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Mudville: January 25, 2021 9:51 pm PDT
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The Magnificent Seven

The Magnificent Seven

You’ve never heard these Hall of Fame stories. So listen up.

Here at BallNine, we take our legends seriously. We honor them. It’s not SOS, Same Old Story.

I’ve been thinking about the seven Hall of Famers who passed away in 2020 as we move into 2021. A lot of wonderful things have been written about them and their baseball deeds have been discussed in great detail as they should for such a magnificent group. Losing them is tough.

Honoring them in the right way is important.

Instead of writing a column on my thoughts and interactions with Hall of Famers Whitey Ford, Al Kaline, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Joe Morgan, Tom Seaver and Phil Niekro, I wanted to do something different. So I reached out to some of those who have had strong relationships and experiences with these Hall of Famers.

They have a story to tell. This is a better way to get a more insightful glimpse of The Magnificent Seven.

Let others tell a story or two or three about what they saw that made these men so special as they climbed baseball’s Mount Everest, induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Let’s start with The Chairman of the Board Whitey Ford, along with a brief introduction on each incredibly accomplished storyteller.

Savor each player – presented in their Cooperstown induction order – and told by some of the people who knew them best.

Whitey Ford

Whitey Ford

WHITEY FORD: Hall of Fame Class 1974: Reflections offered by Marty Appel, who became the youngest public relations director in baseball history when George Steinbrenner elevated him in 1973. Marty started working for the Yankees in 1968. He has authored or co-authored 16 amazing books, including his latest bestseller “Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Character.”  In addition, for two decades, he has collaborated on the plaques that hang in Cooperstown.

In the spring of ’67 Whitey shutout the White Sox and retired a few weeks later. I listened to the game on radio from college in Oneonta. A few years later when working for the Yankees, I told him what a thrill I got from that. Whitey said, “None of those pitches were legal you know.”

I phoned Whitey when Bobby Murcer died in 2008. He had not heard; he was stunned and almost immediately filled with tears. He referenced Bobby by saying “You mean that little kid with the Mantle-Maris t-shirt who came up from (Southeast) Oklahoma (City) High School as a teenager.” That was touching to me.

One day Whitey and I had lunch in Bryant Park, and then had to walk seven blocks up 5thAvenue for a meeting at Rockefeller Center. As we were walking, no one noticed him. So I mentioned to him that I was surprised no one recognized him, and he said, “That’s because I’m walking with you! If I was walking with Mickey, everyone would recognize me!”

In his last years, when Alzheimer’s got him, he would be invited to Old Timers Day. He’d wear a jersey. He would be introduced and sort of pushed up the dugout steps for a bow. For a moment he seemed bewildered; confused, unsure. Then he’d see the packed Stadium and hear the roar of the crowd and for a moment it would all come back. He’d break into that great Whitey Ford smile and wave his cap. It was to me, a wonderful, wonderful moment.

In 2001, he had to name his all-time Yankee team for a book he did with Phil Pepe. He picked Jeter at shortstop. I said, “What are you going to say to Rizzuto?” And he said, “I’d say, Scooter, are you nuts? Have you seen this kid play?”

Al Kaline

Al Kaline

AL KALINE: HOF Class 1980: Reflections offered by Danny Knobler, who after 35 years as a sportswriter, including Tigers’ beat writer from 1990-2008, went on to work at CBSSports.com and Bleacher Report, then opened Danny’s Sports Bar in Pattaya, Thailand @DannysPattaya, which was recently featured in the LA Times.

Al was both the most unassuming Hall of Famer and also one of the proudest. Hated the idea of playing in Old Timers games because he didn’t want people to see him when he couldn’t play at a top level anymore. 

When Al was about to get to 50 years with the Tigers organization, he told me he thought about retiring because 50 was a good number. But by the time he got to 50 they had given him a bigger role in the front office. And he was having so much fun he stayed.

I think it was that winter, I got to Metro Airport in Detroit for my flight to the winter meetings. The Tiger contingent happened to be on my flight. Al told me it would be his first winter meetings and he was kind of excited about it. We get on the plane and because of my frequent flyer status I had been upgraded. Al, the way I remember it, walked by on the way to his coach seat without a single complaint.

In my early years of covering the Tigers, Al put on a uniform regularly in spring training and helped out as an extra coach. He was already in his 60s, but he kept in such good shape he looked like he could play.

One of the great things about covering the Tigers during that era was the chance to get to know Al and have regular conversations with him. He was a TV broadcaster (with George Kell) when I started and an exec when I left, but he was always a friend.

Bob Gibson

Bob Gibson

BOB GIBSON: HOF Class 1981: Reflections offered by Rick Hummel, longtime baseball writer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he built strong relationships with both Gibson and Lou Brock. In 2007, Hummel, known as “The Commish”, was honored with the J.G. Taylor Spink Award by the Baseball Writers Association of America and is in the Hall of Fame.

