Humbled Kaat joins greatest team
The emotions flowed easily.
“This is humbling,” is how Kaat described his feelings. “There are different levels of the Hall of Fame, and I would never be naive enough to put myself in a class with Sandy (Koufax) and Gibby (Bob Gibson) and Seaver and Marichal, but I’m honored to be here as a representative of longevity and maybe dependability, accountability. I’m happy about that.”
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Kaat, along with his wife Margie, were at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum on May 10, taking part in an Orientation Visit afforded all recent electees in order to prepare for the upcoming Induction Ceremony.
The Hall of Fame Class of 2022 member was elected via the Golden Days Era Committee, along with former Minnesota Twins teammate Tony Oliva, Gil Hodges and Minnie Miñoso, on Dec. 5. The entire seven-member class also includes Early Baseball Era Committee electees Bud Fowler and Buck O’Neil, as well as Baseball Writers’ Association of America electee David Ortiz.
The Class of 2022 will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame at 1:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, July 24 on the grounds of the Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown.
“When I got the call from Jane (Hall of Fame Chairman Jane Forbes Clark), as soon as you hear those words, ‘This is Jane Clark’ … I know they don’t call with bad news,” Kaat said with a laugh. “And then Tony La Russa called and said, ‘You know your life changes forever.’ And I think the deeper I get into the process, the more humbling it is because I recognize how we didn’t earn anything through the ability to play baseball, we were gifted. It is a gift. I’m glad I was able to make the most of that.”
In the collection of the Hall of Fame is an April 1957 Washington Senators scouting report on the 18-year-old Kaat, raised in Zeeland, Mich., while he was attending nearby Hope College in Holland, Mich.
The scout, Dick Wiencek, in his comments, wrote, “This boy can really fire. He throws bullets. A topnotch prospect.”
Wiencek would ultimately sign 72 players – including Kaat and fellow Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven – the most in baseball history.
A witness to a number of Hall of Fame Induction Ceremonies over the years, dating back to 1966 when the Twins faced the Cardinals in the Hall of Fame Game at Doubleday Field, he also saw longtime Twins teammate Harmon Killebrew’s 1984 induction, and the 2018 induction the year his longtime broadcast partner Bob Costas was honored with the Ford C. Frick Award, among others.
Admitting with a chuckle that he’s probably signed his name 3,000 times since he was elected, Kaat talked about how the news affected others.
“I guess an example of that would be, I think it was two days after I got ‘the call’ I see a number on my phone. I don’t recognize it. The voice said, ‘Is this Jim?’ And I said, ‘Yes. Who’s this?’ It was Al Kober, someone I toured the Hall of Fame with in 1956. He was my roommate at Hope College. He was right-handed pitcher and I was a left-handed pitcher. Our schedule was 12 games – six doubleheaders – he pitched six and I pitched six. He said that he had just reserved three rooms in Utica (45 miles from Cooperstown). And I don’t think we’ve seen each other in 40 years. And he’s got his family coming. So I think it’s moments like that, that you realize how special this is.”
It can be said that the hallmark of Kaat’s career was his longevity, a trait that he learned early on would have to be accounted for every spring.
“I had coaches early on like Eddie Lopat, who was very successful for the Yankees. His best fastball couldn’t black your eye from 60 feet, but he knew how to pitch and he taught me the art of pitching,” Kaat explained. “So I think that being able to adjust every year. As Eddie told me after my first really kind of coming out year in ‘62, he said, ‘Now you know you’re gonna have to be twice as good next year to be as good as you were this year.’ So I’m scratching my head like what does that mean?
“What it really told me is you don’t just sit back and say, ‘Well, I’m here. I’m gonna stay here.’ You have to keep on trying to improve. I think that’s what drove me every year to go to spring training like I got to earn my spot and then you kind of adjust with the times.”
Kaat’s tour through the Museum not only included reconnecting with a 1983 Cardinals home uniform jersey he donated, marking his 25th consecutive year of pitching in the majors, but also checking out a seamless baseball from the 19th century (“Probably why they started using slippery elm.”), looking at a picture of Ty Cobb sliding spikes high (“I remember seeing that as a kid”), remembering having coffee with Joe Medwick in Spring Training, and marveling at Ted Williams at the plate (“I looked at that stance a few times from the mound.”)
While in Collections, the longtime pitcher swung a bat once used by Babe Ruth, the one Ted Williams hit his 521st and final round-tripper, and the club Killebrew used to club his 500th homer.
“The magnitude of the attention by being a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame,” Kaat reflected toward the end of the day, “is so much different than being, ‘Oh, he had a nice career. He played for 25 years.’”
Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum