Autographs, Laughs, and Hard Hittin’ at the HOF Classic

It wasn’t serious, hardcore baseball, but it provided the framework for an enjoyable day on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in Cooperstown. For the second straight year, a group of nearly 30 retired major leaguers entertained an announced crowd of just over 7,000 fans at historic Doubleday Field. Along the way, participants in the second annual Hall of Fame Classic supplied locals and tourists alike with good will, a few hijinks courtesy of clowned prince Jon Warden, and plenty of free autographs.

With Hall of Famers Bob Feller and Harmon “Killer” Killebrew serving as team captains for the seven-inning old-timers game, “Team Feller” clobbered “Team Killebrew,” 9-0. While the score was not close, the retired players made up for the lack of tension with unending smiles, consistently solid effort (especially considering some of their advanced ages), and a willingness to interact with fans. A few of today’s major league players could learn lessons from their predecessors’ ability to put on a good show.

No one performed better than “Hard Hittin” Mark Whiten, who can still play–at least on the old-timers’ circuit. If any brave entrepreneur decides to revive the 35-and-older Senior League concept, Whiten would likely be the first pick of the draft. After winning the pre-game hitting contest, the 43-year-old switch-hitter clubbed two home runs, made a leaping catch in deep center field, and threw out two first-inning base runners, including a stunned Bert “Campy” Campaneris at third base. I’ve sometimes wondered why Whiten didn’t achieve more than journeyman status in a career that featured stops with the Blue Jays, Indians, Cardinals, Mariners, and Yankees, among other destinations. He was a legitimate four-tool player (power, speed, arm, and fielding) with the body of a super-sized Adonis. Yet, he usually encountered fits and starts as a hitter, with his long swing making him susceptible to strikeouts and slumps. If nothing else, Whiten had one of the top six to eight outfield throwing arms I’ve ever seen, putting him in an exclusive group just behind Roberto Clemente and Downtown Ollie Brown, and somewhere with Ellis Valentine, Dave Parker, Jesse Barfield, Dwight Evans, and Ichiro Suzuki.

Of all the old-timers, Campy Campaneris looks to be in better shape than anyone. Even though he hasn‘t played a real major league game since donning the pinstripes in 1983, Campy looks only four or five pounds heavier than his playing days, if that much. He still sprays line drives and runs like a 35-year-old, which is pretty good for a guy who is almost twice that age, 68 to be exact.

Yet, the play of the day was turned in by neither Campaneris or Whiten. That came courtesy of catcher-outfielder Tim McIntosh, who was actually playing out of position at second base, a position that he never encountered in five major league seasons. On a line drive over his head, McIntosh tossed his glove in the air, and watched it re-direct the ball upward. Reacting quickly, McIntosh lunged for the ball and speared it with his bare hand. In regulation play, the thrown glove would have cost McIntosh’s team three bases, but in the spirit of an old-timers’ game, it stood as an out–and the most memorable play of the afternoon.

Fan delighted at McIntosh’s grab just as they delighted at the players’ willingness to sign autographs before and after the game. Although no formal signing sessions were announced or scheduled, my nephew Brandon’s haul serves as proof that many of the players put in significant time with pen in hand. Brandon brought home cards signed by Ozzie Smith, Phil Niekro, and Rollie Fingers, along with about a half-dozen signatures from lesser lights.

As a final footnote to the game, baseball’s reigning Methuselah, Bob Feller, threw out the ceremonial first pitch, but did not pitch in the actual game, unlike last year. It appears that at the age of 91, Feller’s pitching days have come to an end. We can forgive his decision, considering that he’s been pitching nonstop since about 1925.

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