COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Jim Thome came upon the Babe Ruth exhibit at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, struck by the big glass case containing the full uniform the Sultan of Swat wore when he made his final public appearance at Yankee Stadium in 1948. Something about seeing
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Jim Thome came upon the Babe Ruth exhibit at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, struck by the big glass case containing the full uniform the Sultan of Swat wore when he made his final public appearance at Yankee Stadium in 1948. Something about seeing that pinstriped wool on a Ruth-sized mannequin -- that tangible image of what it must have been like to be in the presence of the Babe himself -- gave Thome chills.
He summoned his wife, Andrea, and her iPhone.
"Gotta get a picture, An," he said.
• Complete Hall of Fame coverage
It was a phrase Thome would repeat often Tuesday morning on this personalized tour of the Hall, the orientation preceding his July induction.
Mickey Mantle's jersey.
"Gotta get a picture, An."
Hank Aaron's locker.
"Gotta get a picture, An."
Nap Lajoie's jersey.
"Gotta get a picture, An."
We loved Thome in his playing days, because the notoriety that came with his numbers never changed him. He entered the game an aw-shucks slugger, a Peorian with no pretension, and he left it -- 612 home runs, 1,747 walks and 1,699 RBIs later -- with every bit the same humility and charm intact.
So to take this trip through baseball history with Thome was to momentarily forget that you were in the presence of an actual Hall of Famer and to instead feel his genuine appreciation for those who came before. Thome would be presented with an artifact from one of his baseball heroes, bask in its mystical glow for a beat and then flash a big grin, and he posed for a snapshot that he could later show to his 10-year-old son, Landon.
When Thome was Landon's age, the men beatified in this building were icons set some incalculable distance away from his reality as a kid with good genes and big dreams but no promised path to the professional ranks. The safest bet would have been on him starring not in the big leagues but in Peoria's Sunday morning semipro softball league, as his father Chuck, Uncle Art and Aunt Carolyn did. Funny, though, where scouting, coaching, work ethic and desire can lead a 13th-round Draft pick out of an Illinois community college.
It can lead him here, to that blank spot on the wall where Thome's plaque will soon hang with those of the other five members of the 2018 class. Before Thome was presented with a black Sharpie to sign that spot -- so that all visitors to the building can eye up his autograph until the proper bronze plaque is hung the night of the July 29 induction ceremony -- it was brought to his attention that his final baseball resting place is a mere 20 yards from that of the Babe.
Tears filled a speechless Thome's eyes.
"You're blessed as a kid to just play," Thome said. "Then you keep going and you get drafted, and then, when it's all done, you get this gift granted to come here. … Having all those great players staring back at you, it's just a special feeling."
Thome, of course, got the special treatment at the Hall, including a visit to the archives, where he got to hold and swing one of the Babe's bats. Thome had toured the archives before, having hand-delivered the balls from his 500th and 600th career home runs on separate trips (once with his father and once with his son). But when he had his photo taken with the Babe's bat on a previous tour, he made the mistake of posing for a photo with one hand on each end of the bat, displaying the old Hillerich & Bradsby logo stamped on it.
It made him look like he was bunting.
"I saw that picture later and thought, 'That's not the way to hold a Babe Ruth bat,'" Thome said. "You should put the Babe Ruth over your shoulder."
Thome got a proper picture this time.
When he wasn't righting photographic wrongs, Thome was soaking up the history of his sport. One of the Hall's most interesting displays is an assortment of gold-painted baseballs from the Brooklyn Eckfords, one of the founding members of the National Association of Base Ball Players in the 1850s. After each game, the winning team would keep the game ball and paint it with a notation of the final score. Thome scanned balls with scores like 47-6, 28-5 and 27-20.
"It's like some of our scores in Cleveland in the '90s," Thome said with a smile.
Thome was one of many power bats on those mid-90s Indians clubs, and over the course of his career, his prodigious power paired with the second-highest strikeout total in Major League history. This stat inspired some self-awareness as Thome was shown an umpire's counter from 1887, when for the only time in history, it took four strikes to record a strikeout, not three.
"That would have helped my strikeout totals," he said with a laugh. "Maybe."
And one more bit of levity arrived when Andrea ogled the case of World Series championship rings, including the famously ostentatious ring of the 2003 Florida Marlins.
"Look at that Marlins ring," Andrea said.
Thome thought she was talking about the ring from the 1997 Marlins' Game 7 win over his Indians.
"You had to bring that one up, huh?" he said.
Thome never got that storybook ending to a season, but his career did have a moment taken from a movie script. It was his Minor League hitting coach Charlie Manuel's idea to have Thome point his bat, a la Roy Hobbs in "The Natural," as a means of easing his tension in at-bats. So Thome took special interest in the Hall's display of the "Wonderboy" bat from the film. And as illustration of how Thome achieved Hobbs-like popularity among Indians fans, Erik Strohl, the Hall's vice president of exhibitions and collections, pulled from the archives a rare copy of Jim Thome's Pro Baseball Game -- a board game that could be found in Cleveland stores in 1997.
"Look how cute you are," Andrea said as she eyed her husband's youthful image on the box. "You look like Landon."
Soon, Thome will bring Landon and his daughter, Lila, to the Hall, and they'll see their dad's special spot in baseball lore. When induction weekend comes, Thome will officially be a member of this fraternity of men who rose to the pastime's pinnacle. Somebody asked him Tuesday which of the living Hall of Famers he's most excited to spend time with come July, and Thome responded that being "in the family" with all of those guys is a special feeling.
But there was one name atop his list.
"Hank Aaron," Thome said.
As Thome's tour wrapped, he left the plaque gallery feeling grateful, and he struggled to find the words to put it all in perspective. It was one thing to get the call that he had been elected to the Hall of Fame and quite another to be visiting the Hall itself and realizing the true privileges of membership. Thome found the experience overwhelming.
Just then, Thome got a phone call from the latest in a long line of people who wanted to personally congratulate him on this honor. It was Aaron. And as Thome talked with the great Hammerin' Hank, once again feeling the wild wonder of this experience, his wife looked on proudly, iPhone in hand.
Gotta get a picture, An.