COOPERSTOUN, New York. Unofficial Hall of Fame greeters stand together, in bronze, at the ticket booths in the museum’s lobby. These are multicultural monuments to strength, sacrifice and service: Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente.
“Those three represented so much more than what they did on the field,” said Josh Ravich, Hall of Fame president. “So they led a life off the field, helping other people, paving the way for other people, and ultimately just being a great example of what it means to have character and courage.”
On Sunday, the Hall of Fame will welcome seven new members, including three living ones: David Ortiz, Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva. They are all recognized in the gallery by a 15½-by-10¾-inch plaque, the standard size for all Hall of Famers from Hank Aaron to Robin Yount, since the first induction ceremony in 1939.
The divider for some is a statue. There is no voting for the statuette, nor a formal process for achieving it. A certain transcendence is required in addition to pure skill on the pitch. As the saying goes: If you know, you know.
“Dave Winfield, he’s one of the few guys who doesn’t have a statue – and we’re giving him trouble,” Ozzy Smith said last fall on a podcast hosted by former major league player Bret Boone. “I’m like, ‘Come on, Dave, don’t you have a statue?’ You should have seen the look on his face.”
In a recent phone interview, Winfield reluctantly confirmed that he really misses the statue – and that he is being mocked by his peers for it.
“Honestly?” Winfield relented. “Yeah.”
For George Brett, Winfield’s nine-star American League teammate in the 1980s, this is understandable. Brett has a statue in the back lobby in Kansas City, where he played for 21 seasons and is synonymous with the Royals franchise.
“A lot of these guys played in a lot of cities,” Brett said. “Who will have the statue of Winfield? He played in eight different teams.”
Six, actually, but here comes the interesting point: Teams are now more actively celebrating their past, but many great players, especially in the last few decades, have simply passed away to get better contracts elsewhere.
Since the stadium building boom in the 1990s, almost all teams have opened baseball-only parks, many of which have replaced multi-use municipal facilities not dedicated to individual monuments. The Philadelphia Phillies, for example, had shared sports statues outside of Veterans Stadium, but christened the new park in 2004 with tributes to Richie Ashburn, Steve Carlton, Robin Roberts, and Mike Schmidt.
Several older parks, such as Chicago’s Wrigley Field and Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium, have recently undergone renovations that provide public meeting spaces. The Dodgers put up a statue of Sandy Koufax in their new square in June, and the Cubs did the same with Fergie Jenkins in May.
Koufax played only for the Dodgers, and although Jenkins played mostly for the Cubs, he played almost 2,000 innings with other teams. Gaylord Perry, though, has been on seven teams in 12 seasons since his first decade with the Giants, who in 2016 were still casting his likeness in bronze.
Perry joined Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal and Orlando Cepeda—all teammates from the 1962 National League Hall of Fame winners—outside San Francisco’s Oracle Park gates. Jenkins, who had a similar set of star teammates later that decade, took notice.
“I was like, ‘I wonder when I’m going to be put in a statue at Wrigley Field with the top three players I’ve played with,'” said Jenkins, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame along with Perry and Rod. Carew in 1991. “I shared a room with Ernie Banks for three years and played with Billy Williams and Ron Santo for seven years – and trust me, it’s an honor to be among them.”
Sculptor William Berends created all of the giant statues, as well as statues in San Diego (Tony Gwynn and Trevor Hoffman) and at a minor league park in Brooklyn (Robinson and Pee Wee Reese). His latest work was unveiled on opening day at Citi Field: Mets all-time ace Tom Seaver in his famous double life-size delivery.
“When you get off the subway and see it for the first time, you are already far away from it,” Behrends said. “It has to be a presence at a distance. You want someone 100 feet away to see it and want to approach it. Large spaces seem to reduce the sculptures; you put a strictly life-size sculpture in a large space, and it looks smaller than life-size.”
The Seaver statue is the only statue outside of a major league stadium in New York. The Yankees feature Don Larsen and Yogi Burr—the battery for the one perfect game in World Series history—in their museum at Yankee Stadium, and former owner George Steinbrenner stands guard in bronze outside the elevator in the Gate 2 lobby. But the huge constellation of Yankee stars gets plaques or monuments, not statues, in an open gallery behind a fence in the center of the field.
Some Yankee Hall of Famers, and then Reggie Jackson, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and so on, don’t have statues anywhere. Others have statues far from the Bronx: Babe Ruth at Camden Yards in Baltimore, not far from his birthplace; Joe DiMaggio at the National Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame in Chicago; Mickey Mantle in his hometown of Commerce, Oklahoma and another at a minor league park in Oklahoma City.
“The Giants made things a little easier for themselves,” Behrends said, noting that the franchise moved from New York in the 1950s. “Mal Ott could have had a statue, but they only portrayed people who entered the Hall of Fame as San Francisco giants, and there were only five of them, so that’s how they choose. But with the Yankees, where would they start?”
The Chicago White Sox, with a similarly long history but far fewer years of glory, has several statues in the park, and the 2005 World Series winners have a monument outside, depicting the main games in photographs and sculptures. In Cleveland, the juggernaut of the late 1990s is embodied in a statue of the well-travelled Jim Thom, who holds the franchise record with 337 home runs but hit his 400th with the Phillies, 500th with the White Sox, and 600th with the White Sox. Sox.” Minnesota Twins.
“It means so much more: all these great players we had in the ’90s, all these great playoff appearances,” said Tom, who now works for the MLB Network and the White Sox. “For a long time it was a championship team. Unfortunately, we didn’t win the World Series, but that goes for all these guys: Kenny Lofton, Carlos Baerga, Sandy Alomar, Manny Ramirez, Albert Bell, Eddie Murray, Dave Winfield.”
Winfield, who had the best seasons with the Padres and Yankees, retired from Cleveland in 1995. a collection of gargoyles depicting fans, but without player statues.
Winfield’s name is at least behind a statue of Kent Hrbeck at Target Field in Minneapolis, in a window display of Minnesota natives who played for the Twins. Voters sent Winfield to Cooperstown on the first try, but Hrbeck only got five votes (out of 499) in his only year of voting.
Hrbek, however, had the statue’s intangible values: he played his entire career for his hometown team, lasting 14 seasons, matching his retired kit number. A portly, outgoing slugger, he helped win two World Series while looking like the guy from the nearby fisherman’s lake house.
The statue depicts Hrbek’s moment of glory as he clutches the final racket in his glove and raises his hands in triumph after winning the first Twins championship in 1987. That’s all the statue should be.
“My daughter will go to the baseball stadium, take her friends, children or cousins and say: “This is dad; that was his favorite part of the game, winning the world championship, catching the ball and jumping off first base,” Hrbek said. “I hope this memory lasts for a long time – and the pigeons will have a place to sit and let them do their own thing.”
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