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Ozzie, Rickey, Jenkins and Tiant enter Hall of Game

Talented class of players embody passion of Negro Leagues

KANSAS CITY -- Ozzie Smith's patented backflip was the perfect maneuver to help him stick the landing in the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum's "Hall of Game" class of 2015.

Now in its second year, the Hall of Game is for former Major League players who not only did great things on the field, but also exhibited the flair and passion reminiscent of the Negro Leagues players. Joining Smith on Saturday in the Hall of Game induction class were Rickey Henderson, Ferguson Jenkins and Luis Tiant.

Play with skill. Play with heart. The late Buck O'Neil once said that Negro Leaguers built the bridge so that future Major Leaguers could cross that bridge. For Smith, Henderson, Jenkins and Tiant, it was a joyful journey long on determination and drive.

Smith's Hall of Fame baseball career as a dazzling shortstop was punctuated with a gymnastics twist that embodied the flamboyance of the Negro Leagues. When he would periodically perform an on-field backflip, it was met with raucous approval.

Smith learned to do flips for entertainment while growing up in South-Central Los Angeles. His pro career started with the Padres and one day a workout ended with a two-mile team run. Smith was at the back of the pack and veterans such as Gaylord Perry and Gene Tenace were giving him a hard time.

"I wasn't fond of running," Smith said. "To show them I wasn't tired -- that it was my choice to be at the back of the pack -- I did my round-off backflip to show them I still had plenty of energy. On the final day of the (1978) season, which was Fan Appreciation Day, Gene asked me to do it going out to my position. I reluctantly did it and -- lo and behold -- it became my trademark."

Smith was asked to do another backflip on Opening Day in 1979.

"It was all about the beginning of the baseball season and the excitement that is created through Opening Day," Smith said.

Smith was a head-over-heels type of player who won 13 National League Gold Gloves and was a 15-time All-Star. While Henderson, Jenkins and Tiant didn't do any backflips, they showcased similar passion for a game in which each managed to carve out a special niche.

Jenkins, the first Canadian inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, was a dominant right-hander during the late 1960s and early '70s, winning 20 or more games in seven seasons. Tiant thrived as a Red Sox starter and captivated fans with his twisting windup in which he would turn his back to home plate before pivoting to make his pitch. The right-hander won 20 or more games in three seasons and twice had an earned run average below 2.00. Visiting the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum had special meaning for Tiant because his father once pitched for the New York Cubans in the Negro Leagues.

In addition to the Hall of Game inductions, the NLBM also presented the Jackie Robinson Lifetime Achievement Award to Wendy Lewis, the senior vice president of Diversity and Strategic Alliances for Major League Baseball and a longtime supporter of the NLBM.

"What Wendy Lewis has done for securing diversity in Major League Baseball is phenomenal," said NLBM president Bob Kendrick. "Her work has helped ensure that Jackie Robinson's life and courageous actions so long ago will never be forgotten."

The establishment of the Hall of Game provides an opportunity for the NLBM to continue drawing attention for its role in American history. It also serves as a fundraiser to increase the NLBM's ability to stay relevant with technology and community programming and to complete the Buck O'Neil Education Center.

"We think the sky is the limit for this event," Kendrick said. "We continue to build relationships with those who played the game. And we do so in the spirit of those who played in the Negro Leagues. This second-year class is exemplary.

"The beautiful thing about it is that there's no criteria that you have to have been a Hall of Famer. You just need to have been a great player who played in a style reminiscent of those who played in the Negro Leagues. So, we have a large pool of candidates to choose from going forward. The success of this event sends a message out to the baseball world. These guys we have here today become ambassadors for the Hall of Game."

Robert Falkoff is a contributor to