A capacity crowd of about 300 sang happy birthday and then waited on line for a slice of the 4-by-2-foot cake prepared locally by Schneider's Bakery just down the street.
"It's always nice to see you," Niekro, the right-handed Braves knuckleballer who won 318 games and was inducted in 1997, told the fans during his formal remarks. "I hope you can all come back many, many more times. Those of you who haven't been here before, come back and see us, bring your friends and enjoy this little magical village.
"I know there's a magical something down in Florida, the Kingdom I think they call it, but this is the magical village. It's so enjoyable to be here."
The Hall opened on June 12, 1939, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the mythical birth of baseball in the remote town of about 1,800 located in upstate New York, hard on the banks of picturesque Lake Otsego. The fact that the myth of Abner Doubleday inventing the game locally was later debunked has done nothing except enhance the magical aura of what is certainly America's game.
Niekro was a last-minute replacement at the ceremony for Joe Morgan, who is undergoing knee replacement surgery and couldn't attend. Morgan sent his regards through the Hall's chair, Jane Forbes Clark, whose grandfather, Stephen C. Clark Sr., founded the museum.
On Friday, Hall officials will unveil a new gallery in honor of Ruth, bringing numerous artifacts out in public from the archives in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Babe's big league debut. The Hall recently unearthed some new film of Ruth, from March 1920, that will be part of the exhibit. According to Hall officials, it's the earliest known footage of Ruth in a Yankees uniform.
Ruth was in Cooperstown, along with a treasure trove of talent that included Johnson, Cy Young, Wagner, Tris Speaker, Eddie Collins, Napoleon Lajoie, George Sisler, Grover Cleveland Alexander and Connie Mack, when the Hall's first four classes were inducted in a mass celebration of the new edifice that was built at the cost of $100,000. All of them took a famous train trip together into town, along with two active members from each of the 16 Major League teams, who competed in the first annual Hall of Fame Game at Doubleday Field later that day.
Wagner and Collins chose sides, and the Wagners won, 4-2. Ruth, who retired in 1935, pinch-hit and popped out foul.
Ty Cobb arrived late because he and his son had booked their own train into nearby Albany and rented a car for what turned out to be a hectic drive into town. Cobb made his grand appearance well after the elder Clark began the ceremony. A total of 26 players, executives and managers were honored that day, although Lou Gehrig couldn't attend because of his illness. He was honored in a special election by the Baseball Writers' Association of America after his forced retirement earlier that season.
Way back then, there were about 15,000 people packing Main Street outside the new museum, far fewer than the 50,000 expected this coming July 27, when pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, slugger Frank Thomas and managers Tony La Russa, Joe Torre and Bobby Cox will be inducted behind the nearby Clark Sports Center. Newsreels from that long-ago day show the proceedings in grainy black and white.
Since its opening, the Hall has attracted nearly 16 million visitors, most of them during the summer months and the annual induction weekend.
"I think Phil Niekro got it right in his remarks, there is something magical about the place, coming here, especially as a baseball person, to be able to touch and feel and see the history," said Ripken, who was inducted in 2007 along with Tony Gwynn. "It's almost like it pulls you in. I was able to express how it feels to be a member of the Hall of Fame, but I'm still a fan in many ways. So when I come in here I still feel like a fan. It's hard to believe it's been 75 years. It's a wonderful birthday to celebrate."