Hall of Fame numbers in crowd

Record 50,000 see induction ceremonies

July 26, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- They came from all over the baseball world, making the pilgrimage to this historic hamlet in upstate New York to sit together in a grassy meadow and pay tribute to one of the largest, most prestigious classes ever inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Baseball's answer to Woodstock.

The record crowd was estimated at more than 50,000, which was no surprise considering that the four headline inductees -- Nolan Ryan, George Brett, Robin Yount and Orlando Cepeda -- each represented a specific geographic region.

The fans from Texas raised the Lone Star flag and erupted enthusiastically at every mention of Ryan and his accomplishments. Brett's supporters wore Kansas City Royals garb and hung on every word of his emotional induction speech. Yount drew a large number of followers from the Milwaukee area. There were even a handful of Puerto Rican flags to celebrate Cepeda's long-delayed arrival in Cooperstown.

"When I first drove up in the bus and got a look at the number of people, I was a bit intimidated," said Yount, who was the first of the players to deliver his induction speech. "I went directly to the bathroom."

Each of the inductees seemed nervous about the prospect of speaking in front of the record crowd -- which included 34 Hall of Famers onstage behind the podium -- but the three-hour ceremony went off without a major glitch.

There was a brief demonstration by a small group of Pete Rose supporters when commissioner Bud Selig was introduced early in the program, but the rest of the afternoon was a baseball lovefest, complete with another emotional entrance and exit by All-Star Game guest of honor Ted Williams.

"Today is a great day of celebration," Selig said. "This really is our finest hour."

The Hall of Fame's Class of '99 is the largest since the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum was dedicated 60 years ago. Ryan, Brett and Yount were elected by vote of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Cepeda, umpire Nestor Chylak, Negro leagues pitching great Smokey Joe Williams and turn-of-the-century manager Frank Selee were added by the Hall's veterans committee.

In addition, longtime San Francisco Chronicle baseball writer Bob Stevens received the J. G. Taylor Spink Award and Washington Senators broadcaster Arch McDonald posthumously received the Ford C. Frick Award for his pioneering contribution to baseball broadcasting.

But the thousands of fans came to see the contemporary superstars -- particularly Ryan and Brett, who each was named on more than 98 percent of the ballots in the Hall of Fame election last December.

"You see all the people who made the commitment to get here that's overwhelming in itself," Ryan said, "and to see the people around you that you idolized growing up and all the other people who came here to be with you; there's a whole range of emotions you experience."

Ryan didn't betray a lot of that emotion. He made some introductory comments and proceeded to list the many people who contributed to his success, beginning with his parents and family and moving chronologically from his youth coaches through his professional career.

"My ability to throw a baseball was a gift -- a God-given gift -- and I truly am appreciative of that gift," Ryan said. "It took me awhile to figure that out and realize what a gift I had been given, and when I finally did, I dedicated myself to be the best pitcher that I possibly could be for as long as I possibly could."

He thanked late California Angels owner Gene Autry, pitching coaches Tom Morgan and Tom House, agent Dick Moss and even players union pioneer Marvin Miller for making it possible for his family to live in the comfort afforded by the dramatic upturn in player compensation during the free-agent era.

Yount had spent the weekend humbly questioning whether he really deserved to be among the hundreds of great players in the Hall of Fame, even though his 3,142 career hits rank 15th all time in that category. He carried that unassuming demeanor to the stage.

"OK, now's the time I'm supposed to wake up from all of this," he said as he concluded his speech. "That's OK, it's a great dream. But if, in fact, this is reality, then -- with all due respect to you, Mr. Gehrig -- today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth."

Yount used the final moments of his speech to pay a poignant tribute to the three men who died recently in a construction accident at Miller Field, the new ballpark being built in Milwaukee.

"As great a day as this for us up here," he said, "my heart goes out to the families of the men who lost their lives during the construction of the new stadium in Milwaukee. The game of life is too short. Play it with everything you've got."

Brett, the last to speak, delivered heartfelt tribute to his family, late mentor Charlie Lau, late manager Dick Howser and a long list of friends, teammates and Royals officials.

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