Sports | September 24, 2021 5:55 am

What Will Be the Legacy of Cooperstown’s Longest Year?

After Derek Jeter's long-awaited Hall of Fame coronation, a town and its tourism industry look to the future

Derek Jeter smiles while delivering his remarks at the Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at the Clark Sports Center on September 8, 2021 in Cooperstown, New York
Derek Jeter delivers his remarks at the Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony on September 8, 2021 in Cooperstown, New York
Matt Dirksen/Getty

Smack dab in the middle of Cooperstown’s sleepy off-season, Scott Barton, proprietor of two area lodging facilities, was suddenly snowed under with work. The idyllic hamlet in central New York is home to not only the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, but also a host of warm-weather attractions that entice nature lovers and fans of the fine arts from far and wide. Wintertime is when business owners such as Barton relax, and perhaps oversee renovations on their properties, which is what he’d planned for on February 12, 2014. 

“I was checking my phone for messages and emails for the motel, and all of a sudden there’s like 20 new emails,” Barton says. Enclosed were reservation requests for lodging at the end of July — in the years 2019, 2020 and 2021. “I pop up ESPN and there’s Jeter saying, ‘This is my last year.’”

Though Barton’s Lake ’N Pines Motel and Hickory Grove Motor Inn only secure reservations up to one year in advance, what transpired that day helped build anticipation for what he and fellow Cooperstown economic stakeholders envisioned as an all-time great event in honor of a generational figure, Derek Jeter. The five-time World Series champion and captain of baseball’s most valued franchise, the Yankees, of downstate New York City, was coming to Cooperstown. And it was possible he’d bring with him upward of 100,000 fans. 

“Our village of 1,900 residents then becomes a major metropolitan area for a single day,” says Cassandra Harrington, Executive Director of the Destination Marketing Corporation for Ostego County, a not-for-profit organization promoting tourism to Cooperstown and its outlying areas. “It’s a lot on our infrastructure, but at the same time, all those people means they’re supporting local business.”

There was a lot of that going around before COVID-19. In 2019, another beloved Yankee and the most accomplished relief pitcher in history, Mariano Rivera, was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Attending his enshrinement ceremony: 55,000 people, the second largest crowd for “Induction Weekend” ever, and a group nearly 30 times larger than Cooperstown’s entire year-round residential population. 

If Rivera could compel that many to make the trip, and if guys like Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. brought in 82,000 fans — as they did in 2007, after playing for farther-flung teams in smaller cities like San Diego and Baltimore, respectively — it was reasonable to think Derek Jeter’s induction might top the already ostentatious numbers his predecessors drew. The date of this happy monstrosity would be July 26, 2020, the customary final Sunday of that month, after the passage of five full baseball seasons from the time Jeter last played on a Major League ballfield.

Then COVID happened. 

“Last summer was very tough,” says Tara Burke, Executive Director of the Cooperstown Chamber of Commerce. “A lot of the businesses here, the attractions, the shops and the restaurants, they are very dependent on that season for the revenue that carries them through most of the year.”

Induction Weekend isn’t the only event that comes to Cooperstown between Memorial Day and Columbus Day, the height of the area’s tourist season. There’s also the popular Glimmerglass Festival of opera performances and the Dreams Park youth baseball program, both events that attract thousands of visitors to the area on a yearly basis. All that is to say nothing of the seductive power of nature, with draws like Ostego Lake operating as yet another driving force behind local tourism revenue. 

Last summer, Barton’s lodging businesses were down 80 percent compared to 2019 numbers. His saving graces were backlogged emergency funds, financial aid and area residents who decided to take open-air pandemic staycations while new case numbers were low between June and September. 

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum shut down for three months at the outset of the pandemic. Jon Shestakofsky, Vice President of Communications and Education at the institution, says some 275,000 people walked its corridors two years ago — including this reporter. However, in all of 2020, only about 50,000 baseball faithful paid admission, roughly the same number of people who typically turn up for a single Hall of Fame induction ceremony, of which there were none last year. 

Derek Jeter, who’d expectedly been voted into the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America during his first year of eligibility, would have to wait for his Induction Weekend. So would his fans, as well as Cooperstown’s business owners and workers. That day finally arrived two weeks ago, though not without some controversy and disappointment.

As the pandemic plodded on, the Hall of Fame revealed in February that Jeter’s induction ceremony would be a virtual event held on July 25, 2021, with fans watching from the safety of their living rooms. Cooperstown’s mayor praised the decision, but some in the local business community expressed worry about a second consecutive summer without an Induction Weekend. On June 9, however, the Hall reversed course, saying they’d coordinated a ceremony that would allow fans to attend, but on a weekday in early September, not the more vacationer-friendly late-July Sunday everyone had hoped for.

