Cooperstown Confidential: What Happened at Hall of Fame Weekend 2018

Jack Morris, top center, speaks during his Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the end of July. (via Bruce Markusen)

When a swarm of 53,000 people descends on a small upstate New York town that normally houses about 1,800, it might seem that chaos and confusion would ensue. I wouldn’t go that far, but it was rather remarkable to witness the life and enthusiasm that so many visitors injected into Cooperstown for Hall of Fame Weekend 2018. At a time when major league attendance is down and the game is drawing criticism for being too slow and lacking action on the field, appreciation for the game’s history remains strong, as evidenced by the turnout for a new class of six Hall of Famers.

As an employee of the Hall of Fame and Museum, I’m given a unique perspective on Induction Weekend. While I spend little time at the four-star Otesaga Hotel, where the Hall of Famers and much of the baseball establishment reside for the weekend, my duties place me at the museum for most of the day on Friday and Saturday, and then at the actual induction site on Sunday. There are opportunities to meet and interview distinguished baseball guests, talk briefly with a few Hall of Famers, and spot celebrities in the crowd. Hey, it’s a tough job, perhaps even excruciating, but some poor soul has to do it.

So what exactly goes on during Hall of Fame Weekend? I’ve compiled a diary of this year’s activities, spanning from Friday, July 27, through Sunday, July 29. Here’s a sampling of what went on in Cooperstown over those 72 hours.

Friday, July 28:

8 a.m. Along with roughly 20 full time staff members and interns, I report to the Clark Sports Center for the 17th annual edition of Play Ball. It’s a program in which members of the museum’s fan club can pay for the opportunity to get tips from four Hall of Famers, before concluding the morning with a chance to turn a simulated double play with “The Wizard,” Ozzie Smith. The proceeds from the event go the Hall’s education department, the very place I happen to work.

9 a.m. After some prep and waiting time, Play Ball begins under a mix of clouds and sun, and a middling level of humidity. Participants have a chance to listen to Johnny Bench talk about catching (he knows a little something about the position), hear Jeff Bagwell provide pointers on the finer points of first base play, learn about Smith’s brilliance in the middle infield, and listen to Tim Raines lay out the fundamentals of handling grounders. (Best known as an outfielder, Raines did play second base early in his career.)

During this portion of the program, I serve as timekeeper. Each station lasts 12 minutes; with two minutes to go, I declare a two-minute warning, and then tell participants to switch stations. I feel a little odd bellowing out such instructions while Hall of Famers are in the midst of their talks, but everyone is good-natured about my “interruptions.”

10:20 a.m. Here comes the really fun part of Play Ball—and the trickiest. This is when all 60 participants huddle near second base and have a chance to turn a double play with Smith, who serves as the Hall’s educational ambassador. Ozzie initiates the play by taking a ball and tossing it to each participant as he or she comes across the bag. The player then throws the ball toward first base, where our trusty intern, Jordan, handles all the throws. Of all the people who work this event, Jordan has the toughest job. Some of the throws are less than accurate—in the dirt, on one, two or three hops, and even 10 feet over his head. During one stretch, Jordan struggles to catch the throws, leading to some playful ribbing from Raines. But then Jordan settles into a rhythm, begins catching everything, and starts resembling George Scott with his play at first base.

After Jordan makes each catch, he flips the ball to me; I then toss it to a second intern, Lauren, who supplies Ozzie with fresh baseballs. About halfway through, we develop a strong rhythm, and avoid anyone getting hit by a stray ball. By the time the double plays are done, everybody has received two to three chances to catch a ball and complete a throw. And they all get to say that they turned a double play with arguably the finest defensive shortstop I’ve ever seen.

10:40 a.m. I thank Ozzie for participating. Because of his willingness to donate his time and effort, we’re able to raise thousands of dollars for the Hall’s educational and outreach programs. A huge believer in education, perhaps because of his own upbringing in a poor neighborhood in Watts, Ozzie has been doing this for the Hall since his induction in 2002.

11 a.m. Staff and interns return to the museum for regular duties. For me, the task is to prepare for interviews tomorrow in front of live audiences, with Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick and Detroit Tigers legend Willie Horton.

12:05 p.m. The research begins with Gillick. It’s a bit daunting, given that his career stretches all the way back to the 1960s, when he worked in the front office for the expansion Houston Colt .45s. From there, he joined the Yankees, and then the Blue Jays, where he helped build an expansion team from scratch. And let’s not forget about the years with the Mariners, Orioles and Phillies, including a world championship with Philadelphia in 2008.

