by Jeff Wallman
A special reunion occurs each year in Cooperstown, New York: The Legends of Baseball Reunion. Baseball greats from the past gather in the shadow of the Baseball Hall of Fame. All living Hall-of-Famers are invited; many attend.
“It’s our own little fraternity,” says Hall-of-Famer Brooks Robinson. The highlight of the three-day reunion is the induction ceremony, where current members welcome new inductees into “the fraternity.”
For Robinson, the reunion is a chance to see his baseball contemporaries and idols. “It allows us to see players in a different light,” he says. “They joke around and have a great time.” Robinson’s only regret is that he never got autographs from fellow Hall-of-Famers. “Unfortunately, about 30 players have died in recent years.”
Fittingly, the ceremony is conducted in the sun. First, a handful of visiting dignitaries are introduced, among them the Commissioner of Baseball and the governor of New York. Each crosses the stage to polite applause from thousands of fans.
Each Hall-of-Famer present is introduced. The announcer notes career highlights of each former player. Fans applaud enthusiastically. Slowly, the stage fills as, one by one, former players are introduced. The great ones mingle quietly with one another while introductions continue. Just like any reunion–any reunion with 10,000 spectators, that is.
Harmon Killebrew is introduced. He still has a gleam in his eye, and looks much like he did when he played. Now, however, his hair is grey, his pate bald. Yet, he looks like he could hit 573 more home runs. Like many of the Hall-of-Famers, Killebrew has the look of corporate success. During his introduction, Killebrew’s smile grows. He is enjoying himself. “It’s the ultimate experience that can happen to a former ballplayer.”
When notified of his election to the Hall of Fame, Killebrew was told that his life would change. “It was hard to believe,” the former slugger notes. The event’s magnitude didn’t become apparent until the weekend of his induction, when it finally hit him, “I knew it was significant when I saw the letters H.O.F. after my name.”
Warren Spahn is introduced. He’s as thin as when he played. He walks a little slower. The screwballer returns to Cooperstown for as many Hall of Fame reunions as possible. For Spahn, reunions are important. “It would be a shame if no one showed up for the new inductees,” he notes. Like many Hall of Famers, Spahn enjoys renewing old acquaintances with his contemporaries. The setting and golf course are two things he enjoys about the event. Plus, Spahn comments wryly, “It’s a good getaway from the August heat in Oklahoma.”
Spahn waves to the crowd, crosses the stage and sits next to Willie Mays. Mays flashes that famous child-like grin. After a few minutes, Spahn begins to look tired. A few minutes of Mays could always do that to a pitcher.
Bob Feller stands out. He looks like everyone’s grandfather. He is happy, a little stout, and always smiling. Feller receives a warmer greeting from his peers than other players. Perhaps it is because Feller is unique. Feller is both baseball hero and war hero. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, Feller was the top pitcher in the game. Incredibly, in 1941 he led the league in wins, games, games started, innings pitched, strikeouts and shutouts. More incredibly, Feller enlisted immediately and missed all or parts of the next four seasons. Feller earned numerous citations serving aboard the battleship Alabama. To this day he speaks proudly about his ship and shipmates. Feller and his wife also regularly attend his military reunions. Ever the Iowa farm boy, Feller mentions the farmers market. The Hall of Fame ceremony occurs just in time for the blackberry, blueberry and peach harvest. Apparently Cooperstown has to offer than just the Hall of Fame.
The word that best describes Sandy Koufax is “dignified,” yet even that description is inadequate. Koufax walks perfectly erect and is perfectly dressed, with a strong gaze, both brow and jaw set. He quietly takes his seat. He reminds everyone–all 10,000 of us–not to diminish the event’s integrity.
Koufax is the man who refused to pitch on Yom Kippur. Nor did he apologize. He also retired early rather than take the pain killers needed to prolong his career. After leaving the game, Koufax didn’t cash in on his celebrity as many others did. The lesson is that you can’t buy class. You either have it or you don’t. Sandy Koufax has it.
Robert Pinsky, the nation’s poet laureate, idolized Koufax in prose. He still speaks fondly of the occasion when Koufax gave him an autographed baseball. Pinsky’s poem is a timeless tribute to the idea that a hero such as Koufax could even exist, particularly for a young Jewish kid in the1960s. Yet, true to form, Koufax assumes nothing. Rather than just send Pinsky a ball, Koufax asked first. “Yes,” Pinsky emphasizes, “Sandy Koufax actually asked me whether I’d like an autographed baseball.”
Koufax is no less a hero than Feller. But he is a hero of a different conflict. He fought prejudice, self-medication and over-commercialization–modern conflicts challenging human beings to maintain their dignity in a sea of troubles. Like Feller, Koufax is accorded a special place among baseball’s elite. If Sandy Koufax didn’t exist, we would have made him up, just for inspiration.
After the visiting Hall of Famers are introduced, new inductees are presented for the first time: Puckett, Winfield, Smith and Mazeroski, all dressed to the nines, families sitting in the first row. This is the moment they’ve all waited for, their first Legends Reunion.
William Stanley Mazeroski takes the podium. Simply Maz. Second Base. His face and figure are a little rounder than in his playing days, his hair completely white. But then he smiles and everyone sees the Mazeroski of old: the dimpled cheeks, the smiling eyes. Maz is the owner of modest offensive statistics, but his defensive toughness got him to Cooperstown. Some criticized Maz’s election. None, however, are openly critical today. He is welcome.
The master of the lightning-quick pivot, Maz opens his acceptance speech with “Defense belongs in the Hall of Fame.” The crowd claps wildly. The new inductee pauses, then lifts a hand to his face to brush away a tear. Then the unthinkable happens: Maz breaks down. He is not merely emotional; he is overwhelmed. He cannot continue. Mays says, “I could never knock him off of second base.” The shortest Hall of Fame speech ever. Didn’t even get to the part where he thanks his wife and family.
The moment is the stuff of baseball legend. Thousands of fans erupt simultaneously, wildly, in one loud ovation. Mazeroski cries like a baby. The applause continues. Somebody near me shouts, “Maz, we love you.”
Maz is another hero. The crowd loves him. His acceptance into baseball’s elite fraternity is a symbol of hope for all the average Joes in the crowd–Joes like you and me who couldn’t fit into a baseball uniform, much less gain admission into the Hall of Fame.
Maz was not born into the Hall of Fame. He worked his way in. That’s the only way the average Joe could get a ticket to the Legends Reunion. I swallow hard and look around. Everywhere, tears abound, even in the press section. An unbelievable sight. Reporters forget about their jobs for one moment and slip into the role of fans–clapping, shouting, crying fans.
The Legends Reunion. One of my favorite reunion stories.
The Legends Reunion is unique. It shows how we look to the behavior of those who play a game and openly seek out heroes not only in sport, but in life. The Legends Reunion revolves around heroes on the field. Yet, it’s the heroes off the field that make it a memorable occasion.
About the author
Jeff Wallman is publisher of Reunions Magazine and an avid baseball fan.
Adam Rose, editorial assistant, assisted with this story.