Cooperstown Confidential: Saying OK to the Old-Timersby Bruce Markusen
June 25, 2010
I’m just going to come out and say it: I love the Hall of Fame Classic. Absolutely love it. I know that there exists a body of fans that has little patience or desire for old-timers games. I’ve heard the arguments, specifically the idea that it’s sad to watch an over-the-hill ballplayer with declining physical skills stumble and bumble around the field. In some ways, it’s a pertinent argument, but in reality, it does not apply to the annual exhibition game put on by the Hall of Fame and the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association last Sunday in Cooperstown.
First, the retired players who took part in the second annual Classic did not embarrass themselves. No one fell down or hurt himself in the process of trying to make a play or run the bases. Most of the pitchers consistently reached home plate, keeping bounced balls to a minimum. And there were some good swings, from some of the younger old timers like Jeff Kent and Mark Whiten to some of the older folk, particularly the 68-year-old Bert Campaneris. In better shape than most men 30 years his junior, Campy can still swing the bat and run the bases with the ferocity of your typical 35-year-old. If Campy is even five pounds above his playing weight, I’ll be shocked.
Yet, the argument in favor of old-timers games like the Classic goes far beyond the quality of the play on the field. Obviously, the retired stars do not provide serious, hardcore baseball. If you’re looking solely for that quality, you’re in the wrong ballpark. But if you’re willing to understand that old-timers games are meant to provide a more wide-ranging entertaining package, you’re in luck. The pre-game introductions alone supply a good return on the very reasonably priced tickets, which cost either $12.50 or $11. As with many fans who appreciate the game’s history, I always get a kick from hearing about a player’s list of accomplishments and then seeing him saunter onto the field wearing the old uniform colors. It’s especially nice to see players that I have literally not seen once since they retired 10, 20, or 30 years ago.
The efforts of the old-timers also provided a solid framework for a thoroughly enjoyable Father’s Day afternoon in Cooperstown. Hall of Famers Bob Feller and Harmon “Killer” Killebrew served as team captains for the seven-inning game, which was won handily by “The Fellers,” 9-0. The forfeit-like score was obviously not close, but the old-timers made up for the lack of tension and the absence of a winning-at-all-cost attitude with other attributes. Aside from baseball’s new clowned prince, Jon Warden (whose intentions are infinitely more comical than they are serious) the veterans put forth a consistently solid effort, especially considering that many of them are in their fifties and sixties. They also showed a willingness to interact with the paying customers, by both playing to the crowd and taking time to talk to some of the front-row fans. In terms of putting on a good show, the old-timers excelled. A few of today’s major league players could learn lessons from their predecessors’ ability to put on a good, theatrical presentation.
The retired players also did well in satisfying the needs of fans who have an incessant desire for autographs. Although no formal autographs sessions were planned or announced, almost every player took time before, during, or after the game to sign their names to baseballs, cards, and other memorabilia. As just one example, my young nephew Brandon came home with a truckload of free signatures, from Hall of Famers Ozzie Smith, Phil Niekro, and Rollie Fingers to non-Cooperstownians like Kent (who will be eligible for the Hall in three years), Paul “Motormouth” Blair, and Bill “Mad Dog” Madlock. The value of all those autographs would add up to several hundred dollars, but for youngsters like Brandon, they came with no strings attached.
If there was one drawback to the impromptu signings, it was the pre-game signing down the third base line that blocked the entrance to some of the seats. A long line developed in front of the third-base entrance to the grandstand, resulting in some fans arriving late for the pre-game hitting contest. But given the tradeoff of a longer wait for free signatures, most autograph-seeking fans will take the exchange. And perhaps next year, the players will sign in a different area, thereby not clogging up one of the few entrances to aging Doubleday Field.
All in all, a full afternoon of baseball, nostalgia, and slapstick provided plenty of bullet points worthy of conversation and commentary. So here are a few additional notes from the second Hall of Fame Classic.
*This year’s event drew almost identical numbers to last year’s inaugural game. A paid crowd of 7,006 was announced at Doubleday Field, 63 fans short of last year’s total. Frankly, I thought the crowd was larger—I noticed empty seats in only the center- and right-field bleachers—but there would have been no reason for the Hall of Fame or the alumni association to short-sheet the turnstile count. Such numbers leave the Hall of Fame about 3,000 shy of filling Doubleday Field, so there remains a challenge in trying to match the popularity of the now-defunct Hall of Fame Game. So what can be done to fill the gap? One of the event organizers told me that a key to improving the attendance could be bringing in a former Yankee from the Joe Torre dynasty, specifically someone like Paul O’Neill. I might also suggest Bernie Williams, or perhaps even Tino Martinez. Any of those three would be a major draw in the Cooperstown area, which remains Yankee country first and foremost, followed by allegiances to the Mets and Red Sox.
