For the Hall of Fame’s New Class, Timing Was Everything

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — When John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil Jr. wrote his memoir, in 1996, he called it “I Was Right On Time.” It was a challenging, counterintuitive title for the life story of a man barred from playing Major League Baseball because of his skin color.

But O’Neil looked at everything through the lens of timing, his niece, Dr. Angela Terry, said Sunday at his Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony. O’Neil, the first Black coach in M.L.B. history, six decades ago with the Chicago Cubs, believed there was always good to be found — right here, right now — if only you looked for it.

“In this light, he would remind all of us that his playing career was in the Negro leagues, and that today he was being inducted into the same class as a Black baseball pioneer, Bud Fowler, and a former Negro league All-Star, Minnie Miñoso,” Terry said in her speech to a crowd of roughly 35,000 at the Clark Sports Center.

“For those of us who knew Uncle John, can’t you almost hear him excitedly voicing one of his favorite phrases: ‘Man, oh man, nothing could be better!’”

Leave it to O’Neil, a master storyteller who brought the Negro leagues to life for millions of modern fans, to come up with the perfect tagline for an imperfect afternoon headlined by David Ortiz, the slugger who led the Boston Red Sox to three championships this century.

Ortiz and Pedro Martinez were teammates with the Boston Red Sox for two seasons and now they are both members of the Baseball Hall of Fame.Credit…John Minchillo/Associated Press
O’Neil kept the memories of the Negro leagues alive with his stories and the creation of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. He died in 2006.Credit…Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
Miñoso, who was Cuban, has been cited as an inspiration to generations of players from Latin America. He died in 2015.Credit…David Banks/Associated Press

O’Neil lived into his nineties, like Miñoso, who came from Cuba to become one of the best hitters in the American League in the 1950s. But the call to Cooperstown came too late for both to enjoy it. O’Neil died in 2006 at age 94, Miñoso in 2015 at 91.

Gil Hodges, the stalwart first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers, was inducted 50 years after his death of a heart attack in 1972, at age 47, when he was at spring training managing the Mets. His widow, Joan, who is 95, watched from home in Brooklyn and his daughter, Irene, spoke for the family.

“What makes today’s recognition especially bittersweet is that Minnie faced many obstacles to arrive at this day,” Miñoso’s widow, Sharon, said in her speech. “As a dark-skinned Afro-Latino at the height of segregation, he knew of the racial and cultural challenges that he would endure coming to the United States. He tolerated them so he could play professional baseball and fulfill his own American dream. Little did he know, as a pioneer, that he was opening doors for countless others behind him.”

Tony Oliva, a three-time batting champion from Cuba for the Minnesota Twins, called Miñoso “the Jackie Robinson in America” for people from his country. Oliva, 84, was inducted nearly 46 years after his final game. His former Twins teammate, Jim Kaat, finally made it for a pitching career that stretched from 1959 through 1983.

Kaat, 83, is old enough that the major leagues were still segregated when he attended his first game, at Briggs Stadium (later known as Tiger Stadium) in Detroit in 1946, when he was 7 years old. He had made peace with his position on the outside of glory.

“I had the Hall of Fame in my rearview mirror,” Kaat said after his speech. “I wasn’t bitter about it, but I came to the conclusion that it was for dominant, opening-day guys. This might be the first time they rewarded durability and longevity.”

The flag of the Dominican Republic was a frequent sight at the induction ceremony thanks to Ortiz.Credit…John Minchillo/Associated Press

Former players are first considered by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, with 75 percent of the vote needed for election. Hodges peaked at 63.4 percent, Oliva at 47.3, Kaat at 29.6 and Miñoso at 21.1. None have been eligible on the writers’ ballot since 1999, and various committees had passed them over since.

Now, at last, their contributions will be preserved forever in the plaque gallery, which will probably need another boost from a small committee to have much of a ceremony next year. There are no compelling newcomers to the next writers’ ballot besides Carlos Beltrán, and only one returning candidate, Scott Rolen, topped 52 percent last year.

Three polarizing players ran out of eligibility on the writers’ ballot: outfielder Barry Bonds and pitcher Roger Clemens, who have ties to performance-enhancing drug use, and pitcher Curt Schilling, whose incendiary rhetoric on social media soured some on his case. They could be considered by a small committee this December, but only if a different panel puts them on the ballot.

If all that sounds a bit confusing, or perhaps convoluted, Ortiz is a surprisingly uncomplicated exception. Though, as reported by The New York Times, Ortiz’s name surfaced on a list of players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs during survey testing in 2003 — when results were supposed to be confidential — he made it to Cooperstown on the first ballot, with 77.9 percent of the vote.

Ortiz, who said he had only taken over-the-counter supplements, was all but exonerated by M.L.B. Commissioner Rob Manfred in 2016. He never served a suspension, and hit 452 of his 541 career homers in the testing era, when he won all of his championships. Ortiz was released by Minnesota in 2002 before rising to stardom with Boston.

“Even though it didn’t work out the way everybody expected,” Ortiz said in his speech, referring to the Twins, “I learned from my time there that once I get my shot in any other place, I was going to work hard to never let it go until the last day I play.”

There were plenty of Twins fans as well, there to see Kaat and Oliva, who were teammates in Minnesota in the 1960s and 1970s. Ortiz was also a Twin from 1997-2002.Credit…Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Oliva, left, and Kaat, center, were stars for the pennant-winning Twins in 1965. They fell short of a championship, losing the World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers in seven games.Credit…William Seaman/Star Tribune, via Associated Press

The first sentence of Ortiz’s plaque cites his “legendary postseason performances,” and he joins Willie Stargell and Mariano Rivera as the only Hall of Famers to be named the most valuable player in both a league championship series and a World Series.

Rivera was a guest at Ortiz’s party here on Saturday night, as was another former Yankee rival, his Fox Sports colleague Alex Rodriguez. Several of Ortiz’s former teammates also came to town, including Johnny Damon, LaTroy Hawkins, Mike Lowell, Trot Nixon, Dustin Pedroia, Tim Wakefield, Kevin Youkilis and Pedro Martinez, a fellow Hall of Famer from the Dominican Republic.

Many fans waved Dominican flags for Ortiz, who pitched for his homeland in his speech — “We have a lot of good and happy people, beautiful beaches where you guys can go when you are freezing here,” he said. Ortiz’s daughter, Alex, sang the United States’ national anthem before the ceremony, and Ortiz spoke in his speech about his mother, Angela Rosa, who died in 2002.

“Going through this speech and putting it together, I cried a lot, to be honest with you, even this morning, every time I touched base about my mom,” Ortiz said. “It just got to the point, repeating over and over and over, it kind of cured it a little.”

For Ortiz, the honor was exquisitely timed. He was shot in the back in the Dominican Republic in 2019, and it is chilling to think of how close he came to missing his own ceremony. Instead, he is healthy and strong — the full Big Papi on the biggest day of all.

“Thank God I’m good to go, I don’t have any injuries, I’m back to normal,” Ortiz said later. “I always appreciate that and thank God for everything.”

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