By Rob Centorani THE DAILY STAR
---- — The sight of kids playing catch Sunday at the Clark Sports Center seemed fitting.
After all, there’s practically no other day on the local calendar more likely to inspire kids and adults alike to have a catch than Hall of Fame Induction Day.
But the timing and the site of the thrown baseballs were indisputable evidence that this was no ordinary Induction Ceremony.
Kids zipped baseballs back and forth DURING the acceptance speeches. They did so at a spot that, practically any other year, would have been occupied by hardcore fans cheering on one of the greats of the game as he recalled memories of his storied career.
Not this year.
According to the HOF, 2,500 fans heard speeches by Dennis McNamara, Anne Vernon and Jerry Watkins (last year, when Barry Larkin and Ron Santo were inducted, about 17,500 attended).
McNamara, Vernon and Watkins are descendants of Hank O’Day, Jacob Ruppert and Deacon White, respectively. O’Day, Ruppert and White earned induction into the Hall of Fame via a Pre-Integration Committee Era election this past December.
All three died in the 1930s.
During a ceremony delayed 53 minutes by a light-to-moderate rain that commenced just before the scheduled 1:30 p.m. start, McNamara, Vernon and Watkins delivered short but compelling addresses about men they’d never met.
Thirty-two Hall of Famers sat behind them. Forty were expected, but Luis Aparicio, Whitey Ford, Tony Gwynn, Doug Harvey, Willie Mays, Bill Mazeroski, Tom Seaver and Bruce Sutter — all on a list of expected returnees the Hall released July 17 — didn’t attend.
This year’s ceremony was no different than past years in that the speakers talked about character and integrity.
McNamara, the great-grandnephew of O’Day, said, “Do your best with honor and integrity.”
One of the reasons this year’s inductions were so lightly attended was due in part because some on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot might have lacked those qualities.
Players such as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and Mike Piazza all appeared on the BBWAA ballot for the first time this year and compiled Hall of Fame-quality numbers during their careers. But none met the 75 percent threshold for election.
Suspected steroid use appears to be the reason they fell short.
McNamara, a former Chicago police officer who turned 70 Saturday, choked up several times during his speech.
“I have that Boehner syndrome,” McNamara joked during his address, in reference to U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner, who’s been known to get emotional in front of cameras.
At the post-Induction news conference, McNamara added: “I really didn’t understand why I was tearing up all the time. I don’t understand why (Boehner) tears up all the time.”
O’Day, who died in 1935 at 75, spent close to 50 years in professional baseball, most of it as a National League umpire. He became the 10th umpire inducted into the Hall. O’Day worked five of the first seven World Series, including the first in 1903, and 10 overall. He also played and managed professionally.
McNamara called his experience “priceless.”
“I’m not a big baseball fan,” McNamara said after the ceremony, “but I do know riding on that bus (to the Clark Sports Center), sitting right next to Wade Boggs and various superstars that many people would give anything to get their signatures on a baseball, to be on the bus with all of them … priceless.”
McNamara said he’ll look forward to next year, when former Chicago Cubs standout Greg Maddux and ex-Chicago White Sox star Frank Thomas will be on the BBWAA ballot.
White’s great grandson, Watkins, is from Wheaton, Ill., and roots for the Cubs, who last won a World Series in 1908. He said White’s induction is a long time coming.
“In my heart, I never believed this day would come,” he said from the podium, “the day that we would stand here together and honor my great grandfather, James ‘Deacon’ White, as a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. But you’ve got remember: Cubs fans are really good at waiting.”
White, a bare-handed catcher, played from 1871 to 1890.
Watkins explained in those days, batters received five strikes and eight balls, foul balls didn’t count as strikes, and if a foul ball was caught, it wasn’t an out.
“The batter even got to tell the pitcher where he wanted the pitch delivered,” he said. “So to compare (players of White’s era) to modern-day players is pretty much meaningless.”
Watkins, 66, then said White — born in Canton — could only be compared to players of his era and “by that standard, James White was outstanding.”
With a career batting average of .312, White played for seven teams. During a five-year span from 1873-77, he played on five straight title-winners with three different teams.
“If I had more time (during my speech), I would have emphasized his character and commitment to religion,” McNamara said of White, who earned the nickname “Deacon” from teammates because of his strong faith.
White died in 1939 at 91.
When Ruppert died at the age of 71 in 1939, Babe Ruth said, “We lost the best man baseball ever had.”
Five years after buying a struggling Yankees franchise in 1915 for $460,000, Ruppert acquired Ruth from the Boston Red Sox for $100,000.
He also oversaw the building of Yankee Stadium, which was completed in 1923. With Ruth and Lou Gehrig leading the way, the Yankees won 10 pennants and seven World Series while Ruppert owned the team.
“I’m sure uncle Ruppert would be extremely proud and thrilled to know he was about to become a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame,” Vernon said during her speech.
Vernon, who lives in Vermont, said upon arrival in Cooperstown she was overwhelmed, but “after the first 24 hours, then I felt much better. Everyone has been so kind and supportive.”
She added that induction of Ruppert has “changed my life.”
Gehrig also figured into the ceremony. He was among a dozen players who never had a formal induction ceremony that were recognized Sunday.
Known as the “Iron Horse,” Gehrig played in 2,130 straight games during his career, a record at the time of his retirement in 1939.
He had his plaque read by Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., who broke Gehrig’s record by playing in 2,632 consecutive games for the Baltimore Orioles.
Former Cincinnati Reds second baseman read the plaque of Rogers Hornsby.
Additionally, the 10 members of the Class of 1945 had their plaques read by Hall of Famers.
They were: Dan Brouthers (Carlton Fisk), Fred Clarke (Bert Blyleven), Jimmy Collins (Boggs), Ed Delahanty (Billy Williams), Hugh Duffy (Jim Rice), Hughie Jennings (Ozzie Smith), Mike Kelly (Andre Dawson), Jim O’Rourke (Larkin) and Wilbert Robinson (Tommy Lasorda).
The additions of O’Day, Ruppert and White bring the number of Hall of Famers to 300.
Next year’s Induction Ceremony will be held July 27.
Rob Centorani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 432-1000, ext. 209.