*In terms of on-field performance, Mark Whiten shone above and beyond the other 27 retired players. “Hard Hittin” Whiten looked like he was making a late bid to revive his career in an independent league. At 43 years of age, the retired right fielder with a sculpted body can still play the game—at least on the level of the old-timers’ circuit. If anyone is interested in reviving the concept of the Senior League, he or she will want to sign up Whiten fast. After winning the pre-game hitting contest over the favored Kent, the switch-hitting Whiten clubbed two home runs, made a leaping grab in the unaccustomed position of center field, and threw out two first-inning baserunners. He nailed Campy Campaneris trying to go first to third on a single, negating Campy’s nifty slide that produced a thick cloud of dirt over the third-base bag. Whiten’s performance reminded me of the kind of single-game efforts he occasionally put up during his career, highlighted by his four-home run achievement with the Cardinals. Whiten had four of the five tools (power, speed, glove, and a cannon arm), but his career became a series of fits and starts. He tended to fall into prolonged slumps, which were usually accompanied by waves of strikeouts. As a result, Whiten bounced from the Blue Jays to the Indians to the Red Sox to the Cardinals to the Mariners, before making a stopover with the Yankees on his way back to Cleveland.
Whiten’s throwing arm remains top notch, though obviously not as strong as it was during his major league heyday. At his best, Whiten possessed one of the great outfield arms in recent history, somewhere in the top eight or nine of players I’ve been watching since about 1970. There’s Roberto Clemente and Downtown Ollie Brown at the top, followed by a group that includes Ellis Valentine, Dwight “Dewey” Evans, Dave Parker, Jesse Barfield, and Ichiro Suzuki. You can probably throw a young Vladimir Guerrero into the mix, too. The point is this: Whiten deserves to be included in this exclusive group of great throwers.
*As well as Whiten played, the single most memorable play of the day was turned in by journeyman catcher-outfielder Tim McIntosh. (He was a member of the 1996 world champion Yankees, albeit briefly.) Playing out of position at second base, a foreign place during his five-year career in the major leagues, McIntosh used some illegal ingenuity to record an unusual out. On a line drive over his head, McIntosh tossed his glove into the air, and watched it re-direct the ball upward. Reacting quickly, McIntosh lunged for the ball and slyly speared it with his bare hand. In Organized Ball, the thrown glove would have given the opposition three bases, but in the spirit of an old-timers’ game, it was considered the final out of the inning. Not bad for a former catcher-turned-middle infielder.
*Former Tigers left hander Jon Warden remains one of the game’s legitimately funny men, along with possessing one of its most affable personalities. Some clownish types have a tendency of going over the top (a la Joe DeVola), but Warden seems to know where to draw the line. With his collection of colored wigs, squirt guns, and self-deprecating one-liners, he provides an intriguing blend of Joe Garagiola and the late Max Patkin, combining verbal humor with just the right dose of physical comedy. He’s become a must-have attraction at just about every event that is run by the alumni association. And for what it’s worth, he nailed me with the squirt gun as I walked through the press area at Doubleday Field.
*The pitching career of Bob Feller appears to have ended, finally. “Rapid Robert” threw out the ceremonial first pitch but opted not to take the mound during the game itself, which he had done to the amazement of observers in 2009. I can’t blame Feller for taking the day off from pitching, considering that he’s now 91 years of age and has been throwing fastballs since the 1920s. Feller has his share of critics because of his conservative political beliefs and his tendency to put down contemporary players, but the man deserves credit for his incessant efforts to promote baseball. Despite his age, he travels to Cooperstown as frequently as any Hall of Famer. And the fans have taken note of his legacy, as they rewarded him with the loudest ovation during pre-game introductions. A few minutes later, Feller took to the microphone and emotionally thanked the fans for their support of the players over the years. It was a nice touch and a fitting sendoff to pre-game festivities.
*If there’s one thing that I’d like to see change with the Hall of Fame Classic, it’s the choice of uniforms. The old timers tend to wear their teams’ contemporary uniforms rather than the style that they once played in. I’d much rather see the throwback uniforms that fit the player’s era. For example, Campaneris and Fingers should be wearing the “Kelly green” and “California gold” of the Charlie Finley era, not the present-day Oakland uniform that features an elephant on the sleeve. Similarly, Phil Niekro should be wearing one of the Braves’ myriad uniform styles from the sixties, seventies, or eighties, rather than the solid blue jersey the team often wears today. It’s a minor point, but it would give the Classic—and its participants—a bit more authenticity.
All things considered, the 28 retired players managed to give the fans in attendance a well-rounded afternoon of family entertainment. It all happened at an inexpensive price, which is much appreciated given the state of the upstate New York economy. As an added bonus, I had the pleasure of interviewing four gentlemen of the game: pitchers Niekro, Warden, Dennis Rasmussen, and Fred Cambria.
I’m already looking forward to the third Hall of Fame Classic.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.