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Hank Aaron on visits to Cooperstown and Baseball Hall of Fame: 'There's no place that I would rather be'

The first Hall of Fame induction in Cooperstown

The first Hall of Fame induction in Cooperstown on June 12, 1939, honoring the first four classes. Back row: Honus Wagner, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Tris Speaker, Napoleon Lajoie, George Sisler, Walter Johnson. Front row: Eddie Collins, Babe Ruth, Connie Mack, Cy Young Credit: National Baseball Hall of Fame

The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, a quaint village that seemingly is far away by any mode of transportation, is a repository of memories. For the few whose names appear on plaques in the red brick building on Main Street, it's the culmination of childhood dreams come true.   

“It’s not the easiest place to get to — or get into,’’ said former Orioles pitcher Jim Palmer, who was inducted in 1990.  “If you go to Cooperstown, you find out how much people really love the game of baseball.’’

The Hall is a destination coveted by everyone who ever picked up a bat, ball or glove and turned it into a  profession. (Former Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is expected to join the fraternity when this year's balloting is announced Tuesday.)

"It’s an honor,’’ Sandy Koufax said from Vero Beach, Florida, where he spent his spring trainings with the Dodgers. “It's a validation that maybe you did a good job.’’

Koufax has made it back to Cooperstown almost every July since his induction in 1972. "I go back to honor the people that have been elected,’’ he said.

And he returns to see some old friends. “There's not that many of them anymore,'' he said, "but I still enjoy seeing people I played with and against."

At 83, Koufax is among the greatest living Hall of Famers. His career was over at age 30, shortened by arm issues.

“But for a few years, Sandy was the brightest star in the sky,’’ Palmer said.

Election to the Hall has come for slightly more than 1 percent of all who have played the game, and its inductees cherish their membership.

"The Hall of Fame is probably one of the most sacred places of all,’’ Hank Aaron, who will turn 85 on Feb. 5, said from Atlanta. “It has a place in the players' hearts. To be in a place with Jackie Robinson and Stan Musial, two of the players that I idolized more than anyone, I try to make it back as many times as I can. There’s no place that I would rather be."

Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn drew a record crowd of 80,000 to their induction in 2007. “To see everyone walking around wearing your uniform number, I’ll never forget it,’’ said Ripken, who secured his spot by playing in 2,632 consecutive games, breaking Lou Gehrig's streak of 2,130. “The Hall of Fame is an accumulation of everything rolled into one. You got the streak in there, you got the World Series, you’ve got every moment in between. And to join that peer group in the Hall of Fame, to look around and see all those great players that you're in the same room with, that’s a wonderful feeling."

The Hall's beginnings

The Hall of Fame was founded by Stephen Carlton Clark, a businessman, newspaper publisher and philanthropist. The Hall opened on June 12, 1939. Why Cooperstown? The tale is that Abner Doubleday, a Union army officer in the Civil War, invented the game in 1839 in a cow pasture that is now Doubleday Field.

The Hall’s first group of inductees included Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson. 

From a shoestring budget at the beginning, the Hall has burgeoned both in finances and scope to become the most revered sports museum in America.

"The museum is a national treasure, as baseball relates to so many Americans as a multi-generation connecting point,’’ president Jeff Idelson said. "A lot of fans think of us as the 31st team. We’re more along the lines of the Metropolitan; we’re a traditional museum, not for profit. We function as all museums do. We rely on gifts, grants and contributions. Right now, we're about a $16-million business, that's where our operating budget is. Endowment is our big push right now. Major League Baseball made a $10-million gift. Their support of us through endowment speaks volumes of how they feel about the museum and its independence."

The selection process

The first opportunity to make the Hall as a player is to gain 75 percent of the vote by the more than 400 members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.  Even first-ballot Hall of Famers sweat it out.

"You don't think anything like it being a sure thing until you get the phone call,’’ Ripken said. “You don't get ahead of yourself. You don't play tomorrow's game until it gets here."

Palmer said a big party was planned for him at a local restaurant and he told the owner, " 'What happens if I don't get the call?' He said, ‘We'll do it every year till you do.’ I said that could get expensive."  

Palmer got in on the first ballot. He was called by then-BBWAA secretary-treasurer Jack Lang of Fort Salonga.

“He said, 'I've got bad news,' " Palmer recalled.  “ 'Thirty-three writers didn’t vote for you . . . 411 did.' "

It took six years for former Expos and Mets catcher Gary Carter to make it.

“In the beginning, he realized he wasn’t the automatic like Johnny Bench,’’ said Sandy Carter, the late player’s wife. "In 2002, when he missed by six votes, he was really devastated. He said, 'I’m not going to believe it until I see it.’ When we got the phone call, we all screamed and partied. It made a big difference to him because all of a sudden, that ‘HOF’ is on every autograph.’’

Carter wanted to be inducted as an Expo and a Met. "He was 100-percent torn,'' Sandy Carter said. "He did not have a choice. They [Hall officials] made it very clear they had nobody else representing the Expos at the time.''

Tom Seaver and Mike Piazza are the only "official" Mets enshrined in Cooperstown.

The second look

Players who receive at least 5 percent of the vote remain on the BBWAA ballot for up to 10 years. After that, their candidacy can be considered, based on their category, by one of four 16-member "Era" committees composed of Hall of Famers, historians and executives. The committees also consider managers, owners, executives, umpires and other instrumental figures in the game.

The committees are Early Baseball  (before 1950), Golden Days (1950-69), Modern Baseball (1970-87) and Today’s Game (1988-present).

The Today’s Game committee came under scrutiny recently when it elected Harold Baines, who never received more than 6.1 percent of the vote from the BBWAA. Baines played much of his career for the White Sox under manager Tony La Russa and team owner Jerry Reinsdorf,  who were on the committee. So was Pat Gillick, the general manager in Baltimore when Baines played there. Baines received 12 votes for the required 75 percent. 

Idelson said he “believes in the professionalism and expertise’’ of the voting body regardless of any past affiliation with the candidates.

"The Hall of Fame has always believed there needs to be a court of appeals for those players who may have slipped through the cracks over the years,’’ Idelson said. “If you look at the membership and how it's been built over the years, there's 228 players now, 325 members. The various veterans committees over the decades have elected more than half of those 228 players. So you’d have a pretty small Hall of Fame if you didn't have a court of appeals . . . We believe the Hall of Fame still is very small. You want those who deserve to be in to have their place in Cooperstown and make sure you have a place that really represents the best of the best. When you start to think that just a little over 1 percent of that 19,000-plus who played have a plaque, it's really a pretty small number.’’

The steroid era

Players closely linked with performance-enhancing drugs have made inroads toward election. In November 2017, Hall of Famer and vice chairman Joe Morgan issued a letter asking members not to vote for players suspected of steroid use.

“I thought it made sense,’’ Aaron said. “I think I knew where Joe was coming from. He wanted the Hall of Fame to stay sacred and something that all of us can be very proud of. You got to play the game the way it's supposed to be played on the field. It’s going to be tough for them to get somebody to sit beside them or stand behind them like they did for me and the rest of the players.’’

Idelson said the Hall does not “shy away from the PED era. Our job is to present facts and let people have their own value judgments. We have an entire part of the baseball history that is about PEDs. You can't tell the baseball story without including it. Visitors leave here with a much better understanding of what it is. The Hall of Fame always stood by its electorates. And whomever the BBWAA and the Eras committees have chosen to elect, we've been very happy to honor, and that's not going to change."

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