My first encounter of any length with Gibson came in the summer of 1981 —the strike year and his Hall of Fame year — when I arranged to go out to Omaha to see him. I flew in in the morning, stopped by to meet him at a restaurant he owned, we had lunch, and then he invited me out to his house, where he just had built a new deck, and wanted to barbecue for me.

We talked for a couple of more hours and then I remembered I was supposed to do a radio show back to St. Louis.

No problem, said Gibson, whose wife, Wendy, agreed that they would wait on dinner. We ate and talked some more and then we repaired back downtown to his restaurant for more cocktails and talks.

Finally, we left at about 10 o’clock and as we’re walking to our respective cars in the parking lot, Gibson, said, in some disbelief, “Wendy, Wendy, Wendy. Can you believe I’ve been talking to a sportswriter for NINE HOURS?”

Lou Brock

Lou Brock

LOU BROCK: HOF Class of 1985: More reflections offered by Rick Hummel.

I became equally close to Brock, if not more so, but not at first. After some years as a backup, I took over the beat in 1978 when Brock hit .221 and there was talk that he may be through. He was 39 at the time.

I reported that concern by manager Ken Boyer in the paper and Brock, upon seeing that, blamed me. He didn’t talk to me for the several months remaining in the regular season.

Here I am, in my first year on the beat, and I’ve alienated one of the most popular athletes ever to play in St. Louis.

Finally, the next spring, I approached him and we hashed this out with him saying, “Junior. You haven’t been around long enough to make those kinds of judgments,” even though they weren’t my judgments.

We were fine after that. He invited me to go with him to all the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs and service clubs he spoke to on the road in his retirement year as, in his words, he “orchestrated my own exodus.”

He hit .304 in the final season at the age of 40. He continued to call me “Junior” and I called him “Junior” also.

He didn’t seem to mind.

Joe Morgan

JOE MORGAN: HOF Class 1990: Reflections offered by Hal McCoy, who was presented the J.G. Taylor Spink award in 2002, and is in the Hall of Fame. Long before that he played a little first base at Kent State before starting to cover the Reds in 1973 at the Dayton Daily News. He is still writing. As for his HOF experience, Hal remembers: “It was a whirlwind weekend. After the ceremony, my family and I were walking up a side street and a little old lady came up to me with a program, asking me to sign it. I asked who she was and she said, ‘I’m Babe Ruth’s daughter.’ I told her, ‘Let me have your autograph.’ ’’

My best story on Joe; We didn’t speak for 35 years. He was to become a free agent in 1979. I wrote a column saying it was time for him to go. No criticism of him. Just said the Big Red Machine days were over and the team was on a rebuild.

The next day he stuck a finger in my face and said, “Don’t ever try to talk to me again.”

So we were both childish. He was a TV broadcaster with the Reds for a while. We stood next to each other on the elevator and did not speak. We played doubles tennis against each other and didn’t speak. We stood next to each other at a urinal and didn’t speak. Finally, in 2014, when Joe was a Reds special assistant, we were in the clubhouse together by ourselves on a Sunday morning. He came up to me, stuck out his hand and said, “I want to apologize. I’ve been very childish. I was younger at the time and it was stupid what I did.’’

I shook his hand, apologized, told him I was childish, too. I told him I never lost respect for what he did on the field and off even though we never spoke.

It was a Hall of Fame move on his part.

Tom Seaver

Tom Seaver

TOM SEAVER: HOF CLASS 1992: Reflections offered by Erik Sherman, a New York Times best-selling author of seven books on baseball. His latest, Two Sides of Glory: The 1986 Boston Red Sox In Their Own Words, will be released April 1. Check out his website at www.ErikShermanBaseball.com and follow him on twitter @byErikSherman.

When I received the text with the news of Tom Seaver’s passing, it was nothing short of devastating to me. It was also heart-breaking, distressing, and most any other adjective to describe grief as one could conjure up. But, perhaps most of all, I felt a sense of shock by the news—even though I shouldn’t have. 

While working on the book I co-authored with Art Shamsky, After the Miracle: The Lasting Brotherhood of the ’69 Mets, I spent a day with Seaver back in the spring of 2017. As he battled memory loss, bouts of fatigue, panic attacks and could no longer travel due to the long-term effects of Lyme disease, he wouldn’t be able to return to New York to join his Miracle Mets teammates in commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of their 1969 World Series championship two years later. So with the help of his wife Nancy, Art and I set out to bring the celebration to The Franchise, organizing what would turn out to be a final gathering with some of his closest friends from that team – Buddy Harrelson, Jerry Koosman, and Rocky Swoboda.

