Induction Eve brings smiles to Class of 2023

Written by: Bill Francis

Class of 2023 National Baseball Hall of Fame electees Fred McGriff and Scott Rolen are now less than 24 hours away from a bronze plaque in Cooperstown.

Thoughts about the Induction Ceremony, set for Sunday, July 23, at 1:30 p.m. ET, have left the pair both excited and calm. But as they got set on Saturday to raise the total number of Hall of Fame inductees to 342, the thrill of the moment was undeniable.

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“Fred, let’s do something else,” Rolen said to McGriff after a busy morning that featured the Hall of Fame Golf Tournament and a meeting with the media. “I mean, we haven’t been doing much, right? I’m ready to go.”

Under sunny skies and unusually mild temperatures, the pair played a round at the Leatherstocking Golf Course a few blocks from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Standing near the first tee, they talked about the emotions and whirlwind days leading up to the induction ceremony.  

“It’s awesome,” said McGriff, a big smile on his face. “It’s a great little fraternity, so it’s great to be a part of it. Playing first base over the years, I’d get a chance to talk to them. So now seeing (them now), just to talk about old memories and playing against them is great. It all hit me once I got off that plane and came here Wednesday. You drive into Cooperstown and you’re like: ‘It’s about time.’ Because for the last seven months it’s been on your mind.”

Asked if this was like entering baseball heaven, McGriff paused before saying with a laugh: “Well, I don’t know about the going to heaven part. But it’s the ultimate because as a player your goal is not the Hall of Fame. It’s making the big leagues. Then as your career progresses you’re like, ‘Oh, I got a chance. That’s awesome.’”

As for time spent on his induction speech, the longtime first baseman with 493 home runs joked: “I can’t tell you how many days and nights. I’d be tossing and turning in bed and like, ‘Oh God, I’ve got to include this guy. I don’t know about this guy.’ So a lot.”

Rolen showcased a powerful batting stroke and quick reflexes at third base during his career but was nearly overwhelmed by the grandeur of the little hamlet of Cooperstown.

“This whole experience has been great,” Rolen said. “It’s been unbelievable. My whole family’s here. With guests and everybody probably 150 or so people here. But the reality of all this has not set in yet. Not close. Me trying to hit a golf ball out there on the 18th overlooking water, that was the hardest part of my day so far. No reality yet. It’s going to be probably quite some time.”

As for his own nervousness, the Indiana native said he’s trying to slow everything down a little bit.

“Just seeing all these just legends that I grew up watching and thinking about in my backyard when I was playing with my buddies…I mean, they’re all sitting out there,” Rolen said. “It’s pretty unbelievable just sitting on the back porch of the (Otesaga Resort Hotel) and last night there’s (Cal) Ripken. This is crazy.”

Not that Rolen has not received advice during his encounters with baseball’s living legends.

“All of them kind of say the same thing. Just relax, be calm, take some deep breaths. You’re going to get emotional on the stage, which I already know I am. I can’t even go through my speech without getting emotional now,” Rolen said. “My whole family’s there and it’s been a real special time for all of us. We’ve had some challenges over the last couple of years with health and some stuff, but everybody’s here so it’s going to be great. But everybody says try to enjoy it. It’s going to be a lot. It’s going to be a lot of nerves. Then come back next year and maybe I’ll know where the tee box is on 18.”

A busy Saturday of events continued with the Awards Presentation, a midafternoon private event that was simulcast at Doubleday Field. Carl Erskine was honored with the Buck O’Neil Buck Lifetime Achievement Award, longtime Cubs voice Pat Hughes received the Ford C. Frick Award for excellence in broadcasting and John Lowe receive the BBWAA Career Excellence Award for meritorious contributions to baseball writing.

“Last month, I received a humbling letter from a Cubs radio listener who wanted me to wish his dad a Happy Father’s Day,” Hughes’ speech began humorously.

“‘Dear Mr. Hughes. My dad is a lifelong Cubs fan and he raised his four sons to be as well. He used to record your broadcast on a cassette tape for us to fall asleep to as a broadcaster.’ Generally, it’s bad for ratings when part of your audience is snoozing.”

Lowe roamed press boxes, fields and clubhouses from 1979 through 2014, the last 28 of those years as the Tigers beat writer for the Detroit Free Press. He covered more than 300 postseason games, including 147 in the World Series.

“I’d like to take you back to 1966 the year I realized what the World Series was,” Lowe said. “In the autumn of ’66 I was a second grader in suburban St. Louis. On the afternoon of Wednesday, Oct. 5, Game 1 of the World Series would start in Los Angeles just after 3 p.m. our time. School got out at 3 p.m. If I walked home from school as usual, I would miss the first moments of the game on TV. So that I could see the game from the start, I asked my mom to pick me up at school for the brief drive home. She said she would. Coming out of the front door of school at three, I saw her waiting in her gray Oldsmobile.

“Decades later, I asked her why she was willing to pick me up at school so I could see the first moments of a game. She said I thought it was important. Once again, mom is right.

“I realized that by striving to see the start of that game, I began a lifetime lesson. The more enthusiastically I dove into baseball, the more I would be rewarded.”

The Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award is presented not more than once every three years in honor of an individual whose extraordinary efforts enhanced baseball’s positive impact on society, broaden the game’s appeal, and whose character, integrity and dignity are comparable to the qualities exhibited by Buck O’Neil throughout his lifetime.

Erskine’s pitching career earned him a long list of impressive numbers and accolades. But his life after the diamond helping others is when his star shined the brightest as a standout hurler for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers. From 1948 to 1959, he racked up 122 wins, two World Series championships and two no-hitters. Later he became a successful business executive with a longstanding deep commitment to acts of citizenship. And with his son Jimmy born with Down syndrome, he fought for people with intellectual disabilities, their acceptance and to improve services available to them.

Gary Erskine, speaking for his 96-year-old father, said: “It is a thrill of a lifetime to accept this award for my Dad.”

Later, a video message from Carl Erskine was played in which he said: “It’s quite an honor to receive the Buck O’Neil Award. I’m very, very grateful. I’m not traveling much anymore so I’m not able to be in-person. I’m sorry about that…I was just a skinny kid from Anderson (Ind.) and, yeah, it’s been quite a journey for me.

“I think what I’ve tried to do is have some humility, and as an athlete it’s hard to do sometimes if you accomplish very much. But I think there’s a lot of strength in having humility. And I think I tried my best to do that.”

Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson, Class of 2015, spent part of the day talking about his first-ever solo exhibition, Randy Johnson: Storytelling with Photographs, which opened on April 1 at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown. It includes 30 large-print images captured during his excursions in Africa. The work, which includes shots of people and wildlife, has been extended into December 2023.

“It’s been great to be able to show my work in one area, the Africa material,” Johnson said.

Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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