Worth the wait: All-time greats enter Hall

September 9th, 2021

What was, without exaggeration, the most long-awaited National Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony of all-time got underway Wednesday.

The setting -- the expansive lawn outside the Clark Sports Center, one mile south of the hallowed Hall in Cooperstown, N.Y. -- was familiar. The timing -- a mid-September weekday -- less so. But at long last, the pandemic-postponed enshrinement of , , and the late Marvin Miller could proceed.

Hall of Fame officials, Cooperstown residents and, of course, Yankees fans, had spent years circling Jeter’s shoo-in selection in the Class of 2020 as a catalyst that could cause record-breaking induction attendance. Walker, meanwhile, lingered on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot for the maximum 10 years before finally getting his Hall call, and Simmons was selected via the Modern Baseball Era Committee 31 years after he retired.

COVID-19 forced all of the above to adjust and to wait just a bit longer. By the time the event arrived, the dais looked heartbreakingly different, with 10 Hall of Famers having passed away since the last gathering in Cooperstown in July 2019.

But the shining sun was a salve, and the large crowd provided a welcomed return to what makes this event such an integral piece of the Major League calendar.

Here were the highlights:

Derek Jeter

Undoubtedly the Hall's headliner on this day, Jeter not only attracted an ample audience of baseball fans, but his induction was also intended by a couple of basketball Hall of Famers -- the great Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing. That His Airness was among those pulling out his iPhone to capture the moment when Jeter's time arrived is testament to Jeter's starpower.

And so, too, were the chants that began as he first touched his plaque.

"De-rek Je-ter!" a predominantly Yankees-clad crowd roared. "De-rek Je-ter!"

Jeter smiled.

"I forgot how good that sounds," he said.

The sound was familiar, but a different kind of pressure awaited Jeter with this speech. Unsurprisingly, the man known as "Captain Clutch" delivered gracefully. If one theme ran through his prepared remarks, it was respect -- for those who came before you, for those who brought you into the world, for those you bring into the world and for the game itself.

Jeter introduced that theme by telling the stories of how he met Rachel Robinson, the late Jackie Robinson's wife, at a BBWAA banquet in 1996 and Hank Aaron at the 1999 All-Star Game.

"These two moments in particular are when I realized it's more than just a game," Jeter said. "The Hall of Fame family, they're watching. So I wanted their approval. During my career, I wanted to make Mrs. Robinson proud, I wanted to make Hank Aaron proud, I wanted to make all you behind me proud. Not the statistics. Proud of how I played the game, how I carried myself and how I respected the game for those before and after me."

Jeter learned the game from his father, Charles, and he shared the memory of the time he saw his dad play shortstop in a company softball game and came away in awe of his talent. He said his father and his mother, Dorothy, taught him the value of hard work and patience.

"Both of you convinced me I could achieve anything if I set my mind to it," he said. "You taught me to prove people wrong. To this day, I remember every time I was doubted. It's what still drives me today."

Jeter was also driven to live up to the expectations that came with his dream of playing shortstop for the Yankees. And he didn't just thank fellow pinstriped Hall of Famers Joe Torre or Mariano Rivera, the Steinbrenner family or the coaches who helped shape his skills; he thanked the fans, as well.

"You can't be fooled," he said. "You're passionate, you're loyal, knowledgeable, vocal, challenging and supporting. There's a huge responsibility that comes with wearing a Yankee uniform. You have to earn it. Every single day, I felt I was representing you and all of New York. I did that in the best way I know how. You kept pushing me to prove it over and over again."

Jeter, 47, has new responsibilities now, not just as CEO and part-owner of the Marlins but as a husband and father. He had warm words for his wife, Hannah, and his two young daughters, Story and Bella. Though his kids are too young to have seen him play, Jeter said his newer role in life is just as important to him, and he stressed that to his daughters.

"For so many years, I represented New York and the Yankee organization in the best light possible," he said. "Now I represent you. Know that I'm here to support you, guide you, protect you. Most importantly, I'm here to love you. I want you to find someone that inspires you, and when the time is right, I want you to inspire others."

Lastly, Jeter had words for the current crop of players.

"The one common thread with all of us on this stage," he said, "is we understand there's no one individual bigger than the game. The game goes on because of the great fans we have. So take care of it, protect it, respect it and don't take the time you have playing the game for granted. It's more than just a game."

Larry Walker

Despite his serious talent, Walker never took himself or the game too seriously. His ability to laugh at himself, to keep his cool in tough times and, yes, to playfully step into the right-handed batter's box when facing Randy Johnson during the All-Star Game were as elemental to his appeal as his elite numbers.

So of course Walker's speech came packed not only with good memories but good humor. And the man who wore a SpongeBob SquarePants shirt on the day of his selection also wore a SpongeBob pin on lapel on his induction day.

"If you don't mind," Walker said when he reached the podium, "I don't want to forget this moment, so…"

With that, he pulled out an iPhone and took camera shots of a crowd that included many fans wearing and/or waving Canadian flags. As the second Canadian-born Hall of Famer, Walker made sure to salute the first -- Fergie Jenkins -- and his home country, at large.

"I share this honor with every Canadian," Walker said. "And I hope for all you Canadian kids out there that have dreams of playing in the big leagues that seeing me here today gives you another reason to go after those dreams."

