Baseball was once more at its best on this muggy afternoon as seven new members were welcomed into the Hall of Fame during a three-hour ceremony that drew a record crowd of 50,000 people and touched an array of emotions.
Fans began showing up just after sunrise for baseball's answer to Woodstock, staking out the best vantage points on the rolling hillside stretching from the makeshift podium. Hall of Fame officials estimated this afternoon's festivities drew 10,000 more fans than any previous induction ceremony, an indication of the appeal of a group that includes a record three players inducted in their first year of eligibility and one -- Orlando Cepeda -- 25 years removed from his last big league game.
With 34 Hall of Famers looking on, George Brett, Robin Yount, Nolan Ryan and Cepeda headed the 1999 induction class. Umpire Nestor Chylak, Negro leagues star Joe Williams and turn-of-the-century manager Frank Selee were also inducted posthumously.
Among the returning Hall of Famers was Ted Williams, 80, who arrived in a wheelchair and survived the sweltering heat for a short time before departing. Willie Mays also made one of his rare visits to the Hall of Fame in honor of his former teammate, Cepeda.
"This really is our finest hour," Commissioner Bud Selig said.
Selig drew the only boos when several dozen fans taunted him to drop his ban on Pete Rose's admission into the Hall of Fame.
From the tears of Brett and Cepeda to the cool composure of Ryan and Yount, the four men used their speeches primarily to thank the people who had helped them get to the Hall of Fame. They thanked high school coaches and the scouts who signed them and the assorted managers, instructors and teammates who contributed to their success.
If the speeches sounded somewhat alike, it may be that the four players were a bit alike. All made their reputations as low-key, lead-by-example players who excelled in pressure situations and became both an inspiration and an example.
Yount bragged later that he had practiced his speech so many times he was able to complete it without being trapped by the overwhelming emotions of the moment. His buddy Brett, though, broke down so often that he finally left the last four pages of his speech unread.
"Today concludes a long journey," Brett said. "I stand humbly before you."
A three-time batting champion and 13-time all-star, Brett recalled how he was constantly being compared with his two older brothers, including Ken Brett, who also played in the big leagues.
"Sometimes I wonder why all this has happened to me and not you," Brett said, his voice cracking. "All I ever wanted was to be as good as you."
He thanked Kansas City teammate Hal McRae "for teaching me how to play the game." He also thanked former Royals manager Whitey Herzog for calling him into his office and telling the young third baseman: "George, you're hitting third and playing third as long as I'm the manager."
Brett broke down when he attempted to thank the late Charlie Lau, the hitting coach who rescued his career and became his friend and mentor. Unable to speak, he simply pointed to former Kansas City teammate Jamie Quirk. He cried again when he mentioned his parents, wife and three sons.
At a news conference after the ceremony, he said: "It really got to me when I tried to talk about my brothers. I was always being compared to them, and I was never as good as them. I know how much they love and respect the game. For me to be here -- well, it's just amazing."
Ryan, baseball's all-time strikeout king, made it through his speech smoothly, but a few feet from the lectern, wife Ruth wiped away tears.
Ryan never mentioned his 5,714 strikeouts or seven no-hitters or 324 victories during his speech. Instead, he thanked others, showing again why dozens of former teammates named their sons after him. Texas Gov. George W. Bush interrupted his presidential campaign to watch Ryan's induction, and a variety of friends and former teammates and coaches made the trip.
Ryan thanked his first youth league coach and his high school coach. He thanked the New York Mets scout, Red Murff, who signed him to his first contract. He thanked the late Angels owner Gene Autry, Astros strength coach Gene Coleman and former Rangers pitching coach Tom House.
Ryan also became one of the few major leaguers to thank publicly Marvin Miller, the first executive director of the Major League Players' Association.
"When I broke in, the minimum salary was $7,000," he said. "I'd have to go home for the winter and get a job. One year I worked at a service station from 3 to 9. Ruth worked in the bookstore at the college. Because of Marvin's effort, we brought the level up so that players were not put in that situation."
Cepeda, 61, entered the Hall of Fame 25 years after his final big league game. His entrance into the Hall of Fame apparently was delayed by a 1975 arrest for marijuana possession, and over the years some wondered if he would ever be inducted. After failing to win enough votes during 15 selections by the Baseball Writers Association of America, Cepeda finally was voted in by the Veterans Committee last winter.
"Today, I represent my country of Puerto Rico," he said. "I was a kid from Puerto Rico coming to the States at 17 to try a new venture in life. I have a wonderful life. I'm very lucky to have the skills to play baseball. Through baseball, I escaped poverty. Through baseball, I built a name for myself. Through baseball, I opened doors for more Puerto Ricans to play the game.
"I used to say, `Who cares about the Hall of Fame? Who needs it?' Well, I need it. It's going to take me three or four weeks to wake up. It's been a beautiful dream."
Yount, who spent all 20 seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers, gave a speech that was touching, articulate and, at times, funny. He had been so worried about the task that he telephoned the Hall of Fame a month ago and asked to be the first inductee of the day "so I could get it over with."
He began the day with a morning round of golf with Brett, then set a perfect tone for the occasion.
"I dreamed of playing in the big leagues," he said. "I dreamed of playing in the World Series. I dreamed of playing in the All-Star Game. I was lucky that those dreams came true. But I never dreamed of being in the Hall of Fame. I can't begin to tell you what an honor it is. Okay, now is the time I'm supposed to wake up from all of this. That's okay -- it's been a great dream."