COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — The rain, the gloom, the small gathering of fans didn’t matter.
For the families of baseball pioneers Jacob Ruppert Jr., Hank O’Day and James “Deacon” White this was what they had long been waiting for.
All three have been dead for more than seven decades. Now their legacies were secure with their induction Sunday into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
“This is a day we will all remember for the rest of our lives,” said Jerry Watkins, great grandson of White and one of nearly 50 family members in attendance. “In my mind, the only way it could have been better is if my dad were here to see it. My dad loved his grandfather, he loved baseball, and he loved the Chicago Cubs. It was his lifelong dream to see his grandfather enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and it was his lifelong dream to see the Cubs play in the World Series. Dad, today you got one of them.”
White, a barehanded catcher who grew up in Caton, N.Y., near Corning, was one of major league baseball’s earliest stars. In fact, he was the first batter in the first professional game on May 4, 1871, and laced a double. An outstanding hitter, White was regarded as the best catcher in baseball before switching to third base later in his nearly 20-year career.
A deeply religious man, White was nicknamed “Deacon” and dubbed “the most admirable superstar of the 1870s” by Bill James in his “Historical Baseball Extract.” White played for six teams and had a .312 career average. He finished with 2,067 hits, 270 doubles, 98 triples, 24 home runs and 988 RBIs before retiring in 1890.
“In my heart, I never believed this day would come,” Watkins said. “If my grandfather were alive today, he would say thank you to the Hall of Fame for this great honor, and he would say thank you to each of you for being here. So, on his behalf I say thank you.”
Ruppert was born in Manhattan in 1867 and instead of college went to work for his father in the family brewing business. He also fashioned a military career, rising to the rank of colonel in the National Guard, and served four terms in Congress from 1899-1907 before becoming president of the Jacob Ruppert Brewing Co. upon the death of his father in 1915.
Interested in baseball since he was a kid, Ruppert purchased the Yankees before the 1915 season for $480,000, then proceeded to transform what had been a perennial also-ran in the American League into a powerhouse. He hired Miller Huggins as manager, Ed Barrow as his general manager, snared Babe Ruth in a 1919 deal with the Boston Red Sox that changed the dynamics of the sport and built Yankee Stadium in 1923.
When Ruppert died in 1939, his teams had won 10 AL pennants and seven World Series in 18 seasons.
“For my family, it’s a huge honor. I’m sure Uncle Jacob would be proud,” said Anne Vernon, a great grandniece of Ruppert. “It’s also very meaningful for my children. It has meant so much.”
O’Day was born on the rural west side of Chicago in 1859 and played ball as a kid with his older brothers. He apprenticed as a steamfitter while pitching for several local teams. He turned pro in 1884, but his arm suffered mightily in seven years of action and he retired not long after leading the New York Giants to the National League pennant in 1889 and pitching a complete game to clinch the 19th century precursor to the modern World Series.
During his playing days, O’Day umpired occasionally and was so proficient he was hired in 1895. After working a season in the minor leagues, he joined the NL in 1897 and went on to umpire more than 4,000 games. His greatest contribution to baseball was persuading those associated with the game to treat the men in blue with dignity.
“He was almost a mythic figure in our family,” 70-year-old Dennis McNamara, a grandnephew of O’Day, said as he choked back tears. “I wonder, what does this mean? It means everyone is recognized at some point. You may not know it, but recognition does come.”
O’Day’s most memorable call happened in September 1908 when he called Fred Merkle of the New York Giants out for not touching second base on what would have been a game-winning hit against the Chicago Cubs in the bottom of the ninth.
Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers noticed it and appealed to O’Day, the only man in the history of the NL to play, manage, and umpire in the postseason. O’Day, who went on to manage the Cubs, called Merkle out on a force play, the game ended in a tie and the teams finished the season tied for first place. The Cubs won the makeup game and the pennant, their last, and O’Day never wavered in his ruling.
“The lesson of Hank O’Day is do your best with honesty and integrity,” McNamara said.
When Lou Gehrig of the Yankees and Rogers Hornsby of St. Louis were inducted into the Hall of Fame, they never experienced a formal ceremony in Cooperstown. That changed Sunday, when the two, along with 10 other players elected between 1939 and 1945 were feted — Roger Bresnahan, Dan Brouthers, Fred Clarke, Jimmy Collins, Ed Delahanty, Hugh Duffy, Hughie Jennings, Mike “King” Kelly, Jim O’Rourke and Wilbert Robinson.
Returning Hall of Famers took turns reading the text of those players’ plaques in their honor. Former Baltimore Orioles star Cal Ripken Jr., who eclipsed Gehrig’s longstanding record for consecutive games, was chosen to read the inscription on the Iron Horse’s plaque, while former Cincinnati second baseman Joe Morgan read Hornsby’s.
Ruppert, O’Day and White — the Class of 2013 — made the festivities something out of the ordinary. For only the second time in 42 years, baseball writers failed to elect anyone to the Hall of Fame, sending a firm signal that stars of the Steroids Era — including Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Roger Clemens, who didn’t even come close in their first year of eligibility — will be judged in a different light.
Mark McGwire, 10th on the career home run list with 583, has watched his vote totals decrease. He received 24 percent in 2010 — a vote before he acknowledged using steroids and human growth hormone — and received 17 percent this year on his seventh try.
Six years ago, a record crowd of over 70,000 descended on this one-stoplight village for the induction ceremony honoring Ripken and Tony Gwynn. Sunday’s inclement weather — the start of the ceremony was delayed by rain — figured to affect the turnout, and it was sparse— only 32 Hall of Famers returned.
Still, Tisch Farley and husband John drove up from the Philadelphia area and were in the front row of spectators behind a snow fence to the right of the stage.
“We can say we’ve been at the most-crowded induction and the least crowded,” Tisch Farley said with a pained smile.
It was John’s 20th straight year and the 12th for Keith Pittman of Terre Haute, Ind., but they played second fiddle to their annual Hall of Fame buddy, Jim Mishk.
“I come to this every year,” said the 58-year-old Mishk, who is from Fishkill, just north of New York City, and has a streak of 32 straight induction ceremonies. “This is part of my normal vacation. I love baseball.”
Mishk was asked about the small turnout.
“The Bonds, the Sosas, the McGwires, they’re the reason this crowd is like this,” Mishk said. “The people in town are the ones suffering, not the ballplayers. This is a once-a-year thing (financially) for the town, and their selfishness ruined this. This is sad.”