Unmatched during career, Koufax among those envied by peers after playing days
By Marty Noble
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Who said it first -- Stan the Man or Bette Davis or someone who gets no credit -- matters not. What was said is the important aspect. The words are these: "Gettin' old ain't for sissies." Who among us who has passed the age of retirement questions that statement?
So it was on Saturday afternoon on the veranda of the Otesaga Hotel, the headquarters for the Baseball Hall of Fame weekend, that 74-year-old Bobby Cox, Hall of Fame Class of 2014, bumped into Jerry Reinsdorf, the 79-year-old owner of the White Sox. They exchanged pleasantries, and before they parted, Cox said "Well, you look great, Jerry." And Reinsdorf replied:
"That's what you say when someone's old. ... No one ever says, 'You look great' to someone who's 40."
Well, yes and no to that. During the days when baseball's royalty visited this leafy and lovely village, someone must have said "You look great" to 60-year-old Dennis Eckersley, because he looks as if his 40th birthday is a few years in the future. Eck has displaced Sandy Koufax as the Hall of Famer who defies time and confounds the folks who flood the city in midsummer each year.
Not that Koufax, closing in on 80, looks his age. He still could pass for a man in his 60s. But each year, Eck looks like he just returned from eight hours of surfing and racquetball and one day on the Tour de France. If the legal age for alcohol consumption were 50, Eck would be carded regularly.
Only Don Drysdale's 20-something son -- what resemblance! -- made Eck look as if he had aged.
But Eck and Koufax, Rickey Henderson and Andre Dawson are the exceptions -- at least in appearance. The two former outfielders have retained their athletic profiles.
Henderson did, however, utter a rare admission on Friday afternoon when he said "I'm not sure I could play anymore." A year ago, when he was merely 55, such sentiment expressed about him would have sounded like a challenge, one he would have accepted. "But I think I could fool 'em for a while," Henderson said.
Maybe so, but there is a hitch in the get-along of the all-time stolen-base leader.
Not Dawson, though. At age 61, he moves smoothly -- with two artificial knees, the remedies for the effects of playing 11 seasons on the unforgiving phony grass in Montreal.
Joe Morgan played on the synthetic stuff in Houston and Cincinnati, and he has paid the price recently -- knee replacement surgery. But he developed a serious infection that has made walking with a cane necessary. Morgan's disability isn't permanent, but "my recovery is going to take some time," he said Sunday. He turns 72 in September.
Gaylord Perry is hunched over and has trouble walking. Phil Niekro is younger than his gray hair makes him out to be. Henry Aaron moves slowly. Nolan Ryan, not a regular at the Hall, came to salute Craig Biggio. He looked like a banker. Even now, no one wants to face Ryan.
Bob Gibson has had one knee replaced, and the other awaits a successor. But he, Lou Brock and Dave Winfield have their hair, and all of it's jet black; amazing considering Winfield, nearly 64, showed some gray before he left the Yankees in 1990. The gray was missing in '95 when he played in the World Series with the Indians. "That's what getting out of New York can do for you," he said.
That hasn't worked for Tom Glavine. Bruce Sutter and Greg Maddux have more gray, too. And Maddux can still move around town without being noticed. It's the glasses. Eddie Murray and Frank Robinson have aged gracefully. Al Kaline is such a gentleman.
The city loves Ozzie Smith and Rollie Fingers' mustache. Each looks good. The city wonders why Mike Schmidt plays keep-away. It seems Luis Aparicio prompts wonder, as in "Is he someone?" He goes mostly unrecognized.
Reggie Jackson's resemblance to his father increases each year. Brooks Robinson shows his age -- he's 78, but his signature round shoulders haven't drooped. Johnny Bench looks strong. Frank Thomas, 47, looks as if he could uproot a tree single-handedly. He's massive, and he moved without restriction while playing Wiffle ball with his son. The son has a pretty and level swing.
Willie Mays and Yogi Berra didn't make it this year and might not make it again. Willie's an octogenarian, Yogi's 90. Each was missed.
Goose Gossage missed the weekend, and folks missed his smile and good nature. Although Ryne Sandberg is no longer with the Phillies, he didn't show, either. And Paul Molitor was too busy chasing the Royals to make it. His other half, Robin Yount, was conspicuous by his presence. So, too, for George Brett, who had read the first 163 pages of the new Pine Tar Game book. "I'm in there a lot," he said.
Yount still has deGrom hair. Whitey Herzog still has a crew cut, but the blond has been replaced by salt and pepper. Tony La Russa maintains a low profile. Steve Carlton used to be inaudible to reporters; now he's invisible to almost everyone.
Tom Seaver said he once again can sip some of his splendid cabernet and enjoy it. A year ago, the medication he was taking for Lyme disease ruined the taste. The only other partial Mets presence was Gary Carter's widow, Sandy; Mays and Ryan don't count.
Fergie Jenkins looked good. Billy Williams, an every-year attendee, was absent; his wife is ill. And Ernie Banks was mourned again and again. Carlton Fisk looks a tad less imposing. Tony Perez and Orlando Cepeda could pass as younger men. Cha Cha still wears his straw hat everywhere. Juan Marichal looks quite distinguished with all his gray.
Though Joe Torre was here, the Yankees seemed under-represented. Reggie and Winfield have connections to other franchises, no matter the logos on their caps on the plaques. But Whitey Ford is a Yankee only. His memory fails him these days. But Whitey's humor and delightful personality came through all weekend. His presence alone made it special.
Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.