We would tour his Napa Valley vineyard and enjoyed lunch in his adopted home of Calistoga. The way the old teammates interacted, joked, and reminisced, it was as if they went back in time to Shea Stadium during their halcyon days. Not long after the visit, however, Seaver would develop Lewy Body dementia, a serious condition that affects thinking, movement, and behavior. A family member confided in me during the ’69 Mets anniversary weekend that Seaver’s time on this earth was sadly day-to-day. So when the news of Seaver’s passing came over a year later, I wondered why I was so surprised – and why it hit me so hard.

Perhaps the reason was because Tom Terrific, an icon in every sense to my generation, always seemed so indestructible with his solid build, thick legs, and forever youthful appearance. It was also the way he carried himself, the way he walked in from the bullpen – warmup jacket slung over his right shoulder, body leaning to the left, hat tilted slightly up. His body language exuded supreme confidence and he almost always backed it up with a prolific outing. Even during the vineyard tour he gave our group in the twilight of his life, there was still a tremendous pride and enthusiasm he displayed for his grape growing, a bounce to his step, and a great joy punctuated by his signature booming, contagious laugh. He was then, and always was, the all-American boy in the hearts and minds of those who grew up watching him pitch.

Despite having interacted with numerous all-time greats in my work as a baseball author, there was something different, something surreal about my time that day with Tom. It wasn’t so much his dominance on the mound – the three Cy Young Awards or his record-setting Hall of Fame voting percentage – that made me recognize the magnitude of the moment. I believe it is because my love of the game, since the very beginning, always seemed to trace back to Seaver. The first game I ever attended, at age six, was on July 4, 1972 at Shea Stadium. Seaver was facing the San Diego Padres that day and, if not for a Leron Lee single with one out in the ninth, Tom would have pitched the first no-hitter in Mets history. His performance that afternoon got me hooked on baseball. Then, the next season, he led an over-achieving Mets team, much like the ’69 version, all the way to a seventh game of the World Series. Now, I was in love with the game.

Four years later, and just weeks after the so-called Midnight Massacre when the Mets crushed the organization and its fan base by dealing Seaver to the Cincinnati Reds, I attended the 1977 All Star Game at Yankee Stadium – Tom’s first trip back in New York since the worst trade in franchise history. During the player introductions for the National League All-Stars standing along the third base line, never before or since have I experienced seeing a longer or more thunderous standing ovation for a ballplayer. The cheering felt like it was going to go on forever. The memory of it still gives me chills.

And then, at baseball camp as a teen, I tried my hand at pitching.  Like thousands of other boys like me, the instruction was to do it the Seaver way – with my right knee, naturally, grazing the mound dirt.

And finally, now in my early 50s and Seaver in his 70s, there was the trip to see him at his home for the book. My lifetime Tom Seaver link had come full circle. A photo of us from that weekend hangs on my office wall with a humorous inscription from him that reads: To Erik, Between us we have 311 W’s!! Tom Seaver #41.  It’s a reminder of an impossibly beautiful morning on his deck overlooking his vineyard three years before a treasured part of my youth died on that sorrowful day late last summer.

Phil Niekro

Phil Niekro

PHIL NIEKRO: Class of 1997: Reflections offered by Chip Caray, who has been broadcasting Braves games for decades, part of the legendary Caray broadcasting family. His dad Skip was with the Braves all those years and his grandfather Harry was Mr. Cub. No broadcaster knows the game better than Chip, who also did Cubs games for seven years, part of his wonderful baseball life.

My first interaction with Phil was as a 13-14 year old batboy with the Braves. I’d see my Dad during visitation in the baseball season in Atlanta as, being a baseball-crazy kid, all I wanted to do was be at the ballpark with him … and be around the players!

I was a catcher in Little League … favorite player Ted Simmons. One day Phil wanted to play catch … just catch … no knucklers. So, being young and dumb, after about 10 tosses, I drop into my catcher’s crouch, and said “C’mon … throw one!”

Phil said no … about ten times … but after being a teenaged pain in the butt, he fired away.

It floated like a butterfly.  Stung like a bee. Hit me square in the nuts. No cup. Never touched leather. Hahahahaha.

Always laughed about that with him.

Phil was just a nice man. Funny, friendly and like most of the Braves HOFers, was an unassuming superstar who truly loved the team, the city, the fans, and guys like us.

Simply put, Braves Country is a lesser place without him.

Well said Chip, as were all these incredible stories.

The baseball world is a much lesser place without The Magnificent Seven: Whitey Ford, Al Kaline, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Joe Morgan, Tom Seaver and Phil Niekro.

We have our wonderful memories of these Hall of Fame players and now because of The Story at BallNine and Marty Appel, Danny Knobler, Rick Hummel, Hal McCoy, Erik Sherman and Chip Caray we have even more stories to tell.

44+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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