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July 28, 2013

Hall to honor the old ball game

By Rob Centorani Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — Imagine an owner making a deal for a pitcher, then converting him into a hitter and watching as he finishes his career with more than 700 home runs.

Think of a catcher who played without a glove, a mask and other protective equipment.

Or how about a guy who attends a professional game as a spectator, gets recruited from the stands to umpire and then goes on to work 10 World Series.

All of it seems unthinkable.

Those who attend Sunday’s Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at 1:30 p.m. at the Clark Sports Center will hear how much baseball has changed over the past 130 years or so.

“Our job is to honor history as it unfolds, either in the moment, or some cases like this, in moments many decades after,” Hall President Jeff Idelson said as the Cooperstown shrine prepares to enter the way-back machine. “For the three gentleman inducted this year, it’s been a long time waiting. Nonetheless, it’s well deserved.”

The three men — former Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert, bare-handed catcher Deacon White and umpire Hank O’Day — earned election via the Pre-Integration Committee in December, bringing the number of Hall of Famers to 300. All of them died before the United States’ involvement in World War II (1941).

In 2013, they’re hardly household names.

That’s the biggest reason Sunday’s ceremony doesn’t figure to draw many fans.

“We know the crowds will be lighter than years with a headline inductee,” Idelson said. “There are those who adore the history of the game who will come, and others who attend year in and year out, it’s a weekend they circle on their calendar. But we know the crowds won’t be as big as if we had a living inductee.”

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot this past year included some greats of the game — home run king Barry Bonds and seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens among them — but none met the 75 percent threshold for induction.

A performance-enhancing drug cloud that began forming over baseball in the 1990s and still haunted the game as recently as Monday, when Milwaukee Brewers standout Ryan Braun earned a season-ending suspension for alleged PED use, factored heavily into the BBWAA’s election shutout.

Still, the men to be honored Sunday compiled impressive resumes.

Ruppert bought the Yankees in 1915, orchestrated a deal that brought Babe Ruth to New York in 1920 and oversaw the building of Yankee Stadium, which was completed in 1923.

“A lot of us thought he was already in for all he’d done,” Hall of Famer Phil Niekro — a member of the Pre-Integration Committee — said at the time of Ruppert’s election. “We were surprised he wasn’t.”

Ruppert purchased Ruth from the Red Sox for $100,000. To that point in Ruth’s career, he’d primarily been a pitcher, compiling 80 victories for Boston from 1914-19.

The Yankees turned Ruth into a right fielder and he finished his career with a record 714 home runs — a mark that stood until Hank Aaron passed him in 1974.

“If you were looking at the top five acquisitions in baseball history, it’s near the top, if not at the top,” Idelson said of the Yankees getting Ruth. “And then turning him into a hitter after being a dominant pitcher, it boggles your mind.”

Under Ruppert, the Yankees won seven World Series. Ruppert, who served as a congressman from New York in the House of Representatives around the turn of the century, owned the Yankees until his death in 1939. He died at the age of 71.

Ruppert’s great grandniece Anne Vernon will deliver the acceptance speech.

“He died before I was born,” Vernon said of Ruppert during a conference call with reporters Monday. “We had a lot of the photos up of Babe Ruth and all the other famous players.”

White, who was 91 when he died in 1939, amassed 2,067 hits from 1871-1890, most of those years as a bare-handed catcher. He played in the National Association, the National League and the Players League.

White’s great grandson, Jerry Watkins, will speak on his behalf Sunday.

“He caught without a glove and a mask,” Watkins said during Monday’s conference call. “I believe, I’ve been told by baseball historians, I don’t have this documented, that he was one of the first, if not the first, to use a mask in professional ball.”

Watkins added he believed in the 19th century that catchers set up about 15 feet behind the plate. He also said White was one of the first catchers who’d creep up closer to the plate to catch the ball in the air.

“My father told me that his hands were gnarled like tree branches just from having broken every bone in his hand probably numerous times from catching the ball bare-handed like that,” Watkins said. “He said he would hold his hand, you know, he was a small boy of 12 of 13 years old, he said it just felt like he was holding on to a tree branch.”

