The Hall of Fame through a Hall of Famer’s eyes

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COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — It is 11:34 on a Thursday morning John Schuerholz will never forget. As he looks out on the gallery where his plaque will soon hang forever, he finds himself contemplating a question he had waited his whole life to hear.

“Are you ready to walk through the gallery for the first time as a Hall of Famer?” the Hall’s vice president of exhibitions and collections, Erik Strohl, asks the longtime general manager of the Atlanta Braves and Kansas City Royals.

“I would love that,” Schuerholz answers. “Will my feet touch the ground?”

Officially, it is known as his personal “private tour” of baseball’s most hallowed place — a tour offered to all newly elected Hall of Famers in the months before their Induction Day. But less than an hour into his expedition, as he gazes upon artifacts of his memorable tenure in Atlanta, Schuerholz turns to his wife, Karen, and says, “It’s like going back in a time machine.”

He had been to Cooperstown many times — just always to honor someone else: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Bobby Cox, George Brett, Brooks Robinson, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, Pat Gillick, Cal Ripken Jr. This time, though, it isn’t someone else’s turn to bask in the glow of Cooperstown.

It is John Schuerholz’s turn.

“I’ve been coming here since Brooks Robinson’s induction [in 1983],” he says. “But I can honestly say I never felt like I did today.”

So what did he feel? What did he see? What incredible moments, from a storied career in baseball, did he get to relive? We accompanied him on this magical journey.

9:05 a.m. — ‘The greatest thing I ever did’

Five minutes into the tour, Schuerholz has come face to face with the Royals’ corner of the Hall of Fame’s “locker room,” where every team has its own locker, stuffed with bats and balls, jerseys and spikes, photos and memorabilia. Just the sight of it triggers a story — of how Schuerholz came to work for the Royals in the first place.

He had been working as an assistant to Orioles farm director Lou Gorman — until Gorman got hired by the new expansion team in Kansas City. Whereupon Gorman marched into Schuerholz’s office and said: “Good news, John. You’re coming to Kansas City.”

Uh, wait one minute. Schuerholz, who grew up in Baltimore, wasn’t sure what was so good about this “good news” — since he had no interest in leaving his hometown. But somehow, that persuasive Gorman found a way to change his mind. The rest is history. Baseball history.

“I went to Kansas City, and it was the greatest thing I ever did,” Schuerholz says, then glances over at the nearby Braves locker and amends that to “the second-greatest thing I ever did,” then looks into his wife’s eyes and says, with a laugh: “Well, the third-greatest thing I ever did.”

9:29 a.m. — ‘Tough way to make a living’

The tour comes to a halt at an exhibit celebrating the storied Philadelphia A’s teams of the 1920s and 1930s. Strohl turns to Schuerholz and says: “The A’s of the ’30s. Your dad played in their system.”

True story. Schuerholz’s father, John Schuerholz Sr., was a minor league infielder from 1937 to 1940 and had an excellent reason for quitting baseball to go to work for Bethlehem Steel.

“He broke his leg,” Schuerholz says, “turning a double play. Some guy slid into him. It wasn’t Chase Utley, but he slid into him and broke his leg. My mother was pregnant with me at the time. So he said, ‘Tough way to make a living. I’d better go get a job.'”

9:51 a.m. — ‘Hank hit cross-handed’

Just two players have their own one-man exhibits inside the Hall. One is Babe Ruth. The other is Schuerholz’s friend, Henry Aaron. So as he comes across this shrine to Aaron, Schuerholz’s first thought is: “He hit cross-handed when he started, you know.”

Another true story. Schuerholz says he first heard it from his one-time manager in Kansas City, Jim Frey, who once played in the Braves’ farm system at the same time as Aaron. When Aaron first reached pro ball, he really did hit with his right hand gripping the bottom of the bat instead of the left hand.

“Jim Frey told Hank, ‘You should change how you hit,'” Schuerholz says, eyes sparkling as he recounts this nearly incomprehensible nugget about one of the greatest hitters of all time. “And Hank said, ‘I’m doing OK this way.’ But he finally changed. And it worked out pretty well.”

9:59 a.m. — ‘I’d vote for him’

Schuerholz is staring at the jersey of one of his favorite players ever, George Brett, when a bumper sticker over the jersey’s left shoulder, from Brett’s 1980 “campaign,” catches Schuerholz’s eye. It reads: “GEORGE BRETT for PRESIDENT.”

“I’d vote for him,” Schuerholz quips.

A few feet away, a video is rolling of Brett’s most indelible moment on a baseball field — his mammoth 1983 home run off Goose Gossage that would become the central plot line of “The Pine Tar Game.” The video shows Brett looking on quizzically from the dugout as umpires gather at the plate and call him out for having too much pine tar on his bat. An irate Brett then rampages toward the umpiring crew, his eyeballs practically spitting flames. The Schuerholz delegation also erupts — in laughter.

“Look at his veins sticking out,” Schuerholz says. “It was like trying to stop a raging bull.”

Schuerholz launches into a four-minute story of how the Royals appealed the call, won the appeal, then flew to New York to replay the last four outs of the game and headed off to Baltimore after their wildest victory of the year. Or maybe any year.

10:12 a.m. — ‘If he’d stayed in baseball … ‘

Bo Jackson’s cap isn’t sitting next to a football helmet. It could be — if this were the National Bo Knows Hall of Fame instead of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. But this is the cap Jackson wore when he launched a home run in the first All-Star Game at-bat of his life, in 1989. And it unleashes a torrent of memories from the GM who drafted him, thanks to a tip from a scout that Jackson wanted to play baseball and football.

“He was the strongest player I’ve ever seen in Major League Baseball,” Schuerholz says. “He was the fastest player I’ve ever seen in Major League Baseball. And he had the best throwing arm I’ve ever seen in Major League Baseball.”

