ON BASEBALL’S MAIN STREET
By LIBBY CUDMORE • from SUMMER DREAMS
COOPERSTOWN – Vincent Carfagno knows the importance of service with a smile.
“I had Mariano Rivera here for a signing and, when I drove him to the airport, I told him he was going to the Hall of Fame,” he said. “This year, when he was doing his walkthrough in January, I went over there and gave him a big smile – he came over, gave me a hug and said ‘It’s good to see you.’”
Carfagno, the owner of Seventh Inning Stretch, will have an exclusive signing with the Hall of Famer on Monday, July 22. “Mariano’s agent called me up and said that he said, ‘If I have to do a signing, I’ll only work with Vinnie,’” he said.
Mariano Rivera’s admirer opened the store in the former Smalley’s Theatre in 1995. “When I got here, I rented 550 square feet and sold baseball cards,” he said. “There was a bookstore in the back and a few other stores.”
Back then, he was just selling cards. “I had a customer come in with complete sets of cards from 1941, ’42, some of them signed, that he wanted to sell,” he said. “But I couldn’t afford them back then!”
Those days are long past, and one by one, Carfagno bought out other stores and others went away, turning Seventh Inning Stretch into a split-level baseball merchandise empire. “We have Cooperstown Connection stores in Syracuse and Utica,” he said.
This past February, Carfagno closed the shop for two months for a complete renovation, including replacing the carpet with vinyl flooring, replacing lighting fixtures and swapping out the old slat walls for mahogany, and putting the finishing touches on the upstairs room.
“It’s something we’ve always wanted to do,” he said. “We were going to do it last year, but we ran out of time, so we put it off. This year, we decided to just do it.”
They finished just in time for Memorial Day, the start of the season. “People seem really happy with it,” he said.
But Carfagno doesn’t just sell cards anymore. “People collect anything that has to do with the game,” he said. “We have seats and bricks from old Yankee Stadium, prints – we even have dirt!”
Among those items for sale is a handwritten letter from Ty Cobb to a fan in 1934. “I always feel honored that someone should wish my name as an autograph,” he wrote.
Fans these days, he said, are looking for game-used items, including bats, balls and jerseys. “We just got Aaron Judge’s spring training jersey,” he said.
Carfagno also knows that, more than the cards or the hat, fans want the experience meeting a player.
“If you want to meet Ozzie Smith, this is the place,” he said. “I want to bring guys who care about their fans, who will shake their hands and take pictures with them. To me, that’s what Cooperstown is all about.”
Carfagno himself isn’t above getting star-struck. “I’m like a little kid when these guys come in,” he said. “I just sit there thinking ‘I can’t believe I’m here next to this person!’” he said. “When Whitey Ford came here, I told him all about watching games with my dad, and he had tears in his eyes. He wanted to come here, and this was the only place he would sign for ten years.”
As such, he’s built a loyal customer base. “People come in and tell me they want a Yankees hat,” he said. “They could buy it anywhere in the world, but they want to buy it from me.”
And though he sells plenty of cards, the culture of card collecting has changed. “People will buy packs, look through for the cards they want and then give me back the ones they don’t,” he said. “When I was a kid, I used to make sets, but they don’t do that anymore.”
But those cards aren’t just destined for the recycling bin. He has put together “grab bags” filled with cards, 500 for just under $20. “Parents buy them for the kids for the car ride home,” he said. “And we throw some ’50s and ’60s cards in there, stuff they wouldn’t normally see. It shows the hobby, the history. It’s great when you get a dad in here showing his kid how to collect.”