MY ANNUAL JAUNT to various baseball parks around the country took a detour this summer to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
As it turned out, the week of the Hall of Fame inductions provided an interesting contrast between the hallowed halls of the spectacular museum and the former stars who set up tables on Cooperstown’s Main Street to play the part of two-bit hucksters.
When a longtime Columbia friend, John Baker, arranged an after-dinner meeting with Hall of Fame pitcher and gentleman Phil Niekro on the famous back porch of The Otesaga Resort Hotel, there was little doubt about the highlight of the excursion to upstate New York.
Then, when I happened upon former disgraced Atlanta pitcher John Rocker peddling his autograph for $20 a signature on Main Street while attempting to sell T-shirts that read “Speak English,” there was little doubt about the low point.
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Having made a one-day visit to the Hall of Fame Museum 34 years ago, I vowed then that any return trip would need at least an extra day to fully appreciate and soak in all of its relics and memorabilia.
The crown jewel of the three-story building is the hall of plaques. Each of the 306 elected members of the Hall of Fame is recognized with a plaque that hangs in order of the year of his induction. So, while my son, Luke, headed directly to Roberto Clemente’s shrine, I initially sought out those of Tom Seaver and Enos Slaughter.
Seaver was my boyhood idol as a pitcher, and remains the only New York Met enshrined in Cooperstown. I happened to be the only person with Slaughter in Roxboro, N.C., in 1985 when he received the long-awaited telephone call to inform him he was going into the Hall of Fame. What was a glorious occasion for Slaughter was equally sad when he did not receive another call of congratulations that afternoon, even from family.
A particularly interesting exhibit of baseball art work was on display during our visit. One piece that stood out in the collection recently was donated to the Hall of Fame by the aforementioned Baker, a collector of baseball memorabilia. The framed mosaic of Niekro’s No. 35 Atlanta jersey is composed entirely of cut-up pieces of boxscores and baseball cards of Niekro’s teammates during his illustrious career.
As we stood in admiration of the work, a woman approached my son and asked if he could help locate a card of her son in the mosaic. She was Linda Maddux, whose son, Greg, was three days from induction into the Hall of Fame.
Later on, we discovered a kiosk where the touch of the video screen displayed amateur scouting reports of many Hall of Famers. The baseball scout Bill Maughn wrote in 1959 of a 19-year-old right-handed pitcher out of Bridgeport, Ohio: “Backward from small town. ... Best pitcher in United Mine Workers League 1958. Has a chance.”
Maughn was impressed by Phil Niekro enough to offer him a $275-a-month salary to play professional baseball. Niekro, during our after-dinner meeting at The Otesaga, said his father initially balked at the offer, then agreed to $500 a month, which was more than he ever made working in the mines, for his son.
Niekro retired following the 1987 season at age 48 with 318 wins to rank 16th all-time. Even though Niekro frequently has sit-down talks with friends and fans, he was as gracious as ever in re-telling stories of his career and offering insights into the game he so dearly loves.
He, of course, showed us how he gripped the knuckleball that baffled opposing hitters for more than two decades. He shook his head at the idea that six innings today constitutes a quality start for a pitcher, saying he expected to pitch nine innings every time he took the mound. He counted 245 complete games among his 716 starts in the big leagues.
That was the last we saw of Niekro in Cooperstown. We returned to walk Main Street and spotted the likes of Hall of Famers Wade Boggs, Rickey Henderson, Orlando Cepeda, Gaylord Perry, Juan Marichal and Rollie Fingers. Most autographs were going for $40 each, although a private meeting and autograph from non-Hall of Famer Pete Rose in the back room of the Safe at Home store cost $60.
Other non-Hall of Famers on the street included Frank “Hondo” Howard of Washington Senators fame, and the “other” Frank Thomas, the one who played primarily for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1950s, not the one who was inducted into the Hall of Fame this year.
There, too, was Rocker. Just as we learned earlier that Niekro, who said he would never stoop to signing autographs for charge on the street, has remained classy long beyond his playing career, we also learned that some, like the 39-year-old Rocker, never have known much about class.