06/19/10 10:35 PM ET
Legends speak at Voices of Game event
By Spencer Fordin / MLB.com
And if you wanted to hear from any specific segment of players, the group had you well covered. Starting pitchers Bob Feller and Phil Niekro were on hand, as were relievers Goose Gossage and Rollie Fingers. Harmon Killebrew represented the sluggers of the world, while Ozzie Smith and Gary Carter represented the Gold Glove set.
All seven of those players and their remarkable achievements were on stage Saturday night at Cooperstown High School, reflecting on what the game has meant to them and what they think about it going forward. Gossage, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2008, spoke for many when he underlined the significance of the location.
"I was with so many teams that I had the privilege and the honor of playing in the Hall of Fame Game three different times with three different teams," said Gossage. "It seemed like everywhere I went, they were going back to Cooperstown that year. That was a great game, and this is taking over that game. ... I love coming back to Cooperstown. I always loved coming here. It was a very tough place to come here on your day off and play a game, but it was very special. And I can tell you it's very special for me, and I think all of us, to be here at this particular game on Father's Day."
With that, Gossage was referring to the Hall of Fame Classic, the celebrity-studded game of hardball that the icons will play at Doubleday Field on Sunday. And the timing of the event wasn't lost on any of the players, each of whom have families of their own. To some, in fact, their duty to the game even outweighed their own fatherly duties.
And they did it, they said, because their own fathers had meant so much to their immersion in baseball.
"I must say that it's a tremendous honor to be a member of the Hall of Fame, and an even bigger honor to be on this stage with these great players," said Carter, who then launched into a telling personal anecdote. "When I found out about my election back in January of 2003, 18 days later, my father passed away. We were talking about how influential our fathers have been, and my father was my coach in Little League and American Legion, and he attended all the games whenever I came out to the West Coast.
"... Even though my wife's upset that I'm up here instead of being home with the grandkids and the rest of my family, I think about my dad. I wish he would've had the opportunity to be here for the ceremony in July, but I just knew that his spirit was with me. He was right there when I was able to share my speech."
Perhaps nobody made a bigger stir than Feller, thought by many to be the hardest thrower in baseball history. Feller, when asked about the speed of his fastball, went through a long discourse in which he linked one of the game's greatest legends to its newest phenom. It was some pitch, indeed, to go through Walter Johnson to get to Stephen Strasburg.
"In my opinion, the fastest pitcher of all-time was Walter Johnson. I knew Walter Johnson quite well, [because] he had managed the Cleveland Indians the year before I got there, which was 1936," said Feller. "He was a one-pitch pitcher and he threw sidearm. The mound in Griffith Stadium was about three inches high. ... When you ask me about this new kid [Strasburg] coming up with the Washington [Nationals], I saw him pitch. He has a great career ahead of him, but he loses 2-3 mph when he gets a man on base and goes to the stretch. But I still say Walter Johnson threw it between 108-110."
In between those comments, Feller told an apocryphal baseball tale of his own. The right-hander -- known as Rapid Robert during his career -- played before the advent of the radar gun, which makes his top speed a mystery. The baseball industry was always creative, though, and they came up with ways to try to figure Feller's top speed.
"To measure pitches in 1940, they'd run it by a motorcycle," said Feller, who won 266 games during his career. "I gained 13 feet on it in 60 feet and six inches, which winds up to be 104 [mph].
"In 1946, after being in the war for four years -- I was on the warship Alabama for 34 months, on the guns -- Clark Griffith wanted to make some money, as usual. He brought all the [instruments] in from Aberdeen Ordinance Plant in Maryland, the proving ground for the weapons that our military uses. They put the [instruments] down at home plate, and I threw through that at 107.9 [mph]. You couldn't maintain that in a ballgame. On a good day, you might throw 102, 103, 104 [or] 105. But it's not how fast the ball is, it's whether it has any movement on it."
Nobody epitomized that piece of baseball wisdom better than Niekro, a knuckleballer who managed to win 318 games over his distinguished career. Smith, known for his defense way more than his offense, summarized what it was like to face Niekro. Sometimes, Smith said, it just comes down to knowing your opponent and trusting yourself.
"It was always part of the challenge of going up there and facing the best," said Smith, a 15-time All-Star. "You knew when you faced Phil that you had [to have] your A-Game and you had to have a strategy. Depending on the wind that day, the ball could move four or five different ways before it got to the plate. My philosophy with trying to hit the knuckleball was just to stay back and let the ball get there. It eventually did, but I always tried to hit his fastball. His fastball was, what, 82 or 83?"
