It’s becoming a bit of a cliche at this point, but last year our hive mind of writers was emailing back and forth about some of the people we thought might make for a good interview and Jeff Idelson’s name came up. Idelson, as the title of the post says, is the president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum; i.e., the man with one of the coolest jobs in the world.
After the idea was initially thrown out there, the thought of Idelson as interview subject stagnated for a while until this year’s road trip with Billy and Chris. On the way back to New Hampshire, Billy and I stopped in Cooperstown for a couple hours. We met up with Director of Research Tim Wiles, my old boss, and chatted for a few minutes. On the way out the door, I told Billy I thought maybe I should ask about setting up a time to speak with Idelson. He said, “Well, I’ve got a couple things I need to look for. You go do what you need to do.”
So I went back in and got a card for Craig Muder, the Hall’s Director of Communications. Several emails later, I had an appointment to sit down with Idelson. We met last Monday and spoke for about 25 minutes about how he ended up at the Hall of Fame, what it’s like to be an up close observer of great moments in baseball history, and what we can expect to see in the future in terms of minor league baseball exhibits at the Hall of Fame.
I know you got your start in baseball working with the Red Sox and the Yankees, but how did you end up here at the Hall of Fame?
The way I ended up here was I left the Yankees midway through the 1993 season to go work for the World Cup, which was the big soccer tournament, was at Foxboro, was one of the nine venues. I wanted to try something different other than baseball because until that point all I had done since college was baseball. So I went to the World Cup and started there in June of 1993. The tournament was June to July of ’94. I built out their website, which at the time was called a dial-up bulletin board system because the web sites, the Internet didn’t exist other than for the government. So I produced their dial-up bulletin board system, and as it was getting into spring, it was May, just before the tournament was about to start, I got a call from Bill Guilfoile.
Bill had been the associate director here and vice-president, number two guy, for many, many years. He came here in 1978 after ten years with the Yankees and nine years with the Pirates. So Bill was 1960-69 with the Yankees, he worked with Bob Fishel as Bob’s assistant, 1970-78 as the head PR guy with the Pirates.
Bill came here in 1978. Nineteen-ninety-four they were looking to expand. He was taking on more responsibility. He wanted to know if I wanted to be the museum’s PR person. So he just reached out cold. It was the spring of 1994. I was in my office at Radio City Music Hall, which is where I was for World Cup, in those offices, and wanted to know if I would be interested in coming up to Cooperstown and looking. I had NO job lined up after World Cup because it was a tournament that was going to end.
So you were done once the World Cup ended?
I was done.
Good luck to you.
Exactly, good luck to me. But I was not really worried about finding a job at that point. Recently married, no kids. So my wife’s from Chicago, I’m from Boston, and we came up here to look at it. Came up here and had an interview, kind of liked everything that we saw, and figured this might be fun for a year or two to get off the “habit trail”, if you will. And two kids and eighteen years later, we’re still here, so I guess we liked it.
It’s funny how that works sometimes.
It is funny how it works. We both went to high schools bigger than Cooperstown, so it took a while to adjust.
And then a few years ago you became the president of the organization. How did that come about?
Well, I was hired as director. I got promoted to a VP role in 1999. I was Director of Public Relations and Promotions, then I got VP of Communications and Education. I overtook all of the non-revenue producing side of the business. Ted Spencer ran the whole museum and library side, another person handled all the business side of what we did, and then I handled all of the non [revenue] – education, website, that type of stuff. PR, marketing. And my boss, who was the president, left in 2008, and I was approached by the board to see if I would consider taking the position. I was just stunned because I’d never really thought about it. I didn’t know what to say. Our chairman, Jane Clark, said, “Well, why don’t you go home and ask Erica what she thinks?” So we talked about it and said sure, I’d love to apply, and I got hired. That was April 15, 2008. Jackie Robinson Day.
So you’re just over four years now.
Yup. My fifth year doing it.
Is this something you see yourself retiring as doing, as being the President of the Hall of Fame, or do you have further aspirations?
I’m very much a person that appreciates the position that I’m in. The environment of the Hall of Fame and Cooperstown is very energetic, it’s very rewarding, and there’s a lot of academia to it. I’ve enjoyed being here for eighteen years and I hope to serve as long as they’ll have me.
