When I was a little kid, my father used to bring home baseball record books from the newspaper office, including photos of the first class of five players elected to the Hall of Fame.
How stodgy and old-fashioned they looked in old photos – faces and bodies and uniforms that seemed clunky by “modern” standards of 1946 and 1947.
Yet there they were, the first “immortals” – chosen in 1936 for the emerging Hall of Fame: Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth.
I saw Cobb and Ruth at the first Old-Timers Game in Yankee Stadium at the end of 1947; Ruth was dying, in his camel’s-hair coat, his voice crackling on the primitive public-address system.
He was an immortal, but he was most surely mortal.
In 1947, we were also living in a time of Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial – and Jackie Robinson. More immortals. When I saw them play, did I stop to study them carefully, so I would have an engraved memory of their swing, their mannerisms? Nah. Not smart enough.
We live in the moment, but I was minimally wise enough, as a young sportswriter in the ‘60s, to know I was in the presence of immortals -- Koufax and Gibson, as good as it gets; Mays and Clemente and Aaron and Frank Robinson.
And when I was around the New York Yankees from 1995 to 2013, it was a privilege to watch Mariano Rivera break off that cutter that was equal-opportunity unhittable. He dominated in a modest way, no gestures, no celebrating, because, as he often says, he “respects the game.”
I must add, it was also a privilege to watch Jeter and Williams and Posada and Pettitte, year after year; they soothed the ancient sting of my Yankee-tormented childhood as a Brooklyn Dodger fan. How could I hate a team that had those guys?
I recently met a rabbi on Long Island who raved about a trip he had taken to Israel in the company of the evangelical Christian Mariano Rivera.
I am sure Rivera’s rabbinical admirer is celebrating today, as Rivera has become the first baseball immortal to be elected unanimously. Considerating the cranks and crackpots and purists in my colleagues, this is huge.
I did not have the same surety about Roy Halladay and Mike Mussina (NYT writers are not allowed to vote for awards, and I follow those rules in retirement.) The voters have confirmed Halladay and Mussina as Hall of Fame pitchers, so congratulations.
And did you see Tyler Kepner’s absorbing insider explanation of what Rivera taught Halladay about the cutter? It would cost Rivera a few bucks in a clubhouse kangaroo courthouse.
In Rivera’s first season, 1995, I got to watch one of the best post-season series ever played, a best-of-five division thriller between the emerging Yankees and what seemed to be the emerging Seattle Mariners.
The difference in that series was Edgar Martinez, a designated hitter at the peak of his game. He was unspectacular in demeanor but dominant in hitting a ball.
Just before the fifth and final game, I wrote an “early” column – for the first national edition – quoting Reginald Martinez Jackson, Yankee star and by then Yankee advisor, raving about Edgar Martinez, no relation. Reggie’s raves are best read in context of my revised column, after Martinez had clubbed the Mariners into the next round:
Do I think of Edgar Martinez the way I think of Ruth, or Mays, or Koufax, or Rivera? No, but there are four or five levels of Hall of Fame players. I hate the designated-hitter rule; it has led to the current plague of launch-arc/strikeout flailers. But Edgar was not a launch-arc guy. Read how Reggie dissected his professional swings in that marvelous 1995 division series.
I cannot hold being a designated hitter against Martinez; he played where they told him to play. Designated hitters gotta live, too.
I remember Edgar dominating an epic series, sending Junior Griffey sliding home with a joyous cat-in-the-hat smile,
(Think Buck Showalter ever wonders why the Yanks did not activate young Derek Jeter for the post-season….or why Buck did not keep young Mariano Rivera on the mound after getting two outs?)
That epic coastal series was the time of Edgar Martinez, not Mariano Rivera. Now they go into the Hall together.
Like Johnson, like Mathewson, like Wagner, like Cobb, like the Babe himself – by definition, tightly monitored by baseball fans and players and officials and voters: immortals, all.
“They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.”
(One of the best reads in the NYT these days is Margaret Renkl, in Nashville. In her latest post, Renkl describes the dedicated core of “born teachers” – the majority, she submits.)
(From Madeleine Albright in one of her final interviews in February):
“Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recalling her first meeting with the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin in 2000. – The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2022.