By Ted Potrikus
Special to The Freeman’s Journal/Hometown Oneonta
[A byline note: With this as my final piece for publication in The Freeman’s Journal /Hometown Oneonta, I hope readers will indulge a first-person tour through this past weekend’s Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. I hadn’t attended an induction since 1983 when I covered the event for The Freeman’s Journal. So much has changed since then but one thing has remained constant — the unifying power of baseball. Here’s my take.]
It’s not every day that Cooperstown finds itself festooned with flags from the Dominican Republic, but on the weekend when the National Baseball Hall of Fame welcomed the island nation’s own David “Big Papi” Ortiz into its exclusive ranks, there was no mistaking the party atmosphere pervading the village.
“We’re all ‘Big Papi’ this weekend, my friend!” one gentleman told me when I asked his name. That’s all I needed to know.
He and his family and friends — some dressed in Boston Red Sox garb like thousands of others lining Main, Chestnut, and Lake streets for the July 23 parade featuring some four dozen Hall of Famers — traveled to Cooperstown from the Dominican Republic to cheer on their hero. They staked their position on the corner of Main and Chestnut; the moment Mr. Ortiz’s ride — the last in the hour-long parade — came into view — their jubilant cheers said it all about the weekend.
And what a weekend it was. Dominican pride was well on display the next afternoon, July 24, when more than 30,000 fans poured onto the Clark Sports Center field to watch as Mr. Ortiz — along with Jim Kaat, Tony Oliva, Bud Fowler, Gil Hodges, Minnie Miñoso, and Buck O’Neil joined the 333 baseball immortals already enshrined. Fans had begun setting their tents, chairs, and blankets to reserve their spaces as early as the prior Thursday; as the 1:30 p.m.
Sunday start approached, groups throughout the crowd waved their Dominican flags and kept a high-energy excitement alive despite crushing heat and humidity.
‘Big Papi’ didn’t disappoint; when his turn to speak to the crowd came, he leaned into the microphone and shouted, “COOPERSTOWN!” The crowd roared back in approval.
“You’ve opened your doors to us,” he said. “You’ve treated my family and all of us the right way. And now I want to invite all of you to my island, the Dominican Republic, for our beautiful beaches when you’re freezing up here!”
Of course, it wasn’t all about “Big Papi” — fans were there, too, to cheer on the others and be a part of an event back comfortably in its traditional July timeslot for the first time since 2019. Nearly 100 tour buses — many from Boston — lined the field on Sunday afternoon; throughout the weekend, I met visitors from Kansas City, Houston, Minneapolis, Chicago, Philadelphia, Hershey, Santo Domingo. We fell into easy conversation about not just Cooperstown, but the whole of upstate New York.
Cooperstown Mayor Ellen Tillapaugh was thrilled by it all. “It was a fantastic weekend on so many levels!” she said. “It was wonderful to again have the event in July. We received compliments on the beauty of the village and the polite visitors, and it was a perfect group of Inductees, including Cooperstown’s own Bud Fowler.”
Inductee Jim Kaat spoke fondly of his relationship with Cooperstown during a question-and-answer session with the press on the afternoon of July 23.
“I’ve been here many times,” he said, recalling how his father made the pilgrimage to Cooperstown when the Hall of Fame first opened in 1939. “My first trip here was in 1956. My college roommate was from Herkimer so I came up here with him. I still have the postcard I sent home from Cooperstown.
“I’m so impressed with the detail,” he said. “The Hall of Fame treats us like royalty. I understand how special it is to be in the Hall, to be in Cooperstown.”
That Saturday afternoon ‘press availability’ at the Clark Sports Center featured sessions with all three living members of the Class of 2022 — David Ortiz, Jim Kaat, and Tony Oliva, along with ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian, awarded this year’s Career Excellence Award from his colleagues in the Baseball Writers Association of America. Each spoke of his fondness for Cooperstown, for the team at the Baseball Hall of Fame, for their appreciation to the residents of the village and the surrounding area.