It does seem like people come here and they don’t leave. A lot of people, obviously not everyone.
Sure, no, our turnover rate is small and that’s a testament to how well the organization is run, and it was set up to run long before me. It’s a very stable group of employees who enjoy working together. There’s a great camaraderie. Obviously we all believe in the mission of the Hall of Fame and what we do. And this community is terrific for raising children. It’s a great community.
Your average day here at work, what does that consist of?
Well, a little bit of an oxymoron there because there is no average day.
I had a feeling that was going to be part of the answer.
[laughs] It’s quite varied. My day is spent overseeing a staff of 90+. I spend probably on average about eight days a month on the road, whether it’s building strategic partnerships, fundraising with donors, visiting with club executives, or visiting with our Hall of Famers, that’s how I spend my time on the road. I do some writing. There’s forever people coming into town with a connection to us, so it’s hosting those who are close to us on-site. Really not an average day, I guess.
Yeah, it’s interesting you mention the travel because when I was reading up on this I read that you are in charge of “artifact acquisitions”, and I remember years ago, I think we were watching the All-Star Game or something and we were like, “Wait a minute, we know that guy standing in the dugout who just patted Barry Bonds on the back!” or something like that. What is it like to get that close up connection to special moments in the game?
It’s a great responsibility because whether it’s Brad Horn, our PR chief, or I – we’re the two of us that acquire artifacts – usually we’re the only person in the moment that is thinking about the future, whereas everybody there is living in the moment. Because these events are celebratory – it’s an All-Star Game, or someone’s created a milestone, or it’s a World Series championship – and everybody’s in the moment. Our job is to look forward and convey that to whoever, whatever the milestone is.
Once you start to talk to players about why you’re there, they invariably are so glad you’re there to document what they’ve just achieved. So it’s great to be there and be part of the moment, but also be the one looking to the future for baseball history.
You say they’re glad that you’re there. When you talk to them about it, do they sort of start to realize that the reason you’re there is a big deal?
Yes. By and large, yes. I remember when the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series – it was 2004 when they traded Garciaparra at the trade deadline and got Orlando Cabrera – and I remember as we were collecting artifacts. You think about, like a writer, what are the storylines? What are people going to remember in 30, 40, 50 years? And they went out and got Cabrera to settle the middle of their infield and settle their defense. He went the entire postseason without making an error. He didn’t do much in the World Series offensively. He just sort of fit in.
But I remember walking up to Cabrera, Orlando, and saying, “We’d like to take your glove to Cooperstown.” And he said, “Why me?” And I said, “Because you anchored this defense.” And he just, he put his arms around me and hugged me and then gave me his glove.
That’s a cool moment.
It’s a great moment.
What I was wondering too is, you’ve obviously had some amazing moments, met some amazing people. Is there anything you would point to, anything that stood above that you look back at and say, “I can’t believe that I was there for that,” or that happened?
Sure. There’s a lot of moments. I’ve been very blessed to be part of a lot of great moments in baseball history – and soccer history, in this case, with the World Cup – but a couple of them that really stand out were in 1998, the homerun chase with McGwire and Sosa. If you can put aside what we know today and think back to 1998, that was a pretty big part of baseball’s reclamation project, if you will, or coming back from the strike. It’s sad what we now know about performance enhancing substances, but at the time it was massive and these guys, Sosa and McGwire, were both approaching Roger Maris. And Roger Maris wasn’t here to pass the baton, if you will, if that moment were going to happen. So I took Maris’s bat to St. Louis to kind of share the history with Sosa and McGwire in the hopes that they might turn around and donate something to us.
And it was just an electric moment when McGwire passed Maris. I talked to him the day of the game in the morning – or, right before game time he and I met, right before BP. I told him who I was, showed him the bat. He took the bat, he rubbed it on his chest, on the left cardinal. He looked up at the ceiling – it was just he and I sitting in like the shower area – and he looked up to the ceiling and he said, “Roger, I hope you’re with me tonight.” Boom, he goes out and hits sixty-two, and beforehand he said, “What is it you guys would want?” And I said, “We’d love your bat, and if you want we’d love your jersey and your son Matt’s.” He said, “Why do you want my son Matt’s jersey?” I said, “Because baseball’s all about connecting generations, and how many of us get to go to work with our son by us and see us get to complete a record?” He said, “Don’t worry about it,” hits the homerun. Afterwards, that bag behind you there, on the floor? That’s Lance Painter’s duffel bag, was filled with everything from the game. All of his equipment, son’s jersey, the bat, the ball which had been returned.