1:30 p.m.  I’m finished with a list of questions for Gillick. Now it’s time to move on to Horton, who is in town representing the Tigers for the inductions of Alan Trammell and Jack Morris. Horton’s life is no less fascinating than some of the Hall of Famers, starting with his childhood years, growing up in a house with 21 children. Then it’s on to his time in Detroit, his involvement in trying to stop the race riots of 1967, the world championship season of 1968, and his cold and hot relationship with manager Billy Martin.

3:35 p.m. I’ve got three full pages of questions on Horton’s life and career. I have no idea how I’ll get to even half of this material during tomorrow’s one-hour program. I’ll worry about that tomorrow. In half an hour, I will head home and get some rest.

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Saturday, July 28:

8 a.m. The Hall of Fame is already open, having started its day one hour earlier than unusual. This day—the Saturday of Induction Weekend—is usually the Hall’s busiest day of the year. We could have 5,000 to 6,000 people come through before the museum closes at 4 p.m. (My prediction turns out to be a gross underestimation; over 9,000 people make their way to the Hall on Saturday.)

8:35 a.m. I’m interviewing Gillick for what is called the “Champions Club,” a group of benefactors who make major donations to the Hall of Fame. I introduce him to the crowd of about 30 donors. Gillick is an interviewer’s delight; he’s laid back and relaxed, but also has tremendous recall of details and milestones. It’s no wonder that he used to be celebrated for being able to memorize an entire page of a telephone book.

Gillick’s most humorous story involves one of my favorite players, Rico Carty, one of the best two-strike hitters of his era and a perfect fit for a fledgling team like the 1978 Blue Jays, who needed a little veteran stability. Gillick recalls taking Carty in the expansion draft for the expansion Blue Jays, trading him back to the Indians that winter, and then reacquiring him the following year in a spring training deal.

The story: In spring training, Gillick got a phone call from the manager of the Jays’ hotel, asking him to come to Carty’s room immediately. Upon arrival, he was taken to the bathroom, where the basin, the bathtub and the toilet were filled with dozens of miniature candles, all lit and all floating in water, creating a glow reminiscent of a scene from a 1970s horror film. Carty explained that it is part of one of his voodoo rituals, something that he does in the spring in the hopes that it will result in him getting more hits that season.

For a perennial .300 hitter like Carty, Gillick was willing to put up with a little voodoo.

Later in the interview, Gillick recounts how he nearly acquired a future Cy Young Award winner from the Yankees. As the Blue Jays’ de facto general manager in the spring of 1977, Gillick was approached by George Steinbrenner, who expressed an interest in Toronto’s veteran right-hander Bill Singer. Gillick said he was willing to trade Singer for Ron Guidry, a good prospect at the time, but one who had not yet established a reputation as one of the game’s dominant pitchers. Outside of New York, few baseball fans knew much about Guidry, but Gillick knew.

Gillick and Steinbrenner agreed to the framework of the deal. But when Gillick took the proposal to team president Peter Bavasi for approval, he was told that Singer simply could not be traded. As one of the few name brand veterans on the young Blue Jays, Bavasi and Jays ownership considered Singer vital to Toronto’s public relations appeal. He was also scheduled to be Toronto’s Opening Day starter.

That season, Singer would win only two of 10 decisions with an ERA of 6.79. Sidelined with a sore arm, he missed all of 1978, drew his release, and never again pitched in the major leagues. Meanwhile, Guidry would win 16 games in 1977, and the following summer, emerged as a pitching sensation, winning 25 games on his way to the Cy Young Award and a world championship.

9:40 a.m. We wrap up the interview with Gillick, who stays behind to chat with guests and take pictures. He shakes my hand and compliments my interview style. I must admit that it feels nice to receive such an endorsement from one of the few general managers in the Hall of Fame.

12:45 p.m. There is a long line waiting to see Horton in the Bullpen Theater. Even though we’ve promoted this as a first-come, first-served event and have emphasized that seating is limited in the 56-seat theater, a few people become upset when we have to turn them away.

1 p.m. The Hall’s education department has been trying to do a program with Horton for years, principally so that we could talk to him about the 1967 race riots that plagued Detroit in midsummer. We’ve asked him to give us an hour; he is more than willing.

