Last Sunday I visited Cooperstown, New York, a few hours north from my home, for a screening of the film I co-produced, Following the Ninth, on the amazing influence of Beethoven’s final symphony, at a benefit for the local food pantry. It turned into an amazing community gathering, with 300 attending (a huge number in this village of 1,600) and three dozen singers and musicians performing the “Ode to Joy,” plus a fund-raising party at a local distillery. Then I spoke to three high school classes the following day.
One of the highlights, however, was lunch with Cooperstown’s mayor.
Jeff Katz, who won his second term unopposed, is an unusual figure in this town—as a Jew from Chicago and as one of the first Democrats to serve as mayor in this conservative region. But he’s got the baseball fanaticism down, in this home for the hallowed Baseball Hall of Fame. Katz even has a book coming out next spring from Thomas Dunne Books on the epic major league baseball players’ strike in 1981, titled Split Season. Even more impressively, I learned that not long ago he had taken his two sons to another hallowed place I’ve visited more than once—Big Pink, near Woodstock, New York, where so much fantastic music from The Band and Bob Dylan was born in 1967.
Like most others in town, Katz was also buzzing about the rather shocking news that President Obama would be coming to town in a few days, and not just as a tourist but to deliver a policy speech at the Hall of Fame. He said he’d been asked directly by the White House to start preparing, but oddly had received no word if he would greet or even meet the president. I joked that the White House probably assumed he was a Republican, forgetting his name is Katz. On the eve of the visit, Katz via e-mail said he was still uncertain that he’d get that presidential handshake.
There was also this intriguing context: Cooperstown has served as a hotbed of anti-fracking activism in the fight to get Governor Andrew Cuomo to ban the practice throughout the state. The activists, I learned, planned some sort of respectful protest during the Obama visit (Cuomo would also be there). One of the village’s residents, a retired former top executive at Mobil, Lou Allstadt, has spoken out widely and powerfully against fracking and its link to climate change, and recently appeared on Chris Hayes’s MSNBC show. In fact, Lou and his wife Melinda Hardin graciously hosted my wife and I as overnight guests at their home on Main Street.
So yesterday afternoon I watched the twenty-minute Obama speech live at the Hall. He joked that he was just checking out the place for Frank Thomas of his beloved White Sox, who will be inducted this summer. He revealed that his wife had tossed out the “Mom jeans” he was caught wearing in a famous photo when he threw out the first pitch at a ball game. And… well, I’ll let Jeff Katz tell the rest of the story…