That was one, and then probably when the Yankee dynasty snapped, when Luis Gonzalez hit the walkoff single off Mariano Rivera, which was a single that barely, I don’t even know that it got out of the skin of the infield, to just show you how dominant Rivera was. But that one moment was when the Yankees – who had won four championships in five seasons – they finally had it snapped by a team that had been an expansion ball club twelve years ago. And Gonzo said, “Absolutely, the bat belongs in Cooperstown.” That was a great moment as well. It has nothing to do with liking or not liking the Yankees. It was just the end of an era at that point.
Now, the Hall of Fame as a whole – obviously the national economy the last few years has been sluggish at best. How does that affect the way you guys operate here?
In terms of our mission programs and the museum, it doesn’t really affect us at all because we run a very sound business model and we have to be somewhat elastic to stay pace with how the world changes. So where our attendance has dropped some in the last few years, it’s not slowed our ability to put out exhibits, to host programs. We’ve been very fortunate that even in down times, our sponsors and donors have stepped up to help us open exhibits, and because of that we’ve not lost a step.
And I’m sure this is something you get questioned on all the time, but is it difficult to market the museum given its physical location, where it’s kind of out of the way of everything?
No, quite honestly not because there still exists, Brian, a mystique to Cooperstown for those that are not from the northeast. You know, it’s like Dyersville, Iowa, or some of the great hidden gems of Mount Rushmore. And Cooperstown still holds that cachet for those that haven’t been here in terms of a destination. In terms of marketing the institution, we’re very fortunate in that the thirty major league clubs look to us as someone they’d like to help, so through their scoreboards and their magazines – many, many minor league clubs as well – we get that promotional assistance. When you can be on scoreboards and in programs and talking to the 120 million ticket buyers – 47 million in the minors, 75 [million] in the majors – we’re still able to market Cooperstown to our core audience.
Another way of marketing, I think a more modern way, is that you and the Hall of Fame are both very active on Twitter. How and when did you decide that that was going to be used as sort of the next level of connecting with fans?
Well we’re fortunate in that we have a very forward-looking, progressive PR staff that understands the value and need for social media tools. So Facebook and Twitter immediately became part of what we do every day. And that’s part of, again, your business model, being able to shift and not be so sunken in that when new opportunities arise to be able to market yourself that you can do it.
Facebook and Twitter are great for us because we have a lot of great content that we can share, and we can go directly to baseball fans. We don’t have to rely on the media to get it out there. So those who follow us on either of those social media platforms are usually excited by what we have to produce.
I gotta say though, it breeds jealousy on my part because I see, “Having lunch with [insert Hall of Famer here],” or whatever, and I say, “Man, that’s the coolest job ever.”
Yeah, they try to also say that but also have them say something of value so it doesn’t appear to be…you try to use the tool for what it is, give somebody another reason to visit Cooperstown.
In terms of other sports, other Halls of Fame – do you ever visit other places and look and see what they’re doing, what you guys can use here, maybe what would work for you, what might not work for you? Evaluate things like that?
Oh absolutely. I mean, you can always do better, no matter what job you have, what profession you’re in, what industry. Unless you’re complacent you can always do better. I have visited the other three major Halls of Fame. I visit other smaller ones when I can, sports museums and halls of fame. I also visit other cultural centers and history museums outside of baseball, and it is amazing the ideas and ingenuity that exist in the museum community and some of the ideas you can pick up and have become your own. So absolutely, we share ideas. We talk sometimes, directly by phone, myself and others in positions like mine with other museums.
So you pick up from them, they pick up from you, and just kind of make everybody better.
Yes. It’s all about sharing and education. We all have such niches in the museum community that nobody looks at it as competition. It’s sharing best practices.
That’s what I was going to say next, is – are you all kind of in it together, in a way, as far as bringing sports history to the public?
