Class of 2016 recalls their fathers’ influence

Written by: Bill Francis

The father-son bond in baseball undoubtedly goes back to the sport’s beginnings and continues to thrive today, whether that entails playing catch in the front yard, attending a game together or debating the travails of a favorite team.

“The game begins with sons and fathers, fathers and sons. The theme is older than the English novel, older than ‘Hamlet,’ old at least as the Torah,” wrote Roger Kahn in his 1977 book, A Season in the Sun. “You play baseball with love and you play baseball to win and you play baseball with terror, but always against that backdrop – fathers and sons.”

With Father’s Day celebrated on June 19 this year, that special relationship was in evidence with both of 2016’s National Baseball Hall of Fame electees – Mike Piazza and Ken Griffey Jr. – in their trek toward Cooperstown.

Piazza grew up in a Philadelphia suburb under the watchful eye of his father Vince, a former semipro ballplayer who always dreamed of playing in the big leagues.

“My father always told me, ‘Don’t believe what people tell you that you can’t do,’ said Piazza in a 1996 interview. “He kept telling me, ‘Work hard and believe in yourself.’”

Overcoming the odds of being selected in the 62nd round of the 1988 amateur draft, Piazza, the 12-time All-Star, spent most of time as a slugging catcher with the Dodgers and Mets, ending his 16-year big league career with 427 home runs – including a record 396 as a catcher.

In an interview with the Hall of Fame, Piazza said, “My father was like probably what a lot of (Hall of Famers) were like… my dad was instrumental in my getting here. He just loved the game. He saw that I probably had a little talent and I needed to refine that talent. So he put me to work. He got me a (batting) cage and really wanted me to work on my game.

“I was about 10 or 11 when he said ‘You really need to take this seriously, because you can do this.’ Sometimes I think he probably wanted it more than I did. And he believed in me more than I did in a lot of ways. He was the catalyst, no question.”

Unlike Piazza, who was selected with the 1,390th overall pick in 1988, Griffey went first overall in 1987. The multitalented Mariners, Reds and White Sox center fielder would live up to the lofty expectations, too, the 13-time All-Star ending his 22-year big league career with 630 home runs and 10 Gold Glove Awards.

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With his Hall of Fame election, Griffey became the second Hal of Fame player, after Roberto Alomar, whose father also spent time in the big leagues. Slightly more than 200 father-and-son combinations have played in the big leagues, including the sons of Hall of Famers Earl Averill, Yogi Berra, Eddie Collins, Tony Gwynn, Freddie Lindstrom, Connie Mack, Jim O’Rourke, Tony Perez, George Sisler and Ed Walsh.

Ken Griffey Sr. was an outfielder who spent 12 of his 19 seasons in the big leagues with the Reds, the three-time All-Star retiring in 1991 with 2,143 hits and a .296 batting average. An important cog in the famed Big Red Machine, he helped Cincinnati to back-to-back World Series titles in 1975 and ’76.

“I think one of the biggest misconceptions about my family is that we sat around the locker room and we were there all the time. We were there probably about four times a year,” said Griffey in an interview with the Hall of Fame. “I didn’t realize who my dad was until actually he was playing for the Yankees. I had a Yankees Starter jacket on and a kid comes to me and said, ‘Your dad plays for the Yankees?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ In our family it was like no big deal. My dad plays baseball, your dad does this, your dad does that. My dad didn’t come home and act like he’s a superstar. He was just dad.

“There were plenty of times I didn’t know if he went 4-for-4 or 0-for-4 because he was like, ‘All right, what are we gonna do?’ He was a dad first. The things I’ve learned from him are those types of things.”

Although his father played big league baseball, Griffey never felt as if he was forced into the sport. “My dad was pretty cool about letting us do other things,” said Griffey. “He just wanted us to be kids in the neighborhood. It wasn’t, ‘Hey, you’re gonna play baseball,’ or, ‘You’re gonna play football.’ It’s go out and play everything from soccer, to rugby and things like that. He just wanted us to be kids.”

As a youngster, trying to impress a father who was often on the road playing baseball was often difficult for the future star. “It was tougher for me to hit in front of my dad than anybody,” Griffey said. “You could have 40,000 people and I was fine. But you stick my dad in there … Nowadays you can get a charter jet and you can go home and see the kids. He couldn’t do that. The days he would fly in I tried to kill the ball and I’d pop up or strike out.

“I remember he came in with the Braves. He comes to the game and I think I struck out twice. And he’s gotta go down to the ballpark and I end up driving down after the game and he says, ‘Hey, how’d you do?’ I said, ‘I went 3-for-5 with two home runs.’ He just looked at me like, ‘You couldn’t do that when I was there?’

Ken Griffey Jr. is surrounded by his family, including his father, Ken Griffey Sr. (right), and sons Tevin (left) and Trey following his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in January. (Jean Fruth/National Baseball Hall of Fame)

“He also had an RV and he drove to Arizona. I was there for Instructional League and he’s parked behind the left field wall and he doesn’t come out. I finally get a hit in front of him and he yells out the window, ’Was that so bad?’ He always said, ‘Pretend I’m your mom.’ Mom is easy to hit in front of but dad isn’t because he just wasn’t there a whole lot.”

In 1989, Ken Griffey, Sr. and Ken Griffey, Jr. became the first father-son combination to play in the big leagues at the same time. The pair became Mariner teammates in 1990 – also a first in major league history – and famously, on Sept. 14, 1990, in the top of the first inning off California Angels pitcher Kirk McCaskill, hit back-to-back home runs. The duo remained teammates until Griffey Sr. retired in June 1991.

“Growing up, what’s every kid’s dream? It’s to play catch with their dad. I got to do it in the same game, on the same field with him,” Griffey told the Hall of Fame. “We had a couple bets. Who got the first hit, the other person had to pay for dinner. But the other person had a chance to tie.“I told him a couple things: ‘For 17 years you protected me. For the next six weeks I get to protect you,’ which was awesome. The one thing that really sticks out is I got to tell him what every male has been told by their dad: ‘When you live in my house, you live by my rules.’ Well, I said that to my dad and my mom died laughing and my dad moved out the next day. But I got a chance to say it.”

A particular piece of fatherly advice still remains with Griffey decades after receiving it.

“Just looking back there’s certain things that I could do that other kids couldn’t do. It wasn’t that I’d go around talking about it and bragging about it because again I had a dad who was like, ‘Baseball gods are gonna get you. You’re not as bad as you think you are and you’re not as good as people say you are. So just try to stay level,’” Griffey recalled. “That’s one of the things I learned growing up is to go out there and play and whatever happens, happens. Learn from your mistakes, learn from your successes, and try to build on it.”

The Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, honoring Griffey and Piazza, will be held Sunday, July 24, at 1:30 p.m. ET at the Clark Sports Center – located one mile south of the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.


Bill Francis is a Library Associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
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