COOPERSTOWN President Barack Obama on Thursday became the first sitting president to visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, traveling to New York's Leatherstocking Region to tout his administration's plan to boost international tourism.
Obama spoke for about 15 minutes to an invite-only crowd in the museum's famed Plaque Gallery, where he pitched his goal to increase the number of international visitors to the U.S. to 100 million annually by 2021.
The president signed a memorandum Thursday directing members of his administration develop a plan to cut wait times for customs processing at the country's 15 largest airports.
"We want to bring in more visitors, faster," Obama said. "If they come in to JFK faster, if they come into LaGuardia faster, then they can get to Cooperstown faster."
With his trip to the 75-year-old museum in the village of 1,800, Obama became the first sitting president to visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame and second to visit the village. He was guided on a brief tour of the museum by Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson and Andre Dawson, a 2010 inductee who played for the Montreal Expos and the Chicago Cubs.
Obama, a Chicago White Sox fan, signed the guest book before leaving the museum, according to Idelson. Obama donated a White Sox jacket he wore to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the 2009 Major League Baseball All-Star Game in St. Louis.
The president's trip to the Otsego County is his latest in a series of visits to upstate New York, which included a two-day swing last August that took him to the Buffalo, Binghamton and Syracuse areas, as well as a stop for lunch in Rochester. He's visited the Albany area three times since taking office in 2009.
Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, Columbia County, whose congressional district includes Cooperstown, predicted Obama's visit would lead to a boost in tourism visits.
"It's a boost for tourism in the Leatherstocking Region and specifically for the Baseball Hall of Fame,'' Gibson said. "This is the first time the president has visited Cooperstown since at least Martin Van Buren.''
Van Buren served as president from 1837 to 1841. A former New York governor, Van Buren visited Cooperstown in 1839, 100 years before the Hall of Fame opened.
Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand took her two young sons to the Hall last summer.
"The amount they have invested in the Baseball Hall of Fame is incredible,'' she said. "It is this extraordinary archive now. They cover all these eras in time. They make all this history understandable to kids.''
Neither lawmaker will attend the event Thursday because the House and Senate are in session.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has made upstate tourism a top priority, hoping to entice the 54 million visitors each year to New York City to travel the rest of the state. He made to to Cooperstown as Obama was finishing his speech; Cuomo was on Long Island Thursday morning to formally accept the Democratic nomination for governor.
Jeff Zients, Obama's top economic adviser, said Cooperstown is appealing not only to domestic tourists, but also baseball's increasing international fan base.
"The location, we think, is ideal to highlight the importance of travel and tourism, and particularly for the international visitors given the international nature of the game and importance of travel and tourism to the U.S. economy," Zients said Wednesday.