Come for the memories. Stay for the moments.
Like when Diana Munson gave a speech at the New York State Baseball Hall of Fame dinner in 2019, about inner strength and how she has managed to keep hauling following Thurman’s death in the infamous 1979 plane crash. This is what Thurman truly meant to that Yankee team which won back-to-back World Series in 1977 and ’78.
“Thurman was the wheel that made everything go,’’ Diana said of the Captain, her dear husband as the crowd hung on every word.
At that exact moment came a booming voice: Goose Gossage.
“He was the straw that stirred the drink,’’ Gossage said, taking Reggie Jackson’s famous words and applying them to Thurman.
The house came down in cheers.
Diana walked over a few steps and gave Goose a hug. Now that’s a moment.
This happened in a sold-out ballroom at the Troy Hilton at NY State Baseball Hall of Fame dinner, one of the best kept secrets in the baseball world. The number of athletes inducted into this Hall of Fame at their annual dinner, a 90-minute drive from Cooperstown, is overwhelming. The speeches are the highlight of the yearly event because they come straight from the heart.
The individual classes are astounding and so varied.
That last induction class included Munson, Ron Guidry, Bobby Murcer, Ron Darling, Yankees trainer Gene Monahan, Ray Negron, Jane Forbes Clark of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Howie Rose.
Yes, you can put it in the books.
In the past, such stars as Sandy Koufax have entered the NY State Baseball Hall of Fame. Rene LeRoux is the executive director and founder and he gives his heart and soul to the cause.
Some more memorable moments.
“Ralph Branca sang God Bless America,’’ LeRoux told BallNine of that special night when Branca, who was born in Mount Vernon, NY and died in 2016 at the age of 90, showed off his voice. “And when he gave his speech he talked about the opportunity baseball presented to him. He held his head up high after serving up that home run to Bobby Thomson. He was really a gentleman who was respected and admired by all.
“Gary Cohen (2018) and Rose gave spectacular speeches, because our whole thing is love of the game,’’ LeRoux said of the broadcasters. “We induct people on their contributions to the game and their body of work. One of the things that makes us special is that we can induct a Thurman Munson or a Howie Rose or Bob Costas.’’
When Costas was inducted he took out his Mickey Mantle baseball card that he carries in his wallet. “He’s a Long Island, Commack, NY kid, grew up, went to Syracuse, but baseball is his true love too.
“And when Diana came in 2019, her whole family came, drove from Ohio, 40 years after Thurman died and we got to celebrate his life, and give tribute to him,’’ LeRoux said. “No, it is not Cooperstown, but it’s the next best thing.’’
The next best thing. And nearby is baseball’s Holy Grail.
“I retired from a Wall Street career after that (surgery) and decided to follow my heart, which was baseball, a labor of love”
When Lou Whitaker was inducted, Alan Trammell’s second base partner, said, “I’m only 90 miles away, I’m getting closer.’’
Whitaker was born in Brooklyn.
“Baseball players are all funny guys,’’ LeRoux noted. And they can be serious, too.
“Andy Van Slyke gave a touching tribute to his dad, who was able to come to the dinner. His dad passed away several months later,’’ LeRoux said. “But Andy had that Field of Dreams moment where he got to connect again with his dad and tell his dad in front of 500 people how much he loved him. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place when Andy gave his speech, people didn’t know that side of him.’’
It’s those special moments that matter.
All this didn’t just happen. In 2003, LeRoux underwent heart surgery and decided to re-adjust his life. Working on Wall Street, LeRoux needed to change and he did. His job was to design and implement retirement plans for state governments and corporations.
“I retired from a Wall Street career after that (surgery) and decided to follow my heart, which was baseball, a labor of love,’’ LeRoux told me.
In 2008 he began the New York State Baseball Hall of Fame.
“I needed to lead a less stressful life and I saw a great idea in front of me,’’ he said. “Living 90 miles from Cooperstown, I have been there dozens and dozens of times and I had met Johnny Podres through my Wall Street career. He gave a speech for me one day and signed some balls and we got to be quite close. He won Game 7 of the 1955 World Series, the first time the Dodgers ever won the World Series.’’
Podres shut out the Yankees that day, 2-0. He is from upstate New York, like LeRoux. Podres was born in the hamlet of Mineville.
