Humble Bagwell treasures Hall of Fame tour

Written by: Bill Francis

Four months away from his big day, and surrounded by more than 300 bronze images of the greatest names in the sport’s history, Jeff Bagwell kept using the same word to describe his feelings.

“Surreal,” said the longtime Houston Astros first baseman, one of five members of National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Class of 2017, while talking to the assembled media in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s Plaque Gallery on Tuesday morning. “I’ve been using that word a lot lately. You walk around this place and see the history, the names, statistics, and what it meant to the game of baseball. You realize the game is so much bigger than yourself.

“To come and look at the history of the game in so many different areas, it has just been awesome. Just to walk through this with all the plaques and to see the names and to go in the archives and see the uniforms and the gloves, it’s just been awesome. To be here is something special.”

Bagwell was elected as part of the Class of 2017 on Jan. 18 by the Baseball Writers' Association of America – along with Tim Raines and Iván Rodríguez.

Of the 442 ballots cast in this year’s BBWAA election, 332 votes were needed for the 75 percent threshold needed for election. Bagwell, in his seventh year on the ballot, received 86.2 percent.

The only first baseman in history with 400 home runs and 200 stolen bases in his career, Bagwell was in Cooperstown, along with his wife Rachel, and received a tour of the Cooperstown baseball institution from Hall of Fame Vice President of Exhibitions and Collections Erik Strohl as part of an orientation visit all new electees experience in order to prepare them for their Induction Weekend.

Bagwell (center) and his wife, Rachel (right), look at former teammate Craig Biggio's jersey in the Astros locker at the Today's Game exhibit during his Orientation Tour. (Milo Stewart Jr. / National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

After his tour of the Hall of Fame, which included a behind-the-scenes look at the Museum’s collection space and signing his plaque spot in the Plaque Gallery, Bagwell was asked during a press conference if the anticipation was building as his July 30 induction gets closer.

“I think this is the first step where I start to realize this is going to be reality,” he said, while sporting glasses, jeans and an untucked button-down shirt. “I think probably signing where my plaque is going to be is the first step in that.

“This is all overwhelming to me. Parts of me wonder, ‘Why am I in here?’ Just the nature of these guys and what they’ve done is just overwhelming to me. Once July 1st rolls around, then I’ll start to get a little nervous about this.

Jeff Bagwell and his wife Rachel check out the Hall of Fame's Chasing the Dream exhibit, which features artifacts from Hank Aaron's baseball career. (Milo Stewart Jr. / National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

“I’ve talked to a few Hall of Famers and they said just enjoy it. It’s going to be interesting. I’m just trying to take it all in and try and be as calm as I can.”

Bagwell would add that he hasn’t starting working on his induction speech just yet.

“I’m generally a wing-it type guy, but this one I don’t think I can wing so I’m going to have to think about it,” Bagwell said. “It’s going to be a little bit about me and more about the people that have made my life complete and helped me through baseball, the people that I love, and the people I wouldn’t be sitting here or there when the induction comes in that I wouldn’t be there without them.”

Jeff Bagwell and his wife Rachel take a tour of the Museum during their Hall of Fame Orientation Tour with Erik Strohl, the Museum’s vice president of exhibitions and collections. (Milo Stewart Jr. / National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

During his tour of the Museum, an engaged Bagwell saw three floors of baseball history in about two hours, joking about early catcher’s equipment (“That’s what Yogi wore.”), checking out fellow first baseman Lou Gehrig’s locker (“He’s an amazing story, especially what he went through at the end.”), marveling at a Ted Williams artifact (“He just loved talking about hitting.”), and visiting the Hank Aaron exhibit “Chasing the Dream” (“He’s just a great guy and his career was unbelievable. A class act.”).

The Museum’s collections room allowed Bagwell to hold bats belonging to Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Heinie Groh, Gehrig, Ichiro Suzuki and Carl Yastrzemski (“He was my hero. He’s everything a baseball player should be.”).

“I’m a fan of the game,” Bagwell said afterward. “There are things I learned today that I didn’t know beforehand, mostly about the evolution of the game.”

