They came in record numbers to the 60th Hall of Fame inductions Sunday. They carried team banners and wore jerseys with the names of Brett and Ryan and Yount on the back. They filled the Mohawk Valley meadow and inevitably greeted the introduction of Commissioner Bud Selig with the chant of "We want Pete, we want Pete."
Not a bad idea said Nolan Ryan after his induction with Robin Yount and George Brett, each elected in their first year of eligibility, and Orlando Cepeda, elected by the veterans committee.
"Pete Rose should be in the Hall of Fame based strictly on what he did as a baseball player," Ryan said of the all-time hit leader who is ineligible for the Hall because of his suspension for gambling. "I hated to pitch against him because he was as good a competitor as I faced. He'd do anything to beat you. I think people who would walk into the Hall and see his plaque aren't going to think about anything except what he did as a player."
On the busiest weekend of the year in this picturesque village of 2,300, gridlocked crowds filled Main Street and the souvenir shops selling memorabilia at inflated prices.
A four day autograph session featuring the man himself at the Pete Rose Museum--two blocks from the Hall of Fame--compounded the congestion and seemed to underscore Ryan's contention that people basically aren't concerned about anything except what he did as a player.
Selig, of course, continues to feel differently, and he ignored those scattered chants among the Rose partisans in an enthusiastic induction crowd estimated at upward of 50,000--a baseball Woodstock.
"I don't like speaking to even 100 people," Yount said. "When I first drove up in the bus and got a look at the number of people, I was a bit intimidated and went directly to the bathroom."
The former Milwaukee Brewer star, a winner of the most valuable player award at two different positions, had called Hall officials a few weeks ago and was granted permission to speak first so that he wouldn't have to sit and deal with his nerves during a ceremony that lasted almost three hours.
Yount spoke first--and eloquently, showing little stage fright as he placed his induction "beyond the dreams" of a youngster pretending to be one of his San Francisco Giant favorites while playing make-believe games in the backyard of his San Fernando Valley home.
He referred to Lou Gehrig's famed speech when he stepped down as the New York Yankee first baseman by saying, "With respect to Mr. Gehrig, today I consider myself to be the luckiest man on the face of the earth."
Yount also closed with a thoughtful mention of the three workers who recently died in a crane accident at the new Milwaukee ballpark.
"The game of life is too short," he said. "Play it with all you've got."
Yount, Brett and Ryan all competed in that manner, as did most of the 34 Hall of Famers who returned for the ceremony.
They included Willie Mays and Henry Aaron, who seldom attend but who both played with Cepeda, and Ted Williams, who evoked memories of his emotional appearance at the All-Star game as he was introduced last, bringing the other Hall of Famers and the huge crowd to their feet.
The Kid is 80 and in fragile health and he ultimately left early, missing the opportunity to hear Ryan break ground here by including Marvin Miller, the godfather of the players union, among people he thanked, which may have caused Selig even more consternation than the Rose chants.
Ryan noted that he made $7,000 in his first professional season and that, each off-season early in his career, both he and wife Ruth would have to take jobs to make ends meet until the next spring.
"Marvin made it possible for us not to have to do that, and I appreciate his impact," Ryan said, referring to the stunning escalation of player salaries at the major league level, an escalation that has not occurred at the minor league level, where most players still have to work during the off-season to make those ends meet.
Ryan is not known for brash or political statements, but on a day when he supported Rose, saluted Miller and thanked longtime agent Dick Moss (a former Miller associate at the union), it was surprising he didn't mention or try to get out the vote for Texas Governor and Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, the former Texas Ranger owner who was a guest of his at the ceremony.
There was no politics from Brett, who would side-step any questions about Rose after delivering an emotional speech during which he had to pause several times to fight back tears, particularly when he thanked brothers John, Bobby and Ken.
"Sometimes," he said haltingly, looking down from the stage at his brothers, "I wonder why all this has happened to me. All I ever wanted to be was as good as you."
Said Brett later:
"I tend to wear my emotions on my sleeve. I think that came out in the way I played."
Cepeda, at 61, controlled his emotions despite a long and difficult road.
He was selected by the veterans committee in his first year of eligibility after missing by only seven votes of being elected by the baseball writers in 1994, his 15th and last year of eligibility on the ballot. The Baby Bull is the only player in history to have won the National's rookie of the year award (1959) and most valuable player award (1967) by unanimous vote, but it has long been suspected that many writers withheld their Hall votes because of what happened in 1975, a year after he retired. Cepeda went to the airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to claim a package from Colombia that had 160 pounds of marijuana and was arrested.
He claimed to be picking it up for a friend, but was eventually convicted of drug distribution in 1978 and served five months in federal prison.
"I blew it, I made a very bad mistake, and I paid a big price," Cepeda acknowledged in a recent interview. "When Roberto Clemente died, they said in Puerto Rico that 'at least we still have Orlando Cepeda alive.' So when I let everybody down there, they got very mad. We are very emotional as a people. We are hard on the people who mess up."
The San Francisco Giants, his original team, helped Cepeda put the pieces back together in 1986, when he was hired for their community relations department and became a welcomed and honored fixture in a variety of Bay Area programs.
On the day when the suspended Rose sold autographs, the once-convicted Cepeda joined Clemente as the only Puerto Ricans in the Hall and the Governor of Puerto Rico came to help honor him. Cepeda thanked the Giants and "people of San Francisco" for "standing by me and giving me the strength to go forward no matter what. I was bitter when I left Puerto Rico but I learned with help that with bitterness, anger and negativity you go nowhere."
Cepeda paid special tribute to Bill Rigney, his first manager with the Giants, for turning the first base job over to him in 1958.
"I came to the United States at 17," he said. "My only goal was to make enough money to be able to buy my mother a new house. I've been very lucky. Baseball has enabled me to escape poverty and build a name for myself. As a member of the Hall of Fame I can help open the gates for other Puerto Rican and Latin players. It's a great honor. I used to say, 'Who cares about the Hall of Fame? Who needs it?' I now know, I needed it."
Also inducted Sunday were turn of the century manager Frank Selee, Negro leagues pitcher Smokey Joe Williams and the late American League umpire, Nestor Chylak.
The J.G. Taylor Spink Award was presented to former San Francisco baseball writer Bob Stevens, while the Ford C. Frick Award went to the late broadcaster, Arch McDonald.
At the end of a long and exhausting day, Brett was asked how it felt to have it behind him and said, "I feel like I did when I got married and finally said, 'I do.' Let's party."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
HALL OF FAME:
First basemen: 16
Negro Leagues: 16
Pioneers & Executives: 24
Elected in first time on ballot (excluding 1936): 29
Elected by writers: 91
Elected by veteran's committee: 144
Elected by Negro League committee: 9
Members still living: 61