Even after living here for a dozen years, it still amazes me that for three days each summer our small, sleepy town of 2,200 fulltime residents becomes the focal point of the baseball cosmos. Once again, Hall of Fame Weekend has arrived in Cooperstown, New York.
If all goes according to plan, the Hall of Fame will set a record this weekend when 54 living Hall of Famers gather in Cooperstown for the annual induction extravaganza. That number would narrowly eclipse last year’s mark of 53 Hall of Famers. Originally, the Hall was expecting 52 to attend, but Cal Ripken, Jr. and Ernie Banks made last-minute decisions to travel to Cooperstown. (By the way, there is actually a player in the local New York-Penn League named Ernie Banks!) The group of returnees also includes Tony Gwynn, who joined Ripken in forming that memorable Hall of Fame Class of 2007. A note of caution about the list of Hall of Famers: While the Hall likes to boast about the number of returning greats coming to town, there is little opportunity for most fans to enjoy quality "face time" with any of them, unless they plan on buying tickets to one of the many paid autograph sessions. Then again, you never know which former ballplayer you might run into during a late-night stop at The Pit, The Pratt, or The Bold Dragoon.
Of the Hall of Famers who are scheduled to arrive, there are seven former Yankees on the docket. They include Yogi Berra, Wade Boggs, Whitey Ford, Reggie Jackson, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry (who’s never remembered for his half-season in pinstripes) and Dave Winfield, who arrived in town on Tuesday night, sooner than anybody else. That list, of course, does not include this year’s inductee, Goose Gossage, who headlines a Class of 2008 that also features Dick Williams (who almost became a Yankee, if not for interference run by Charles O. Finley).
How about the no-shows? Those Hall of Famers who will not be coming to Cooperstown include Hank Aaron (who doesn’t often attend inductions because of his love/hate relationship with the Hall), Rod Carew (for reasons unknown), Stan Musial (who has eliminated most of his public appearances because of health concerns), Nolan Ryan (he never attends), and Carl Yastrzemski (noted for being an extreme recluse).
While most of the 15 to 20,000 fans traveling to Cooperstown this weekend will concentrate their efforts on the 54 Hall of Famers and the two new living inductees, I find the list of non-Hall of Famers coming to town more intriguing. Former Yankee Mickey Rivers will be signing autographs on Saturday afternoon at the Main Street CVS Pharmacy, where my wife Sue works as a pharmacy technician. When I asked her to approach the CVS manager about the possibility of me doing an interview with "Mick the Quick," she responded, "Don’t you dare. He’s here to sign, not to do interviews with you." Somehow, I think the response would have been different if a former Red Sock were appearing.
With or without cooperation, I’ll hopefully have a chance to talk to "Gozzlehead." Of course, I might need an interpreter, since Mickey tends to talk fast and loose. (Oh, if only Bucky Dent would make an appearance; that would really upset my wife.) Also signing at CVS will be the gentlemanly Bobby Shantz, who’s best remembered as the ace of the Philadelphia A’s, but pitched four seasons for the Yankees from 1957 to 1960. Bobby doesn’t like to do interviews, mostly because of a fear of public speaking, but he’s a friendly guy who’s good to converse with on an informal basis.
Two other former Yankees will be signing at TJ’s Place, a popular restaurant located further up the road on Main Street. Graig Nettles, who’s becoming a regular on Hall of Fame Weekend, will make an appearance at TJ’s, as will Paul Blair. It’s fitting that both "Puff" and "Motormouth" will sign at the same location, since they were just about the best defenders at their positions, third base and center field respectively, during the 1970s. I’m sure I’ll get an argument on Nettles from supporters of Brooks Robinson, but I will continue to insist that Blair’s mastery of center field made him second to none at the position. (And that includes Willie Mays, who after much haggling back and forth, has agreed to sign at Mickey’s Place, located on the corner of Main and Pioneer streets.)
In addition to Blair and Nettles, Mudcat Grant is scheduled to sign at TJ’s over the weekend. One of the most delightful people in the game, Mudcat maintains an incredible travel schedule that sees him make frequent trips from of his Los Angeles home. He’s become a Cooperstown regular over the years, sometimes performing as a nightclub singer at local establishments in the area. A talented vocalist, Mudcat once performed as the lead singer of the group, "Mudcat and the Kittens." Grant can do it all—pitch, sing, and write books. An amazing man, he’s sort of a younger version of Buck O’Neil.
There is no establishment in Cooperstown that features as many signings as the Tunnicliff Inn, located on Pioneer Street. The Inn has arranged for a cache of former major leaguers to appear, including the troubled trio of Steve Garvey, Dwight Gooden, and Denny McLain. (Perhaps they should keep those three separated.) On the less controversial side, the gentlemanly Ralph Branca will also be signing at the Inn. One year, the multitalented Branca actually sang the National Anthem at the induction ceremony.
While the art of spotting baseball celebrities in Cooperstown remains my favorite pastime during Hall of Fame Weekend, this year’s induction carries special meaning to me because of the long overdue recognition of The Goose. Though he pitched for seemingly dozens of teams, Gossage will be remembered first and foremost as a Yankee. His contributions to the 1978 world championship, including his save of the tie-breaking game with Boston, highlighted a tumultuous six-year run in the Bronx. The current-day Yankees plan on honoring Gossage with a small presence in Cooperstown this weekend. Part owner Hal Steinbrenner and GM Brian Cashman are both on the guest list for the weekend. ("The Boss, once called "The Fat Man" by an angry Gossage, is not expected to attend because of the limits on his public appearances.) I doubt I’ll get close enough to Cashman to give him some of my trade suggestions, like Chris Britton for Ramon Hernandez, but I’ll be thinking mostly of Goose and those Yankee teams of the late seventies and early eighties.
That brings me to my final note for the weekend. I’m looking forward to hearing Goose’s speech, in part because he pulls no punches and is liable to say just about anything. I just hope that Gossage brings a rag filled with pine tar to the podium and smears it right onto George Brett’s face. That, folks, would make the weekend complete.