(Willie Horton in the Hall of Fame’s Bullpen Theater. Photo courtesy of Meredith Tomich)

Horton plays back the story of the riots, which began on a Sunday, July 23. As the Tigers played a doubleheader against the Yankees, Horton and his teammates noticed something was wrong. “Going into the second game,” Horton tells the audience, “you looked across the stadium and you could see black smoke in the sky. It was around 12th Street, not far from where I used to have a paper route as a kid. In between games of the doubleheader, the Tigers told us they wanted us to go right home for our own safety. Well, I didn’t think about even taking a shower, I just took my street clothes and put them in a duffel bag and went over there.”

Climbing on top of his car, Horton began asking the assembled rioters to stop what they were doing. “Most of them were just following the crowd,” says Horton. “I said to them, ‘When you burn down stuff and take stuff, you defeat the purpose.’ ”

For many years, accounts have said the rioters ignored Horton’s request. That’s not the way that Horton remembers the situation. He says that his words did have an effect on at least some of those assembled. “Oh yeah, they stopped. The people who know me, they stopped. They saw who I was, and they stopped. Some of them went home.”

2 p.m. The program runs 20 minutes longer than expected. At the end, one of our interns, Meredith (a huge Tigers fan), presents Horton with a commemorative Hall of Fame jacket. His work with us is done, but he is willing to do more. Even though he now walks with the aid of a cane, he stops to sign as many autographs as he can before it’s time for me take him back to his hotel.

Before we get into the car, Horton asks if we can stop by the local barbeque restaurant for a takeout order. It’s called “Redneck Barbeque,” of all names.

3:15 p.m. It’s time to prepare for the Saturday night Parade of Legends, which features the Hall of Famers riding in open-air Ford trucks on Main Street, beginning at 6 p.m. For this event, I work with John Horne, a longtime friend who works in the Hall of Fame’s photo department. Our jobs are twofold. First, we warm up the crowd with trivia giveaways centered on our six new Hall of Famers. And then comes our most important job: serving as spotters for parade emcee Brian Kenny of the MLB Network.

As spotters, we double-check the order of the parade so that we can let Kenny know ahead of time who is next to be announced. Given Kenny’s street-level location on Main Street, it’s impossible for him to see very far down the road. Normally, the parade order begins with year of induction first, and then alphabetical order second. So, Sandy Koufax, who was inducted in 1972, is scheduled to be the first Hall of Famer to ride in.

I receive word that Koufax has had to cancel his trip to Cooperstown. I’m also told that Don Sutton will not be here, so John and I can scratch him from the parade list, too.

6:15 p.m. The Parade of Legends begins on a warm but comfortable evening, in front of what John and I believe to be a record crowd for the event. Main Street is packed on both sides, from the sidewalk to the storefronts, with little room to spare. And it’s a loud crowd, with allegiances evenly divided among the six new Hall of Famers. (The parade, which began fewer than 10 years ago, has very quickly became one of the favorite events of the weekend. I love the enthusiasm of the crowd and the interaction between the fans and the Hall of Famers. And no one interacts more than Johnny Bench, who loves to play to the crowd.)

With Koufax out, Al Kaline (Class of 1980) is the first Hall of Famer to make his way down Main Street. That seems appropriate, in light of the two Tigers (Jack Morris and Alan Trammell) entering the Hall this weekend. Kaline played with neither, but knows both very well.

(Al Kaline makes his way down Main Street. Photo courtesy of Carl Bauer.)

The order of the parade proceeds as expected, until about a third of the way through the program. That’s when I see Don Sutton standing on the next Ford truck; he is here after all. It turns out that I had misheard the earlier change; I thought it was Sutton who had cancelled, but no, it was Sutter, Bruce Sutter.

Thankfully, I’m way down near the intersection of Main and Chestnut streets and able to catch the change in time, so that I can relay the information to John Horne, who then informs Brian Kenny. We don’t have a biography prepared for Sutton, but Brian is able to improvise an introduction. Hey, that’s why he gets the big network money.

7:35 p.m. Kenny makes the last of the parade introductions, concluding with this year’s half-dozen inductees: Vlad Guerrero, Trevor Hoffman, Chipper Jones, Morris, Jim Thome and Trammell. While Kenny is being inundated with autograph requests, John and I make our way to the museum, where a number of Hall of Famers are still outside, still signing autographs for a thick crowd gathered on the opposite side of Main Street.

