanded catcher and third baseman in the 1870s and ‘80s. But of that trio, only White was still alive when the Hall of Fame opened its doors on June 12, 1939, and he died a mere 25 days later.
So there will not be any stories this year of, say, Cincinnati fans reliving the glory days of the Reds’ 1990 World Series championship by celebrating Barry Larkin’s induction into the Hall, as was the case last summer. Nor will the crowds come anywhere close to reaching the benchmark of all recent inductions, the 2007 enshrinement of contemporary icons Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn, which brought an estimated 70,000 pilgrims to this village of 1,800 for one crowded, giddy weekend.
The show will go on, though. This is, after all, what they do in Cooperstown.
The Hall of Fame saw this one coming.
Its inductees each year come via two paths. Most prominent is election by members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, who consider players who have been retired for at least five years after playing at least 10 seasons in the majors. In addition, a veterans committee meets each year to consider a slate of candidates who fall outside those boundaries, including managers, executives and umpires.
In January, the BBWAA announced its members had not elected anyone for the Class of 2013. Candidates must garner at least 75 percent of the writers’ vote to make the Hall, and Craig Biggio topped this year’s list at 68.2 percent in his first time on the ballot.
Below him in the voting were two fellow first-timers whose statistics alone made them far more worthy of induction — Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds. But the residue of the Steroid Era proved too strong to overcome, as those two were named on just 37.6 and 36.2 percent of the ballots, respectively, and PED uncertainty up and down the ballot undoubtedly affected other candidates’ chances.
“With the writers’ ballot and the consternation that we knew was going to go into the vote this year, we were prepared for this eventuality,” Idelson said. “It doesn’t make it any easier in terms of marketing, but we certainly were not surprised by it.”
The veterans committee is now split into three parts, considering candidates from the Expansion Era (1973-present), the Golden Era (1947-72) and the Pre-Integration Era (1876-1946) on a three-year cycle. Last year, the late Cubs third baseman Ron Santo was inducted after a vote by the Golden Era committee. For 2011, the Expansion Era committee added longtime executive Pat Gillick.