“One thing led to another,’’ LeRoux said, “and I thought, ‘Gee, we ought to honor John, he’s not in Cooperstown and I thought how many other great baseball people should be honored that are not going to get the chance to be in the Hall of Fame.’
“So I made some phone calls to some people and they said, ‘Sure, we can help you in any way we can.’ It was a great decision. I did research on other states to see if they had a dedicated state Baseball Hall of Fame and I found only two. Most states have an athletic Hall of Fame but not just a Baseball Hall of Fame.’’
Rene LeRoux (left) with Goose Gossage
LeRoux’ pride in New York State is unbounded.
LeRoux lives in Ballston Lake. “I spent my first two years in college at St. Michael’s in Burlington, Vermont, but my dad died unexpectedly and then I went to Skidmore, which is in Saratoga Springs and graduated in 1978.’’
His father was on his way to Vermont to pick him up at college when he had a heart attack and died. William LeRoux, an accountant, was a baseball fan. “He rooted for everyone but the Yankees,’’ LeRoux said.
You guessed it, Rene is one serious Yankee fan.
And it is not just the famous names, there are other names as well. Those who contributed to baseball in New York at different levels. Remember, it’s about the game.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame means much to LeRoux, who visited Cooperstown again on Saturday.
“I have so much admiration and respect for Cooperstown,’’ he said. “When I go there I always come back with dozens of ideas. There are so many people in the game. It’s the game of baseball that we honor. So that’s media, announcers, writers, college coaches, high school coaches. We also have honored the Buffalo Bisons and Rochester Red Wings, who have been playing minor league ball since 1879.
“This whole area is rich in the history of baseball,’’ LeRoux said. “Where we have our event in Troy, NY, a three-minute walk away is Knickerbacker Park where the Troy Haymakers played. That team ended up becoming the New York Giants, who became the San Francisco Giants.
“King Kelly was born in Troy and they say is the model for Casey at the Bat,’’ LeRoux said, “And at that baseball field there is a monument to the players who are all in Cooperstown: Roger Connor, Dan Brouthers, Tim Keefe, Mickey Welch, Johnny Evers and Kelly. So when you see this big huge monument to these players growing up, all these things stick with you.
“Ian Anderson the star pitcher for the Atlanta Braves is from here, Johnny Cerutti who died young after a great pitching career, we have our Sportsmanship Award named after him, he is from Albany. He was also a 4.0 student at Amherst. We’ve had a lot of players from the upstate area and Podres is probably the most famous.’’
Guidry was presented with the Johnny Podres Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019.
New York State Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Willie Randolph
Kelly was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1945. He was a star player and manager and was credited with such innovations as the hit and run, the hook slide and the catcher hustling to back up first base. He also was a vaudeville performer.
Clearly, Kelly would not fit in today’s Showcase Swing Home Run/Strikeout game.
The love for baseball is strong throughout New York State.
LeRoux, 65, is a big horse racing buff as well, being so close to Saratoga. “I owned horses for seven years, had a stable and it was fun, but horses eat whether they are running or not,’’ he said with a laugh.
“When I was young Cab Calloway used to hang out there,’’ LeRoux said. “It’s where the city people come in the summertime to play.’’
The Class of 2020 was put on hold because everything in 2020 was put on hold. That class now will be inducted on August 15. The event is usually held in November. The Class of 2021 will be inducted November 14th, so this a doubleheader year for the New York State Baseball Hall of Fame.
Gil Hodges will be inducted and his family is so excited. Teammate Carl Erskine is coming in from Anderson, Indiana and the right-hander is thrilled to attend at the age of 94 to talk about the Boys of Summer, which remains to this day one of my favorite books.
‘’Oisk’’ threw two no-hitters for the Dodgers. Erskine so deserves his day in the sun. LeRoux has built a strong relationship with him as he has with all the inductees. LeRoux and his board work hard on getting things right.
A lot of their inspiration comes from Cooperstown.
“That is the most impressive Hall of Fame in the country,’’ LeRoux said. “It’s meticulously maintained from the grounds outside to everything inside it is just an absolutely tremendous Hall of Fame and they have continued to grow and expand. When you walk in now they have a room of baseball oil paintings, that is really special. And they have a statue of Johnny Podres in the courtyard.’’
The NY State HOF does not have a brick and mortar home, but that day is coming, LeRoux said. “We have it all drawn out,’’ said LeRoux, who is working with NY state government on the project. “The sooner the better so I can empty out my house.’’
