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.
It was the Pre-Integration Era committee's turn this year, and they announced in December that O'Day, Ruppert and White had made the cut. The result is that for the first time since 1965, when 1880s pitching standout Pud Galvin was the lone inductee, 63 years after his death, no new Hall of Famer will be present to accept his plaque.
Instead, Idelson and his staff tracked down family members of the three inductees to attend the ceremony. White will be represented by his great grandson, O'Day by a great grandnephew and Ruppert by a great grandniece.
That leaves the Hall and Cooperstown to rely on some of the game's long-enshrined stars as the primary attraction this weekend — which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
The Hall isn't the only attraction in town — the Glimmerglass Festival brings world-class opera to the area each summer — but it remains the key economic driver. You can bet no other Main Street in America boasts a half-dozen or so baseball memorabilia shops.
Last July, with the induction of Larkin and Santo, the village’s share of Otsego County sales tax money was up 36 percent from the month before, said Cooperstown Mayor Jeff Katz. That number will be tough to match this year, though those tasked with promoting the event are working all possible angles.
The main attraction this Sunday will be a bit different, as the Hall will try to fill in the gaps by honoring a dozen Hall of Famers who never had a formal induction. They include Lou Gehrig, who was too sick to attend his induction in 1939, along with Rogers Hornsby (1942) and the entire Class of 1945, which was unable to attend due to wartime travel restrictions. A living Hall of Famer will read the plaque of each of the 12 honorees, with Ripken set to honor Gehrig in an especially nice touch.
It's an idea that had been bouncing around inside the Hall for a few years, Idelson said, and the composition of this year's class made it a natural time to implement the plan.
So that might bring out a few more visitors, and of course the usual attractions will be in place. There will be autograph signings with Hall of Famers throughout the weekend, as more than 40 are expected to be in town including Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Rickey Henderson and Johnny Bench. They'll participate in the Saturday evening parade down Main Street from Doubleday Field to the Hall that begins immediately after a ceremony honoring this year's media inductees, writer Paul Hagen of MLB.com and the late Blue Jays announcer Tom Cheek.
"Every time they introduce Koufax and Mays and Aaron – they're in very close proximity in a way most people never see them," Katz said. "It still has its appeal."
And smaller crowds than usual should mean easier viewing at the parade and shorter lines for autographs, as Cooperstown Chamber of Commerce executive director Patricia Szarpa was happy to point out.
"I know from a Chamber perspective we were encouraging people to come, saying if you've been frightened of crowds in the past, this may be the year to come to experience all of the wonderful events of induction," Szarpa said. "... You may enjoy having a few less people [around]. We've been pushing that, so we may end up having a little bit better turnout than we think."
Whatever happens, it won't be the end of the world for the shopkeepers, hoteliers and cafe owners of Cooperstown. Though induction weekend typically is the most lucrative of the year, local businesses focus on the summer season as a whole, and they'll still draw plenty of tourists and families of young ballplayers participating in tournaments at Cooperstown Dreams Park.
In the meantime, they'll look forward to future inductions, which could include Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Frank Thomas in 2014, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz in 2015, and Ken Griffey Jr. and Trevor Hoffman in 2016, in addition to any holdovers from this year's ballot who finally make the cut.
"[Having no living honorees is] not our preference, it's not our desire," Katz said. "But I think by next year when we have Maddux and Glavine and Thomas very likely to be in, from areas like Chicago and Atlanta that tend to produce people who come, I think we're on the verge of a nice string of popular inductions."
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