Home for the Weekend

Hall of Famers, fans reflect on coming back to Cooperstown

July 22, 2010
Andre Dawson, Whitey Herzog and Doug Harvey will be inducted during Hall of Fame Weekend 2010. (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

You can sense the anticipation building in Cooperstown, the upstate New York village of some 2,000 year-round residents, as its ranks swell many times over because the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s Induction Weekend is mere hours away.

Whether you are taking a stroll down Main Street, visiting the Hall of Fame’s Plaque Gallery, or grabbing a slice at a local pizzeria, the feeling is palpable that something important is about to happen. And it is, with the induction of slugger Andre Dawson, manager Whitey Herzog and umpire Doug Harvey on Sunday at 1:30 p.m.

“Hall of Fame Weekend is the highlight on the calendar for Cooperstown,” said Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson. “It shines a national spotlight on not only the Hall of Fame but the entire village and surrounding community.

“For our Hall of Famers it’s a great reunion for them, and for the fans it gives them accessibility to their heroes.”

On the front steps of the Hall of Fame on Thursday afternoon stood Marson Ponder, a St. Louis Cardinals rooter since he turned 10 years old in 1955. He was looking forward to the induction of Herzog, a Cardinals manager from 1980 to 1990 who skippered the team to the 1982 World Series title.

“I’m a Herzog fan,” Ponder said, “because of the way he managed. He was able to manipulate his team that he had at the time to play winning baseball.”

Outside of a Main Street shop posing for photographs was Harmon Killebrew, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984.

“It’s absolutely wonderful to be back. Just look down this street at these people that are here,” Killebrew said. “It’s such a wonderful place is makes you smile. It’s like coming home. I enjoy coming every year. I just have a great feeling when I come to Cooperstown.”

Being back in Cooperstown also brings Killebrew back to his own induction ceremony.

“A lot of people remember my speech because I mentioned that my mother came out on the porch one spring evening, my brother and I were tearing up the grass on the front yard, and told my father to tell the boys to stop tearing up the grass. And he said, ‘We’re not raising grass here, Kate, we’re raising boys.’”

For Killebrew, this year’s Induction Weekend will be decidedly different with the passing of Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts on May 6.

“Robin was a wonderful friend who I always enjoyed being around. I learned a lot of things about some of the older players that he saw that I didn’t know anything about,” Killebrew said. “And I got a couple of home runs off him, and we used to talk about that all the time, too.”

The lobby of the Otesaga Hotel was abuzz with preparations and the early arrival of several Hall of Famers and special guests on Thursday.

“These Induction Weekends are just awesome, especially knowing you’ve done your bit already. I know the tension that the new inductees must be feeling this weekend and it’s nice to be that guy to reassure them that everything is going to be all right,” said longtime San Diego Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn, elected to the Hall of Fame in 2007. “So it’s been a lot more comforting coming back the years after. I was in the hospital last year so I didn’t make it, but it’s nice to get back here again.

“Being a baseball coach at San Diego State I have other responsibilities, too, but you set aside this weekend,” he added. “This is very select company, and when you have an opportunity to interact with these guys it’s always something you look forward to.”

And every time Gwynn returns to Cooperstown it brings back memories of his own induction, in which a record crowd came out to see he and Cal Ripken Jr. receive their bronze plaques.

“The first thing I always think about is as the bus is pulling in on induction Sunday hearing the reaction of the other guys because they had never seen that many people here,” Gwynn said. “As we were driving in last night that’s what I was thinking about.”

Also seen in the Otesaga’s lobby was longtime New York Daily News sportswriter Bill Madden, this year’s recipient of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award “for meritorious contributions to baseball writing.”

“It’s just beginning, but it’s going to be really strange this weekend. I’ve been here so many years, since 1979 was my first induction, and all of them have been on the other side of the rostrum, so to speak,” Madden said. “I’m really wondering if I’m going to lose my way when I get there on Sunday.

“As Don Zimmer used to say, ‘What’s a lifetime .235 hitter like me doing in this company?’ Well, I almost feel the same way. Look at the Spink Award winners in the past, starting with J.G. Taylor Spink, Damon Runyon, Grantland Rice and Red Smith. Bill Madden? What’s a .235 hitter doing in this group?”

Having been a frequent visitor to Cooperstown over the years, Madden began referring to this time of year with a special phrase.

“I always called it baseball’s high holy day of obligation,” he said. “It’s the most important day of the baseball season because this is the one time that we honor the greatest figures in baseball with the highest honor that baseball can give you. And to just be part of this is just overwhelming for me.”

Madden is also the author of Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball about the recently deceased owner of the New York Yankees. As part of the Hall of Fame’s Author Series on Friday at 1 p.m. in the Bullpen Theater, he will talk about and sign copies of his new work.

“The Steinbrenner book was the labor of my life,” Madden said. “It took three years to do it plus the 35 years I spent covering the guy. It has been an incredible last six months. I often wonder if my dad is up there looking over me because I have the Hall of Fame and now a best selling book. This confluence of events has just been incredible.”

So how is the writer’s speech coming?

“All I can say about it is I tried not to make it too much about me,” Madden said. “I wanted to really make it more about my profession and the reason why we have the Spink Award and the reason why it’s important to baseball and important to the Hall of Fame.”

Bill Francis is a library associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum