For Ruppert, White, Day, induction is family affair
Hall's newest members have stories told by those bonded by bloodlines
COOPERSTOWN, NY -- They were faced with an unenviable task, the opportunity to canonize their own family members. But with one catch: They were family members they've never met.
The three newest inductees to the National Baseball Hall of Fame -- Jacob Ruppert Jr., Hank O'Day and James "Deacon" White -- have been deceased for more than a half-century, existing only in the lore of the game and in fond family memories passed down from generation to generation.
And on Sunday, those stories were shared with the world. Anne Vernon, Dennis McNamara and Jerry Watkins took the stage at the Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown, sharing the moment with the game's greatest living players and telling heartfelt tales of gratitude and long-held family ties.
McNamara, the grand nephew of O'Day, spoke first and emotionally told the audience what the day meant to his family. McNamara, who spent 29 years as a Chicago policeman, said he was born seven years after O'Day passed away and that he's still been a towering presence in his life.
"I've wondered, 'What does all this mean?'" asked McNamara in his speech. "It means everyone is recognized at some point. You might not know it, but recognition does come. Perhaps quietly in your everyday life, or yes, sometimes a great honor which Hank O'Day is now receiving posthumously, 86 years after his long career as an umpire. Persevere, for you too are or will be recognized."
O'Day, the only man to ever play, manage and umpire a full season in Major League history, had an incredible career that spanned nearly five decades. He served as umpire in 10 World Series and made the famous call on Fred Merkle in 1908 that cost the New York Giants the pennant.
O'Day also had a lengthy pitching career and managed the Reds and Cubs, but McNamara said he was famous within the family for two reasons: Honesty and integrity. O'Day managed at a time when games only had one umpire and they were frequently subjected to violence.
"He got all the umps the respect and security they needed," said McNamara. "The man was known for his remarkable skill of accurately calling balls and strikes and for his unrelenting honesty and integrity. Back then, home teams won a surprising 61 percent of the time. The lone umpire may have been intimidated by the local crowd. But not Hank O'Day. Cleveland's manager remarked, 'I hate to see O'Day in my home park, but I'm delighted when he's in charge when we're the road team.'"
Vernon, who spoke next, had to sum up the career of one of the game's most instrumental owners. Ruppert, a former beer baron and Congressman from New York, purchased the Yankees in 1915 and acquired the great Babe Ruth before later building the world-famous Yankee Stadium.
New York went on to win 10 pennants and seven World Series before Ruppert passed away in 1939, forever changing the game and American culture. Vernon, Ruppert's great grand niece, found herself learning about her family's illustrious contributions to the game as she prepared her speech.
"I probably took about two weeks to think about it, because I'm not a professional sports person by any means," said Vernon in the moments after the induction ceremony. "I really got great direction from the Hall of Fame to write from my heart and how important it was to represent my family and myself. I spoke to my uncle, spoke to all my relatives, and then I wrote it in six hours."
Watkins, speaking last, came armed with a treasure chest full of quips and witticisms regarding White, his great grandfather. White, a catcher back before the era of the glove, played for 20 years and won six championships, and he's credited with getting the first hit in a professional league in 1871.
White batted better than .300 12 times in his career and played from the time he was 21 until after his 40th birthday. This was in an America still recovering from the Civil War, and Watkins thanked the Society for American Baseball Research for keeping his ancestor's memory alive.
"We all know it was a far different game back in the late 1800's," said Watkins. "Five strikes. Eight balls. A foul ball didn't count as a strike, and if a foul ball were caught on the fly, it didn't count as an out. The batter even got to tell the pitcher where he wanted the pitch delivered. So comparing statistics to modern-day players is pretty much meaningless. All you can do is compare the statistics to other players who played in that era, and by that standard, James White was outstanding."
That may have been the case, but until recently, there were many fans of the game who didn't know his story. Watkins said that his father had two dreams: To see James "Deacon" White inducted into the Hall of Fame and to see the Cubs in the World Series. Now, he said, the family is 1-for-2.
"For me, it's a very emotional thing," he said. "I had a very special relationship with my dad, who was a huge baseball fan and a huge believer that his grandfather belonged in the Hall of Fame. Those were stories that he told us as kids, and for my family to select me to be the one to deliver the speech, it meant an awful lot to me. For him to be in the Hall of Fame means a ton to our family."
It must've been truly incredible for Watkins to consider how his family now belongs in that company. And the same for McNamara, who was visibly moved at points during his speech, and for Vernon, whose family sold a controlling stake in the Yankees in 1945 to a new ownership group.
Their lives are forever altered by their association with the Hall of Fame, and Vernon said the musem's staffers have shown her family one of the great weekends they've ever experienced. Who else could understand that perspective, except for the people who shared the weekend with her?
"I think the three of us will be bonded for life by this experience," said Watkins of the induction. "I know if I ever run into Anne or Dennis again, wherever we are, I'll know them immediately and we'll take up where we left off. I think there was a strong bond, and I think we felt mutual respect for each other and our families. And for the opportunity we were given to be here today to get to do this."