Idelson had a large hand in the expansion of the Hall's agenda in his previous role as vice president for communications and education, and his understanding of its mission as a baseball preservationist made him the ideal choice last month to succeed Dale Petroskey, who resigned after nine years in the role.
Idelson doesn't expect radical changes at the Hall. He's simply moving to another office down the hall of the Hall.
"I've been asked if I'll change anything, and the answer is no," Idelson said on Friday in an exclusive interview with MLB.com. "We built these programs up since I came here in 1994. Education went from about 3,000 kids a year to 15 million kids a year. We took our programs department, which was zero in 1994 other than Induction Weekend, and now have 1,000 programs a year.
"I don't foresee us really needing any major structural changes. We're evolving with the times, becoming more electronic with the Web site, which is a great way to reach our members all over the country, some 31,000 people now."
Idelson, 43, played a significant role in the modernization of the Hall, but as a lifelong baseball fan, he also has deep respect for the game's traditions. Melding the two elements for the Hall has always been his driving force.
"The biggest thing that we are responsible for is protecting the legacy and the history of the game, making sure that artifacts related to important incidents in the sport are coming here," Idelson said, "And in turn, taking those artifacts and turning them into exhibits telling stories, then making those exhibits accessible both here in Cooperstown and outside."
By outside, Idelson was referring to traveling tours that began several years ago in which some of the Hall's artifacts are on display in cities across North America, particularly regions far from its central New York State location. It is one example of how the Hall reaches out to fans more than before.
Idelson's background in public relations included four years with the Yankees (1989-93) after a stint with his hometown Red Sox (he grew up in West Newton, Mass.) and with the 1994 World Cup, the only time soccer's international tournament has been held in the United States. He went straight from that high-profile position to Cooperstown, where the Hall was undergoing major changes.
Idelson, then newly married to Erika, a Chicago native, did not expect to stay in Cooperstown more than a couple of years, and he thought he would likely move on to another P.R. job in baseball. He and Erika eventually fell in love with the community while Idelson's position at the Hall grew. They own a home within walking distance of the Hall, where they live with their son, Aaron, 12, and daughter, Nicole, 8.
"I always tell young people that you can either live where you want to live or do what you want to do," Idelson said. "If you can do one of those things, you're way ahead of the curve. In this case, I have both.
"The Hall of Fame is a place that I feel deeply about. I believe in our mission. I work with a staff here that is phenomenal. And living in Cooperstown is a wonderful experience. It's a great place to raise children, and the Hall of Fame plays such a central figure in the community and its lifestyle that I feel very fortunate."
Idelson had no designs on the role of president. He was content on doing what he was doing and agreed to serve as acting president while a successor was sought. After some soul searching, Idelson decided to throw his hat into the ring, which is what the Hall's board of directors wanted all along. Board chairman Jane Forbes Clark said there were no other candidates.
|"I always tell young people that you can either live where you want to live or do what you want to do. If you can do one of those things, you're way ahead of the curve. In this case, I have both."|
|-- Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson, on his job|
The coolest thing about being president, of course, is that you can pick up the telephone and talk to a Hall of Famer whenever you want, which is actually a key part of the job in maintaining communication.
"It's very important to the institution that shows up in a unique pattern of growth to welcome Hall of Famers to this family," Idelson said. "There is something so special about Induction Weekend. I thought the World Series was great, and still do, but when you have 50 or so of the game's legends here welcoming the new class of inductees and now a lot of the players going in are guys that I've worked with, it's even more special.
"There are 64 living Hall of Famers, and they are all an important part of what makes this place tick. It's what makes us so different from any other museum, because it lives and breathes. Your assets are your exhibits but also your Hall of Famers. Each and every one of them is very special in a different way, and it's a privilege to pick up the phone and call these guys. By the same token, they love hearing from us all the time."
Idelson was particularly close to Buzzie Bavasi, the former Dodgers, Angels and Padres executive who died on Thursday at the age of 93.
"I last talked to Buzzie about a month ago," Idelson said. "He and I e-mailed each other constantly, right up to the day before he was hospitalized. Buzzie was a class act, a great friend and a great credit to baseball."
Baseball has many facets, however, and one the Hall of Fame must deal with at some point is what has come to be called the steroids era. Idelson said the Hall intends to collect the baseball Barry Bonds hit for his 756th home run that broke Henry Aaron's career mark, even though its owner and donor, Mark Ecko, intends to put an asterisk on it.
"We decided we wanted that ball regardless," Idelson said. "We don't look at the asterisk implicating Barry Bonds. We look at it as representing a specific period of time, September 2007. We don't have the ball yet, but when we do, it will go on display, and a long explanation will accompany the ball."
Idelson maintains that the Hall will not be judgmental about steroids.
"I think history will take care of that," he said. "When you look back, and look at previous eras and you look at the fact that people made a big deal with Roger Maris hitting 61 home runs in an era when he played six more games [in 1961, the first year of expansion] than Babe Ruth had [in 1927], there was a common misperception that there were asterisks in the record book.
"I remember talking to Shirley Povich when he did a story on Mark McGwire, and he asked me to go back and check the record books and tell him where the asterisks are. 'There are no asterisks,' I told him. You just know it as that era.
"We don't shy away from any controversy. We're a history museum, so we're true to history. And steroids are something we're going to have to address in time. Right now, we're not out of the steroids era in terms of knowing everything. We feel it is still an evolving story. Hopefully, it will be a finished story, and Major League Baseball has gone in the right direction."
That issue is for another day. The new president had another mission: To get on the phone with Tom Seaver and find out the best time to go visit him at his California vineyard.
Jack O'Connell is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.