When I first found myself in the travel business in the late ’90s, I learned about a storied tour company that was based in my hometown of South Norwalk, Connecticut. Throughout the last few years, their name, Tauck, kept coming up and I was not only a little embarrassed that I didn’t know much about them but a little hurt, too. After all, what are the chances that I would get invited by tour companies from all over the world to try out their services but not the one that’s based where I grew up?
Thankfully that all changed when I gave a keynote speech to the Cruise Planners group in South Florida last year. One of the audience members worked for Tauck and he came up to me afterwards and our relationship was born. Since then, they have invited me on a few trips but I could never make any of them because of scheduling conflicts. And then came this email, just a few weeks ago, from their PR department.
“I realize it’s kind of late notice, but I was wondering if you might be available from July 31 – August 3? We have a very cool 4-day baseball event in Cooperstown, NY that we’ve designed with Ken Burns, and I was wondering if you might like to join us for it? Ken, of course, did the award-winning film “Baseball” and its sequel “The Tenth Inning,” and Ken (as well as Hall of Famer Phil Niekro and other former players) will be joining us for the event. Also, the event coincides with the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s 75th anniversary concert with Paul Simon, the Boston Pops, and former New York Yankee (and noted jazz guitarist) Bernie Williams.” (NOTE: Paul Simon and crew canceled a few days before and even though Tauck had nothing to do with it they profusely apologized and refunded each travel $400 and gave them a $250 credit towards a future Tauck Tour).
The names Phil Niekro and Bernie Williams were all I needed to read since I grew up a huge Yankees fan and they both played in pinstripes. So I was in and it was perfect timing because I already had a flight booked to New York the day before their bus left, to go see my dad. And of course, he understood that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. The good news is that my dad met me in the city and we had dinner together and spent a lovely night at the Le Parker Meridien Hotel, Tauck’s host hotel for this event.
The next morning, I kissed my dad goodbye on the cheek (we’re Italians) and headed on a comfortable coach that sat 50 but only had eight passengers. They kept the big bus since they needed it in Cooperstown as most of the guests flew into Albany instead of doing the 3.5 hour drive (without traffic).
I got a flavor of how Tauck conducts their tours before I even got on the bus as they had one of their tour guides reserve tables for us at the hotel’s popular breakfast restaurant Norma’s. Darlene was very friendly and she told me that just like on all of their tours, all meals and tips are included –including my NYC breakfast and hotel housekeeping. Gotta love that, right?
I also realized that Tauck has passionate, interesting and knowledgeable guides because on the bus ride up, Darlene was rattling facts off about New York City and the areas we drove through that I had no idea even existed – and I grew up just 42 miles away. To give you an example, did you know that there are 350 named neighborhoods in New York City or that there are 24,000 restaurants including 246 McDonalds? There are also 720,000 millionaires in New York City compared to L.A.’s 256,000. And that the name Catskills is Dutch and that whenever you see “kill” at the end of a name, it usually refers to a stream?
I was already impressed with Tauck and this was before I had even arrived in Cooperstown or learned that they’ve been around for 89 years and that they offer 144 tours in 70 countries and all seven continents.
To give you a better idea of how this event went, here are my notes, observations and photos. There are also lots more photos in the gallery below.
The Tauck Baseball Event was a special “one-off” event, rather than a tour in the traditional sense. Because this is an event with just one departure vs. a tour with many departures throughout much of the year, they were able to include a number of very exclusive experiences and provide private visits in Cooperstown that wouldn’t normally be available.
I was also told this event structured their sightseeing a bit differently, into themed “innings” that offer in-depth examinations of various aspects of the history of baseball. They divided everyone into three so there were no more than 35 travelers in a group. All groups were named after a historic ball player (Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Ty Cobb) and experienced the same sightseeing and Q&As but on different days. Then all groups got together for the special evening gala events.
DAY 1 Arrive Cooperstown
Most guests arrived to the beautiful and historic Otesaga Resort that afternoon where a buffet lunch was waiting for all hungry travelers (I was one of them!) Some guests relaxed by the pool, played golf on the hotel’s exclusive course or walked into town, which was just a short three blocks away. Unfortunately, I had to work in my room.
