CINCINNATI -- Johnny Bench, Wade Boggs, Mike Schmidt, Lou Brock and Robin Yount get into a limo. This isn't the start of a joke (there's not a rabbi, priest or lawyer among them, trust me). This is something that happened last weekend outside Cincinnati. It was a very big limo. The group was headed to a charity event where they would mingle with some high rollers partaking in cocktails and finger food, sit for some photos and banter a bit. Five Baseball Hall of Famers, to be joined at that event by Pete Rose, and then to be joined the next night at a gala dinner by three others: Rod Carew, Paul Molitor, Dave Winfield.
"This is not something you see, ever, outside Cooperstown," Winfield said. "Eight and a half Hall of Famers hanging out in one place? That doesn't happen." By the half, he explained with that giant Winfield grin, he meant Rose.
They sat together in the back of the limousine that first night -- it was a bus-limousine actually, with couch seating and a huge TV -- and they seemed just a pea shooter, a few spitballs and maybe four or five decades from being the boys at the back of the high school bus. There was some fuss among them over Brock's hair (it is gorgeous stuff) and Bench's scalp (he's the baldest of the bunch). Schmidt, who retains an air of reserve and mightiness within this crowd, asked Boggs whether the fact that he was wearing cowboy boots signaled that they were going to have to get into a fight that night. Boggs shook his head, "I am not a fighter, man. Not at all."
Then Bench, to the others: "So one time Brock takes off to steal second base against me," Lou Brock, in case anyone has forgotten, is the best base stealer planet earth has ever produced. (Rickey Henderson landed here from somewhere else.) This Johnny Bench story is from the late 1960s, early '70s maybe. "I let go of a bullet of a throw to second and Brock, he isn't even at the cutout when the ball gets there. He just stops, doesn't slide and turns to stare at me as he gets tagged out. So then it's later, after the game. I'm at my locker when the guy comes by with that laundry cart for us to put our sweaty jerseys in it. Only I look up and it's Brock who is pushing the cart! He'd gotten into our clubhouse. He says to me, 'Kid, next time make it look close.'"
"This is true," said Brock. "I did this."
There were plenty of stories and plenty of precious scraps from the diamond trade over those two nights. Brock, it turns out, could tell what pitch some catchers were calling for by looking in from first base at the muscles in the catcher's forearm -- two fingers for a curveball made a little muscle-ripple in the arm that one finger for a fastball did not. "So that helped," Brock said. Boggs confirmed that Randy Johnson blatantly tipped his pitches. His glove flared open when he was about to throw a breaking pitch, his pinky came in tighter before a fastball. "You know I never paid any attention to that," said Yount, rubbing his stubble. Said Boggs: "It didn't make one bit of difference. I couldn't hit him."
Altogether the eight and a half Hall of Famers, and for this figure you have to give a big assist to the half, have a total of 27,195 major league hits.
They'd come together at the invitation of Bench -- the two-day program was called Johnny and Friends -- and on behalf of a terrific charity run by the Green Diamond Gallery, a members-only baseball museum in Cincinnati. It's part of a program called Character and Courage founded by Green Diamond owner Bob Crotty and is the inspiration for the Baseball Hall of Fame's program of the same name (Crotty suggested the Hall add statues honoring players of courage). Character and Courage helps give kids with severe disadvantages, physical or economic, the chance to play baseball.
The Saturday-night gala included a silent auction for memorabilia and baseball trips and the bidding there, along with the price per plate and the fee that guests paid for the cocktail event the night before raised about $350,000. "This thing is changing lives," said Marty Brennaman, the Reds broadcaster who emceed both nights.
There were some really, really good moments here. Like when Brennaman introduced the kids being honored, a child from the Miracle League, say, or from the RBI program, and they walked into the ballroom down a carpeted aisle escorted by one of the Hall of Famers to great cheers. Or later when Bench, standing at the dais and taking a break from the roasts and recollections, saluted the parents of those kids on hand. Then it was those eight and a half Hall of Famers who got to their feet to applaud. You could see that these guys -- Carew in particular, and Molitor -- were moved. "What those parents have done and are doing with their lives," Bench said to me later. "I mean [emphatic expletives deleted] that is heroic."
"It's a special thing," said Ken Meifert, the Hall of Fame's director of development who had flown in for the event. "And the thing about seeing these guys here as opposed to in Cooperstown, is that they let their hair down."
Like when Boggs told the crowd a story about his Hall of Fame ring, and getting a little misty in the telling, held up another ring, this one he said represented his union with Debbie, his wife of 37 years. "Married 37 years?" Bench blurted. "I don't have 37 years between the four of them!"
The players spoke extemporaneously -- the subject of hangovers came up here and there -- which led to some extemporaneous words not always printable. When Yount let a particularly sharp expletive fly, and a silence fell briefly upon the place, Brennaman stepped into the pause and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, Paul Molitor!"
"This is a brotherhood," Yount said later. The guys were back in the limo now, swapping stories again -- about Jose Canseco snorting in the batter's box, or Willie Mays trying to peek back from his stance to get the catcher's sign, or Brock explaining how it was Jesse Owens, yes the Jesse Owens, who taught him how to get a good jump.
So maybe "Five Baseball Hall of Famers get into a limo," is not the start of a joke. But it was, for a couple of priceless nights in Cincinnati, the start of something.