COOPERSTOWN — When Jeff Idelson went to work for the National Baseball Hall of Fame as director of public relations and promotions in 1994, he said he thought he would hold the job for a year, as he took a breather from five chaotic years in a similar position with the New York Yankees and three years before that with the Boston Red Sox.
“Now 25 years and two kids later, I am still here,” he said Tuesday, June 18 in an exclusive interview with The Daily Star.
He won’t be here much longer. Idelson, who was promoted to president of the Hall in 2008, became a part-timer Monday, June 24, when his successor, Tim Mead, becomes the Hall’s seventh president. Idelson will stay on through the Hall of Fame’s Induction Weekend July 19 to 22, but his retirement will bring more than a change in job duties. Idelson said he will also be moving to San Francisco.
Retirement is a term only half-accurate for Idelson, 55. He is starting a new baseball venture, Grassroots Baseball, www.grassrootsbaseball.com, which will focus on outreach to celebrate and grow the game, especially to “underprivileged and under-served communities.”
Idelson has the perfect Rolodex to start such a charity, and many Hall of Famers are already penciled into the volunteer lineup. So is Rawlings, which will donate gloves, balls and other equipment.
“We’ve decided to start with a tour of Route 66, from Chicago to Santa Monica, making appearances, doing equipment drops and promoting the game,” he said.
Idelson said he feels he is leaving the Hall in good shape, with attendance numbers stable, a partnership with the MLB Network sending Hall programming nationwide and farther, and the integration of technology into the curation having revamped much of the way the museum tells stories about the game. However, he said he hesitates to take much credit for the Hall’s success, deferring to Board Chair Jane Forbes Clark and the museum’s staff.
“The strength of this museum is the ability to remain relatively stable and adapt to the times and the changes in the world, which is not easy in any business,” he said.
As Idelson’s tenure began, the museum dropped the Hall of Fame Game, featuring Major League Baseball teams playing a exhibition game on a off-day, and replaced it with the Hall of Fame Classic in 2008. After several changes, the Classic has settled into Memorial Day Weekend, and features Hall of Famers managing recently-retired players representing the 30 MLB teams.
“I’m thrilled with the way our staff responded and found a way to reprogram the event into the Hall of Fame Classic,” he said. “It has been incredibly well-received.”
The same could be said for Idelson’s tenure as president. Multiple employees describe him as laid-back and kind, and many people note his love for baseball. Even the controversial issues during his 11 years as president — performance enhancing drugs in baseball, controversial selections or exclusions to the Hall, attendance dips during the recession — were largely things the Hall had to react to rather than anything directly related to Idelson or his leadership.
Idelson said he is proud the Hall has accurately told the story of PEDs in baseball. And it sponsors the Be A Superior Example race and pledge program to encourage kids to stay away from drugs.
Idelson said he did regret the cancellation of the Hall’s 75th anniversary concert, which was scheduled for Aug. 2, 2014, and fell apart when a promoter could not meet his contractual obligations.
“That was unfortunate,” he said. “The 75th anniversary concert had so much potential, but it never got the chance to happen.”
Those headaches will be Mead's soon, but Idelson said he thinks his successor will do fine.
“I’m excited Tim is coming on board,” Idelson said. “I have been friends with him for over 30 years. He’s the perfect person to run the institution with Jane.”
Idelson said he has spent his final days at the Hall being “reflective” of his 25 years and the thousands of relationships he has made with people in the game, with people who love the game, and, especially, with the people who have made the journey to Cooperstown to see the Hall and its Hall of Famers.
“Every year (at induction), 40,000 or 50,000 people show up to a village of 1,800 to say, ‘thank you,’” he said. “It is a testament to how fans feel about the players. The fans want to come back and say, ‘thank you.’
“How many other places do you have where your baseball cards come to life?”
A Boston native, Idelson said he will miss the living in Cooperstown, the village where his children grew up. Aaron, a 2014 Cooperstown Central School graduate, also graduated from Tufts University last year, and is moving to Los Angeles soon to pursue a career in production design. Nicole, a 2018 CCS graduate, is about to begin her sophomore year at Providence College in Rhode Island.
“What Cooperstown has to offer, in terms of family values, in incredible,” Idelson said, “from the school system, to the care of the community, to the Clark Foundation Scholarships, which provide so many opportunities for people to go to college, it is amazing.
“This is a very nurturing community, one that cares about its kids,” he said.