COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- It only seemed fitting that the first National Baseball Hall of Fame ceremony without a living inductee in 48 years would be delayed for an hour by rain. That's the way the year has gone.
When the annual event began in a drizzle and a light, cool breeze, it became a day of remembrance for those who played, umpired and guided the game so many years ago.
Yankees seminal owner Jacob Ruppert, 19th-century catcher James "Deacon" White and umpire Hank O'Day were brought to life for the many who may have not known who they were.
"There were 10 people here from my hometown today," Jerry Watkins, the great grandson of White, said after the program was concluded. "They drove all the way from Wheaton, Ill., and they'd never heard of Deacon White. But they chose to come out. For me, this was a wonderful opportunity to share something I've known for my whole life."
Ruppert took over the Yankees in 1915, and during his 24-year tenure as owner, established the foundation of a franchise that has become one of the most heralded brands in professional sports. White caught for 20 years without the benefit of equipment, and O'Day is the umpire who called out Fred Merkle for not touching second base in 1908 on what would have been a game-winning hit, ultimately costing the New York Giants the pennant to the Chicago Cubs.
Because the eligible members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America did not give the requisite 75 percent vote to anyone on their ballot earlier this year, this was the first ceremony without a living inductee since 1965, when Pud Galvin, baseball's first 300-game winner, was elected 63 years after his death. The last time the writers didn't send a player on to induction was 1996.
The trio inducted on Sunday were elected last year by the Pre-Integration Veterans Committee.
The last BBWAA ballot was filled with players who thrived in an era in which many were believed to have used performance-enhancing drugs. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and Mike Piazza were all on it for the first time and none were even close to election. They will all be back for another go of it next year, along with newcomers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Jeff Kent and Mike Mussina.
No one expects a replay of these ceremonies when the 75th anniversary of the Hall's opening in 1939 is celebrated during the inductions on July 27, 2014, but it certainly was an obvious topic of discussion this year.
The conjoining points of "honesty and integrity" made it into the speech of Dennis McNamara, the grand nephew of O'Day and a former Chicago policeman, on Sunday.
"The lesson of Hank O'Day is to do your best with honesty and integrity," he told the crowd that waited out the rain and the 33 Hall of Famers seated behind him. "This is a lesson known to these Hall of Famers behind me, and might be in the minds of some players not elected. It will bring to this wonderful destination next year players who did value honesty and integrity, such as our stars from Chicago, Frank Thomas and Greg Maddux. Hopefully Minnie Minoso will join them via the Veterans Committee."
The rare year without a living star attraction allowed officials of the Hall to be creative. They honored Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig, Cardinals second baseman Rogers Hornsby and 10 other Hall of Famers who were not recognized at the time of their inductions due to wartime travel restrictions, or, as in the case of Gehrig, because he was deemed too sick to attend upon his election by acclimation in 1939.
There was no ceremony in 1942 when Hornsby should have been inducted, and the entire Class of 1945 suffered the same fate. The '45 class of 10 included Red Sox third baseman Jimmy Collins and Brooklyn manager Wilbert "Uncle Robbie" Robinson.
In a wonderful touch, a Hall of Famer was asked to the podium to read the inscription on each of the plaques. Wade Boggs represented Collins, Tommy Lasorda the same for Robinson and Joe Morgan for Hornsby, whose .358 lifetime batting average was the highest ever in the National League.
The piece de resistance was Cal Ripken Jr. reading the plaque of Gehrig. The Orioles shortstop was the man who shattered Gehrig's once seemingly unattainable consecutive-games played streak of 2,130, passing it in 1995. Ripken finished at 2,632.
Ruppert, a beer and land baron who owned the Yankees until his death in 1939, purchased Babe Ruth from the Red Sox, signed Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio and had the foresight to build the first Yankee Stadium, which opened in 1923, on 10 acres of farmland in the Bronx. Ruppert's Yankees won 10 American League pennants and seven World Series titles, sending them on a stunning path toward a record 27, a run that has extended nearly a century into an era when the club is held by the Steinbrenner family.
There are 45 players, managers and executives in the Hall of Fame with some sort of tie to the Yankees, but Ruppert is the first Yankees owner. In his honor, Jennifer Steinbrenner and Lonn Trost were in attendance on Sunday. Jennifer is the daughter of the late George Steinbrenner, and along with her two brothers, Hal and Hank, a part of the current Yankees ownership group. Trost is the club's chief operating officer.
"To me, to bring him back is very poignant," said Anne Vernon, Ruppert's grand niece who gave the speech for her great uncle. "It just brought such pride to my biological family, my extended family. I live in Vermont now, and our people came here from Vermont. There's a whole feeling of working hard, of connectedness. It's about [Ruppert] having a highly positive life."
O'Day was a pitcher and later an umpire, from 1888-1927, who worked a record-tying 10 World Series. White, who hit .312 from 1871-90, caught much of his career without the luxury of a glove, chest protector, shin guards or a mask. He also played in an era when there were five strikes and eight balls and caught fouls were not counted as outs.
"So it's virtually impossible to compare those stats with this era," Watkins pointed out.
O'Day was the plate umpire at the Polo Grounds on Sept. 23, 1908, the fateful day on which the Giants battled the Cubs to the last out. Merkle was on first base as the Giants knocked in what appeared to be the winning run with a single in the bottom of the ninth, but he failed to touch second base as the crowd swarmed the field. The Cubs noticed the gaffe, threw the ball to second base, and O'Day called Merkle out. Because fans had irrevocably stopped the game, it couldn't be continued, was declared a 1-1 tie, and was replayed. The Giants lost the makeup game and the National League pennant by one game to the Cubs, who won the World Series.
The Cubbies haven't won a World Series since. And had Merkle touched second base, the last Cubs title would have been in 1907. The call and the rooting interests of the Watkins-White clan intermingled at that point in time. Both White and O'Day also played for the Cubs.
"It's been a tremendous honor for me to be on the stage with all of these great ballplayers," Watkins said in his speech. "Many of you have given me hours of enjoyment, and some of you have just broken my heart with a well-pitched game or a timely hit. You see, I'm a Cubs fan. But I have to tell you the truth, I never thought this day would come, that we would honor my great grandfather James "Deacon" White as a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. But you've got to remember, Cubs fans are really good at waiting."
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less