Tuesday, July 26, 2022
Wit, Reflection at the Hall of Fame
They had as many people turn up at the Hall of Fame's induction ceremonies Sunday as fill Fenway Park for a sellout Red Sox home game. And the man who brought enough of those Fenway crowds to their feet in the years the Red Sox finally buried the accursed Curse and hammered the coffin shut twice more gave them more.
And he didn't even think about hollering, at whatever the choice point might have been, this is our [fornicating] Hall of Fame!, either.
The only thing wrong with David Ortiz's induction speech is that his fellow inductees Minnie Miñoso and Buck O'Neil weren't still alive on earth to see and maybe raise. But those two men who loved the game as deeply as Ortiz does surely looked upon the stage from their Elysian Fields roosts and hollered camino a seguir — way to go.
With the "Papi! Papi!" chants pouring forth well before he took the podium, it would have been tempting for the first Hall of Fame designated hitter to get there on the first ballot to fall all the way into his public persona as a big, laugh-hunting, laugh-indulging eternal kid. He let some of it come forth. But for the most part he stayed on the side not always accounted for when his name comes up.
The side of soul.
Ortiz felt as reflective and as emotional as anything else after his daughter Alexandra, a college music student, opened the proceedings with a stirring singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner." He also had a country to thank, the United States, for "welcoming me with open arms since I was practically a child, and giving me the opportunity to develop and fulfill all my dreams and then some more."
Under ordinary circumstances, that would have been Hall of Fame boilerplate. Out of Ortiz's usually garrulous mouth, it was as heartfelt and honest as when he thanked his family for standing by their man during the career that brought him to this point — even his wife, Tiffany, despite the couple's separation last December.
If Big Papi indulged any of his wit he used it simply to segue into the next thanks, the next acknowledgements, whether to the coaches and evaluators who encouraged and mentored him, the teammates who engaged him, the managers who didn't let him let any slump swallow him alive, the family who braced him, the country that embraced him.
There were times you thought Ortiz's voice might crack from emotion, but — just as he didn't flinch when swinging big with postseason advances or World Series rings on the line; just as he didn't flinch achieving a .947 OPS in 85 postseason games that would have been half a career season for lesser men (his World Series OPS of 1.372 is a jaw-dropper, too) — he didn't let himself flinch now.
"I'm always joking around, I'm always being me," he told a news conference after the induction. But you had the whole planet, the whole nation watching you and you have to deliver a message, especially the way life is going these days. You want to deliver a positive message, the words, that people can understand that we need to stay together, we need to be more humble, we need to be sharing love, that's what we need. Because a lot of bad things are happening nowadays."
A lot of bad things happened to keep Miñoso from entering the Show before his cup of coffee with the Indians at 25 and his full rookie season at 27. (Eight games with the Indians before being traded to the White Sox in a three-team, seven-player deal.) He did for black Latinos what Jackie Robinson did for African-Americans and he let his effervescent personality diffuse bigots and engage teammates as well as he played.
But a lot of good things might have come forth Sunday afternoon if Miñoso could have lived to accept his plaque. The man who once said his last dream in the game he loved was to make it to Cooperstown (he died in 2015) would have made the crowd his own just the way Ortiz did. "As Minnie would say," his widow, Sharon, told the gathering, "'Thank you, my friend, from the bottom of my heart'."
So would O'Neil, maybe the only one among Sunday's Hall inductees — including Miñoso's successor Cuban-born star Tony Oliva — who could have made Miñoso resemble a clinical depressive.
I once wrote that getting O'Neil to shut up about baseball (and it holds about life, too, if you've ever read the book he wrote [I Was Right on Time] or the best written about him [The Soul of Baseball]) was like taking the alto sax out of Charlie Parker's mouth. ("People feel sorry for me? Man! I heard Charlie Parker!" he once said.) The only problem anyone would have had with him Sunday would have been holding him back.
After he was spurned for the Hall by a single vote in 2006, O'Neil graciously accepted the invitation to introduce seventeen Negro Leagues inductees, a few months before his death. He even got all the Hall of Famers on the podium and the crowd on the lawn to sing with him, "The greatest thing in all my life is loving you."
His niece, Dr. Angela Terry, may have joked that she got to accept her uncle's plaque because she holds the longest membership in the AARP, but she nailed home gently and firmly that Uncle John (as she called him throughout) belonged above and beyond his splendid Negro Leagues playing and managing stats, above and beyond his scouting, coaching, and mentoring after.