I sat next to LaVelle E. Neal III, a sports columnist from the Minneapolis Star Tribune; his paper had sent him and a colleague to cover the event welcoming the Minnesota Twins alums inducted over the weekend. As he asked David Ortiz about his thoughts on his time as a Twin, it dawned on me — all three of the living inductees were Twins alumni!
“That’s what I get for being a lifelong East Coaster,” I said to Mr. Neal as we waited for Jim Kaat to take the stage. “I just figured Ortiz was Boston, Kaat was the Yankees guy, and Tony Oliva just never made it out of Minnesota.”
He laughed and recommended I scan the village for Twins regalia. “We’re all proud of our guys,” he said.
The press availability spoke volumes; baseball greats clearly humbled by the attention, reclaiming an easy rapport with beat reporters they knew from their playing days. Mr. Ortiz and Mr. Oliva — as they would the next day in front of thousands and televised worldwide on the MLB Network — switched effortlessly from responding in English and Spanish. Later that evening, watching great after great pass by in a celebratory parade, the collective humility and pride from some of the greatest names ever to play the game, was easy to see.
My wife and I found a spot on Chestnut Street to watch the parade — not far from the turn onto Main where
thousands awaited, but far less populated. Hall of Famers and fans called back and forth with happy greetings. Tim Raines’s was one of only two cars without a placard identifying the player in tow; he took the opportunity to shout from the back of the pickup truck, “I’m Tim Raines!” he joked. “Tim Raines!” (Fellow Yankee great Mariano Rivera was the other without identification; his wide and beaming grin, though, made him instantly recognizable.) Edgar Martinez grabbed a ball a fan tossed his way, signed it, and tossed it back.
The parade was quite an event. Fans wearing Red Sox and Yankees jerseys chatted amiably; there was a palpable sense of comradery as fans debunked pundits’ insistence that baseball has lost its reign as America’s Pastime. A wave and a hello from some of the greatest ever to play the game? A genius bit of programming pulled off with typical Hall of Fame dignity.
I wrote in this newspaper in 1983 how my friend Bob Graham and I would wander freely through the Otesaga Hotel in the 1970s to collect autographs from greats like Roy Campanella, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Willie Mays. They were all there and, provided we behaved and respected all the guests, we were allowed to chase our heroes. Father John Sise would welcome Hall members of all denomination to an 8 a.m. Mass on Induction Sunday; he’d make sure to schedule me as an altar boy and invite players like Stan Musial to visit afterward and, naturally, sign his altar boy’s baseball.
Hall of Famers aren’t as readily accessible as they were 40 and 50 years ago; baseball’s prominence as a personality-driven, big money enterprise necessitates the choreography the Hall of Fame weekend demands. But Hall leadership this year found a way to thread the needle through pent-up demand for pandemic-delayed celebration, careful security, an atmosphere welcoming to all, opportunities to see “where your baseball cards come to life,” as Hall of Fame Researcher and Writer Bill Francis wrote on his Twitter page after the weekend’s festivities came to an end.
For those wanting to spend the money, Hall members and retired Major League Baseball stars signed autographs at various stores and restaurants along Main Street; the Hall of Fame’s Ambassador for Education, Cardinals legend Ozzie Smith, hosted a weekend kick-off “Play Ball” event at Doubleday Field. His work raised money for the Hall’s education program and diversity scholarship; dozens of lucky fans lined up to get personal baseball tips from the likes of Ozzie, Cal Ripken, Jr., Jim Thome, and Eddie Murray. The Hall of Famers lined up in a Doubleday Field dugout in the classic leg-on-the-top step baseball pose as participants lined up for a once-in-a-lifetime photo op. Hall staff welcomed each guest, talking baseball as they waited for their photo. Smiles all around.