Fans in Derek Jeter jerseys make their way to Hall of Fame induction ceremony on September 8, 2021
Fans in Derek Jeter jerseys make their way to the induction ceremony on September 8
Jim McIsaac/Getty

“It’s obviously not when we would normally host or look to host the event,” Shestakofsky tells InsideHook. “But really it comes down to resources and logistics.”

In order for planners to pull off an event of that magnitude, they shut down the lakeside Otesaga Resort Hotel, down the road from ceremony grounds, so it could house players, their families and other Hall luminaries safely and privately. 

“What we didn’t want to do was kick out people who had long-standing reservations for important events like weddings,” Shestakofsky says. “That was the first piece that limited our options.”

A large cadre of New York State Police officers, who always have a stout presence in Cooperstown during Induction Weekend for safety reasons, were on duty at the State Fair, held in Syracuse between August 20 and September 6. So those dates were out. And honorees like Jeter, who’s a co-owner and President of the Miami Marlins team, have time considerations tied to active engagement in the ongoing baseball season. 

“It pushed us really into one option, and that was Wednesday, September 8th,” Shestakofsky says. “That seemed to work for all the different elements that needed to be a part of having a successful event outdoors.”

The spread of the Delta variant, which began in earnest around late July, obviously didn’t help matters. But the show went on, as Shestakofsky says, in part because the importance of having fans in attendance was outsized in 2021 — for reasons that went beyond even Derek Jeter.

“It was also very important for our Hall of Famers to have the chance to come together and in their own way pay tribute to those they lost in the past year-plus,” Shestakofsky says, referring to the 10 former Major Leaguers who’d been enshrined in the museum that died since Induction Weekend 2019. “It’s just been a devastating year for our Hall of Fame family.”

After many giddily speculated a 100,000-attendee Derek Jeter Hall of Fame induction ceremony, an estimated 20,000 people turned up in Cooperstown, a sobering reminder that the COVID-19 pandemic has hung around far longer than anyone would like, stretching the economies of communities like Cooperstown down to ever thinner margins.

You won’t hear ungovernable unhappiness in the voices of the town’s leadership, though. 

“I am saddened for the business community and the effect that a smaller crowd had, but I also am thankful that we didn’t have 100,000 people here from across the globe because we are still in the middle of a pandemic,” Harrington says. “I feel safe now, even a week after the event, knowing that we were all outside and I did see a lot of people who were masked at the event. I think it was a smart move by all the decision makers.”

Derek Jeter, Larry Walker and Ted Simmons pose for a photograph with their plaques during the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony at Clark Sports Center on September 08, 2021 in Cooperstown, New York
The 2021 class also included Larry Walker and Ted Simmons
Jim McIsaac/Getty

“The timing wasn’t the greatest,” the hotelier Barton says, “but … we were able to go back in-person, and bring people to Cooperstown to help us get back to a normal sense of tourism here, which is our biggest driver economically in our area.”

Barton says after his lodging houses fielded skeleton staffs last year, the size of his workforce has returned to pre-pandemic levels. Close to where the ceremony is held, the Lake ’N Pines Motel and Hickory Grove Motor Inn were solidly booked for Induction Weekend. But outer-ring lodgers likely felt a pinch they wouldn’t have if Jeter went into the Hall in a sans-COVID year. And with a relative lack of demand, Barton’s rates were not as high as they’d been in the past — Induction Weekend in non-pandemic years accounts for seven to 10 percent of his facilities’ yearly revenue — so he didn’t exactly make out like a bandit. (There have been a few COVID-19 small-business casualties in the area, but not as many as some worried about at the crisis’s onset.)

Barton, at least, remains optimistic about the future. “We’re very close and, God be willing, next year we’re back to fully operational and getting things a lot smoother,” he says. 

Parking around town was of a lesser concern, too. Harrington says in years like 2019, when Rivera entered the Hall, organizers repurposed private green spaces owned by locals into parking lots, though if it’s a wet summer they try and figure something else out, so as to keep cars from sinking into the ground. 

“It was kind of a rat race, but it was really fun to try to cram everybody in and see so many people excited,” Harrington remembers of 2019. “I still feel a little bad that the class of 2020 didn’t get to see Cooperstown and have the grand welcoming that all of the rest of the classes have had.”

But nature will run its course. COVID will eventually pass, as the great flu did a century ago, and David Ortiz, arguably the Derek Jeter of his ’00s archrival, the Boston Red Sox, is a near-lock to celebrate a Hall of Fame induction next July.

First, though, Barton and his fellow business owners are booking for fall, when the northeast’s foliage transformation is sure to be as colorful and striking as ever. Mr. November has come and gone, but a piece of him has been left behind, among all the other immortals. Long may they remain.