COOPERSTOWN, NY — The National Baseball Hall of Fame inducted seven new members during induction ceremonies on Sunday. But the afternoon of speechifying, poignancy and remembrance belonged to Big Papi.
“Wow! Cooperstown!” began David Ortiz, kicking off his speech to the crowd sprawled across the grounds at the Clark Sports Complex. The gathering was heavily flavored with Red Sox gear sporting Ortiz’s No. 34, not to mention numerous flags representing the Dominican Republic, where Ortiz was born.
Ortiz became the first career designated hitter to be selected on his first ballot when this year’s round of results were announced in January. Ortiz thanked the baseball writers for the honor in his typically high-energy fashion, saying, “You guys got it going on.”
Ortiz becomes the fourth Dominican-born player to be enshrined at the Hall of Fame, joining his longtime friend Pedro Martinez, Vladimir Guerrero Sr. and Juan Marichal.
Ortiz, who has dual citizenship, also thanked America before offering up a travel promo for his original home, saying, “To all of my American friends, consider this as an open invitation to visit my island. The Dominican Republic has a special flavor. We have a lot of good and happy people, beautiful beaches where you guys can go when you guys are freezing here.”
During his 20-season MLB career, Ortiz bashed 541 homers while finishing the top five of AL MVP balloting five straight seasons over a period ending in 2007. In 2016, he enjoyed one of the great final seasons in history, hitting 38 homers with a league-leading 127 RBIs while also pacing the circuit in doubles, slugging percentage and OPS.
When Ortiz joined Boston in 2003, the Red Sox were still laboring under the Curse of the Bambino, the label given to Boston’s title drought that began after their 1918 World Series win. The Red Sox snapped that streak in Ortiz’s second season with the club. By the time he retired, Boston had added two more championships.
In 2013, Ortiz was named MVP of the World Series win against St. Louis, going 11-for-16 at the plate with eight walks over six games.
And he did it all while living up to his nickname, Big Papi, which encapsulated the gregarious, larger-than-life personality that was so often on display during his career and was very much shown on Sunday.
Delivering his remarks in both English and Spanish, Ortiz said, “This is such an incredible day. An incredible honor.”
Joining Ortiz in being inducted on Sunday was Tony Oliva, who won three batting titles, led the AL in hits five times and hit .304 over a 15-year career for the Twins. Oliva congratulated Ortiz during his speech, alluding to Papi’s early career start in Minnesota with a bit of wistfulness while also suggesting that moving on to the Red Sox was the best thing in Papi’s career.
Still… “We missed you in Minnesota,” Oliva said.
Oliva, who was born in Cuba, also paid homage to the late Minnie Minoso, who as the first black Latino player in the American League or National League opened the doors for generations of Latino players who followed him. Minoso was another of the induced on Sunday.
“As Minnie would say if he was here with us this afternoon, ‘Thank you, my friends, from the bottom of my heart’,” said Sharon Rice-Minoso, speaking on her husband’s behalf.
Minoso was as famous for his connection with fans as for his outstanding career, a quality he shared the late Buck O’Neil, who was inducted on Sunday.
Before the ceremony, the Hall warmed up the gathering by replaying a video of O’Neil leading the crowd in singing, “The greatest thing in all of my life is loving you.” The memorable moment was from the ceremony in 2006, two months before O’Neil’s death, as he spoke on behalf of 17 inductees selected for their contributions to Negro Leagues baseball, a group that many at the time felt should have included O’Neil.
O’Neil, as he did throughout his life, chose to celebrate those who made it in rather than bemoan the fact that he had not.
“Uncle John would also probably weave into his words to you this afternoon the notion of priming,” said O’Neil’s niece, Dr. Angela Terry. “That is, the positivity with which he viewed a majority of the occurrences in his life.”
Longtime MLB pitcher and broadcaster Jim Kaat focused on thanking those who helped along the way that in a career that extended from 1959 to 1983. Kaat is the only player who faced both Ted Williams, who retired in 1960, and Julio Franco, who retired in 2007.
Kaat won 283 games during his career and is remembered as the best fielding pitcher of his time, racking up 16 Gold Gloves at the position. He won his only World Series late in his career, getting a ring with the 1982 St. Louis Cardinals.
Kaat, who was selected by the Hall’s era committee comprised of former players, executives and journalists expert on his era, said, “When your career is validated by players that you played against, played with, the media people and club executives that actually saw you play, that’s the highest honor you can get.”
Brooklyn Dodgers great Gil Hodges was also selected. A beloved member of “The Boys of Summer” teams in the 1950s, Hodges went on to perhaps his greatest fame as the manager of the “Amazin’ Mets,” the 1969 World Series-winning edition of the New York club that before that campaign had never won more than 73 games in a season.
Hodges died of a heart attack at age 47, late in spring training before the start of the 1972 season. Long a popular choice for those pointing out Hall omissions, Hodges hit 370 homers during his career, mostly for the Dodgers during their time in Brooklyn. Hodges made the move with the Dodgers when they shifted to Los Angeles for the 1958 season.
“He was a very humble man, but he would be so proud to be here with the best of the best in baseball,” said Hodges’ daughter, Irene, who delivered a moving address on her father’s behalf.
Also welcomed to the Hall was 19th-century pioneer Bud Fowler, considered to be the first Black player in professional baseball. During a long career that stretched into the 20th century, Fowler played for more than 50 teams despite being lauded as a top performer wherever he went. Often, he was forced to switch teams because a teammate or an opponent refused to take the field with him.
Fowler died in 1913. Speaking on his behalf, Hall of Famer Dave Winfield said, “Some fans loved him, but many of his own teammates and opposing teammates didn’t. They didn’t want to play with a Black man.”
Fowler, who learned the game while growing up in Cooperstown, is buried about 25 miles from the Hall of Fame. Winfield said he visited Fowler’s grave site to prepare for his speech.