SI Vault
Steve Wulf
June 12, 1989
The Hall of Fame was built in Cooperstown upon a foundation of fable, based on a letter from a madman and a dirty ball found in an attic. But from such bogus beginnings has come a nearly sacred shrine in an almost perfect setting
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June 12, 1989

The Stuff Of Legend

The Hall of Fame was built in Cooperstown upon a foundation of fable, based on a letter from a madman and a dirty ball found in an attic. But from such bogus beginnings has come a nearly sacred shrine in an almost perfect setting

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Since that opening day fifty years ago, the annual Hall of Fame summer weekend to honor new inductees has gotten more and more publicity, and the village has gotten more and more crowded as fans and now collectors stream into Cooperstown. A record turnout is expected this July 21-24, both because of the 50th anniversary and the popularity of two new inductees, Carl Yastrzemski and Johnny Bench. (Red Schoendienst and umpire Al Barlick will be inducted as well.) Indeed, some 50,000 ticket requests for the Hall of Fame game on July 24 had to be turned down.

But through the years, the Hall of Fame weekend has retained its special charm. Where else but Cooperstown, and when else but that weekend, can you see Lefty Gomez's son jogging with Babe Ruth's grandson? Or walk through the parking lot of the grand Otesaga Hotel and spy Mel Allen sitting in the front seat of his car with the door open, a beer on the dashboard and the Yankee game on the car radio? Or come across Hall of Famer Cool Papa Bell walking through the Otesaga lobby after a particularly grueling autograph session with a sign around his chest saying, OUT TO LUNCH? Or listen to David Eisenhower proudly recite to Hall of Famer Johnny Mize the famous poem with the famous verse that ends, "But not your eyes, Mize, not your eyes."

There's always a certain poignancy to the weekend too. Even a casual observer could look at Hall of Famer Bill Terry sitting in a chair in the Otesaga lobby last summer and know that he wouldn't be coming back. That same observer could not have guessed, though, that Lefty Gomez, walking arm-in-arm through the lobby with his beautiful wife, former actress June O'Dea, was also attending his last Hall of Fame weekend.

The chance to get a Hall of Famer's signature brings out the autograph hounds, and for a few years in Cooperstown, the whole business got very much out of hand; fans would knock on the Hall of Famers' doors at all hours of the night. In the past few years, security has gotten much tighter and the autograph sessions have become much more efficient. "I know a lot of Hall of Famers were scared away by the autograph hounds," says Robin Roberts (Class of '76), who comes back most every year. "But the weekend is much better run now. Those guys who were scared away should come back now."

Tom Heitz, the head librarian for the Hall of Fame, gets very little sleep on the annual weekend because he's in charge of those autograph seekers who line up on the lawn outside the Otesaga the night before the morning autograph sessions. Says Heitz, a former Marine who is ideally suited to the task of keeping order among the multitudes, "I remember the Monday morning of the '87 weekend, and it all seems worthwhile. Ted Williams walked out of the hotel at 7 a.m. to play golf, and he saw all these fans lined up to have their stuff signed. It must have dawned on him that he would be letting down a lot of people if he did go golfing, so he just stood outside for an hour as the people came down, reverentially, to get his autograph. He was as friendly as could be, and to me, that's what all autograph sessions should be like. Anyway, when he finished signing everybody's stuff, he went to play golf."

In the last decade, Williams—the Thumper, Teddy Ballgame, the Splendid Splinter, the Kid or, simply, 9—has become sort of the patron saint of Coopers-town, which seems only fitting because his first year in the big leagues, 1939, was also the Hall of Fame's rookie year. Signs of Williams can be found everywhere in the museum. A dead ringer for the Splinter, a wooden statue, dominates the area next to the staircase leading to the second floor, where there are many Williams artifacts. But the item that catches the eye is his carefully folded uniform, as pristine as if he had taken it off yesterday, with TED WILLIAMS stitched in the collar.

Williams was enshrined in 1966, along with Casey Stengel. "I guess every player thinks about going into the Hall of Fame," said Williams in his speech at the induction ceremony that summer. "Now that the moment has come for me, I find it difficult to say what is really in my heart, but I know that it is the greatest thrill of my life. I received 280-odd votes from the writers. I know I didn't have 280-odd close friends among the writers. I know they voted for me because they felt in their minds, and some in their hearts, that I rated it, and I want to say to them, 'Thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart....' Baseball gives every American boy a chance to excel, not just to be as good as someone else, but to be better. This is the nature of man and the name of the game, and I've been a very lucky guy to have worn a baseball uniform, to have struck out or to hit a tape-measure home run. And I hope that someday the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in some way can be added as a symbol of the great Negro players who are not here only because they were not given a chance...."

Williams's call for the recognition of the Negro league players was a major contributing factor in the admission of those stars to the Hall of Fame in ensuing years. But in the summers that followed his own admission, Williams chose to stay away from Cooperstown and didn't return until 1980, when he came back to make the induction speech for Tom Yawkey, former owner of the Red Sox. True to form, in his speech that year the ever blunt Williams took time out to chastise the writers for making Duke Snider wait 10 years to enter the Hall. But, also true to form, he was generous in his praise of the other Hall of Famers. When someone snapped a picture of him with Earl Averill that weekend, Williams said, "Two pretty good hitters right here." Averill, whose career was ending just as Williams's was beginning, smiled like a 12-year-old at being included in such company. He died three years later at the age of 81.

At last year's induction ceremonies for Willie Stargell, Williams received the biggest ovation from the crowd, and deservedly so. Even after he was introduced, he was all over the stage, seeing to it that the older Hall of Famers like Bell and Happy Chandler were sitting comfortably. Williams remains active in the affairs of the Hall of Fame even in the off-season, working on the veterans' committee. "Ted's caught the bug," says Edward Stack, the president of the Hall of Fame, "and I think it's wonderful. It's wonderful to have a man of his stature—and I would rank only Ruth above him—care so much about the Hall of Fame." Williams has even offered to contact all the living Hall of Famers, urging them to come to the induction ceremonies for this 50th year. The clearest message he could send would be this: If Ted Williams is willing to brave the crowds, then you can brave them too.

Williams recently talked about his change of heart. "After I was inducted, I guess I just didn't want to be bothered," he said. "I didn't want to have to put up with the press or the public—I was uncomfortable with it all. But that was a mistake, and I realize that now. It's such a wonderful, memorable weekend. Bill Terry, for whom I had great admiration, would chew my ass out for years about coming back to Cooperstown. When Mrs. Yawkey asked me to come back to make the speech for her husband, well, I felt so strongly about Mr. Yawkey that I couldn't refuse. And then, Mrs. Yawkey, who's the first woman ever to serve on the Hall of Fame board of directors, made me promise to come back every year.

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