I think so, and I think in museums in general, most of us who work in museums feel that we’re here to make the world a better place. People can learn a little bit more and feel a little bit more comfortable in understanding how society became what it is. So there’s not really any secrecy within museums. There’s no secrets to steal. It’s all about sharing best practices.
As far as this place goes, do you take a tour of the museum every day? Or I don’t want to just say the museum – take a tour of the building every day, just to kind of stay on top of things with it?
Absolutely. I’ve worked in a lot of different places. I’ve worked for two ball clubs, I’ve worked in restaurants, I’ve had all sorts of kinds of jobs, and you can’t know your employees and customers well enough. There’s nothing wrong with taking twenty minutes a day, walking the floor, listening to what people have to say and think, how they react, how our visitors feel about being here, seeing if there are smiles on their faces, hearing what they don’t like. Same thing with staff – I just constantly will walk around just to visit staff and see if I can learn more and they can learn more about what I’m thinking.
Will you actually talk to visitors and see what they’re doing or is it mostly observatory?
Mostly observatory, but if there’s visitors where I can answer a question, if I see there’s some sort of question to be answered – you know, when you’re in a museum in the summer time and everyone’s in shorts and t-shirts and you walk through with a tie, people assume you work there, so it’s like, “Hey, where’s the bathroom?” or,” Can you tell me how to get to this exhibit?” or, “Can you recommend a restaurant?” And that’s how you learn about your visitors.
I wanted to mention something that a friend and a fellow writer named Graham Womack had suggested recently. He did an interview with Robert Creamer over the winter and it kind of made him a fan of the man and the writer because he was just open with his time. And what Graham had suggested was that it might be nice for the Hall of Fame to create a special award for magazine and book writers, where the Spink Award is mostly newspaper, if I’m correct.
Yeah, it’s an interesting point.
So I was just wondering if that was something that had ever been considered or talked about at all?
You know, it hasn’t in theory because we’ve looked at the Baseball Symposium as a way of honoring that writing long-form for magazines and books. The Spink Award is for meritorious contributions to baseball writing, but Graham and you are both correct, and Robert too, that they’ve never looked outside of the newspaper business. In theory, in time, that’s not a bad concept at all. It’s something that we would need to look at internally and see if it made sense, but when you walk into our library you know that there is no shortage of good baseball writing.
When he had mentioned that, my thought was that you guys have the two major awards that have been given out in past years, but then you also just began the Buck O’Neil Award. So my thought was, do you want to give too many? Do you want to water down the awards area?
Sure, yeah, and again, we look for ways to honor and celebrate writers. We have authors here all the time for book signings and lectures on what they write about. That’s constant; that goes on all summer. Curt Smith and Joe Castiglione, for instance, are both coming with their books in the fall. Roger Kahn’s been here many times. Roger Angell’s been here, donated many of his archives to the Hall of Fame. At the end of the day, we feel that we honor writers, magazine and book-style, throughout the year, but developing an award is something that could certainly be considered.
The last thing I wanted to ask is why there is a shortage of minor league exhibits in the Hall?
When we renovated our museum, which was in 2004 and 2005, one of the areas that we have not been able to reestablish but are looking forward to is all of what happens before you become a major leaguer. So we are going to open a temporary scouting exhibit in the spring – that’ll be a two-year exhibit for which we found funding – which is all about how players are found. The two pieces that go with that that we have good collections on is amateur baseball and the minor leagues, with scouting being the bridge between the two.
We’ve had great conversations with Pat O’Conner, who is the head of the minor leagues. In fact, we have a phenomenal relationship with Pat and his staff, and collaborate on different programs together. Down the line, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, when we find the funding for amateur baseball and the minor leagues, that exhibit as a whole with scouting will come back and be an integral part of what you see in Cooperstown.
When I was here in 2002 I remember we were working on the contract cards for the players. Is that something you guys still have here and, if so, is that something you guys would use in some sort of exhibit at some point?
Absolutely. That’s what I’m saying, is our collections are deep and we have a number of artifacts from minor league accolades that have taken place. We don’t actively collect artifacts from minor league records because there are so many, but if something is very much off the charts in terms of performance we do make an ask for an artifact. The draft cards which you mentioned could certainly be a part of explaining how a player goes from system to system or from organization to organization.