Baseball Hall of Famers Compete Over Statues

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — The unofficial greeters at the Hall of Fame stand together, in bronze, by the ticket booths in the museum lobby. They are multicultural monuments to strength, sacrifice and service: Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente.

“Those three represented so much more than what they did on the field,” said Josh Rawitch, the president of the Hall of Fame. “It was the way they went about life off the field in terms of helping other people, leading the way for other people, and ultimately just being the perfect example of what it means to have character and courage.”

The Hall of Fame will welcome seven new members on Sunday, including three who are living: David Ortiz, Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva. All will be recognized in the gallery with a plaque measuring 15½ inches by 10¾ inches, the standard size for all Hall of Famers — from Hank Aaron to Robin Yount — since the first induction ceremony in 1939.

The separator, for some, is a statue. There is no vote for statue worthiness, no formal process for attaining one. It takes a certain transcendence, in addition to sheer excellence on the field. As the saying goes: If you know, you know.

“Dave Winfield, he’s one of the only guys that doesn’t have a statue — and we give him a hard time,” Ozzie Smith said last fall on a podcast hosted by the former major leaguer Bret Boone. “I go, ‘Come on, Dave, you don’t have a statue?’ You should see the look on his face.”

In a telephone interview recently, Winfield reluctantly confirmed that he does, indeed, lack a statue — and that peers do mock him for it.

“Honestly?” Winfield conceded. “Yeah.”

To George Brett, a teammate of Winfield’s on eight American League All-Star teams in the 1980s, that only stands to reason. Brett has a statue on the outfield concourse in Kansas City, where he played for 21 seasons and is synonymous with the Royals franchise.

“A lot of these guys played in so many cities,” Brett said. “Who’s going to have a statue of Winfield? He played on eight different teams.”

Six, actually, but that raises an interesting point: Teams are more active now in celebrating their pasts, but many great players, especially over the last few decades, were only passing through on their way to better contracts elsewhere.

Since the stadium-building boom of the 1990s, almost all teams have opened baseball-only parks, with many replacing multipurpose, municipally owned facilities not given to individual monuments. The Philadelphia Phillies, for example, had generic sports statues outside Veterans Stadium, but christened a new park in 2004 with tributes to Richie Ashburn, Steve Carlton, Robin Roberts and Mike Schmidt.

Several older parks, like Wrigley Field in Chicago and Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, have made recent renovations to include public gathering spaces. The Dodgers gave Sandy Koufax a statue at their new plaza in June, and the Cubs did the same in May with Fergie Jenkins.

Koufax played only for the Dodgers, and while Jenkins pitched mostly for the Cubs, he logged almost 2,000 innings with other teams. Gaylord Perry, though, roamed to seven teams in 12 seasons after his first decade with the Giants, who still cast his likeness in bronze in 2016.

Perry joined Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal and Orlando Cepeda — all Hall of Fame teammates on the 1962 National League pennant winners — outside the gates of San Francisco’s Oracle Park. Jenkins, who had a similar set of star teammates later in the decade, took notice.

“I was saying to myself, ‘I wonder when they’re going to put me in a statue at Wrigley Field with three of the top players I played with?’” said Jenkins, who went into the Hall of Fame with Perry and Rod Carew in 1991. “I roomed with Ernie Banks for three years, and played with Billy Williams and Ron Santo for seven years — and believe me, it is an honor to be among them.”

The sculptor William Behrends created all of the Giants statues, as well as those in San Diego (Tony Gwynn and Trevor Hoffman) and at the minor league park in Brooklyn (Robinson and Pee Wee Reese). His most recent work was unveiled on opening day at Citi Field: the Mets’ forever ace, Tom Seaver, in his famous drop-and-drive delivery, twice life-size.

“When you get off the subway and you first see it, you’re a long way from it,” Behrends said. “It’s got to have presence from a distance. You want someone from 100 feet away to see it and want to go over to it. Larger spaces sort of shrink sculptures; you put a strictly life-size sculpture out in a large space and it looks less than life-size.”

The Seaver statue is the only one outside a major league ballpark in New York. The Yankees feature Don Larsen and Yogi Berra — the battery for the only perfect game in World Series history — in their museum at Yankee Stadium, and the former owner George Steinbrenner stands sentry in bronze near the elevator in the Gate 2 lobby. But the vast constellation of Yankees stars get plaques or monuments, not statues, in an outdoor gallery beyond the center-field fence.

Some Yankees Hall of Famers, then — Reggie Jackson, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and so on — have no statues anywhere. Others have statues far from the Bronx: Babe Ruth at Camden Yards in Baltimore, near his birthplace; Joe DiMaggio at the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in Chicago; Mickey Mantle in his hometown, Commerce, Okla., and another in the minor league park in Oklahoma City.

“The Giants made it a little easier on themselves,” Behrends said, noting that the franchise moved from New York in the 1950s. “Mel Ott could have a statue, but they have only portrayed people who went into the Hall of Fame as a San Francisco Giant, and there’s only been five of those, so that’s how they choose. But with the Yankees, where would they start?”

The Chicago White Sox — with a similarly lengthy history but far fewer glory years — have several statues inside the park and have recognized the 2005 World Series winners with a monument outside, depicting pivotal plays in photos and sculptures. In Cleveland, the juggernaut of the late 1990s is personified in a statue of the well-traveled Jim Thome, who holds the franchise’s home run record with 337 — but slugged his 400th for the Phillies, his 500th for the White Sox and his 600th for the Minnesota Twins.

“It stands for so much more: all those great players we had in the ’90s, all those great playoff runs,” said Thome, who now works for MLB Network and the White Sox. “It was a championship-like team for a long time. We just unfortunately didn’t win a World Series, but it stands for all those guys: Kenny Lofton, Carlos Baerga, Sandy Alomar, Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle, Eddie Murray, Dave Winfield.”

Winfield, who had his best seasons with the Padres and the Yankees, finished his career with Cleveland in 1995. He won his only championship for the Toronto Blue Jays, who have a statue of the former owner Ted Rogers outside their stadium, as well as a collection of gargoyles depicting the fans — but no player statues.

Winfield’s name, at least, appears behind the Kent Hrbek statue at Target Field in Minneapolis, on a window listing Minnesota natives who played for the Twins. Voters sent Winfield to Cooperstown on the first try, but Hrbek amassed only five votes (out of 499) in his only year on the ballot.

Hrbek, though, had statue intangibles: He played his entire career for his hometown team, lasting 14 seasons, matching his retired uniform number. A burly, gregarious slugger, he helped win two World Series while looking like a guy in the next-door fishing house on the lake.

The statue depicts Hrbek’s moment of glory: squeezing the final putout in his glove and raising his arms in triumph after clinching the Twins’ first championship in 1987. It is everything a statue should be.

“My daughter will go to the ballpark and take her friends or her children or her cousins and say, ‘That’s Dad; that was his favorite part of playing the game, winning the world championship, catching the ball and jumping off first base,’” Hrbek said. “Hopefully that memory will go on for a long time — and give the pigeons someplace to sit for a while and let them do their thing.”