Niekro, at that point, broke in with a retort: "With a good wind behind me, I could get it up to 80 or 81."
And when it came to Fingers and Gossage -- two of a very limited number of relievers enshrined in Cooperstown -- their stories dovetailed at largely the same juncture. Both Fingers and Gossage said that they became relievers out of necessity, that they were staring at a shortened career if they didn't find a way to work out out of the bullpen.
"Everybody says, 'Hey Goose, how were you such a great relief pitcher?' I say, 'I had a short memory.' We're either the hero or the goats, and a short memory is a beautiful thing," said Gossage.
"In 1972, at the beginning of those great years with the Oakland A's for Rollie, I was with the White Sox and [manager] Chuck Tanner put me in the bullpen.
"It was kind of a junk pile down there. You didn't want to be in that bullpen, because that's where all the starters went that couldn't start any more or couldn't finish the game. Really, first-hand, I saw the total evolution of the bullpen from when it was a junk pile to what it has turned into today. Rollie, I think, was the greatest relief pitcher ever."
"I kind of fell into the job as a relief pitcher," added Fingers. "I was a starting pitcher and I couldn't get out of the second inning, and I'd wait four days to get knocked out in the second inning again. [Manager] Dick Williams ran me into the bullpen and I kind of fell into the job one day, in New York playing the Yankees.
"It was a ballgame where we were losing by a lot, and all of a sudden we were winning by two runs in the eighth inning and I'm the only guy left. And he had to use me. It was me or the pitching coach. ... He chose me, and I pitched two shutout innings and got a save that night. The next night, I pitched three innings and got a save. And that's how I became a relief pitcher, because I was on my way out of baseball."
The conversation turned to memorable home runs at one point, with Smith and Killebrew coming to the forefront. Killebrew was obvious because of the sheer volume -- 573 homers while leading the league six times during his career -- while Smith was noteworthy because he didn't hit a lot of home runs of his own. But one certainly stood out.
Smith hit the decisive home run in the 1985 National League Championship Series, a shot that was further immortalized by a memorable call by late broadcaster Jack Buck. Smith did the entire Buck call by heart on Saturday, and he told an anecdote about a young man who went out of his way to commit the words to memory.
"It's nice to be a part of history that way. And I had no idea when I got up that day that the day would end the way it did," he said. "These guys hit 500 or 600 home runs, but it's all about the timing of when you hit the home runs. I [didn't hit many], but they were important. They were very memorable, and I was fortunate they had the great Jack Buck at the mike at the time. I've always said that improvisation is one of the greatest assets that you can have, and when you listen to the great announcers of our day, they had an uncommon knack for saying the right thing at the right time."
And if that's the gift that Buck possessed, Killebrew encountered a catcher with the exact opposite inclination. The 11-time All-Star told a wonderful story about his first home run on Saturday, a shot that happened all the way back in 1955.
"The first home run I hit, I was 18 years old and we were playing in old Griffith Stadium in Washington," said Killebrew. "There was a veteran left-handed pitcher on the mound by the name of Billy Hoeft. When I stepped into the batter's box, the catcher was Frank House, and he called me 'Kid.' He said, 'Kid, we're going to throw you a fastball.' I was so young and naive I didn't know if he was telling me the truth or not, and sure enough, there came a fastball that I hit 476 feet. I rounded the bases, and when I stepped on home plate, he said, 'Kid, that's the last time we're ever going to tell you.'
"Home runs just happen. If they happen at the right time, like Ozzie said, it's a big thrill. But just putting on a uniform and walking on the field in the Major Leagues was a great thrill to me."
All seven players will likely be on hand next month, when the Hall of Fame welcomes its newest class of immortals. Two of them -- former player Andre Dawson and former manager Whitey Herzog -- came up at Saturday's event.
"I don't remember, and that goes back to not wanting to remember," said Gossage of his history against Dawson. "I do remember having the privilege and the honor of playing with Andre with the Chicago Cubs in 1988. I can tell you there isn't a finer person on the face of the planet. He's a great guy, an upstanding guy, and deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. And he's even that much of a better person. ... I can't wait to be here for his induction and to be a part of that."
Moments later, Smith spoke just as effusively in praise of Herzog, his former manager.
"I think it took him a little longer than it should have, because he was definitely one of the best baseball people I've had the opportunity of being around," he said. "For all of us up here, what we enjoy doing is doing our job. Playing for a guy like Whitey Herzog, he had two rules: Be on time and give 100 percent. As a professional, if you can't play for a guy like that, you shouldn't be playing. He's one of the brightest baseball minds I've had the opportunity of being around."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.