Walker was an unlikely baseball Hall of Famer. Like so many Canadian kids, he was, as he put it, "pretty much born with [hockey] skates on and a stick in your hand." But he didn't have the skills to stick as a goalie, and so he ventured into baseball, playing only sparingly in the summer and supplementing that experience by playing slow-pitch softball with his dad and three older brothers.

But Walker was good enough to attract the interest of scouts and to sign for a $1,500 bonus as an amateur with the Expos. Walker told a hilarious story from his first season in pro ball, in 1985 with Utica. He was on first base when a fly ball was hit to right field. Motoring past second and on his way to third, Walker was instructed by the third-base coach to return to first as the fly ball was caught. So that's what Walker did, beating the throw. To his shock, he was called out, and he argued the call with the umpire.

What Wallker didn't know is that he had to touch second base on his way back to first. Instead, he had run directly across the diamond.

"I already touched second once," Walker remembered thinking. "Why the heck do I have to touch it again?"

Walker has shared that story with many a youngster over the years as a bit of an inspirational message.

"Me standing here right now," he said, "is proof that hard work can pay off."

For Walker, it paid off in the form of a 1997 National League MVP Award, three batting titles and seven Gold Gloves, with a .313 average and .965 OPS in 17 seasons. Walker had kind words about each stop along the way -- Montreal, in his native country, Colorado, where he was a member of the famed "Blake Street Bombers," and St. Louis, where he was able to make his first World Series appearance.

Being the Rockies' first inductee was clearly meaningful to Walker.

"I've never considered myself a Hall of Famer at anything," he said. "Not a thing. I honestly see myself as an average guy. I've lived my life trying to never get too high or too low. But to stand on this stage and tell you I'm feeling average would be a complete lie. My feet have not touched the ground all day."

Ted Simmons

Simmons has spent a lifetime in baseball. Though he played his last game in 1988, he remained in the game as a general manager, an executive and a scout. So he packed a lot of life into a speech that at, one time, it appeared he might never get to make. Simmons, after all, was the first Hall of Fame inductee to have fallen off the BBWAA ballot after his first year of eligibility, when he garnered just 3.7% of the vote.

"There are many roads to Cooperstown," Simmons said. "For some, it comes quickly. And for others, it takes a little time. For those like myself, the path is long. And even though my path fell on the longer side, I would not change a thing."

Simmons was voted in when the Modern Baseball Era Committee convened in December 2019, and he made sure to thank the late Miller, his fellow entrant in that process. As executive director of the MLB Players Association from 1966-82, Miller, who passed away in 2012 and was honored Wednesday by a speech from fellow former MLBPA head Donald Fehr, transformed the union by successfully challenging the reserve clause and ushering in free agency.

"He made so much possible for every Major League player from my era to the present and the future," Simmons said. "I could not be more proud to enter this great Hall with this great man."

Having himself experienced so many ebbs and flows of baseball history, the 72-year-old Simmons offered his well-earned perspective on the current game and where it is headed.

"For those of you who are concerned that our game has changed, it has," he said. "Strikeout, walk, homer today is pretty much what you get. But our game can change back and, eventually, another George Brett will surface. He'll hit .360, he'll homer 40 times, he'll drive in 160 runs, he'll strike out 175 times, he'll walk 100 times. His on-base percentage will be .420. Our game is fluid. Hitters will begin to defeat the defensive shifts, and the pendulum will shift back. The game evolves. It's just a matter of time."

Known as "Simba" in his playing days, Simmons acknowledged that baseball revolves around wins and losses. With 2,472 career hits, 483 doubles, 248 homers, 1,389 RBIs and eight All-Star selections over 21 seasons with the Cardinals, Brewers and Braves, he influenced plenty of wins. But for a lifer like him, the game is just as much about the people encountered, and Simmons took the care to thank many of the famous and not-so-famous people who helped him along the way -- including Robin Yount and Bud Selig, who, in Simmons' later years, convinced him his Hall case was a worthy one and vouched for him in the committee.

"I have lived in many families," he said, "and I'm about to step into baseball's most elite family. And I am incredibly humbled."

Marvin Miller

Though baseball fans are certainly familiar with Miller’s work at the negotiating table, the man himself went unknown to many. And so Miller’s successor as MLBPA head, Donald Fehr, took the opportunity at the podium Wednesday to help the audience get to know him better.

“If you read some old newspaper clippings,” Fehr said, “you’ll see people complaining that he was a radical or a rabble rouser or a union boss ... that he was sometimes pugnacious or loud or insistent. That’s not the man I knew. It’s not the man the players behind me knew.”

Fehr described Miller -- who passed away in 2012 at the age of 95 -- as soft-spoken, polite, thoughtful, deliberate and, above all else, patient.

“Was he firm in negotiations?” Fehr said. “Absolutely. Was he rigid? The answer is never. He was easily the most practical person I ever saw in the context of labor relations. He realized, in the end, an agreement takes two parties, and it’s not some sort of an ideological manifesto. It has to work on the ground and at the baseball field.”

During Miller’s tenure, the players saw salary arbitration and free agency ushered in. He also oversaw the creation of the pension plan.

“Thank you, Marvin,” Fehr said on behalf of the players. “Baseball was not the same after your tenure as it was before. It was and is much better for everyone.”