COOPERSTOWN — Any organization or business that relies on public support craves positive publicity — and, in almost all cases, has to work very hard to drive its message.
But the National Baseball Hall of Fame had good fortune fall into its lap when a White House staffer reached out to the baseball shrine last week and indicated President Barack Obama wanted to use the museum as a backdrop to encourage tourism, Jeff Idelson, the Hall of Fame’s president, told The Daily Star on Wednesday.
As a direct result of Obama’s scheduled visit this afternoon at the venerable museum on Main Street, the Hall of Fame will be showcased for the nation as news feeds stream out from Cooperstown to television networks and newspapers of all sizes from coast to coast.
“The fact that the president is coming to Cooperstown to deliver a speech on tourism speaks to not only what we have to offer but to all the great cultural attractions there are to visit in this area,” he said in an interview in this office.
In a question and answer sit-down with The Daily Star, Idelson elaborated on the significance of the visit to the hall. He also voiced optimism regarding the hall’s chances of rebounding from years of declining visitors.
Here’s a transcript of that conversation.
Question: Have the White House staffers asked to arrange a tour by President Obama of any specific exhibits now on display at the Hall?
Answer: The instructions we have from the White House so far indicate that he is just here to deliver a speech.
Q: Was Jane Forbes Clark (the director and president of the Clark Foundation, the organization that underwrites the Hall of Fame, the Fenimore Art Museum, the Farmers Museum and other organizations) instrumental in making the president’s visit happen?
A: “It was honestly a pleasant surprise when the phone rang. So this was not orchestrated by us. Honestly. The phone rang, and all of a sudden we learned the president wanted to come to Cooperstown. The gist of his visit was to talk about tourism, and international tourism. Next thing we knew we were planning for a presidential visit. So it was not anything we tried to make happen.
Q: How many visitors come to the Hall each from outside the country?
A: We don’t break it down. Our number of international visitors is not that big. But the number of players who come from an international background is massive. Some of these non-American players will be elected to Cooperstown, and the game is continuing to internationalize. So the potential is massive. Asian baseball is very popular, particularly in Japan. It’s a well followed sport there.”
Q: What is the trend for total attendance?
A: In 2013, we had 262,000 people. We have experienced some decline since 2008, when the economic markets started declining. Cultural tourism took a hit everywhere, including central New York. The decline in the markets was coupled with rising gas prices. But we’re seeing an uptick this year, with the rollout of 75 (the anniversary of the hall’s opening 75 years ago in 1939), coupled with the state’s promotions in the I Love New York program. We feel this is going to be a good kickoff to moving attendance back in a positive way.
Q: So even without the president coming you were confident 2014 would be a good year?
A: Absolutely. We’ve felt very good about this year for a few years. The president’s visit certainly helps to elevate the message of us turning 75. It’s very much a positive for the Hall of Fame and the county, from a tourism standpoint.
Q: What would you like to see the president take away from his visit to Cooperstown?
A: The hope is the president becomes even more understanding of just how important an asset we are to the culture of this area and the county, and to understand we are a viable economic driver in this region and to see and understand the wonderful activities our visitors enjoy in this region.
Q: Is there a plan to maintain the momentum it appears the hall will be getting from the president’s visit?
A: The excitement that we have going now is projected throughout the whole summer, because when the president leaves Thursday, the Classic Weekend starts the next day. You fast forward 2½ weeks to June 12 and 13th. We’re rededicating the museum for our 75th anniversary on the 12th, We’re opening up a brand new Babe Ruth gallery exhibit on the 13th. Cal Ripken and Joe Morgan (both Hall of Famers) will be there for both events. Then it’s induction weekend (July 25-28) with the largest living induction class since Nixon was in office. Then six days later (Aug. 2) you have the concert staged for the 75th anniversary, with the Boston Pops and Paul Simon, Bernie Williams and Juan Luis Guerra. So we have a number of great events. The excitement is palpable and the buzz is being felt not only here but across the nation.
Q: What is the impact the Hall of Fame has on the local economy?
A: The Hall of Fame draws nearly 300,000 visitors annually, helping to drive more than $160 million into the economy of Otsego County each year. It’s projected that each Hall of Fame visitor generates an estimated $500 in spending into the regional economy.
Q: Security, we know, is a sensitive subject. But could you discuss in broad terms how comfortable you are with the security here for the president’s visit?
A: We’re the host venue, and it’s the White House’s event. The White House takes its events extremely serious. If you can’t feel comfortable in that setting, with how the White House presents itself for events, I don’t know where you could feel comfortable. They obviously come with a great deal of security and they take precautions, and rightly so. And we believe residents should feel secure. We take our own security incredibly serious. Security is very much in the forefront all the time.
Q: Have you heard from the governor’s people?
A: No. The invitation would come from the White House.
Q: Are the museum’s fortunes going forward joined at the hip with the fortunes of Major League Baseball? Will baseball maintain this premier title as the ‘national pastime?’
A: Baseball is without a doubt still our national pastime. Are other sports as popular as baseball? Sure, absolutely. But look how baseball permeates culture, music, film, books poetry, television,. And with the president coming here to speak, it speaks volumes that it is still the national pastime, and very much a part of Americana, which is what the presidency is.
Baseball continues to thrive. It’s a $7 billion industry. The major leagues are thriving, the minor leagues are thriving, which means history is happening all the time. And if history is happening, somebody needs to be there to document it, and the Hall of Fame has done that for 75 years.