Coopertown not same without Kirby, Yogi, The Man, Rapid Robert
By Marty Noble
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- A different Fab Four was performing in the Hawkeye Room that sweet summer Sunday night in 2004. Kirby Puckett, Ozzie Smith, Eddie Murray and Dave Winfield provided a soulful impression of the Temptations as a combo headlined by Mudcat Grant played. Other Hall of Famers formed a perimeter in the room adjacent to the bar in the Otesaga, the hotel headquarters for Induction Weekend, and were quite entertained.
Someone counted and quickly identified them as the Four Tops, but Puckett immediately objected. "No Tops. We're the Temps," he said, fully aware that the original Temptations had been a five-man unit. "We're short one man, and we can't sing like they did. But we have the moves, their moves. We've got their moves down pat. . . We're pretty good. Aren't we?"
Puckett was the David Ruffin of the carefully choreographed Cooperstown Temps, the one who commanded your attention whether he was on stage, at the bar or in the hotel lobby. He was sunshine on a cloudy day long before he and his brethren spontaneously joined Mudcat that night. Paul Molitor, performing solo, already had proven he could handle Springsteen's "Glory Days" with all the appropriate nuances. But it was Puck and the boys who were show stoppers.
Whatever "it" was, Kirby Puckett had it. When he sang Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World," a solo with white handkerchief in hand, folks in the adjacent room were certain Satchmo was in the building.
Puck's mates were so smooth, and they flawlessly mimicked the Temps' style. But Kirby was so cool, Jackie Wilson cool. He eliminated whatever inhibitions the others had brought to the bandstand.
* * *
Puckett's powerful, freestyle influence was shut off in 2006, eight days before his 46th birthday. And Induction Weekend has missed his glow as the Temps came to miss Ruffin's unique vocals. His passing is one of too many losses the Hall has endured in recent years. So, when the greats of the game assemble here this weekend, the gathering will be decidedly less than what it could have been.
Several absences will be particularly conspicuous. This will be the first annual reunion that mourns Yogi, the second since Ernie Banks died, the third without Ralph Kiner, the fourth without Stan The Man and fifth without Rapid Robert Feller. Each was among the elite Hall of Famers for reasons of charm and personality as much as for on-field accomplishment.
Feller would discuss World War II at the drop of a camo boonie hat. He was pleased to hold court and share his red, white and blue views after breakfast. Each morning, Kiner took a table in -- where else? -- the Korner with the Mrs. and reinforced his image as one of the game's foremost gentlemen. Banks continually smiled and sought a doubleheader. The Man was a constant threat to pull out his harmonica and play. And Yogi ... well, Yogi was Yogi, and his presence prompted warm and fuzzy feelings throughout this peaceful village.
It wasn't only the Otesaga's spectacular buffet that made breakfast the most important -- and entertaining -- meal of the day 10 years ago.
Now, with Yogi and Banks gone and Musial's harmonica silenced, with someone else seated in Kiner's Korner and no one with war stories to share, the Hall has lost some of its charisma and spontaneity. The still-wonderful weekend experience here is more diminished since 2010 than Seaver's slider or Ryan's Express. But what can we do about any of that?
Billy Williams is as cordial a man as Mr. Cub and has almost as many anecdotes as Kiner. Goose and Rickey have miles of smiles and kind words for everyone. Fergie once sang "O Canada" here, Johnny Bench still performs his entertaining Harry Caray impersonation. And it was just Thursday night that Mike Piazza appropriated the bandstand drums, reached an octave no one knew he had and performed Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer."
But, sorry, fellas, it's not the same as watching Spahnie lip-synching to The Man's "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" or Willie Mays, at age 79, teaching Tony Perez the proper technique for the thigh-slappin' "Handbone." Or Yogi, Carmen and grandchildren sharing a table.
For folks of a certain age who witnessed those moments, the memories are vivid, rich and treasured. Moreover, I actually saw Spahnie put his hand in his pocket, a historic moment, Musial suggested.
Feller, Kiner, Banks, Musial, Willie, Yogi, Spahnie and, of course, gone-too-soon Mickey Mantle had filled my wonder years.
I saw them through impressionable eyes and was fascinated. The more recently inducted don't move me so readily. I covered Bench, Ozzie and Seaver, Reggie, Rose and Frank Robby, Pedro, Piazza and Perez, got a taste of Mays, Murray and Morgan, interviewed Goose and Gibby, Bad Henry and Sandy. To be fascinated was to lose objectivity. I recognize their greatness, but not in a Peter Pan way.
* * *
We'll endure other absences this weekend. Frank Robinson canceled. Nolan Ryan again declined the invitation. Greg Maddux and Robbie Alomar did, too. And where have you gone, Carl Yastrzemski? He's baseball's Garbo.
Bobby Doerr's 98th birthday occurred in April. No one expects the oldest living Hall of Famer to make the long, circuitous trip here. Doug Harvey and Whitey Herzog are missing as well. Seaver finds trips to the airport difficult to tolerate. He and Nancy aren't feeling well anyway. So he canceled, too. The wine guys are disappointed, almost as much as Tom is. He loves this weekend.
Bill Mazeroski, Red Schoendienst and Don Sutton couldn't make it. Joe Morgan had knee issues comparable to Andre Dawson and Gary Carter. Replacement surgery and post-op complications have prevented his attendance. Big Mac -- McCovey, not McGwire -- is wheelchair-bound. He doesn't travel easily or much. The same for Mays; his vision is severely compromised.
And Molitor, the only Hall of Famer currently managing, has other appointments -- in Minneapolis -- this weekend. He's excused. (Ryne Sandberg isn't. He ended his managerial gig in late June last year and didn't make the trek here. He's on the 2016 roster, though.)
Lou Brock, the man who made his mark with his legs, had his left leg amputated below the knee last fall. Diabetic complications. The absence of Bob Gibson -- the former Globetrotter has ankle and knee issues -- is disturbing.
But Koufax, Larkin, Ripken, Brett and Carew (despite his heart problems) are here. Aaron, Eck and Reggie, too. Bench and Fisk are catching up. Rollie wants more of Niekro's long and hilarious jokes. John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Craig Biggio were at the Otesaga fire pit Thursday night and were overheard speaking of Musial's harmonica. Childhood chums Eddie Murray and The Wizard of Oz are inseparable. Al Kaline and Whitey Ford warmly represent their generation. And 2014 classmates Torre, LaRussa and Cox add a touch of dignity.
The weekend will be diminished. But it brings together baseball's royalty. And it also will be delightful.
Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.