COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — The four men sat on stage, united by the sport they played and the fraternity to which they now belong. But it’s hard to imagine a more diverse, disparate and unlikely group of Hall of Famers than the quartet inducted on Sunday. Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz each had their turn in the sun before thousands of fans on the field of the Clark Sports Center, and each spoke of the odd twists and unexpected ways that had brought them to Cooperstown.
“My class is a unique class, and today is a unique day,” Martinez said in his speech.
“Unique” was the word of the day, it seemed, as each player talked about the specific and unconventional obstacles on his route to the Hall of Fame. Biggio had to contend with a position switch from catcher to second base. Smoltz had to fight through an elbow injury, Tommy John surgery and a move from the rotation to the bullpen. And Johnson and Martinez each had to overcome their own physical limitations—the former his gargantuan height, the latter his diminutive stature. But through perseverance, luck and some help, each of the four now boasts a bronze plaque, a token of their membership in the game’s most exclusive club.
The day’s speeches began, perhaps appropriately enough, with Biggio, who was long a presence atop the batting order for the Astros in his 20 years in the league. The New York native received a rousing welcome from the surprisingly large multitude of Houston fans that had made the trek from southeast Texas and other points across the country. His plaque called him a “gritty spark plug,” and throughout his speech, Biggio spoke of the hard work and effort he put into his Hall-of-Fame career. On his transition from catcher to second, he told a story of the hours he put in during six weeks of spring training in 1992 with coach Matt Galante, doing infield drills in the morning and afternoon every day until he felt comfortable at second. The result: four Gold Gloves and a spot in Cooperstown.
“In baseball, tomorrow is not guaranteed, and I tried to play every game as if it was going to be my last,” Biggio said.
After Biggio came Smoltz, who talked about his own winding and unexpected trip to the Hall to join rotation mates Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. A 22nd-round draft pick, Smoltz was a Michigan native who was picked by his hometown Tigers, then promptly shipped to Atlanta for Doyle Alexander. What became one of the majors’ most infamous trades was to Smoltz a crushing blow—his boyhood franchise sending him to what was then the worst team in baseball—but with the Braves, he developed into a franchise pitcher, mixing fastball with splitter to devastating effect. He survived, too, the torn elbow ligament in 2000 that sent him to the operating table and the bullpen.
“I’m a medical miracle,” he told the crowd, noting that he was the first pitcher to undergo Tommy John surgery to be enshrined before speaking out against the “epidemic” of elbow injuries in the game.
The stage was then set for the Hall’s most intimidating new member. His trademark mullet gone and his usual scowl replaced by an occasional smile, Johnson unfolded his 6’11” frame from his chair on stage and hunched over the podium. He noted the tumultuous start to his career—a wildness that was as much a danger to his major-league future as it was to the batters who faced him—and his own disbelief that, all those years later, he was now a Hall of Famer. Johnson thanked someone roughly every 30 seconds, a testament to how many people had come together to turn him into one of the most feared pitchers of all-time, and he seemed to recognize that the effort that brought him to Cooperstown was a collective one.
Then came Martinez. The star of the day and with what seemed like the entire Dominican Republic cheering behind him, the gregarious ace of the Red Soxlaughed and cheered his way through his speech. Like Johnson, he thanked a new person with every sentence, heaping praise onto his family and friends and the baseball men who had given him the chance to be great. But he saved his biggest praise for his country. It had been 32 years since Juan Marichal, Martinez’s boyhood hero, had been inducted into the Hall—the first Dominican to receive the honor. And with Marichal sitting behind him, Martinez, now the second Dominican to become a Hall of Famer, implored his countrymen in Spanish to take pride in him.
“When you see me, you can see a sign of hope, of faith, of determination, of strength, courage, with dignity,” Martinez said.
Even with the additions of Biggio, Johnson, Martinez and Smoltz, the number of Hall of Famers has increased only to 310—just over 1% of all the men who have ever thrown a pitch or taken an at-bat in major-league history. But even if Cooperstown’s ranks weren’t swollen by this foursome’s inclusion, they were broadened significantly. Together, the quartet represents some of the game’s oddest marvels, a blend of players who gave fans some of its unlikeliest back stories. Sunday was not just a celebration of baseball excellence or of four of the sport’s greats; it was also a chance to appreciate that there is no set size or shape or color or character for a Hall of Famer. You only had to look at the stage, at the four men holding their plaques, to see that truth.