The stories keep coming: How Jackson’s mom and dad used to lock the first-floor doors and windows if he came home late — “so he’d just leap up to the second-story window and go in the window.” … How he used to practice running up walls in the tunnel and doing a backflip back to earth. … How he could beat out a routine two-hopper to the second baseman. From the right side. On artificial turf. And “be two steps across the bag” when the ball arrived.

“If he’d stayed in baseball,” Schuerholz says, “I think some day, he would have found himself here.”

10:17 a.m. — ‘It did happen, but then it didn’t happen’

As he sizes up a Greg Maddux jersey, Schuerholz has a confession to make. Maddux almost wasn’t a Brave — because the Braves nearly signed Barry Bonds instead. In December of 1992, the Braves thought their free-agent deal with Bonds was happening. And “in a sense, it did happen,” Schuerholz says, “but then it didn’t happen.”

When it unraveled, Schuerholz put in a quick call to Maddux’s agent, Scott Boras, but suspected that Maddux might have already agreed to sign with the Yankees.

“I said, ‘I don’t know if he’s signed yet or not, but we are very interested,’ Schuerholz says. ‘So Scott talked to Greg. And Greg said, ‘I’m interested. I like what these guys are doing in Atlanta. I like how they’re going about it. Let’s go find out.’ So we talked. We signed him. And that’s how we got the best pitcher in baseball at that time [instead of] the best hitter in baseball.”

10:37 a.m. — ‘Whatever he did, he could dominate’

The members of the 3,000 Strikeout Club could air-condition any ballpark in America. The jersey of one of those members belongs to a Hall of Famer named John Smoltz. Schuerholz is familiar with his work.

“He earned his way here. That’s for sure,” says Smoltz’s longtime GM. “He was some kind of pitcher. Whatever he did, starting or relieving … he could dominate a game.”

10:57 a.m. — ‘This is Lou Gehrig’s glove’

The elevator ride to the ground floor of the Hall of Fame is a sojourn to a rarified place, one where only invited special dignitaries are allowed to enter. It is where the Hall’s curators store more than 30,000 items that are not on public display — but leave their archival storage boxes on these unique occasions, so that these lucky VIPs can see and touch them.

On this day, Strohl has laid out more than a dozen eye-popping items for Schuerholz’s inspection. The guest of honor’s face lights up at the sight of them.

There is Lou Gehrig’s old first-base mitt. Schuerholz holds it, looks at his wife and says, almost awestruck: “This is Lou Gehrig’s glove. I have Lou Gehrig’s glove on my hand, sweetheart.”

There is Ted Williams’ bat. Schuerholz picks it up and swings it lightly, then chuckles: “Ted is probably rolling over [in his grave] now.”

And there is a Babe Ruth bat from Ruth’s fabled 60-home run season in 1927. Schuerholz cradles it, then waves his wife over to do the same, saying: “Tell your grandchildren you held Babe Ruth’s bat.”

11:11 a.m. — ‘The most remarkable pitcher I’ve ever seen’

Finally, it is time for the grand finale — a series of items that connect the dots of baseball history and Schuerholz’s history. From Atlanta. From Kansas City. From Baltimore. Schuerholz greets them with a “wow.”

There is a baseball signed by all the members of the 1985 World Series champions from Kansas City. The signature of Bud Black catches Schuerholz’s glance. He looks up and says: “First trade I ever made as a major league general manager — Bud Black from the Seattle Mariners.”

There are the spikes worn by Maddux, the day he won his 200th game. Just the thought of Maddux has Schuerholz waxing poetic, as he announces: “Most remarkable pitcher I’ve ever seen. I mean, most remarkable. He could do things with a ball and get outs that he knew he was going to get, that no one else I have ever seen pitch could do.”

There is a Brett jersey and bat (splotched with pine tar) that inspire Schuerholz to say of Brett: “He had the most joyful countenance of any player I’ve ever been around. He loved being a baseball player.”

And there is one more bat — a bat that changed the lives of Schuerholz and everyone connected with the Braves of the ’90s, because David Justice used it to hit the home run that won the 1995 World Series, for a team that won only once in all those trips to the postseason. Schuerholz grabs it tight and reflects on how he’d grown up in baseball believing you built a team around pitching and run prevention first. But pitching alone can’t win you a title, he says: “You’ve got to have a few hitters. And David was our guy that day.”

11:29 a.m. — ‘I’m on Cloud 9’

He could easily spend a week exploring the hidden artifacts. But there is an 11:30 trip to the plaque gallery on Schuerholz’s agenda. So it is time to go. But the glow of what he has seen, what he has touched and where he has been over the past 2½ hours hasn’t stopped radiating.

“Wow,” says Karen Schuerholz.

“Wow is right,” her husband says. “This whole experience has been a big, ‘Oh, wow.’ That was astounding.”

He lays a hand on Strohl’s shoulder, just to say thanks, and says: “I’m on Cloud 9.”

A half-century in baseball has led him to this moment. Now he is doing his best to make the moment last. He thinks back on the days when he slept with his favorite baseball cards under his pillow, dreaming of spending a life in baseball. And here he is, living that life, basking in the aura of Cooperstown — and this invitation to join “the most special club there is.”

Ten years ago, he says, he asked his two brothers from Maryland to join him in this place for the induction of Cal Ripken Jr. One afternoon, they found themselves sitting on a bench outside the Otesaga Hotel, overlooking the lake and the golf course, surrounded by legends of baseball as far as their eyes could see.

“I told them, ‘I don’t know if I’ll get to heaven, but I believe in it,'” Schuerholz says, letting the magic of Cooperstown wash over him one more time. “And if I do get to heaven, I hope it looks exactly like this.'”


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