Baseball Hall of Fame players compete for statues

COOPERSTOWN, NY — The Hall of Fame’s unofficial receptionists stand together, in bronze, near the box office in the museum’s lobby. They are multicultural monuments of strength, sacrifice and service: Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente.

“Those three represented a lot more than they did on the field,” said Josh Rawitch, president of the Hall of Fame. “It was the way they took life off the field in terms of helping other people, leading the way for other people, and ultimately being the perfect example of what it means to have character and courage.”

The Hall of Fame will welcome seven new members on Sunday, including three who are alive: David Ortiz, Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva. Everyone will be recognized in the gallery with a plaque measuring 15½ inches by 10¾ inches, the standard size for all Hall of Famers – from Hank Aaron to Robin Yount – since the first induction ceremony in 1939.

The separator, for some, is a statue. There is no vote for the dignity of a statue, no formal process for achieving it. It takes a certain transcendence, as well as sheer excellence in the field. As the saying goes: if you know, you know.

“Dave Winfield, he’s one of the only guys who doesn’t have a statue — and we give him a hard time,” Ozzie Smith said last fall in a podcast hosted by former Major Leaguer Bret Boone. “I say, ‘Come on, Dave, don’t you have a statue?’ You should see the look on his face.”

In a phone interview recently, Winfield reluctantly confirmed that he, in fact, doesn’t have a statue – and that colleagues mock him for it.

“Honestly?” Winfield relented. “Yea.”

For George Brett, a Winfield teammate on nine American League All-Star teams in the 1980s, this just makes sense. Brett has a statue in the field lobby in Kansas City, where he played for 21 seasons and is synonymous with the Royals franchise.

“A lot of these guys played in so many cities,” Brett said. “Who’s going to have a statue of Winfield? He played on eight different teams.”

Six, actually, but that raises an interesting point: teams are more active now in celebrating their pasts, but many great players, especially in recent decades, were just passing through on their way to better contracts elsewhere.

Since the stadium construction boom of the 1990s, nearly every team has opened exclusive baseball parks, with many replacing multi-purpose, city-owned facilities not given to individual monuments. The Philadelphia Phillies, for example, had generic sports statues outside Veterans Stadium, but named a new park in 2004 after Richie Ashburn, Steve Carlton, Robin Roberts and Mike Schmidt.

Several older parks, such as Wrigley Field in Chicago and Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, have made recent renovations to include public meeting spaces. The Dodgers gave Sandy Koufax a statue in their new plaza in June, and the Cubs did the same in May with Fergie Jenkins.

Koufax played only for the Dodgers, and while Jenkins pitched mostly for the Cubs, he recorded nearly 2,000 innings with other teams. Gaylord Perry, however, went through seven teams in 12 seasons after his first decade with the Giants, which even put him in bronze in 2016.

Perry joined Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal and Orlando Cepeda – all Hall of Fame teammates on the 1962 National League pennant winners – outside the gates of Oracle Park in San Francisco. Jenkins, who had a similar set of teammates at the end of the decade, noticed.

“I was saying to myself, ‘I wonder when they’re going to put me in a statue at Wrigley Field with three of the best players I’ve played with?'” said Jenkins, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame with Perry and Rod. Carew in 1991. “I lived with Ernie Banks for three years and played with Billy Williams and Ron Santo for seven years – and believe me, it’s an honor to be among them.”

Sculptor William Behrends created all of the Giants statues, as well as those in San Diego (Tony Gwynn and Trevor Hoffman) and minor league park in Brooklyn (Robinson and Pee Wee Reese). His most recent work was revealed on opening day at Citi Field: Mets star Tom Seaver in his famous car delivery, twice life-size.

“When you get off the subway and see it for the first time, it’s a long way from it,” said Behrends. “You have to be present at a distance. You want someone 30 meters away to see you and want to go to them. Larger spaces are like shrunken sculptures; you place a strictly life-size sculpture in a large space and it looks smaller than life-size.”

The Seaver statue is the only one outside a major league stadium in New York. The Yankees present Don Larsen and Yogi Berra – the heat for the only perfect game in World Series history – in their museum at Yankee Stadium, and former owner George Steinbrenner stands on a bronze sentry near the elevator in the lobby of Gate 2. But the Yankees’ vast constellation of stars receives plaques or monuments, not statues, in an open-air gallery beyond the center field fence.

Some members of the Yankees Hall of Fame, then – Reggie Jackson, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and so on – don’t have statues anywhere. Others have statues far from the Bronx: Babe Ruth at Camden Yards in Baltimore, near her hometown; Joe DiMaggio at the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in Chicago; Mickey Mantle in his hometown of Commerce, Oklahoma, and another in minor league park in Oklahoma City.

“The Giants made things a little easier for themselves,” Behrends said, noting that the franchise moved from New York in the 1950s. Fame as a San Francisco giant, and there were only five of them, so that’s how they choose. But with the Yankees, where would they start?”

The Chicago White Sox – with an equally long history but far fewer years of glory – have several statues inside the park and have recognized the 2005 World Series winners with a monument outside, depicting crucial plays in photos and sculptures. In Cleveland, the late-’90s juggernaut is personified in a statue of the well-traveled Jim Thome, who holds the franchise’s 337 home run record – but his 400th for the Phillies, his 500th for the White Sox and his 600th for the Minnesota twins.

“It means so much more: all those great players we had in the ’90s, all those great plays in the playoffs,” said Thome, who now works for the MLB Network and the White Sox. “It was a championship team for a long time. Unfortunately, we didn’t win a World Series, but it represents all these guys: Kenny Lofton, Carlos Baerga, Sandy Alomar, Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle, Eddie Murray, Dave Winfield.”

Winfield, who had his best seasons with the Fathers and Yankees, ended his career with Cleveland in 1995. He won his only championship for the Toronto Blue Jays, which has a statue of former owner Ted Rogers outside the stadium, as well as a collection of gargoyles representing fans – but no player statues.

Winfield’s name, at least, appears behind the Kent Hrbek statue at Target Field in Minneapolis, in a window listing Minnesota natives who played for the Twins. Voters sent Winfield to Cooperstown on the first try, but Hrbek racked up just five votes (out of 499) in his only year on the ballot.

Hrbek, however, had intangibles: he played his entire career for his hometown team, lasting 14 seasons, equaling his retired uniform number. A burly, gregarious slugger, he helped win two World Series while looking like a guy at the fishing house next door on the lake.

The statue depicts Hrbek’s moment of glory: squeezing the final blow into the glove and raising his arms in triumph after winning the twins’ first championship in 1987. It’s everything a statue should be.

“My daughter goes to the stadium and takes her friends or her kids or her cousins ​​and says, ‘That’s Daddy; that was his favorite part of playing, winning the world championship, catching the ball and jumping off first base,’” Hrbek said. “I hope that memory will last for a long time – and give the pigeons a place to sit for a while and let them do their thing.”

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