Which he does. What Pete Rose only thinks he is, O'Neil was: the best ambassador baseball had before he was taken home to the Elysian Fields. You could imagine O'Neil ending his induction speech the way he ended his memoir: "I think it's about time to close the book on this book before I start boring you. Besides, I've got a game to go to. I just might see for the first time the next Josh Gibson or Satchel Paige."
Hall of Famer Dave Winfield inducted Bud Fowler, considered the first black man to play professional baseball prior to the imposition of the disgraceful color line. It seemed fitting since Fowler himself was a Cooperstown-area native. "There was something magical about this game that caught his eye and imagination," Winfield said, "so much so that he'd spend the rest of his life playing and managing this game."
He pitched, caught, ducked and eluded the game's racists, and created the black barnstorm teams that led to the formal creation of the Negro Leagues in the first place. A rib injury led in due course to his premature death, but Fowler's impact on the game was literally nationwide. The time's conditions and the advent of the color line compelled Fowler to play and oversee the game in the minors in almost all states — while he worked as a barber on the side, something he learned from his father, to supplement what he earned in the game.
Tony Oliva remembered his own pre-Castro Cuban youth as he looked out around the Hall of Fame lawn and crowd. "I'm looking to the left, I'm looking to the right, and it is bringing memories," the longtime Twins bat virtuoso and right fielder told them. "This place right here looks like my home in Cuba, where my father built a field where the young kids were able to play baseball. Exactly like."
His Twins teammate, left-handed pitcher Jim Kaat, remembered taking his father's advice and spurning a $25,000 bonus from the White Sox — it would have kept him on the parent club bench two years under the bonus rule of the time — to take a lesser $4000 bonus from the ancient Washington Senators (on the threshold of moving to Minnesota) so he could be seasoned right.
Haans Kaat wanted his son to learn the professional game properly. (In case you wonder about such things, Kaat's induction makes for two Dutch-stock former Twins in Cooperstown, joining Bert Blyleven.)
"My dad made $72 a week in 1957," Kaat told the crowd after accepting his plaque. "You can do the math, figure out what he sacrificed so his son could start his career at the right level." And, highlight it by pitching his best baseball when someone else was having a career year while outlasting Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax in Game Two of the 1965 World Series — the only time Koufax would come up short in that seven-game set.
Remembering another father was a little different for Irene Hodges. When her father, Gil, died of a second heart attack in 1972, Jackie Robinson said through his grief, "Gil was always a calming presence. I always thought I'd be the first [of the "Boys of Summer" Brooklyn Dodgers] to go."
"Nothing was more important to my dad than giving Jackie all of his support," she said Sunday afternoon, accepting her father's plaque. "We were like family with the Robinsons. Jackie's kids played in our house, and we played in theirs. My dad was not only teammates with Jackie, but they were family. My father made everyone comfortable and accepting of Jackie when he came to the big leagues."
He did it for Japanese children, too, even in Okinawa where he earned a Bronze Star. "During his time in Okinawa," his daughter said, "he would befriend the Japanese children who were so frightened by the American soldiers. My father would gather the children from the village, along with his fellow Marines, and teach them baseball. He gave them some joy back in their life that the war had robbed them of."
That was the same elemental decency that provoked Brooklyn not to boo but to warm up even more to the quiet first baseman, the National League's best of the 1950s, when he fell into a ferocious batting slump starting in the 1952 World Series — so much so that even a priest who wasn't of Hodges's own church ended a Sunday mass saying, "It's too hot for a sermon, so everyone just say a prayer for Gil Hodges."
Hodges' experience with Robinson surely played into how well prepared he kept his 1969 Mets as their manager, after learning on the job with the expansion Senators from 1963-67. Injuries and growing pains kept those Mets from repeating their miracle feat while Hodges managed them. But he remained a firm but engaged boss who loved to teach or re-teach, gave players room to vent privately when need be.
He kept everyone from the merest spare part to the most obvious Hall of Famer in waiting ready to go when needed. He never denounced the injured as quitters and, whenever the tough love was needed, he did it behind closed doors and not in the press.
On Sunday afternoon, Hodges's daughter re-introduced her father to baseball in a near-perfect bookend to the outsized bombardier who kept himself in check enough to make it about the game to which he'd contributed an outsize share of grandeur when he swung, swayed, and put a city sickened by atrocity on his back.
"If my story can remind you of anything," Ortiz said, "let it remind you that when you believe in someone, you can change their world; you can change their future." A man who believes that is a man Hodges, Miñoso, and O'Neil would have loved playing with or coaching in another time, another place, even as Kaat and Oliva had chances to mentor him in his earliest seasons.
This was their [fornicating] Hall of Fame.