We will have some baseball news to savor this afternoon when the Hall of Fame balloting is revealed to the public. Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven are expected to get into the HOF today. Several other players are on the cusp – Jeff Bagwell, Larry Walker, Jack Morris and Tim Raines.
Rafael Palmeiro could make it, too, if the voters forgive him for telling Congress he never did steroids and then flunking a urine test several months later, late in his career, long after he had amassed most of his 569 career home runs.
But I digress. When you speak of Cooperstown in these parts, the names of Gabby Hartnett and Napoleon Lajoie quickly come to mind. Both Hall of Famers grew up in the Blackstone Valley area more than 100 years ago. Hartnett, who made his mark as a Chicago Cubs catcher, was born in Woonsocket on Dec. 20, 1900, and resided in nearby Millville, Mass.
Lajoie was also born in Woonsocket, way back on Sept. 5, 1874. He hit an amazing .426 in 1901, at which time he was the most famous player in baseball. Nap was one of the first players to test free agency. He jumped from the Phillies to the Athletics after the 1900 season, setting the city of Philadelphia on its collective ear. The Phillies sued the A’s to get him back but the courts ruled that their injunction was enforceable only in the state of Pennsylvania. A’s owner Connie Mack promptly sold Lajoie to Cleveland, where he spent the remainder of his career.
The Cleveland Bluebirds, as they were then known, changed their named to the “Naps” after acquiring Lajoie. Imagine if Alex Rodriguez had jumped from the Yankees to, say, the Angels when he opted out of his contract in 2007. Would the Angels have changed their nickname to the “A-Rods?” Well, that’s how big Nap Lajoie was 103 years ago.
It may seem silly to speak of two local players who have been dead for so long. Gabby passed away in 1972 and Lajoie in 1959. I guess my point is that these players live forever in our minds. And in some ways, I can tie them to my own existence. Hartnett, for instance, was a friend of former Pawtucket Times editor James Murphy, a Whitinsville, Mass. native who idolized Hartnett and wrote a book about him that was published in 1983 called “The Gabby Hartnett Story: From a Mill Town to Cooperstown.”
I interviewed Murphy for a story about his book after it reached publication. He spoke of Gabby as if the memories had been made yesterday. Murphy was born in 1913 and grew up rooting for Hartnett, following his exploits through the newspapers, and perhaps even on radio during the 1930s.
Gabby’s biggest moment in baseball came in late September of 1938 when he hit a home run as darkness fell on Wrigley Field to break a 5-5 tie and beat the Pirates. The victory put the Cubs in first place and they won the pennant three days later. Hartnett’s homer became one of the most famous walk-off shots in the early history of Major League Baseball. He connected with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, with two strikes already registered, and with the umpires ready to call a tie game if Hartnett made the third out.
The blast became known as Gabby’s “Homer in the Gloamin’ ” and it would be his calling card for the rest of his life. And to show you how baseball connects us all, my own father was a Pirates fan, roughly the same age as Jim Murphy, and he talked to me about that home run as though it were yesterday. He forgot about it after Bill Mazeroski beat the Yankees in the 7th game of the 1960 World Series with an even more dramatic home run.
Napoleon Lajoie is a little tougher to connect. Lajoie was one of baseball’s original stars, beginning his career in the National League in 1896. My only connection to Nap is reading books about the old stars when I was a kid, seeing his .426 batting average and wondering how he could have accomplished such a feat, even if the game was different in those days. Lajoie’s star was eventually eclipsed by Ty Cobb, who came to Detroit in 1906 and played 24 years, averaging a tidy .367 for his career. Now that’s a record we’ll never seen broken.
Baseball has an ability to make people connect with one another. I was in a store the other day when an old friend walked up and started talking about what we used to know as our national pastime.
“What’s Rocco Baldelli doing now … is he still going to play?” the guy asked me. I told him it looked like Rocco would be going back to coaching with the Tampa Bay Rays, his career halted by injuries before it had really begun.
“That’s too bad,” the guy said. “Rocco could have been a Hall of Famer. You never know.”
And he’s right. Rocco Baldelli goes into the lore of baseball alongside players like Brooklyn’s Pete Reiser, who broke in with a bang and then kept running into outfield walls that had no padding. Reiser’s all-out brand of hustle ended his career before its time, same as Rocco’s illness and injuries stopped him short.
Still, Rocco’s name goes into the legacy of Woonsocket natives, right up there with Gabby Hartnett and Napoleon Lajoie. Rocco could raise the hair on your arms with his speed and arm and short batting stroke that produced so much power. That memory will linger among those who saw him for a long time.