Minors fostering closer ties to Hall

Cooperstown, leagues working together to expand fan base

(Danny Wild/MLB.com)

By Benjamin Hill / MLB.com | January 15, 2010 5:00 AM ET

There's much more to the Baseball Hall of Fame than the annual induction of the sport's immortals.

The 70-year-old institution also seeks to preserve and celebrate the game's history, because as Hall president Jeff Idelson is quick to point out: "The story of baseball is the story of America."

The Minor Leagues are, of course, a huge part of baseball's story. Accordingly, the Hall of Fame has long had a symbiotic relationship with Minor League Baseball -- one that both entities expect to take to a new level in 2010.

A natural fit

"The relationship that the Hall of Fame has had with the Minors dates back to our inception [in 1939], and all along we've grown together," explained Idelson. "In the early '90s that relationship deepened as we began creating content for [Minor League] game programs and stadium scoreboards. ... What we're looking to do now is foster an even stronger marriage between the two, with the underlying goal being to connect Minor League Baseball fans with the Hall in a more direct manner."

To this end, the Hall is partnering with Minor League teams in order to stage "Hall of Fame" promotional nights. Fans in attendance at such a promotion would receive a Cooperstown-related giveaway (such as Hall of Fame yearbooks, pins and induction programs), as well as discounted Hall admission and membership offers.

This initiative was first announced by Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner during his Opening Session speech at the 2009 Baseball Winter Meetings in Indianapolis, with the stated goal being to marry "the loyalty of our fan base with the history of our great game."

"The Hall is in a situation where they want to expand their membership base, and [Minor League Baseball has] 40 million customers coming through the gates each season," elaborated O'Conner in a phone conversation. "This will allow us to expose the Hall to our fans, employees and sponsors. It's an appropriate connection and a fitting program for us to be a part of."

The expansion of the membership base is indeed a top priority, one that Idelson was eager to stress the importance of.

"Our most loyal supporters are members, they are our version of season ticket holders," he said. "The thinking is that a deeper Hall of Fame presence within Minor League Baseball will result in more members."

As part of this deeper presence, the Hall plans to celebrate the Minor League experiences of the baseball greats enshrined in Cooperstown.

"Nearly every [Hall of Fame player] made a stop in the Minors, and they often have wonderful stories about what that experience entailed," said Idelson. "In interviews with the players, one of our staple questions is 'What are your favorite memories from the Minor Leagues?' We can then show these responses on stadium scoreboards and team Web sites as well as ad spots on tv, radio and the Web."

O'Conner echoed these sentiments, adding that "When you walk into that plaque room, you can count on one hand those that don't have a Minor League connection."

Telling the Minor League story

Visitors to the Hall of Fame are able to see a wide variety of Minor League memorabilia, including a photo of Babe Ruth as a member of the Providence Grays, Hank Aaron's South Atlantic League Championship ring and a bat from 1939's "Minor League Day" in Cooperstown.

However, the Hall is currently lacking an exhibit devoted specifically to Minor League Baseball.

The Baseball Hall of Fame has a wide array of Minor League artifacts and memorabilia, dating back to the 19th century. Here is a small sampling of the museum's collection:

  • Uniform jersey, pants and socks worn by Tim Robbins in the movie "Bull Durham"

  • Ball from 1882 Opening Day in the International League (Utica vs. Syracuse)

  • Ball hit by Dave Koza of Pawtucket for game-winning single against Rochester in bottom of 33rd inning of longest game in baseball history (June 23, 1981)

  • Game ball from Fresno Giant Masanori Murakami's first win by an Asian (April 24, 1964)

  • Ball used in California League Lodi Dodgers vs. Fresno Giants game in which there were two triple plays (July 15, 1978)

  • Ball signed by the Fayetteville Generals' Scott Gardner, who struck out five batters in one inning (Aug. 7, 1995)

  • Ball from Appalachian League game in which the Bristol Twins' Ron Necciai struck out 27 batters over nine innings (1952)

  • Cap worn by Tom Drees, who threw back-to-back no-hitters for the Vancouver Canadians (1989)

  • Bat used by Jose Reyes (Binghamton Mets), MVP of the 2002 Futures All-Star Game

  • Umpire's uniform worn by female umpire Bernice Gera: mask, shinguards, chest protector, jacket, sweatshirt, shoes, shirt, bow tie, ball bag

  • Bat used in the Florida Instructional League by NBA star Michael Jordan, member of the Birmingham Barons (1994)

  • Ball hit by Bob Lemon for his 64th home run of the 1954 season as a member of Nashville of the Southern Association

  • Montreal Royals cap worn by Jackie Robinson (1946)

  • Seats No. 1-12 of Arlington Stadium (home of the Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs in the Texas League (1965-'71)

  • Ticket to the 1938 Southern Association All-Star Game in Atlanta

  • Bobblehead doll of Abner Doubleday (given away by Hagerstown Suns)

"We are in the process of a major redesign, which resulted in many of our exhibits being taken down and recurated before being brought back into the museum," Idelson said. "The Minor Leagues was one of these exhibits, but we hope to bring it back within the next few years, tying it in with exhibits on youth baseball and scouting. We're currently looking for funding for this project."

O'Conner, for one, is content to operate on the Hall's timetable.

"I'm a traditionalist in a sense, in that I believe that there are some things in baseball that there can only be one of," he said. "One is the commissioner of baseball and the other is the Hall of Fame. We do have our own plans for a Minor League fan experience museum, but that would be more of an interactive sort of thing. We're not going to establish our own Hall of Fame, which would be like reinventing the wheel and therefore a counter-productive endeavor. We'd much rather work with the people in Cooperstown."

Certainly, there is much to work with. The Hall's collection of Minor League memorabilia is vast, encompassing nearly all aspects of the game (see sidebar).

"We have an internal group, the Accessions Committee, that decides what to accept," said Idelson. "They are then responsible for insuring and caring for it. We are very careful in what we accept and treat it like gold. We want to make sure to preserve the greatest moments in Minor League history."

These "moments" don't necessarily occur on the playing field.

"Minor League promotions speak not just to the culture of baseball, but all of North American society," said Idelson. "A perfect example would be the Jack Kerouac bobblehead doll [given away by the Lowell Spinners in 2003]. Kerouac was a baseball fan, but also a cultural icon with an important story to tell."

Fertile baseball ground

Those who make the trek to the Hall of Fame would do well to make some Minor League stops along the way. Teams from the International, Eastern and (of course) New York-Penn Leagues are located within a few hours drive of Cooperstown, including the Syracuse Chiefs, Binghamton Mets, Oneonta Tigers and Tri-City ValleyCats (whose owner, William Gladstone, is a Hall of Fame board member).

"Cooperstown is a pastoral setting, like many of these Minor League teams," said Idelson. "So there's a real symmetry there."

And it isn't just the fans of these teams who can benefit from a trip to the Hall of Fame.

"A lot of the visiting teams, they'll come through Cooperstown when they're in the area," said Idelson. "We'll comp them through, because this is their museum too. It's our job to provide them, and everyone, with a firmer appreciation of the game."

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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