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Eckersley, Molitor join Hall
07/25/2004 8:04 PM ET
COOPERSTOWN -- They were drawn from all over the map, not to a diamond in the middle of an Iowa cornfield, but across a lawn in the nominal crucible of baseball.

They gathered under fluffy clouds and in the company of baseball immortals to witness the newest initiations into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

As thousands of fans spread blankets and unfolded lounge chairs on the hills of the Clark Sports Center, someone offered the valid impression that this was a Baseball Woodstock.

Except, about 150 miles northwest of that legendary field, that wasn't Jimi Hendrix and "All Along the Watchtower" coming from the speakers, but John Fogerty and "Centerfield."

And folks hadn't come to celebrate Free Love, but Paul Molitor and Dennis Eckersley, who on Sunday afternoon were inducted into a Hall without walls.

A grateful Molitor, the author of 3,319 hits, and a repentant Eckersley, the pitching double-threat in the rotation and then the bullpen, headlined an emotional three-hour ceremony.

Laying their emotions almost as bare where Murray Chass, the New York Times writer presented with the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, and Bay Area broadcaster Lon Simmons, given the Ford Frick Award.

The day's four awardees were humbled to be standing on stage in front of the greatest reunion ever of Hall of Famers, as 50 of the 58 living members of the shrine returned with opened arms for the newcomers.

"I thank all the managers I played for, all the players I played with, every coach who worked hard to make me a better player," Molitor said. "I didn't play the game to get here. I played because I loved it.

"That having been said ... it's Cooperstown, that magical place. Thank you for embracing me in the family of the Hall of Fame."

Eckersley, who kept his composure while delivering his acceptance speech until he touched on his successful fight against alcoholism, said, "My passion for this game will live forever. Because baseball lives in my soul.

"God put it there," Eckersley went on, his voice breaking, "and there it will always be. Baseball is in every fiber of my being, in every beat of my heart."

The afternoon's event, like any good baseball game, gradually built to the inevitable climax of weighty comments from Molitor and Eckersley.

Hall of Fame president Dale Petroskey opened the festivities by welcoming the Hall's "guests."

"Whether you're from Milwaukee or Boston or the Bay Area or the Twin Cities," Petroskey said, each stop on his roll call drawing loud cheers, "or all points in-between ... Welcome to Cooperstown. You've chosen to be part of history.

"This is a global game, a family game, and we're proud to be the current stewards of the game's history."

Observing his 25th anniversary as the Induction Ceremony's emcee, George Grande began his introduction of the dais with Hall of Fame chairman Jane Forbes Clark, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig and MLB President Bob DuPuy.

Grande then had to take a deep breath. He launched into narrating an on-stage parade of Hall of Famers so stunning, it lasted 50 minutes.

With the process enlivened by the addition of a video board flanking the stage that beamed highlights of each Hall of Famer as he was introduced, the audience spent the 50 minutes abuzz.

The first sights of Phil Rizzuto brought oohs-and-ahhs ... applause built for Sandy Koufax before Grande could get out his name ... Willie McCovey, ordinarily seen in public bound to his wheelchair, walked out on crutches.

The last to be introduced, Molitor and Eckersley paused to shake hands, for the umpteenth time since their Jan. 6 election by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) launched them on a shared ride into immortality.

Rev. Sam Abbott, of Cooperstown's Christ Church, gave the invocation.

The Reverend gave thanks to "Abner Doubleday, for laying out a field in a cow pasture to give birth to baseball." Just as the Reverend was about to lose the faith of fans in this historically-corrected times, he quickly added, "... Or maybe not. Only you know for sure, oh, God."

The folks snickered, one of the few times the rolling hills rolled with laughter. This would be an afternoon wrapped in poignancy.

Drew Olsen, the BBWAA national chairman, introduced Chass as "One of the great truth-seekers in all of journalism, not just sports journalism."

Chass made some peers in the audience uncomfortable with an acceptance speech that often veered into a censure of contemporary baseball writers.

He also said, "I'm not a big fan of awards, but this is different. Because it is awarded by other reporters, so I'm humbly honored, and I thank those who made me the choice this year."

Joe Morgan, a Hall of Fame second baseman before he became a respected ESPN analyst, presented the Frick Award to Simmons, a veteran of 40-plus years calling games for both the Giants and A's.

"My own career won't be complete," said Morgan, a native of the Bay Area who grew up listening to Simmons' rich voice, "until I get to broadcast a game with him."

Simmons delivered some zingers, an expectancy of announcers so hilariously fulfilled by 2003 Frick Award recipient Bob Uecker.

Gesturing to the Hall of Famers seated behind him, Simmons said, "When I walked into the hotel and saw all those guys, I thought I'd missed the turn and walked into the wax museum."

Simmons also advised the always-dashing Eckersley to "stop taking the ugly pills. They're not working."

"I'm not sure I'm qualified for the Hall of Fame," Simmons said in conclusion. "But this tells me that, for once in my life, I wasn't mediocre."

And then the main acts stepped to center stage, with Jane Forbes Clark welcoming each "to the Hall of Fame family" and Commissioner Selig reciting the inscriptions on their newly-minted plaques.

Molitor keyed a retrospective of his career with thank-you notes:

  • To Selig, the Brewers' principal owner during his 15-year reign in Milwaukee, "For the leadership and friendship."

  • To Robin Yount, his neighbor on the right side of the Brewers infield who beat him to Cooperstown by a few years, "for pushing me to be a better player. I'm honored to join him in the Hall as the second player with 'Brewers' on his plaque."

  • To the city of Milwaukee, "for making us feel so special."

  • To his 1993-95 Toronto Blue Jays, "for the opportunity to spend three years in that city."

  • And to his hometown Twins, who in 1996-98 allowed him "to complete the circle."

    But Molitor's most heartfelt and touching thanks went to his late parents, to his mom, who passed away in 1988, and to his dad, who before succumbing to cancer in 2002 had told him, "I'm so proud to have you as my son, and I love you."

    In returning that love, Molitor was overcome by emotion ... feeling which visibly returned as Eckersley discussed his rebellion against alcohol.

    "No one knew then that I was fighting a major battle with alcohol," Eckersley said, referring to the offseason following his 1987 campaign with the Cubs. "I knew I had come to a crossroads in my life.

    "With the grace of God, I got sober, and it saved my life. I was a new man. It took a great deal of acceptance to come to terms with being an alcoholic, but that acceptance was the key to sobriety. Without that acceptance, I'm not standing here today."

    Eck's voice cracked throughout that soul-cleansing, and it now briefly faded totally, as he tried to muster the nerve to pay a debt he sensed was overdue.

    "I'd like to thank my wife at the time, Nancy, for standing by me when I knew it was very difficult," Eckersley said. "You chose to stay by me, and I'm grateful for your love and support."

    Fans, such as those waving the sheet on the lawn reading "California to New York ... Just to tell Dennis thanks," had often seen The Eck swagger into ninth innings, his hair flapping in the breeze.

    Now, the hair was the same. But rather than being needed by his team in peril, he was the one reaching out for support.

    And the hills came alive with the roar of approval and applause, as fans tossed their wet tissues and lauded Cooperstown's newest residents.

    This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.