COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- President Obama had a compelling reason to become the first sitting president to visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum on Thursday.
"I promised Frank Thomas I'd check the place out before he's inducted in July," Obama, a well-known White Sox fan, joked.
The Big Hurt will be enshrined in July along with pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine and managers Bobby Cox, Joe Torre and Tony La Russa.
The real reason for the president's trip was to promote international tourism and highlight the benefits it generates. In Obama's 16-minute address to a packed house, surrounded by the bronze plaques of the game's immortals, Cooperstown was held up as an example of an ideal destination for visitors while baseball was used as a metaphor for society.
"I love baseball. America loves baseball. It continues to be our national pastime," Obama said. "And for any baseball fan out there, you've got to make a trip here. But as much as I'd like to talk baseball all day -- and with Chicago legend Andre Dawson, The Hawk, here today it's hard not to want to talk baseball all day long -- I'm actually here to talk about jobs."
Coincidentally, Obama's appearance coincided with the 75th anniversary celebration of the Hall of Fame that officially gets underway this weekend. Those summer-long activities, as well as the robust Class of 2014 inductees, have made an impact that neatly illustrates the president's point.
Hall of Fame chairman Jane Forbes Clark said that attendance is up 64 percent from the same time a year ago.
"And we just hope the entire Cooperstown experience encourages them to come back," she said.
President Obama noted that tourism generates $1.5 trillion in economic activity and supports nearly 8 million jobs.
"Creating jobs isn't always easy. But standing here and looking at over 150 years of our country's history, baseball describes our history in so many ways," he said. "We're reminded of all the obstacles we've overcome to get here. This Hall has memories of two World Wars that we fought and won.
"It has memories of color barriers being broken, Jackie Robinson's uniform and the record of his first season as a Dodger. It shows us the history of communities that we built across the new continent and ways we connected with our country and our world. And how women athletes started getting the recognition that they deserved.
"So we've faced challenges before. But we don't respond with cynicism, and we can't respond with gridlock. Every generation faces tough times. But in the words of the great Yogi Berra, they're just déjà vu all over again. We know we are up to these challenges."
Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson said that Cooperstown doesn't have a large percentage of international tourists now, but he expects to see those numbers grow as star players -- Ichiro Suzuki and Pedro Martinez, come to mind -- eventually become eligible for enshrinement.
"The game is so internationalized now," Idelson said. "Twenty-eight percent of Opening Day rosters were made up of players born outside the United States. A lot of those players are also late in their careers, so I think what you're going to see over time is a lot of international players elected and that's when you're going to see those numbers increase."
Before his remarks, Obama was given a brief tour of the museum by Idelson and Dawson. It included a stop at the Diamond Dreams exhibit featuring the role of women in baseball. He held a Babe Ruth bat and the ball used by William Howard Taft for the first presidential Opening Day pitch in 1910. Obama picked up Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "Green Light" letter urging baseball to continue playing during World War II as a boost to the country's morale.
The president held spikes worn by Shoeless Joe Jackson and noted that Jackson, because of his role in the 1919 Black Sox scandal, is a touchy subject for White Sox fans. He also picked up a Joe DiMaggio glove and an autographed Carlton Fisk jersey and tried on a World Series ring from the display case that features rings the jewelry from all winning teams.
He saw the exhibit focusing on the African-American experience in baseball and stopped by the locker showcasing White Sox memorabilia.
"I got to bask in the glory of the 2005 World Series win," Obama said.
He then moved on and spent some time with Dawson at the display for the Cubs.
Obama even added to the Hall of Fame collection, contributing the White Sox jacket he wore while throwing out the first pitch of the 2009 All-Star Game and the presidential pen he used to sign the guestbook Thursday.
"Obviously, I didn't get a chance to roam around as long as I'd want," he said. "[This is about] getting more folks to come and visit the national treasures that we have all across the country, including the Baseball Hall of Fame right here in Cooperstown," Obama said. "Tourism translates into jobs and economic growth. When visitors come here, they don't just check out the Hall. They rent cars, they stay in motels, they eat in restaurants. That means that for upstate New York, the Baseball Hall of Fame is a powerful economic engine."
And baseball, he reiterated, is a powerful symbol for the country at large.
"Just as our parents and grandparents faced challenges a lot tougher than the ones we face, and just as they went ahead and built an economy where hard work was rewarded and responsibility was rewarded and opportunity was open to all people, we can do the same," he said.
"They passed those values on down through the generations. They passed them down to us. And when you come to the Baseball Hall of Fame, part of what you're learning is that there are some eternal, timeless values of grit and determination and hard work and community. Not giving up and working hard. Those are American values, just like baseball."
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.