July 25, 1999
By Jayson Stark
Knight Ridder Newspapers
Cooperstown, N.Y. — They have been called baseball's greatest Hall of Fame class since the first one. Well, Sunday is their day.
The all-time strikeout king enters the Hall on Sunday. That would be the great Nolan Ryan.
He will have two 3,000-hit men to keep him company. That would be George Brett and Robin Yount.
Their very special costar is a man who was a rookie of the year, a unanimous MVP and a comeback player of the year. That would be Orlando Cepeda.
It is a big year in Cooperstown when any one player of their stature is inducted into the Hall of Fame. It is the year of all years when four players this esteemed and charismatic enter the Hall together.
So a crowd of more than 40,000 people is expected to assemble on the sun-scorched hills outside the Clark Sports Center this afternoon to celebrate these stars of the '60s, '70s, and '80s. It could be the largest induction audience ever, challenging the estimated throng of 40,000 that turned out in 1995 to turn Cooperstown into Very North Philadelphia, as Mike Schmidt and Richie Ashburn entered the Hall.
What that day was for Philadelphia, this afternoon will be for three franchises that have never had a Hall of Famer — the Texas Rangers, the Kansas City Royals and the Milwaukee Brewers. But this is more than just a day of local heroes. This is a day that will linger in the Hall of Fame's unique lore for many, many years.
Not since 1936 — when men named Cobb, Ruth, Wagner, Mathewson, and Johnson made up the Hall's first induction class — have this many first-time nominees (Ryan, Brett, Yount) been honored together. Cepeda, who missed being elected by just seven votes by the baseball writers in 1994, is one of the veterans committee's most-acclaimed selections in years.
On Saturday, these four assembled in the auditorium of Cooperstown High School to heap praise on one another and to reflect on what all this means. Ryan even brought the governer of Texas, George W. Bush, with him to the podium.
Asked what would have happened if he had to run for governor against legendary Ryan, Bush laughed and said: "I'd have lost."
Ryan said of Yount, whom he first faced when Yount was an 18-year-old rookie starting at shortstop for the Brewers: "I thought, 'Man, they're rushing this kid. He's not going to be ready.' "
Whoops. Yount spent the next 20 seasons rushing toward 3,142 hits and two MVP awards.
Cepeda said of Brett — whose rookie year coincided with Cepeda's final season, for the '74 Royals: "I said, 'That kid's not going to make it.' (Chuckle) You fooled me, George."
Sure did. Fooled him to the tune of 3,154 hits and three batting titles.
The respect — even awe — these men have for one another oozed out of every pore.
"George was always the player I mosted wished I could play like," said the humble Yount, who, at 43 is the youngest inductee since Johnny Bench. "And Orlando was a guy I played with as a young kid in winter ball (in Puerto Rico). Orlando was toward the end of a great career then, but you never would have known it, the way he treated us."
The way these men, three of the greatest hitters of their eras, talked about Ryan, you could still see the fear in their eyeballs. But who could blame them? He struck out Yount 16 times.
It was pretty intimidating." Brett said. "I still remember the first time I ever faced him. I was hitting seventh, and Jim Wohlford was hitting sixth. And the secont at-bat, Nolan planted one in Jim Wohlford's ribs. I think the ball stuck there for about two minutes before it dropped.
"Now I was the next hitter, and I heard that thump. Jim Wohlford held back the tears, caught his breath, and went to first. Then I went up there — and it was probably the happiest I've ever been to strike out on the next three pitches. Hey, I didn't get hit in the ribs!"
Saturday was their day to laugh, play golf and tell stories. But today is a day of speeches and plaques, of cheers and, almost certainly, tears.
"There's a lot of stress on all of us," said Brett, whose 98.23 per-cent of the vote last winter was the fourth-highest in history.