This weekend I had the honor of taking my son to Cooperstown, NY to see hoopla surrounding the inductions of Tony Gwyn and Cal Ripken Jr. For those who have never been to Cooperstown, much less during an induction weekend, it is a small main street town like many you find scattered through NH. This weekend however it turned into a major city with estimates of 50,000 to 100,000 people.
This was the second time I've taken my son to an induction weekend (last year being the first) and the um-teenth time I've been to one. One of the great things about making the trip out for induction weekend is that you have the opportunity to meet real ball players and for children such as my 5 year old son you meet heroes who you can look up to forever.
This year my son wanted more then anything to meet Ozzie Smith. He had seen pictures of him doing back flips and decided that Ozzie was one of the coolest baseball players ever. We walked up and down the strip and sure enough Ozzie was signing at one of the shops.
After a long wait my son had the chance to run up to Ozzie Smith with a baseball in hand to get the autograph. Ozzie was great. My son beaming with excitement asked him if he could still do the back flips and Ozzie laughed saying not like he used to but then he took the time to engage with my son, asking him if he plays ball and which players he likes. Last year my son has a similar experience meeting Don Sutton who had him come around the table and sit on his lap for a photo together.
The couple minutes each of these ball players took with my son formed memories which will last him a life time and created heroes he can look up to and aspire to be.
Having gone to inductions since I was young with my dad (and now my son) I had a chance to meet some of my heroes of the game and I likewise had a chance to meet people who earned the status of hero who I never knew before.
Having grown up in NY I am a huge Yankee fan so meeting greats like Mickey Mantle, Joe Dimagio, Billy Marten, Reggie Jackson, Whitey Ford, Don Larson and others were exciting moments in my life but it was players I wouldn't normally think of who created the true memories for me.
One such group of heroes was meeting four former players of the Rockford Peaches, the women's team featured in "A League of Their Own." I thought it would be cool to get their autographs so I purchased the tickets and brought a woman's league ball up for them to sign. There was no line so they took the time to meet with each person who came up to them. I recall them insisting I come behind the table and get my wife to take a picture with them which I gladly did. While we were standing there one of the women reached over and gave a firm squeeze on my butt then whispered something about me being a cutie. We all had a good laugh and I had a brief conversation with them about women's baseball and heard their reflections on how they were portrayed in the movie.
While they were enjoyable to meet I have to say there was one other ball player who set himself far beyond anyone else I've ever had the honor of meeting. Buck O'Neil. For those of you unfamiliar with who he is all I can say is he was one of the most amazing people I have ever had the pleasure to speak with. Buck played for the Negro Leagues so he was never looked up to the way someone like Cal Ripken Jr would have been, nor was he ever compensated the way many of the players of today ever were. But Buck was ever bit the legend these other players were. Prior to his death last year he went played in a minor league game setting the record as the oldest player ever. He was considered by the veterans committee for admission into the Hall of Fame and fell only one single vote short of being inducted. But it wasn't his accomplishments or near accomplishments that I consider the greatest things about Buck O'Neil. It was Buck the person. Since he wasn't a very well known player compared to others signing along the strip he sat at a table waiting for someone to purchase the ticket for his autograph alone. I saw him sitting there and struck up a conversation with him about him and playing in the Negro Leagues. My wife meanwhile went over and purchased a ticket for me to get him to sign a ball. While I was talking to him a small child came up with a ball and ticket. Buck smiled and then put on a fake stern face telling the child he wouldn't sign the ball. The kid asked why and he said he'd need him to do something for him first. Directing the child to walk a couple feet away from the table, Buck then tossed the ball to him and asked him to toss it back. The child did not really understanding why. Buck then smiled and told the kid that now the ball would mean something as it was the very same ball he actually played pitch and catch with Buck O'Neil with. The child laughed but walked away looking at the ball with delight. Buck then smiled at me and said he'd pitch a little with me too if I wanted.
In walking the strip in Cooperstown and seeing many of these players it also created life lessons which I hope my son will cherish forever. While Buck isn't alive for my son to meet, he has meet some of the surviving Negro League players and the women's league. And in meeting them he's had the opportunity to hear their stories about racism keeping them from the game. And while at his age he's more interested in hearing about back flips that Ozzie Smith can do, I hope he too like myself learns to respect those who have had to work twice as harm to over come obstacles in their life to achieve what they have in their lives.
But along with heroes of the game there are cheaters and villain which I will address in part 2 of this article.