For me, there is only one downside to an otherwise fun and raucous parade: the absence of Orlando Cepeda. I know him better than any other Hall of Famer, and we always talk at the museum after the parade. This year, he is unable to attend, because of health problems that resulted in a long hospital stay. It’s a disappointment that he cannot be here, but I am glad to hear that he is doing better.

8:10 p.m. It’s time to head to the Markusen homestead. It’s been a long day, but a good one, primarily thanks to Messrs. Gillick and Horton, and an enthusiastic crowd of parade well-wishers.

Sunday, July 29:

8 a.m. Along with about 50 fellow staff members and volunteers, I report to the Clark Sports Center to prepare for today’s induction ceremony. Most of the morning will be spent putting out a couple of thousand folding chairs for guests and VIPs . Thankfully, the weather is good, and not nearly as hot as we expected. With a mix of clouds and sun, and temperatures in the high 70s, it’s almost ideal.

11:30 a.m. The gates to the VIP section at the Clark Sports Center have just opened. I’ve been assigned to man Chute No. 1, where I will need to check credentials for the guests who are sitting closest to the stage. This will turn out to be a great location to spot baseball celebrities, including Bob Uecker, Bob Costas, and an army of former players. I cannot recall an induction weekend during which so many retired players came out for one or more of the inductees. At one point, I spot Mark Kotsay talking to Xavier Nady, who still looks like he could play. During another moment, I see Justin Morneau. Then there’s Travis Fryman. Let’s not forget about 6-foot-8 Richie Sexson. And of course, Willie Horton comes by to say hi, telling us that he’s happy to help out the Hall of Fame at any time.

At one point, I spot Kirk Gibson, wearing a baseball cap and accompanied by his wife, who is holding his hand. Unfortunately, Gibson has been afflicted by Parkinson’s disease; he was first diagnosed in 2015. He looks thinner, but seems happy to be in town in support of his two former mates, Trammell and Morris.

1:35 p.m. The ceremony begins in front of the second largest induction crowd in Hall history, ranking behind only the 2007 induction of Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn. After Brian Kenny introduces each of the 51 returning Hall of Famers, it’s time to move on to the speeches. Chipper Jones has been moved into the leadoff spot. This wasn’t the original plan, but with his wife expecting a child at any moment, Hall officials decide to put Jones first, clearing him should he need to leave.

From where I’m standing, it’s difficult to hear the speeches, but I’ll have a look at the transcripts later. In my mind, the best part of Jones’ speech involves him crediting one of his former coaches, one of my favorite players. “Everyone has that one hitting coach in their career that they just kind of click with,” Jones says from the stage. “For me, it was the late, great Don Baylor. I only got one year with Don in 1999. We had a little sit-down in spring training, and he convinced me that I could be just as powerful from the right side as I was from the left side.

“All we did that year was go out and win the National League MVP in 1999. ‘Groove,’ I miss you, buddy.” Well done, Chipper. Baylor, one of the game’s best men, deserves the shout-out on the game’s historic stage.

Jones’ speech turns out to be the longest of the six. Vlad Guerrero’s acceptance, delivered in Spanish, is the shortest, at six minutes. That includes a translation by Jose Mota, the son of legendary pinch-hitter,Manny Mota. Jose’s translations are terrific, conveying the emotion of the normally private Guerrero.

4:10 p.m. Perhaps the words from Jack Morris best sum up the tenor of the weekend, a time to celebrate the game’s history and the accomplishments of its best players. “Whether in Little League or in the big leagues,” Morris tells the Cooperstown throng, “I would encourage all baseball players to learn the history of our game. Learn about the great players behind me. Learn about the owners and the history of the players union. Only then will you have a better understanding of who you are and where you fit into its history.”

That history took clearer shape in Cooperstown for a few days in late July. It will continue to evolve next summer, when Mariano Rivera is expected to lead the latest charge into Cooperstown. And then the next summer, with the anticipated arrival of one Derek Jeter, which may lead to true bedlam.

Given the status of those two legends, along with our proximity to Yankee Stadium, the crowds for induction weekend might make 53,000 seem like an intimate gathering.


Bruce Markusen has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.
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The Duke
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The Duke

Super article – would love to be a fly on the wall at the hotel listening to all those guys

Eric Robinson
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Thanks for sharing the behind the scenes look. It’s great that you are able to balance having an insiders perspective yet still be a fan!