It’s official! No new inductees this year into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.
That piece of good news will fittingly leave this summer’s induction ceremony to Derek Jeter (and some guy from Canada that played for Colorado, I think…) as we begin to restore order to the world of sports following the havoc wrought by the Coronavirus.
The news that no new inductees will be added to The Hall is welcome here at SportsAttic (and not just because our wannabe ballot submitted months back included ZERO names, although we do love nothing more than being vindicated), where annually we rail against those voters who insist on watering down the hallowed HOF by sending in the maximum ten names allowed come hell or high water (hello, Ken Davidoff of the New York Post).
Sitting here in January of 2021, it feels absolutely right that we move away from squabbles over Curt Schilling, and whether an abominable human being should or shouldn’t be enshrined. No more fighting over the desecration of the record books at the hands of the steroid cheats, and whether such scumbaggery should be overlooked in the interest of getting Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens their oversized bronze busts.
Because times are tough in Cooperstown these days, and if there were flags at The Hall, they’d be flying at half mast.
Over the course of the last year, the baseball Hall of Fame has bid adieu to nine members of fine standing. Superstars that those of us of a certain age grew up idolizing. A critical part of the fabric that weaved together a lifetime of passion for bats and balls, green grass, and the smack of horsehide on leather. Passion that runs deep to this day, as evidenced by how seriously many of us baseball fans take things such as Hall of Fame vote counts.
So today we take advantage of this lull in ballot vitriol to pay tribute to those Hall of Fame heroes who’ve passed on since the beginning of 2020.
Be warned, for this is a personal journey through some of my own fondest memories, because that’s really what the Hall of Fame represents to baseball fans. Memories of a time more innocent and less complicated. When we lived and died by the standings, arguing fervently over who would be appearing on Kiner’s Korner that night, laser focused on reciting numbers from the backs of small pieces of cardboard, as though such factoids would forever remain the most critical pieces of information known to man.
Let’s join hands in a moment of silence for:
Henry Aaron — This most recent departure of the man who will always be my true Home Run King, may have cut deepest. Hank Aaron transcended the baseball diamond, his talent, achievement and ability to rise above hate and racism setting an aspirational example for how the world might one day be approached by us all. I was eight years old and living in a suburb of Los Angeles the day Aaron vaulted beyond the immortal Babe Ruth’s 714 round-trippers. Lefty Al Downing* was on the mound for L.A. (Downing also happens to be the answer to one of my favorite baseball trivia questions — see below). Cue to the familiar wrist snap of Hank’s smooth, righty swing. No need back then for the all-or-nothing uppercut so prevalent today, to say nothing of exit velocities, thank you very much. And there was Billy Buckner (who 12 seasons later would deliver the greatest moment of my baseball fan life) scaling the wall in left to no avail. Those two fans running up alongside Aaron as he rounded second, momentarily scaring the heck out of a nation, until we realized they were just there to celebrate like the rest of us, albeit a lot more recklessly. Hank telling us he was just glad it was over after he’d crossed the plate with history on his shoulders. The story of all he endured as he approached Ruth’s record is even more poignant today, and his death last week gave Henry Aaron one more opportunity to send a message to the world about what true class and dignity looks like, at a time when we all could use just such a refresher.
Lou Brock — Nothing against Rickey Henderson, who is also a most deserving Hall of Famer, but because of the time in my life when Lou Brock took his leads off of first base, he remains, in my mind anyway, the greatest base stealer of them all. Back in the summer of 1974, when Brock obliterated Maury Wills’ MLB record with his 118 thefts, it seemed unfathomable to me that such a preposterous total could ever be bested. Brock was the real deal beyond just the base paths, too. He could field, hit, and hit for power, and to this day I’m stunned when his name is occasionally raised as someone undeserving of being in The Hall. In addition to staggering all-time stats, hundreds of stolen bases, and 3000-hit club membership, Brock also contributes to wonderful baseball lore every time the topic of most lopsided baseball trades of all time comes up (Ernie Broglio, kids). Plus, he was the catalyst for two World Series winners, and was a mentor to young Keith Hernandez. Nuff said.
Whitey Ford — In my humble opinion, the two greatest baseball teams of all time were the 1927 Yankees, followed by the 1961 Yankees. And it’a s close one. Mantle and Maris get most of the attention as history looks back on that ’61 team, but somebody had to pitch, too. Enter the Chairman of the Board. Take a look at Whitey Ford’s stats in support of the M&M Boys that season. He went 25-4 and led the league in innings pitched, starting 39 games for the champs. He was the Bombers undisputed ace for nearly two decades, taking the ball in eleven World Series. Unreal. But by the time I came along, none of that mattered. Because Whitey was the guy on the mound every year for Old Timers Day in the Bronx. Usually opposed by Satchel Paige and a squad made up of opposing old time stars, my memory is of Whitey still looking free and easy grooving batting practice heaters with that huge smile on his face. And he always took home the “W” in those Old Timers Day matchups, too, often supported by a homer from his old drinking buddy, The Mick.
