I like to think I’ve done some pretty special things on a baseball field that could qualify as once in a lifetime games or achievements. Well let me share a little known fact with you about the Baseball Hall of Fame Game in Cooperstown, New York.
"Each year from 1940 to 2008," according to its wikipedia page, "Doubleday Field hosted the Hall of Fame Game. Originally a contest between 'old-timers' teams, it later became an exhibition game between two major league squads. Traditionally, the game was held during the annual induction weekend of the nearby Baseball Hall of Fame, but in later years it was scheduled in May or June, to accommodate the participating teams' travel schedules." Much like the All-Star Game, "its results did not count in the official standings, and substitute players were generally used to avoid injury to starters. The curiosity factor two teams from different leagues playing each other in this game outside of a World Series, [All-Star] or spring training situation was eventually removed with the 1997 launch of interleague play."
"On January 29, 2008, Major League Baseball announced that the final Hall of Fame Game would be played six months later, June 16th, between the Chicago Cubs and San Diego Padres, citing 'the inherent challenges' of scheduling teams in the modern day as the reason for ending the annual contest." Ultimately, the game was called due to a thunderstorm, and never played. While the Mid Summer classic enjoys a national audience, the Hall of Game was for the most part a local event, which to me informs the decision to end this exhibition to some degree. Without delving into whether or not MLB possesses the rather minimal resources to keep this old-school tradition alive, let’s just step into the time machine and remember this fine annual Baseball event through the lens of, not just one start at the Hall of Fame Game, but two.
In 1975, as I was coming off the disabled list for the San Francisco Giants, I was the tenth man on the staff until I worked my arm back to complete strength. As most of you know, the 10th man is generally the final spot of the staff, a much more fluid position where you catch all the garbage that is thrown at you. I was asked to start the Hall of Fame Game in Cooperstown for the ball club – you see, when a major league team goes to these exhibition games you really can’t disrupt your rotation so you use guys who haven’t thrown much, like me. You can also choose the 10th man in the staff – also, like me. I knew it wasn’t going to be a fun assignment because no one at all wanted to play.
I was starting against the Boston Red Sox, who were in first place at this point of the season, on their way to their historic match against the Cincinnati Reds in the ’75 World Series. The Bosox were hotter than a firecracker in the 2nd half of the year, kicking everybody’s back sides with consistency. I can remember it was a clear, gorgeous day in Cooperstown. First inning I gave up a few hits, a couple runs and then settled down. Overall, I thought I pitched rather well for just coming off of surgery. If I recall correctly, I threw three or four innings, the most since returning from the DL . I still didn’t pitch for close to another month after this game.
A few select moments stand out in mind from this day. Bernie Carbo was laid out on the scoreboard sunbathing and at times asleep the whole time I pitched. I faced a couple of great players early on like the rookie sensation Jim Rice, Pudge Fisk, to name a few as they departed later to give way to the utility players who would finish the game. The final score of the game was 11-5 for Boston in a bit of a laugher. To be fair though, that '75 Sox team was absolutely stacked. Rice and of course, Freddie Lynn, both drove in over 100 runs . I’m not sure two rookies on the same team had ever done this before or since. Guys like Cecil Cooper, Dewey Evans showed flashes of their future greatness throughout the campaign. Even the aforementioned Carbo, that colorful character, may have only hit .257 but he got on base more than four of every 10 times up at bat. Billy Beane would’ve loved Carbo the player.
After the game, we returned to the hotel to clean up when we all discovered this indoor Olympic size swimming pool. So a bunch of us dove in and chilled out for an hour. Meanwhile, a group of female fans were looking at us through the windows - word traveled fast from the fans checking us out. We had generated quite a stir around the hotel, because most of us were skinny dipping. All in good fun though.
Later on, we were given a tour of the Hall of Fame museum and were amazed at the size of Babe Ruth’s bat and the shinny spikes of Ty Cobb. It just spewed history of our favorite past time. If you ever get a chance you need to go and behold where the majesty of baseball unfolds in front of your eyes as it takes you back in time. Even at the young age of 23, I felt like a little boy on a class trip, staring in wonder at these pieces of my world. Did you also know that there is a small movie theater and a bowling alley in the cellar of the Hall of Fame, at least there was when I was there. Turned out to be a very special day in my life.
The next Hall of Fame Game I started was as a member of the San Diego Padres against the Texas Rangers. Famed 1970’s baseball character Brad Corbett owned the ballclub but I’ll give you three guesses who was in the stands that day. Future owner of the ballclub, President George W. Bush. Lots of people went to see Willie Mays get inducted into the Hall of Fame that year so it was Giants legends and fans everywhere.
Pretty much the same set of circumstances as ’75 - no one wanted to throw, it was my work day which happened to do the club's off day. Legendary Padres announcer Jerry Coleman was the manager that season and asked me to throw three innings to start this bad boy off, which I gladly accepted. I left the game before the start of the 4th and proceeded back to the pool as I did on the previous trip. Rollie Fingers, Eric Rasmussen, Bob Shirley, and Bob Owchinko finished up. The final score on that game was 12-5 for Texas, another proverbial butt-kicking.
The end result didn’t matter, though. It was the day that local fans could enjoy the quaint, cozy confines of Doubleday Field, the observers could pretend, if only for two hours and thirty minutes, as if it was a mid-century barnstormer. It was fun again to be a part of this tradition. Since it was my second time at the rodeo, I was basically the tour guide to other players in Cooperstown for their first trip, I enjoyed finding new exhibits to the museum - we even bowled a little in the cellar this time, if you can believe that.
You know, as a player, as you’re stepping through the hallowed halls of this place, you stare at the plaques, you think to yourself, “With a few more MPH on number one, a bit more spin on the curve, maybe, just maybe.” Maybe it’s a maybe not, but so what; it gave me this momentary jolt of confidence and encouragement; the tuning fork in my soul struck a note like the first sound you hear at the beginning of a Rocky montage. It gave me this incentive to play as hard as I could to achieve the goals of being a Hall of Famer. Obviously that didn’t happen; but that moment happened, the moment where I realized I played against the best of the best in my industry, and even if I didn’t win the war, so to speak, there were some pretty awesome battles where I got to claim victory.
I know I’m in that building somewhere – a book, a clip in the media room, perhaps a random card in the Topps montage on the second or third floor. In the history of the game forever and ever enshrined, maybe not as a Hall of Famer but better, a baseball player, a player who started two Hall of Fame Games.
Kinda special in my book.
Photo Credit: Slgckgc