Rollie Fingers was 45 years old when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992. He has returned every summer since, and he wanted to be there this July when Ted Simmons, his old catcher, was scheduled to be enshrined.
But Fingers is 73 now, and on Monday he said he could not imagine that happening as the country grappled with the coronavirus pandemic.
“You’ve got guys my age there — 73, 74, 75, up to 80 or 85,” Fingers said. “Do you want to take that chance on maybe catching it? You’re writing your own ticket then.”
On Tuesday, the Hall of Fame’s board made it official: There will be no induction ceremony this summer in Cooperstown, N.Y. Derek Jeter, Larry Walker, Simmons and Marvin Miller, the union leader who died in 2012, will have their day in July 2021, combined with the next class of electees.
“Being inducted into the Hall of Fame will be an incredible honor,” Jeter said in a statement, “but the health and safety of everyone involved are paramount.”
Walker added: “It is most important to do the right thing for everybody involved, and that means not putting any participants in jeopardy, whether Hall of Famers or visitors. I realize how serious this situation has become and how many lives have been lost.”
The Hall of Fame was expecting a crowd that would have exceeded the record 80,000 or so who showed up for the induction of Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn in 2007. Now, the ceremony has become the latest slice of baseball Americana to disappear from the summer calendar. Both the College World Series in Omaha and the Cape Cod League in Massachusetts had already been canceled, and Cooperstown Dreams Park — where thousands of players flock for youth summer tournaments — had closed for the 2020 season.
The Hall, which has been shuttered since March 15, said in a news release that its board of directors had voted unanimously to move the induction festivities to July 23-26 of next year. The Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, the vice chairman of the board, cited “so many unknowns facing the world” as the main reason for the decision.
The ceremony is essentially an all-or-nothing event. It is free to attend — just pull up a lawn chair — but laborious to plan, with one hotel, the stately Otesaga, serving the Hall of Famers and their families and many local residents renting their homes to out-of-towners. The workarounds of the day, like Zoom conference calls or social distancing, did not apply.
Tim Mead, the Hall of Fame’s president, said in a phone interview on Monday that his staff members had devised — and eliminated — several options.
“We would not have a made-for-television or a virtual program,” Mead said. “That induction ceremony is a special moment for the baseball community across the country and beyond.”
The stage might not be crowded in 2021, even with two classes inducted together. The best newcomers on the next writers’ ballot, statistically, will be Mark Buehrle, Tim Hudson and Torii Hunter, who seem highly unlikely to be elected on their first try, if at all. Only one holdover, Curt Schilling, came close last year.
Schilling got 70 percent of the vote, with 75 percent needed for election. The candidacies of Roger Clemens (61 percent) and Barry Bonds (60.7 percent), both complicated by ties to performance-enhancing drugs, have stalled.
Mead said that the Hall of Fame felt a responsibility to the inductees, another factor Morgan cited in his statement. Making a speech on a Cooperstown stage — with thousands of fans in front of you and dozens of legends behind you — is the moment a player crosses an imaginary threshold into baseball immortality.
“That’s the biggest day of your life when it comes to baseball,” said Fingers, who elevated the closer position and the handlebar mustache as an Oakland Athletic in the 1970s. “You want that big day, you want all your fans to be there, your whole family. It’s not just getting into the Hall, it’s a whole lot of other things. Everybody wants that.”
Fingers was scheduled to join Wade Boggs, Goose Gossage, Fergie Jenkins, Tim Raines, Ozzie Smith and recent retirees from each team for an annual exhibition game in Cooperstown on May 23. That event was canceled in March, and the Hall has been staging virtual events online, including a weekly podcast with Chipper Jones and the broadcaster Jon Sciambi on Instagram Live.
Meanwhile, Hall of Fame officials are considering the health protocols of a return to business. Is it still sufficiently sanitary for visitors to touch the plaques, to sit beside one another in the Bullpen Theatre, to peruse the bookstore and gift shop? And without the usual summer visitors, what will become of the shops and restaurants on Main Street, with its one stoplight and millions of memories for sale?
“The induction weekend is one thing, but the summer business that we’re losing is the majority of it,” said Adam Yastrzemski, who runs a popular memorabilia store on a corner near the Hall. “We’ll just do the best we can.”
So will the hallowed museum down the block, which has not combined classes into one ceremony since 1949. But this is a year like no other, and cramming tens of thousands of people onto a field in upstate New York was simply implausible.
“If there’s 70,000 people there, you know someone is going to have it, even if they don’t know they have it,” Fingers said. “They may infect somebody, and then it’s a domino effect. It’s the same thing with baseball itself. If they’re playing with fans in the stands, you don’t know what can possibly happen.”
The league still hopes to have a season — somehow, somewhere. But the staples of the summer are already slipping away.