Hall Of Fame Yearbook Keeper Of Baseball Memories All Generations Can Treasure
The following isn't a shameless plug.
25 Main Street Cooperstown, New York is the single, greatest address on Planet Earth.
For me, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is more than a collection of brick and mortar in New York's Otsego County. As far as I'm concerned, the Hall is Major League Baseball's 31st franchise. It's my home team (apologies to my beloved Syracuse and New York Mets). And, yes, I have a season ticket.
Every May the anticipation builds for me. It's the time when the Hall of Fame's annual yearbook arrives inside the museum's gift shop. As a kid growing up in Queens, New York, going to opening day for either the Yankees or Mets meant being one of the first fans to pick up a copy of either team's yearbook.
If I wasn't able to cut school with my friends, buy our bleacher seats, and soak in the excitement of a new season of hope, I could count on one of the subway newsstands having copies of the Yankees yearbook next to The Sporting News for the grabbing.
All this excitement, plus more, is how I feel when holding a copy of the Hall's yearbook. It allows me to go down memory lane of decades being around baseball's greatest of all-time. Since I first began attending induction ceremonies in 1976 as a fan, and in later years reporting on the inductions for various news outlets, I have seen the best baseball has had to offer.
So, when I travel page by page in this year's yearbook, I'm reminded of who I have "rubbed elbows" with.
Before getting to Hall's members pages, there is inviting features written by, again, the best baseball has to offer. Scott Pitoniak, who along his distinguished journalistic career worked at Utica's Observer-Dispatch and The Little Falls Evening Times, has a wonderful story on the late Marvin Miller, who will be inducted into the Hall on September 8. There's a Q & A feature on fellow hall of famer Joe Torre by Bruce Markusen. Plus, there is a great piece on Larry Walker, also of the Hall's Class of 2020, by BBWAA Career Excellence Award winner Tracy Ringolsby.
Okay, from page 52 to 134, this is where absolute fabulous memories come gushing back to me. Induction Weekend each summer, for me, is the World Series, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup Finals, and NBA Finals, wrapped into one.
Seeing the hall of famers bios, listed in alphabetical order beginning with Hank Aaron, this is where my personal time machine kicks in full throttle.
Aaron (Class of '82) has a special meaning to me. I go back to 1982, as I'm sitting in the lobby of The Otesaga Hotel in Cooperstown on a Friday, it's around 11:00 am. I have my media pass for the weekend through WLFH 1230 Radio in Little Falls, New York. I just finished a conversation with hall of famer Johnny Mize, and when the elevator door slides open, out steps Aaron.
The home run king is besieged by autograph seeks, as he makes his way to the concierge's desk. 1982 is also the first of 19 consecutive years that I will be part of the crew that ESPN hires to work their telecast (live and taped) of the induction ceremonies.
The following page, there's Sparky Anderson's (Class of '00) information. The hall of fame manager of the great "Big Red Machine" teams of the 1970's has me recall one specific detail of my time spent with him. In between takes of an interview ESPN is taping with Anderson, I ask about his childhood. Sparky responds by asking if I ever watched The Little Rascals on TV when I was a kid.
One of the main cast members of the show was Matthew "Stymie" Beard. Sparks says that he and Beard were childhood pals.
Up until 2008, two MLB teams would travel to Cooperstown each summer during Induction Weekend, and play a game at Cooperstown's Doubleday Field. One of the best perks as a member of the media was to have a few minutes time with returning hall of famers. Again, way back when, thanks to WLFH Radio and Bill Keeler, I had my tape recorder rolling to capture interviews for our pre-game show.
Earl Averill (Class of '75), who played from the late 1920's to the early 1940's with the Cleveland Indians, was one of my guests. James "Cool Papa" Bell (Class '74), a 24-season sensation in the Negro Leagues, was another who I chatted on mic with. What a sincere privilege it was to be in their presence.
Then, as I read about Ernie Banks ( Class of '77) (yes, I read the yearbook, page by page), I remember a time in the early 1980's when on the Friday of Induction Weekend, Banks is walking through the parking lot of The Otesaga Hotel. Almost instantly, when spotted, there appears to be an informal parade of autograph seekers, and Banks is scribbling his name on cards and photographs at record speed.
As a reporter, when for eight years I wrote a sports blog at uticaod.com, one of my favorite encounters with hall of famers came at the Clark Sports Center grounds. Johnny Bench (Class of '89) was one of the instructors on an early Friday morning at the Hall's annual educational fundraiser presided over by Ozzie Smith (Class of '02).
Two of the coolest stories I've had shared with me by hall of famers came from Bench. He spoke fondly and lengthy about his admiration for the late player/manager Don Zimmer. Zimmer was bench's manager while playing minor league ball in Buffalo, New York. The former Cincinnati Reds' catcher also shared a heartwarming story about the last time his former manager Sparky Anderson came to Cooperstown.
Bench and Anderson sat next to each other on a bus that would transport them from The Otesaga Hotel to the Clark Sports Center grounds on Induction Sunday. They held hands. Anderson has been battling dementia at this time. Priceless words from a giant of a man.
Who could forget, when individual hall of famers are announced to the thousands of fans who travel from all corners of North America (and elsewhere), and the reception they receive? Umpire Jocko Conlon (Class of '74), would also flash a "safe" sign, when greeting his public - which always received a "pop" from the crowd.
The great New York Yankee catcher Bill Dickey (Class of '54) is another baseball legend I had the pleasure to meet, and chat with - while at Doubleday Field. Could it get any better? Each year I comb through the Hall's yearbook, and see Dickey's profile, and I go back to a sun-drenched Monday during Induction Weekend. I see Mr. Dickey, and I'm in eternal awe.
Once, I saw Leo Durocher (Class of '94) walking along Main Street in Cooperstown heading straight for the CVS Pharmacy. No one could hide while in Cooperstown. Not even Leo the Lip. Mack Robinson, Jackie Robinson's brother, also paid a visit to the CVS that same weekend.
When I see Willie McCovey's (Class of '86) bio on page 102 in the Hall's yearbook, I think of the late, great St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood. For this Induction Weekend, Flood made the trip from the west coast in support of his friend. As I was taking a break from my ESPN duties, while sitting on a bench outside the Hall, Flood (totally unrecognized by fans) took photographs of the front of the museum.
Then, there's a special Sunday morning (Induction Day) for me involving Make Piazza (Class of '16). It's 7:00 am, and who do I see but the former catching great who starred for parts of eight seasons with the New York Mets. He began his walk from The Otesaga Hotel, through the Village of Cooperstown, with St. Mary's Catholic Church on Elm Street his destination for an early morning mass.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame And Museum Yearbook 2021 is more than a fan's guide to understanding the game's greatest names, it keeps your memories and innocence of a simpler time in life - alive and strong.
Don Laible is a freelance sportswriter living in the Mohawk Valley. He has reported on professional baseball and hockey for print, radio, and on the web since the 1980's. His columns are featured weekly at WIBX950.com. Don can be contacted via email at Don@icechipsdiamonddust.com.