COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — On the cusp of summer, President Obama became the first-ever president to visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum as he promoted American tourism in Cooperstown, N.Y. Thursday.
The president, led on a tour by Baseball Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson and accompanied by Hall of Famer Andre Dawson, took in exhibits raging from “Diamond Dreams,” highlighting the role of women in baseball, to “Pride and Passion,” chronicling the history of African Americans in the sport.
Obama held Babe Ruth’s bat as well as the ball thrown by President William Howard Taft in the first-ever presidential first pitch in 1910. He also held a pair of shoes worn by “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, though he remarked to Idelson that Jackson’s controversial role in the sport is “a little touchy subject for White Sox fans.”
At that same exhibit Obama picked up FDR’s green-light letter declaring that baseball would continue during World War Two. Obama read aloud, “I honestly feel it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.”
After finishing the reading, the president said, “Wise man, FDR.”
Idelson also noted that while major league baseball league players initially resisted the idea of an African American player joining their ranks—Jackie Robinson was hit by a pitch seven times in the first month of play—they came to accept Robinson, and he was only hit two more times by a pitcher during the rest of the season.
As Idelson remarked the game improved dramatically after integration, Obama replied, “That’s great... Gotta have to have everybody on the field.”
In a speech after the tour, Obama said he was taking steps to ensure tourism continues to thrive in the United States.
“Tourism translates into jobs, and it translates into economic growth,” he said. “For upstate New York, the Baseball Hall of Fame is a powerful economic engine.”
Obama, who welcomed travel and tourism industry CEOs to the White House in the morning before flying to New York State, undertook a couple of executive actions Tuesday aimed at bringing more visitors to the United States.
He directed Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to develop and implement plans at the nation’s 15 largest airports over the next four months to improve the entry process to the U.S. and cut wait times. DHS will also expand automated passport control kiosks at airports, while six agencies will try to attract tourists by working with the public-private partnership Brand USA to launch campaigns in 10 international markets.
Dallas-Fort Worth and Chicago O’Hare airports have used technology to cut their average wait times to 15 minutes, according to National Economic Council director Jeffrey Zients, a nearly 40 percent reduction.
“There’s no reason we can’t replicate the success stories of Dallas and Chicago all across the country,” Obama told the assembled crowd.
And recalling how he had crossed the Ellipse Wednesday as he took a 10-minute walk from the White House to the Interior Department, Obama said he was struck with how in that brief stroll he met tourists from “Germany and Israel and Brazil and China and Ukraine on the National Mall.”
“The fact that people come all over the world to see our monuments, to see our parks, is something we should take great pride in as Americans,” he said
However budget cuts in recent years have also affect many of the sites these tourist come to see, including national parks.
John Gardner, director of budget and appropriations for the National Parks Conservation Association, noted that 20 percent of foreign visitors come to national parks, and those tourists stay longer and are more likely to return to the U.S. than other visitors.
“It’s ironic that while we’re seeking to drive more international visitors to our national parks there’s an important question about what sort of message it sends, particularly as we prepare to celebrate the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary in 2016, when those visitors will arrive to crumbling park roads and trails,” Gardner said, noting the Park Service’s deferred maintenance for road projects now stands at $6 billion.
Gardner noted that lawmakers could chip away at this backlog by providing more funding through the transportation reauthorization bill that is now pending before Congress. Lawmakers and the administration have also failed to push for legislation to provide $1 billion in funding in the run up to the 2016 centennial, Gardner said, a funding goal Obama has embraced.
Chris Thompson, CEO of Brand USA, wrote in an e-mail that Obama’s visit to the “iconic tourist landmark” of Cooperstown and his other tourism-themed event “mark an important moment in our country’s National Travel and Tourism Strategy.”
That strategy, launched by Obama, aims to attract 100 million international visitors a year to the U.S. by the end of 2021. So far, number of foreign visitors has risen from 55 million in 2009 to 70 million last year.
While Obama’s speech was greeted with an enthusiastic response, there were protested gathered outside the gate to the museum who made it clear they did not support hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, a contentious issue in New York State.
“Ban fracking now!” they chanted.