Only one time since the original class of five players (Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson) was elected in 1936 have as many as three first-year candidates been elected. That was in 1999, when Nolan Ryan, George Brett and Robin Yount made the grade. Their induction attracted a crowd estimated at 50,000, which is believed to be the largest attendance for a ceremony. Tickets are not sold for the induction, so the Hall has to approximate the amount of people who find a place on the hills beyond the Clark Sports Center.
There's an excellent chance the 2007 throng will surpass that of 1999. Ripken played his entire career in Baltimore, and the city is close enough to Cooperstown to allow Orioles fans to make the trip without having to fly. They have a history of filling the grounds at Cooperstown when one of their own is being honored. The 1983 induction of Brooks Robinson and Juan Marichal was said to have drawn around 30,000 people, which is considered one of the Hall's largest crowds.
Polly Renckens, a Cooperstown resident for 38 years and president of its Chamber of Commerce, said, "Baltimoreans are fabulous people with a great city and a historic franchise. They seem to feel they just have to be here when an Orioles player gets into the Hall of Fame. There has always been kind of a good feeling about them. I remember the Brooks Robinson induction and seeing so many tears on people's faces."
Renckens pointed out that the city has heard quite a bit as well from people from San Diego, where Gwynn played his entire career with the Padres. Dave Winfield entered the Hall of Fame as a Padre in 2001, but there is little doubt that Gwynn is the most popular player in that franchise's history. He is still a part of the community as the head baseball coach at San Diego State University. Gwynn's appearances as a commentator on games on cable television heighten his profile all the more.
As for Ripken, his pursuit of Lou Gehrig's seemingly unbreakable record -- 2,130 consecutive games played -- made him an icon not only in Baltimore but throughout the world and helped soothe deep wounds to fans resulting from the 1994-95 work stoppage.
"Let's put it this way," Renckens said. "We started getting calls about the 2007 Hall of Fame induction the day Cal Ripken announced that he was retiring after the 2001 season."
Jeff Idelson, vice president for communications and education at the Hall, recalled something similar when he first came to Cooperstown in 1994.
"We regularly got calls even then about '99 because Ryan and Brett retired," Idelson said.
Renckens and Idelson pointed out the signs of a large turnout. Already, 130 buses have been reserved for that weekend. There were a total of 85 buses rented over the past five inductions. It is likely that group rentals of buses could surpass the record 217 of 1995. That summer, Cooperstown filled up with thousands of visitors from Pennsylvania coming for the elections of Phillies legends Mike Schmidt by the BBWAA and Richie Ashburn by the Veterans Committee.
"We are aware of the elephant in the room and will do our best to help accommodate people," Renckens said.
That won't be easy, considering that nearly every available room in hotels, motels and bed-and-breakfast lodgings are already sold out from Cooperstown to Albany, the state capital that lies 60 miles east of Cooperstown, and Utica, which is 40 miles north. Renckens expects visitors next year to be housed as far west as Syracuse, around 90 miles away.
"There will be some travel options that haven't been announced yet," Renckens said. "Every year, residents make arrangements to rent out their homes for the induction weekend. It will be the kind of year where people will have to consider making it a day trip. It will be a long ride for a lot of people."
The turnout could increase if McGwire, from baseball-mad St. Louis, is elected. Or imagine if a holdover candidate such as Jim Rice or Goose Gossage gets the required 75 percent of the vote. Rice played his whole career in Boston and Gossage a good portion of his with the Yankees. Fans from those cities are even closer than Baltimore.
"We've dealt with big crowds in the past, and we'll do so again," Idelson said.