Jeff Bagwell's tour of the Museum's collections room allowed him to hold bats belonging to Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Heinie Groh, Lou Gehrig, Ichiro Suzuki and Carl Yastrzemski. (Milo Stewart Jr. / National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

The native of New England, who will celebrate his 49th birthday on May 27, would end his career with 449 home runs in his 15 seasons as powerful force in the middle of the Astros lineup. The right-handed hitter would capture the 1991 N.L. Rookie of the Year Award and then, in a strike-shortened 1994 campaign, Bagwell hit .368 with 39 homers and 116 RBI in just 110 games, unanimously winning the N.L. MVP Award. From 1996 through 2001, he totaled at least 30 home runs, 100 runs scored and 100 RBI per season – making him one of just six players in history to reach those marks in at least six straight years.

“It (1994) was a magical year as far as playing-wise,” said Bagwell. “It just seemed no matter what, I seemed to find a way to get some hits and hit some home runs. I had other players on my team who were having great years, too. It was fun just to be able to do that. To be in that moment to be able to play like that for that long period of time was pretty cool.”

Bagwell put up his impressive offensive statistics using a distinctive batting stance, in a crouch and with his feet spread far apart.

“I’m not sure,” he said when asked where the stance came from. “People always joke I messed up an entire generation of kids in Houston. It was basically my attempt to get my head to stay still. I learned that by watching Tony Gwynn.

Jeff Bagwell described his upcoming induction as "surreal" and admits it is still hard for him to think of himself as a Hall of Famer. (Milo Stewart Jr. / National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

“The funny thing is I can see different pictures from different times in my career and I can tell you when I’m hitting well and when I’m not. When I’m really spread out I’m really struggling. If I’m not spread out that much I’m doing okay.”

In one of baseball’s most infamous trades, the Astros acquired Bagwell, then a minor league third baseman, from the Red Sox for relief pitcher Larry Anderson on Aug. 30, 1990.

“What it did for me is it showed me the business of baseball,” Bagwell remembered. “I was devastated when I was traded because I was leaving my hometown team, which would be the Red Sox. My grandmother’s crying, my grandfather’s crying, my mother’s crying, and my dad, who had to come pick me up in Albany, while we were playing the Yankees in Double-A, said, ‘You know what? You might have a chance with this one.’

“The Astros didn’t have that great a season the year before. They were rebuilding. And if you look at it…I got a chance to play in the big leagues at an early age. It was the best thing that could have happened to me. My dad had the foresight to actually see that.”

A new tradition beginning this year, Jeff Bagwell joins Iván Rodríguez and John Schuerholz as Hall of Famers who have signed their plaque-backers. (Milo Stewart Jr. / National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

During his rookie season of 1991, Jeff Bagwell switched positions during Spring Training from third base to first base at the urging of Astros manager Art Howe, then went on to serve as the franchise’s Opening Day first baseman for 15 consecutive seasons from 1991 to 2005.

Due to an injured shoulder, Bagwell ended his career in 2005 as a part-time player in the World Series – a Fall Classic in which his team was swept by the White Sox.

“I was ecstatic for our team and I was still a part of it. Not being out there on the field and being able to play defense was tough on me, but I was just happy to get a chance to play in it,” Bagwell said. “I was extremely excited for our city, for the Houston Astros, and specifically Craig (Biggio) for spending all the years there and to finally get there. It was magical for our city.”

Bagwell was able to attend Biggio’s 2015 Induction Ceremony, the two having been Astros teammates for 15 seasons.

In the rotunda of the Plaque Gallery, Jeff Bagwell spoke to media members about his career and emotions leading up to Induction Weekend. (Milo Stewart Jr. / National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

“I was very, very happy when we came for Craig’s induction to see all the orange and all the people from Houston who came. It was a big deal for our city,” Bagwell said. “We’ll see what happens for me. It was an exciting time for the city, the organization, and for the players.”

Reflecting on his baseball career, Bagwell said he has no regrets.

“I gave everything I could when I played. I wouldn’t take anything back,” he said. “I played hard, I played as long as I could until I took the baseball out of my hand because I couldn’t throw. I did everything I could, so I’m happy with that.”

Bagwell ended by admitting he still finds it hard to think of himself as a Hall of Famer.

“You don’t think about that. You think about hitting a home run to win the World Series. You don’t think you’re going to be a Hall of Fame player,” Bagwell said. “Just to get to the big leagues is hard enough. Just to get drafted is hard enough. And to be in the company with this crowd that’s in here is pretty neat. I still don’t know if I totally realize it yet but I imagine in July I will.”

The three BBWAA electees, along with Today’s Game Era electees John Schuerholz and Bud Selig, will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, July 30, at the Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown.

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

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