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May 23, 2014

Promoting tourism, Obama marvels at baseball's past

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Standing in a national shrine where none of his predecessors had ventured while in office, President Barack Obama pitched tourism as an engine for economic growth Thursday and vowed to attract even more visitors from other countries.

"When it comes to tourism, we have a great product to sell," Obama told about 200 people inside the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. "Nothing says 'Made in America' better than the Empire State Building or the Hoover Dam."

Obama strode into the Hall of Fame at 3:16 p.m. after arriving by Marine One helicopter at a field in Cooperstown nine minutes earlier. He remained for 57 minutes - taking a private tour of exhibits, giving a speech of about 20 minutes and shaking hands with about 25 people.

He drew chuckles when he cracked about his favorite team, "There must be some White Sox fans here somewhere." Then he extolled the innate beauty of the region he had seen from the sky minutes earlier.

Obama also reflected on artifacts he’d seen while touring the museum with Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson.

He'd held a gnarled leather glove worn by legendary New York Yankees centerfielder Joe DiMaggio, paused to stare at a Dodgers uniform worn by Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play for a major league team, and made a small joke when he saw the shoes worn by "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, whose stellar career was mired in controversy.

"That's a touchy subject," Obama said during the tour, an apparent reference to Jackson's alleged involvement in a betting scandal that tainted the Chicago White Sox's losing performance in the 1919 World Series, which remains in dispute nearly 95 years later.

Obama also stood in childlike awe when taken to a White Sox locker full of items donated after the team won the World Series in 2005.

Speaking to the invited guests later, he said, "Obviously I didn't have a chance to roam around as long as I wanted, but thanks to the wonderful hospitality here, I saw the ball that William Howard Taft threw at the first-ever presidential Opening Day pitch. I saw the 'White Sox locker' of memorabilia, and got to bask in the glory of the 2005 World Series win. Yes!"

But it was the importance of tourism that was the centerpiece of his remarks.

"... Tourism translates into jobs and it translates into economic growth," he said. "When visitors come here, they don't just check out the Hall. They rent cars; they stay in hotels; they eat at restaurants. And that means for upstate New York, the Baseball Hall of Fame is a powerful economic engine."

Last year, Obama said, tourism pumped $1.5 trillion into the nation's economy and supported 8 million jobs "that can't be off-shored."

Obama said his administration will work with the travel industry to improve the tourist experience and reduce airport wait times for tourists to enter this country. He stressed that new methods will not compromise security.

In Cooperstown, Obama said the United States drew 70 million international tourists last year - a number he said he wants to see rise to 100 million by 2021. His second term in office ends Jan. 20, 2017.

"This was a wonderful day for Cooperstown and for the Hall of Fame, to have a sitting president come to the village and speak to an albeit small group of residents is just wonderful, very special," said Jane Clark, president of the Clark Foundation, which oversees the shrine as well as the Fenimore Art Museum and the Farmers' Museum. She is granddaughter of the Hall of Fame’s founder, Stephen Carlton Clark.

Obama said in his speech that he has donated to the Hall of Fame the jacket he wore when he threw out the first pitch at the 2009 All Star game. Clark said that jacket, as well as a guest book signed by Obama and pen he used to write his name, all become part of the Hall's collection of artifacts.

Idelson said Obama was enamored with a so-called "green light" letter written in 1942 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to then-Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, in which Roosevelt signaled it would be better for the nation if major league ball games continued despite the onset of war. Obama read the letter aloud to reporters who joined him on the tour.

"Wise man, FDR," he observed.

Recalling the president's stop at another exhibit, Idelson said, "He could not get enough about learning about Jackie Robinson and what made him a Hall-of-Famer."

During the tour, Obama playfully pawed a collection of World Series rings, pointing out how a 1922 specimen was far more conservative than a flashier one from 2003. He and Idelson were joined by Andre Dawson, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010 after a 21-year career, most of it with the Montreal Expos and Chicago Cubs.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo arrived at the tail end of the event, after spending the earlier part of the day at the state Democratic Convention. He was accompanied by his three daughters and girlfriend, Food Channel star Sandra Lee

Among the other gusts were 94-year-old Homer Osterhoudt, who toiled as a laborer on the construction of the Hall 75 years ago, and his son, Darrell.

"It's really exciting to be here," Homer Osterhoudt said.

Joe Mahoney writes for the Onteonta, N.Y., Daily Star.

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