Back at the induction ceremony on Sunday afternoon, I thought back to the summer of 1983 when the Hall welcomed George Kell, Walter Alston, Juan Marichel, and Brooks Robinson into its ranks. The event back then was held in Cooper Park, on the steps of the Hall of Fame Library. I’d been to at least a dozen ceremonies prior to that, but in 1983, it seemed like the whole of Baltimore had traveled north to celebrate their man Brooks. I recalled feeling badly for Messrs. Alston, Kell, and Marichel — each an indisputable great on his own, Mr. Kell a hero of my then-boss and never-quit Detroit Tigers fan, Richard Johnson.
At the time, I’d never seen so many people in Cooperstown on one occasion — the crowd estimates hovered around 20,000 and they were, literally, climbing the trees in the park for a better view of the stage. The audience listened politely to the speeches but broke into frenzied applause when it was Brooks Robinson’s turn at the microphone.
And so it was 39 years later as the tens of thousands gleefully awaited David Ortiz’s speech on July 24. The MLB Network commentators said his speech would be ‘another ‘Big Papi’ walkoff’ that would thrill the crowd. The Dominican flags notwithstanding, though, the audience eagerly listened to heartfelt speeches from Jim Kaat, from Dave Winfield, who spoke from the heart of his appreciation for and thanks to Cooperstown native Bud Fowler, from Tony Oliva, whose off-script speech touched all the bases and every heart on the field, from Gil Hodges’s daughter, from Minnie Miñoso’s widow, from Buck O’Neil’s niece. Each speech an opportunity to salute the fans and to commend Cooperstown, Hall of Fame Chair Jane Forbes Clark (“She made this experience flawless and unforgettable,” said Irene Hodges), Hall of Fame President Josh Rawitch (“His passion for the game of baseball and its history makes him so deeply respected across the sport,” said Jane Forbes Clark).
“This place here,” said Tony Oliva as he looked out onto the field, “it looks like my home in Cuba where my father built a field where we could play baseball.”
Then ‘Big Papi’ strode to the front of the stage to accept his new plaque and address his fans around the world. The walk-off dynamo MLB Network had predicted. Applause for Cooperstown, applause from Cooperstown.
Baseball cards indeed were alive throughout Cooperstown all weekend and there on the stage Sunday afternoon.
Thunderstorms held off until later that evening. And by Monday evening, the basketball courts and indoor track at the Clark Sports Center were back after turning over the weekend into a media center filled with reporters from across the nation, from the Dominican Republic, and around the world sending their dispatches back home for all to see.
When I interviewed Hall of Fame President Josh Rawitch a few weeks ago about his first year at the Hall’s helm, he looked ahead at the challenges the museum and the world of baseball face headed into the future. “We need to stay relevant for the next generation of fans,” he said. “Bridge the generations but move it forward. A part of that bridge is keeping the feeling you have when you’re walking on Main Street like you’ve stepped into a time machine.”
And that’s indeed what happened this past weekend — Mr. Rawitch’s goal of building the bridge from past to present, proof positive that baseball remains a unifying force rooted in nostalgia but pushing forward and a path to break barriers — just as Dave Winfield spoke of Bud Fowler’s determination, Tony Oliva spoke of the opportunities he grabbed along his path from Cuba to the United States, as David Ortiz spoke of his Dominican pride and his love for Boston (“Oh,” he said, “I could talk about Boston all day.”). The players, their families, their fans all felt, too, that they had stepped into a time machine.
The Hall of Fame and the Village of Cooperstown put it all on display for the thousands visiting in person and the millions more watching on television.
They’re already at work on the 2023 ceremonies; a seamless, world-class weekend doesn’t happen without meticulous planning and practice. Jane Forbes Clark announced, too, that the Fenimore Art Museum will, in 2023, host an exhibition of photographs taken by Hall of Famer (and renowned photographer) Randy Johnson to coincide with the summer’s festivities.
It was, indeed, a Hall of Fame weekend evoking celebrations from the past, but moving forward into a future where baseball breaks barriers and puts Cooperstown in the center of the sports universe.