This was supposed to be the big one, the grand slam of a doubleheader. Five years ago, Tim Gould started planning for it. This winter, Tim Haney began buying up wood and supplies in preparation and Art Boden was wondering how much staff he would need to handle it. A year after huge crowds had descended on Cooperstown to see Mariano Rivera inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, they would have Derek Jeter, the last true crossover star that baseball has had, going into the Hall of Fame at the end of July.
“Five years ago, when Jeter retired after Mariano, we said 2020 is going to be it, it’s going to be two big years in a row,” said Gould, who has owned and operated Cooley’s Stone House Tavern on Pioneer Street in Cooperstown, N.Y., for almost 16 years. “This was going to be a year that was bigger than the record years, we were all looking forward to 2020.
“Now, we have to hope 2021 can be even bigger.”
The hospitality industry across the country has been decimated by the coronavirus shutdowns. Bar and restaurant workers accounted for over half of the newly unemployed in March, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s latest report. Tourism is expected to take a similar hit even as we emerge from the strictest regulations of the shutdowns.
For Gould and other businesses in Cooperstown, however, the economic hits are multiplied by the loss of baseball as well. Wednesday, when the Hall of Fame announced that it would not hold its induction weekend this year because of the pandemic, it was a huge blow to the village, its businesses and its people.
Louie Rollo, a Bronx native whose father worked at Yankee Stadium back in the 1950s, has sold hot dogs on Main Street for induction weekend for over a decade.
“My mother asked ‘What do you want to be when you grow up,’ and most kids would say they wanted to be a cop or a fireman or an astronaut, I said I want to sell hot dogs,” said Rollo, who made his living driving trucks. “So after I retired up here, I said I was going to do it.”
Once a year, he sets up a hot dog wagon on Main Street, enjoying interacting with the fans and earning enough to help him out the rest of the year.
“That’s usually my tax money,” Rollo said.
For most, Cooperstown is some mythical baseball mecca in a timeless village. It’s a slice of baseball Americana. But, it’s an actual community surviving the struggling upstate New York economy. The region has lost more people moving to other states than any other in the country over the last decade while manufacturing jobs and businesses, like the Beech-Nut factory in nearby Canajoharie, have closed.
Established in 1786 by the father of “The Last of the Mohicans” author James Fenimore Cooper, Cooperstown had just 1,852 full-time residents according to the latest census in a town that is quiet during the notoriously long and cold Central New York winters. In the summer, however, the village grows exponentially. Otsego Lake and the Farmers Museum draws vacationers. The Glimmerglass Opera House draws fans from across the Northeast. The 110-year old Otesaga Hotel was named one of the Top 50 Golf Resorts in the nation by Conde Nast Travel and draws a steady clientele for its pristine New York Leatherstocking course.
But the town is able to remain the gem of Central New York, drawing tourists from across the world, because it is synonymous with baseball.
During induction weekend, the Otesaga, which is suffering like other resorts because of the lack of travel, is shut down to host just the Hall of Famers and their families.
“We will certainly miss them,” Otesaga GM John Shideler said, “it’s right in the middle of our season, but that weekend right now is just a part of the overall problems for other upscale resorts globally because of the pandemic.”
Each week 104 youth baseball teams come into town with families in tow to play at Dreams Park, a 23-field complex just five miles south of Main Street that has combined the explosion of youth travel baseball with the tradition of the Hall of Fame. Future big league stars like Mike Trout and David Price were once among the 14,000 players and coaches that played in the 13-week summer Dream Park season.
Visitors to the Hall of Fame provide a steady stream of traffic up and down Route 28 all summer long, but one weekend a year the village really explodes. In 2007, when the Hall inducted Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn an estimated 82,500 poured into the tiny village to see history and spend money locally.
The first and biggest blow to Cooperstown merchants came in early March, when the Cooperstown Dream Park announced it was canceling its 2020 season due to health concerns about the national coronavirus crisis.
And then the hammer dropped on the small town on Wednesday, when the Hall of Fame announced it would not hold its induction ceremony this year.
“With Jeter going in, we were expecting numbers rivaling what Cal Ripken had back in 2007. So we were thinking that it was going to be this huge year and we prepared for that,” said Haney, who along with his wife Connie owns the Cooperstown Bat Company. They make commemorative bats, including those for the Hall of Fame, but are also a small bat manufacturer who produces for high school, college and professional players. With the shut down of all those seasons, they lost 70% of their business in April. They hoped tourism would help.
“We do a lot with Cooperstown Dreams Park and the Hall of Fame. The powers that be just keep giving us mid-level gut shots over and over again. We’re still in the ring, we haven’t been knocked out but we’re definitely hurt. … I don’t think any business like ours could ever plan for something like this.”
The impact on this tiny town will be enormous.
According to the New York State Association of Counties, the economic impact to local governments on sales tax could mean a blow of $50 million to $150 million to Cooperstown’s economy for this year.
Haney owns the mill where the wood for the bats is manipulated and he has gone back to feeding the fires there every morning after he had to make furloughs. He had already bought wood for the expected number of bats for the season and souvenirs for the big weekend.
Boden, the general manager of Upstate Bar and Grill and two other family-owned restaurants in Cooperstown, hasn’t had to let people go yet, but he will probably only be able to employ 50 people over the three restaurants, which includes N.Y. Pizzeria and Bocca Osteria.
“So we will probably have to cut our workforce in half by not living our normal life here at Cooperstown and a big part of that is the Hall of Fame and induction weekend,” Boden said “We were expecting to have 70,000 to 100,000 people coming into town that weekend, so that’s earth shattering to Cooperstown.”
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