Ken Burns Keynote
That evening there was a welcome cocktail reception and dinner at the Otesaga Resort followed by an evening at the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum. Filmmaker Ken Burns gave an hour-long keynote, which included numerous questions from the audience. I asked if he grew up playing baseball (he did, played second base and catcher), what his favorite team was (Boston Red Sox) and if he ever gets to games these days (he said he threw out the first pitch at almost every stadium in the U.S. after he released one of his Baseball films (Here’s the link to them on Amazon). He not only threw out the first pitch but he threw strikes from the mound and he said he would rather someone tell him that they hate his documentaries but that was a great first pitch. He also thinks Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens will get into the Hall of Fame but not Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro or Sammy Sosa.
FYI: Tauck rented the Village of Cooperstown’s trolleys to take guests back and forth from the hotel and the Hall of Fame.
Cocktail Reception and Private Tour of the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum
After the keynote, Tauck rented out the whole Baseball Hall of Fame for a cocktail and dessert party. Not only did we get a private, close-up look at the plaques immortalizing baseball’s greats but we were able to explore the museum’s galleries without the crowds – a rare opportunity unless you go in the winter.
The highlight for me was meeting Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro, who not only participated in every event, but also asked questions of the speakers. That was followed by walking around the Hall by myself. My favorite part was watching the Kirk Gibson World Series homerun. It brought tears to my eyes when I realized that the moment he was rounding first base was the moment my mother awoke me to tell me about that made-for-the-movies homerun.
When guests returned to their rooms, they found an autographed Phil Niekro baseball and signed Ken Burns Baseball soundtrack CD.
DAY 2 The National Pastime
After having blueberry pancakes with an insane view of Lake Otesaga each of the groups did one of three things. One was a private, behind-the-scenes viewing of historic baseball artifacts in the Hall of Fame’s Bullpen Theater presented by Hall of Fame staff. I skipped this since I was there the night before and had an unreal amount of emails to tend to.
-Over her 12 years the ball kept getting smaller (6 or 7 times) and the distance from the batter box to the mound got further, which proved they realized women were better than they thought.
-They never got to 90-foot baseball path just 87 feet
-There was a lot of stealing bases and doubles. High scoring games with a lot of action.
-Pitching wasn’t great and she caught 1 of 2 perfect games in the league.
-They didn’t catch the balls in their hats.
-They never slid home head first like Madonna did in the movie.
-Coach Jimmy Dugan was nothing like Tom Hanks portrayed him in the movie A League of Their Own. She said in real life he was never late and didn’t drink on the bus or in the dugout. She reminded her teammates who saw the film that it was a Hollywood movie, not a documentary.
-Their fields were not nice and they had to play with men’s equipment, which needed to be taped since they were too big for them.
-They didn’t have cameras so the only pictures were from the newspaper.
-There were no African American players in the league.
-They didn’t live in a boarding house but instead they stayed in private homes. But they did stay in the best hotels when they traveled
Phil Niekro Q&A
One of the unexpected highlights was the last-minute addition of Phil Niekro speak. He participated in their event last year but he didn’t speak, which they quickly realized was a huge mistake because he told one of the most heartfelt stories ever. He talked about growing up in Lansing, Ohio, and told us that his dad taught him how to throw a knuckleball since he pitched in a coal miner league. Here are some other things I learned:
-He only lost one game in high school and it was because of a homer by Bill Mazeroski.
-He was shocked that no scouts or teams came for him when he graduated so he went to work.
-He read in the local paper that in nearby West Virginia, the Milwaukee Braves were conducting tryouts. He went and did well.
-When he returned home, a scout was waiting for him and offered him a $500 signing bonus and he got paid $275 a month.
-There was a much larger farm system then that started with a Rookie League, then the next step was D (I think he said), C, B, A, AA and AAA. He went to the Nebraska Rookie League the first year and then jumped to A and AAA the following year. He had a long way to the majors but it was an amazing success story that included enlisting in the army reserves as well as going to Fort Knox for training.
