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, the 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.
Tom Heitz, the
Hall's head librarian, gets very little sleep on the annual weekend because
he's in charge of those autograph seekers who line up 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 has become sort of the patron saint of Cooperstown, which seems
fitting because his first year in the majors, 1939, was also the Hall's rookie
year. Signs of Williams are everywhere in the museum. A wooden statue, a dead
ringer for the Splinter, 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.
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 his
induction ceremony. "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...."
for the recognition of the Negro leagues 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.
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 made me promise to come back every
It would be
unrealistic to expect every Hall of Famer to feel so strongly about
Cooperstown, but some have failed to get the message at all. One, who shall go
nameless, once complained that there was no diamond in the ring given to
enshrinees. Some, to borrow a phrase from Take Me Out, don't seem to care if
they never get back.
When the annual
party has ended and the throngs have departed Cooperstown, the village returns
to its rural calm, and the Hall of Fame returns to normal working hours. The
museum is open 362 days a year--it's dark on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New
Year's--and no matter how many times you visit, you can always find something
new. The catcher's mitt of the man who coined the phrase "tools of
ignorance," Muddy Ruel. Something from Tinker, something from Evers and
something from Chance. The pitching rubber from Allie Reynolds's second
no-hitter of the 1951 season, signed by both teams. There's a surprising number
of famous "borrowed" tools: Mantle, for example, used a Loren Babe
autograph model bat to hit his 565-foot homer, and Dave McNally hit his World
Series grand slam with a Curtell Motton bat. And it's remarkable how many
ordinary players are represented in Cooperstown; on display is the bat that
produced a rookie record hitting streak by, yes, Mike Vail.
museum has some 6,000 artifacts on display and many more in storage. The
Doubleday ball is one of the few that the museum paid for. Last year gifts
ranged from Red Murray's 1911 New York Giants World Series uniform--along with
his shoes, glove and cap--to the jersey that Hershiser wore in the final game
of the '88 Series. After the last out of the Series the Hall's associate
director, Bill Guilfoile, approached Hershiser and politely asked him if he
might have some appropriate memento. Hershiser promptly whipped off his uniform
shirt soaked with sweat and champagne; Guilfoile put it in a plastic bag and
gave it to curator Ted Spencer a few days later. "I opened the bag and out
came this awful odor," says Spencer. "I never smelled anything like
it." Spencer took the shirt home, washed it and threw it into the dryer.
"It went into the dryer a size 44 and came out a size 36," he says.
"Actually, that made it much easier to display."