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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.
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 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...."
Williams's call 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.
Williams 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 made me promise to come back every year."
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.
Altogether the 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."