-Phil won five Gold Gloves in the Major Leagues.
-He led the league in sacrifice bunts.
-His younger brother Joe also pitched in the Majors and between them, they won 539 games – the most out of all brothers.
-He never fought with his brother or his family and they would always say “I love you” to each other.
-Phil never got in an argument with an umpire or thrown out of a game.
-When asked who was the toughest hitter, he said Bill Buckner.
-Lois Youngen was sitting next to me wearing a t-shirt that said: “There’s no crying in baseball” and she was bawling at his story.
-Phil was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997 and since then he has only missed one inductee ceremony.
That night at the Otesaga Reosrt we had a lecture on Rotisserie Baseball by its inventor, author and speaker Daniel Okrent.
-Ken Burns recommended him to Tauck.
-Fantasy baseball is now a $3 billion industry.
-He thinks one of the records that we will never see is three no hitters in a row.
After Daniel’s talk I had a late dinner by myself on the Otesaga balcony and was shocked when the waitress said that since I was with Tauck, everything was included – even the tip.
On the bedside table that night was Daniel Okrent’s autographed book.
DAY 3 A Whole New Ballgame
After breakfast at the hotel, my group went to the batting cages, located adjacent to Doubleday Field. Tauck rented the place out and inside they had cages for knuckleballs, sliders, curves, 70 mph fastball, and softball. I spent most of my time in the fastball cage since not many wanted to be in it. Tauck gave us as many tokens as we wanted and we could grab any drinks or ice cream.
Afterwards, we went on the Glimmerglass Queen Boat for an hour. It was a peaceful but boring ride and the boat’s pre-recorded tour guide had the most annoying voice. Luckily that part only lasts 15 minutes. But hey, they had an open bar.
From there, all teams met at nearby Cooperstown’s historic Doubleday Field where we had a catered BBQ with fried chicken, hot dogs, hamburgers, veggie burgers, all kinds of candy, cookies, brownies, ice cream, peanuts, cracker jacks and old fashion soda.
Then it was time for the big show. Each player got at least one at bat against Phil Niekro and I chose to use a heavier wood bat than an aluminum bat like I was using at the cages. I had dreams of hitting a homerun but I was happy with a single and even more relieved that I didn’t strike out. Phil later joked he had more strikeouts that game than he did in his whole career.
Tauck did a nice job hiring a catcher and an announcer so each player had their name and hometown announced when they got up to bat. They also had a local doctor sing the national anthem and they hired an umpire, which really wasn’t a factor since it wasn’t really a game.
-There were three teams and each team had 10 batters up per inning regardless of outs and base runners.
-The star, besides Phil, was a nine-year-old kid who was making amazing grabs at shortstop.
-There were only a few hits to the outfield
-Phil was very funny with hidden ball tricks, throwing two balls at once and telling the group before the game that his control is gone after all these years and that last year he broke a woman’s jaw and cracked another’s ribs.
-Everyone had to wear a helmet and speakers Lois and Daniel both played.
-Only negative is we didn’t play a real game and there wasn’t any sunscreen.
That night there was a special farewell barbecue dinner at the hotel overlooking Otsego Lake.
The following morning I took Tauck’s 8am shuttle bus to the Albany Airport (100-minute drive) and it was there that I questioned if the TSA PreCheck really means what we think it means (story).
I learned from this trip that what sets Tauck apart from other tour companies is their personalization and attention to detail. These guys are good. I met most of the 70 people that were on our tour and every single one I met was a repeat customer. One couple had even been on 34 Tauck Tours. I even sat next to a couple from Florida who had been all over the world with Tauck including Australia and Antarctica. They traveled so much, they made me jealous!
I was reminded not only by Tauck’s guides (they had three there because the group was so large) but by their past customers that this was one of Tauck’s Events and not one of their tours because they are completely different. Even though everyone I spoke to gave this trip an A or an A+ they said their tours are even better … I’m not sure how that’s possible!
If you are interested in other Tauck Tours and Events with Ken Burns, here’s a link to them.