O’Day, who’ll be represented by great grandnephew Dennis McNamara, played and managed in professional baseball, in addition to umpiring. He worked as a National League umpire between 1895 and 1927.

O’Day, who died at 75 in 1935, umpired five of the first seven World Series, including the first in 1903.

“What stands out is Hank O’Day’s strong constitution,” Idelson said. “He was not well-loved. The game was running rampant during his era and he stood up for fair play. He was one of pioneers in taking control of the game.”

Following a seven-year playing career as a right-handed pitcher, O’Day umpired his first professional game in 1894. He attended a game in his hometown of Chicago as a spectator. The scheduled umpire, Thomas Lynch, missed the game because of travel problems. O’Day was recruited from the stands to work the game and became a full-time umpire the following season.

O’Day’s most controversial call came during a Sept. 23, 1908 game between the Cubs and Giants. With runners on first and third in a 1-all game in the ninth inning, Al Bridwell hit what appeared to be a walkoff single for the Giants.

But Fred Merkl never advanced from first base. The Cubs produced a ball and appealed the play. O’Day ruled Merkl never reached second and disallowed the run. The game counted as a tie. Chicago went on to win the pennant by one game over the Giants and beat the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.

“It wasn’t a popular call,” Idelson said. “He had knowledge of the rulebook and enforced to a T.”

O’Day is the 10th umpire to earn election into the Hall.

Twelve others, including former Yankees great Lou Gehrig and Rogers Hornsby, also will be honored. Those two, along with the 10-man class of 1945, never had an induction ceremony, so living members of the Hall will honor them Sunday.

Cal Ripken, who drew an estimated 75,000 fans to Cooperstown for his 2007 induction, will read Gehrig’s plaque. Ripken and Gehrig rank 1-2 in major league history in consecutive games played at 2,632, and 2,130, respectively.

“The bond doesn’t get any stronger than Ripken reading Gehrig’s plaque,” Idelson said. “They’re known for their longevity streaks, but it almost takes away from their other accomplishments and achievements.”

The Class of 1945 is comprised of Roger Bresnahan (plaque read by Carlton Fisk), Dan Brouthers (Orlando Cepeda), Fred Clarke (Bert Blyleven), Jimmy Collins (Wade Boggs), Ed Delahanty (Billy Williams), Hugh Duffy (Jim Rice), Hughie Jennings (Ozzie Smith), Mike “King” Kelly (Andre Dawson), Jim O’Rourke (Tony Gwynn) and Wilbert Robinson (Tommy Lasorda).

Joe Morgan will read Hornsby’s plaque.

“We’re honoring those who were never afforded the opportunity of inductions,” Idelson said. “We’ve talked about it for a number of years. After the results of the December election of the three Pre-Integration selections, it became obvious it was time to honor these 12 men.”

Saturday’s Awards Presentation will start at 4:30 p.m. at Doubleday Field.

Paul Hagen of MLB.com will be presented with the J.G Taylor Spink Award for baseball writing and Ford C. Frick winner Tom Cheek will be honored posthumously. Cheek’s widow, Shirley, will give the acceptance speech. Cheek was a longtime broadcaster for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Thomas Tull, whose company produced the Jackie Robinson biopic “42,” and Dr. Frank Jobe, the pioneer of Tommy John surgery, also will be recognized Saturday. John, the first player to have the surgery performed, will be on hand to honor Jobe.

Additionally, the Hall will celebrate the 75th anniversary of Abbott & Costello’s “Who’s on First” skit. It will be performed by Gil “Bud” Palmer and Lou Sciara.

On the 125th anniversary of Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s poem “Casey at the Bat,” Hall Director of Research Tim Wiles will portray The Mighty Casey.

Gates will open for the performances at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

Forty Hall of Famers are expected to attend the Awards Ceremony and the Induction Ceremony. They’ll take part in the Parade of Legends at 6 p.m. Saturday. The parade will start on Chestnut Street and conclude on Main Street in front of the museum.

Rob Centorani can be reached at rcentorani@thedailystar.com or 607-432-1000, ext. 209.