Rene LeRoux with his pup Molly
Fans can visit the website and check out 10 recent speeches. The jacket and tie dinner is a sellout every year, 500 people. The room is fully decorated. “It’s a comfortable atmosphere,’’ LeRoux said. “You’re sitting in a warm room and you look over at the next table and there is Goose Gossage or Ron Guidry, Ken Singleton, Ron Darling or Lou Whitaker and they are all gentlemen, you can walk up and shake their hand, get an autograph. Everybody has some kind of baseball story. Baseball is the tie that binds.’’
College coaches like Matt Senk from Stony Brook have been honored and Dom Scala from Adelphi will be inducted in the 2021 class, joining major leaguers like Bobby Richardson, Cleon Jones, Mookie Wilson and David Cone. Even umpires get honored. C.B. Bucknor, who played centerfield for SUNY Cortland and lives in Brooklyn was inducted as well as Tom Hallion, who went to the University of Buffalo.
The Little League team from Maine-Endwell, NY that won the Little League World Series in 2016 was inducted. “They all came and the kids were the rock stars that night,’’ LeRoux said. “Both John Franco and Willie Randolph paid tribute to these kids in their speeches. Just a wonderful moment.’’
The website has contact information for anyone who wants to reach out to LeRoux.
You learn baseball history at the event and how players wound up with their respective teams. When Rico Petrocelli was inducted, he told the story of going to a tryout at Fenway Park. He played his high school ball at Sheepshead Bay High in Brooklyn.
The Yankees thought Rico was too small to play third base. At that Boston tryout Petrocelli hit 14 straight balls over the Green Monster. “They immediately took him up to Tom Yawkey’s office and signed him on the spot,’’ LeRoux said.
Petrocelli was big enough to play 13 years in the majors and blast 210 home runs.
“I got a letter from Carl Yastrzemski, who we inducted (Bridgehampton High School, NY). “Yaz thanked me for inducting Rico and said he was among his closest friends and teammates on the Red Sox,’’ LeRoux said proudly. Yaz, Koufax, Mickey Mantle and Gossage are the only players in Cooperstown and the NY State Baseball Hall of Fame
As for Koufax, he told LeRoux that if there were one pitcher he could pick in a big game it would Podres.
Mets legendary PR man Jay Horwitz will be inducted in the Class of 2021 as well as the late Shannon Forde, who was beloved by all who knew her. When Jay speaks of Shannon that will be a moment.
LeRoux has made a strong push to induct more women. Jane Forbes Clark, the chairman of the board of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, was inducted in 2019, the first woman inducted into the NY State Baseball Hall of Fame.
“She was the right person to be the first,’’ LeRoux said. “This year we are putting in Perry Barber, the umpire and Shannon.’’
Forde, a graduate of St. John’s, was the Mets senior director of public relations and was beloved throughout baseball. She died five years ago.
Mickey Watts Stapleton, who was a catcher, also will be inducted in 2020, the first woman baseball player to be inducted. She passed away 13 years ago but her family is coming to the dinner.
“She was the model for the Geena Davis character in A League of Their Own,’’ LeRoux said.
Diana Munson, in her speech, also talked about Kay Murcer and Jill Martin and the strength they have found together as Yankee widows and what Yankee fans mean to them. “It means the world to us that you stand for us and salute us,’’ she said. “Remembering our husbands is our favorite thing to do. So I thank you.’’
The August class of 2020 includes Lou Piniella, Tino Martinez, Jerry Koosman and I am also receiving the honor. I am so honored to be only the second sportswriter to be inducted. My speech will be short with all that talent in the house.
“Kooz is thrilled,’’ LeRoux said. “Amazingly, all the inductees come. Shawon Dunston (Thomas Jefferson H.S. Brooklyn) flew in from San Francisco with his entire family when he was inducted.’’
Dunston, the No. 1 pick of the 1982 MLB draft, got inducted with B.J. Surhoff and Walt Weiss. They were all contemporaries. Weiss starred at Suffern H.S.
Weiss said at that time he was certain he would be the No. 1 pick of the draft when he went to a Yankee Stadium workout in 1982 with other area prospects.
“We jog out to our positions and I saw Dunston take a ground ball at shortstop and shoot it to first,’’ Weiss said. “And it was right then that my mouth dropped, I knew right then I was not No. 1.’’
The stories they tell. Come for the memories, stay for the moments.