Bob Gibson — As a Mets fan who started paying attention to baseball in the early-’70’s, Bob Gibson was the enemy, but an enemy who earned our respect and fear with his talent and dogged competitiveness. Somehow, my most vivid Gibson memory from all those days ago was a commercial spot he did about treating asthma. The idea that this giant of the diamond suffered from asthma and had to take medication for it, somehow made him more human and the game more approachable to me. An indelible imprint that highlights the power of advertising, and it remains with me to this day. And if the asthma story isn’t enough, then just spend a little time thinking about that 1.12 ERA in 1968. And while you’re at it, please tell me how Gibson actually managed to lose nine games that year?
Al Kaline — Mr. Tiger only made the playoffs once while I was watching back in the ’70’s, when Detroit lost in the ALCS to the A’s in 1972. It was a close, three games to two series (Kaline looked like he’d be the hero in Game 1, homering off Rollie Fingers in the top of the 11th to give the Tigers a 2-1 lead, only to see the A’s come back with two in the bottom half of the inning to pull out the win) that kick-started the Oakland dynasty. But two things always stood out for me most about Kaline’s career — first, how the back of his baseball card always reminded us Al went directly to the big leagues at the age of 18, with no stop in the minors. And second, that Kaline’s final base hit was his 3000th. For those of us who admire excellence in perfect symmetry, that was Kaline.
Joe Morgan — Simply put, Joe Morgan was the best all-around player I remember watching during those mid-’70’s years of his prime, especially during his back-to-back MVP seasons of 1975 and 1976. He literally did it all amidst that star-studded Big Red Machine lineup — hitting for average, hitting for power, stealing bases, drawing walks — but mostly it is the arm pump I harken back to, flapping away in eager anticipation while he waited for the pitcher to deliver. It is an indisputable fact that every kid my age found him or herself emulating that lefty pump at one time or another in the street or at the schoolyard, timing the opposing pitcher and considering themselves super cool, during the growing up years of the ’70’s.
Phil Niekro — The first time I saw a knuckleballer it was without question the coolest thing I’d ever seen on a baseball field. Phil Niekro of the Braves had just handcuffed my Mets and piqued my curiosity in the process. Other than one pitch that spun and John Milner deposited into the right field seats, the Mets had no chance. The knuckleball seemed almost unfair, as I watched my blue and orange clad favorites flail away in futility. Adding to my wonder was the pitcher’s unique last name that seven-year-old me found hysterical, and that in the day of blazing fastballs from Seaver and Gibson, Niekro’s knuckler just kind of floated up there. It was an unhittable pitch that, despite countless hours of practice in the backyard, I was never able to master. Unbelievably, Niekro even had a brother in the bigs, and Joe threw the knuckleball as well (slightly less effectively than big brother Phil). It was nearly too much to fathom. Thanks for the awesome memories, Knucksie.
Tom Seaver — Only the greatest to ever don the blue and orange, singularly responsible for lifting an entire franchise from laughingstocks to champions. Tom Terrific. The Franchise. Number 41. Tom and Nancy. Seaver and Koosman. Seaver versus Gibson. Or Jenkins. Or Carlton. Or Marichal.
Don Sutton — Or Sutton. Don Sutton played for a host of teams before hanging up his spikes after an incredible, 23-year career that boasted both consistency and excellence. But for me, Sutton will always be the ace of the 1970’s Los Angeles Dodgers. He was on the hill the first time I attended a game at Dodger Stadium back in 1973, and in addition to the quality start that was pretty much a standard his entire career, I remember Sutton stroking three consecutive singles up the middle, prompting my mom to suggest that perhaps the Astros should counter by stationing a fielder directly on second base (a precursor to today’s shift? Well played, mom!). Most miraculously, though, is that Sutton never took a trip to the disabled list his entire career! No missed starts? Are you kidding me? They don’t make them like Don Sutton anymore.
Superstars and deserving Hall of Famers all. And a reminder to present-day Hall of Fame voters why standards need to be upheld and admission to Cooperstown should be allowed only for the elite — those that transcend the game itself.
They will be missed.
*Name the player on the field when both of Babe Ruth’s home run records were broken?