Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Human Side of Baseball

I attended the induction ceremony at the Baseball Hall of Fame for the third time this past weekend. The speeches are usually the least memorable part for me - in all those years, I think the best moment was the reaction Pedro Martinez got from the crowd - but this year something stuck.

In Lee Smith's speech, he mentioned that when the Cubs told him they were moving him to the bullpen in 1979, he took it as a negative and wanted to quit the game. Only the intervention of Billy Williams, the former Cubs great turned coach (and eventual Hall of Famer) changed his mind. Williams explained that the game was changing and that relievers were going to be valuable in the future. Smith decided to come back, he made his major league debut the following season, and the rest was history.

This caught my attention because just a few days ago, I began rereading Joe Posnanski's "The Soul of Baseball," his account of a year spent on the road with legendary player, scout, coach, and overall ambassador to the game Buck O'Neil. It's a fabulous book, full of stories about O'Neil and insights into the way he put a positive spin on aspects of his life that would bring most of us to our knees.

One of the great stories in the book was from O'Neil's days as a scout. A young minor leaguer he had signed quit and went home, and Buck was sent to bring him back. He did, visiting the family for dinner, taking the player to soak in the adulation of local youths and remind him how good he really had it, and eventually driving  him back to his team in Texas himself.

The player? Billy Williams.

Who knows if Williams was thinking of that ride with Buck O'Neil when he intervened with Lee Smith, but I love the way humanity interjected itself into the business side of the game and two Hall of Fame careers were the result.