Leyland experiences Museum for first time as a Hall of Famer

Written by: Bill Francis

Jim Leyland had been to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum before, but this was different.

He was sitting on a director’s chair in the Plaque Gallery, surrounded by the bronze visages of 342 Hall of Famers. Behind him were the images of the first five legends elected in 1936 – Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson - not far from where his plaque will be located after his induction this summer.

After a lifetime in baseball, Jim Leyland had reached the summit.

Elected by the Contemporary Baseball Era Committee in December, Leyland visited the Hall of Fame on Tuesday, Jan. 30, for his Orientation Tour. A three-time Manager of the Year Award winner, Leyland skippered the Pirates, Marlins, Rockies and Tigers over 22 seasons – winning the 1997 World Series with the Fish.

His plaque will join the others on the oak walls when the Class of 2024 is inducted on July 21.

“I managed against a lot of these guys and I managed some of them,” Leyland said. “It’s just a thrill to see this. I’ve seen some of the plaques before, but I never really took a detailed tour of it. It’s so exciting. It’s just hard to believe that you’re going to have a plaque here with these people. It’s pretty emotional, to be honest with you.

“And to be in here with the people that were the greatest of the greats. I don’t think people really realize how good you have to be to be a utility player in the Major Leagues, let alone end up on a wall in Cooperstown. That’s pretty difficult to do. But these guys are so unbelievably talented.”

Leyland’s previous trips to Cooperstown included attending Tony La Russa’s 2014 Hall of Fame induction ceremony and when his then 12-year-old son Patrick attended an area baseball camp.

“I don’t know if my life has really changed. It was a little hectic to start with. But a good hectic. A lot of congratulations, a lot of texts, a lot of phone calls,” Leyland said of the last eight weeks since his election. “I just reached out to Adrian Beltré, Joe Mauer and Todd Helton (the other members of the Class of 2024) the other day. Talked to all of them except Beltré. I got a text back from him. It’s a little hectic, the media, but it’s died down quite a bit now.

“And, of course, this is getting me fired up for July 21 just being up here. I’m a little nervous about it, to be honest with you, because I’m kind of an emotional guy. I had to fight my emotions looking at some of this stuff. I’m going to see if there’s a doctor that can give me something to keep me from crying because I don’t want to bawl on that stage.”

Jim Leyland signs back of future plaque
Jim Leyland signs the spot where his Hall of Fame plaque will hang during his Jan. 30 visit to Cooperstown. (Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

Leyland, who celebrated his 79th birthday on Dec. 15, ended his managerial career with 1,769 victories – which currently ranks 18th all time – along with six first-place finishes, three pennants and the 1997 World Series title with the Marlins. A three-time Manager of the Year winner – twice with the Pirates in 1990 and 1992 and again with the Tigers in 2006 – Leyland’s team also finished second five times.

“I was here for Tony La Russa’s induction, and I got a good feel for what it was, but I wasn’t on that stage. I was in one of the chairs out by where they sell hot dogs and hamburgers,” Leyland said. “Now I’m going to be on a chair looking out at the people from the stage. It’s going to be a little bit different. But even Tony told me, who doesn’t really get too emotional, it was difficult and that it was tough when you get off that bus then walk on the stage and see all those people.

“I’ve been working on my speech. I won’t be very long. But hopefully just make a few points. Thank the right people, but not over-thank, because you just don’t have much time to do that. So, I’ll try to do a good job with it. But I won’t be one of the guys Johnny Bench gets mad at for talking too long. I can promise you that.”

Jim Leyland and Roberto Clemente jersey
Jim Leyland studies Roberto Clemente's retired number 21 Pirates jersey in the ¡Viva Baseball! exhibit. Leyland's 22-year major league managerial career began in Pittsburgh, where he led three Pirates clubs to National League East titles. (Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

Leyland got his big league start as a Chicago White Sox coach under Tony La Russa from 1982 to 1985 before taking over as the Pirates manager in 1986. He led the Bucs franchise for 11 seasons and won three division titles. After a two-season stint with the Marlins, where he won the 1997 World Series, he spent a lone year with the Rockies in 1999. Taking over the managerial duties of the Tigers in 2006, Leyland led the team to a surprise Wild Card berth and World Series appearance in 2006. After eight years with the Tigers, which included four postseason berths, two pennants and three division crowns, Leyland retired after the 2013 campaign.

A minor league catcher who never made it to the majors, Leyland was adept at getting the most out of his players.

“I’ve had some very special moments in my career,” Leyland said. “When you manage 22 years, you have some great walk-off wins and you have some heartbreaking walk-off losses. That’s just part of the game. But I think of the first division title with the Pirates in ‘90 because we had to come so far, and the Mets were so good. And when I started in Pittsburgh, we weren’t very good. To get that first division title was a really important moment in my life and for my baseball career. And then, of course, the World Series. And then to go to the Tigers in 2006, where they had lost 119 three years before. To be back there with the Tigers, with the team I signed with in 1963, and to win the pennant that first year was a pretty special moment in my life.

“I kid all the time about this. I signed with the Detroit Tigers as a minor league player in 1963. And I didn’t get to Detroit until 2006. So, it took me a long time to get there.”

After chatting with the media, Leyland toured the Plaque Gallery, where he sought out the bronzed images of La Russa, fellow Pirates legend Bill Mazeroski, the five epic members of the Class of 1936, and Yogi Berra, his childhood favorite.

Leyland began the day with a tour of the Museum led by Tom Shieber, the Museum’s senior curator. The day’s experiences were made more special with his wife, Katie, by his side. They were shown exhibits and artifacts that show the game’s history dating back to the 19th century to the present.

“I’ve been here before, but I never got to tour like I got today, so I’m seeing things that I had no idea were here,” Leyland said. “It’s obviously very unique and very special. I actually got a little choked up when I saw some of the stuff like Al Kaline’s glove. I was very close to him.

“It was a very special day. Katie and I really enjoyed it.”

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


The eyes of the baseball world will be focused on Cooperstown July 19 - 22, with the legends of the game in town to see history unfold during Hall of Fame Weekend.