COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – One created baseball’s foremost dynasty, one transformed the role of the men in blue, and one notched the first hit in the first professional game.
That’s the impressive legacy of baseball pioneers Jacob Ruppert, Hank O’Day and James “Deacon” White, who are finally about to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
They represent the Class of 2013, and they’ve all been dead for more than 70 years, making Sunday’s festivities something out of the ordinary. For only the second time in 42 years, baseball writers failed to elect anyone to the Hall of Fame, sending a firm signal that stars of the Steroids Era will be judged in a different light.
“When December rolled around and the ballots were out for completion, it started to dawn on us that there was a better-than-likely chance that the writers might not come to a 75 percent vote on anyone this year,” said Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson. “Disappointed? Yes, because we feel there are candidates on the ballot who certainly deserved consideration. But surprised? No.”
“I believe that this past year was an aberration – the first real ballot with some uncertainty among how the voters feel about some of the candidates on it,” Idelson said.
The Baseball Writers’ Association of America last failed to elect a player in 1971.
This time, the 16-member Pre-Integration Era Committee dug deep into the archives to elect an owner, an umpire, and a player who had significant roles in baseball’s earliest decades.
Ruppert, who was born in Manhattan in 1867, went to work for his father in the family brewing business instead of attending college. He also fashioned a military career, rising to the rank of colonel in the National Guard, and served four terms in Congress from 1899-1907 before becoming president of the Jacob Ruppert Brewing Co. upon the death of his father in 1915.
Interested in baseball since he was a kid, Ruppert and Tillinghast Huston purchased the Yankees prior to the 1915 season for $480,000, then proceeded to transform what had been a perennial also-ran in the American League into a powerhouse.
O’Day was born on the rural west side of Chicago in 1859 and turned pro in 1884, but his arm suffered mightily in seven years of action and he retired not long after leading the New York Giants to the National League pennant in 1889 and pitching a complete game to clinch the 19th century precursor to the modern World Series.
During his playing days, O’Day umpired occasionally and was so proficient, he was hired in 1895. After working a season in the minor leagues, he joined the National League in 1897 and went on to umpire more than 4,000 games.
His greatest contribution to baseball was convincing everyone associated with the game to treat the men in blue with dignity. Despite repeated physical and verbal assaults from players and fans, O’Day maintained his signature code of fairness, often ignoring enormous bribes to favor the home team.
White, a barehanded catcher, was the first batter in the first professional game May 4, 1871, and laced a double. An outstanding hitter, White, who grew up in Caton, N.Y., near Corning, was regarded as the best catcher in baseball before switching to third base late in his nearly 20-year career.
A deeply religious man, White earned the nickname “Deacon” and was dubbed “the most admirable superstar of the 1870s” by Bill James in his “Historical Baseball Extract.” A left-handed batter, White had a .312 batting average and accumulated 2,067 hits, 270 doubles, 98 triples, 24 home runs and 988 RBIs before retiring in 1890.
White died in 1939 in Aurora, Ill., and 6 years later, Hall of Famer Connie Mack, a teammate of White’s in Buffalo, wrote in a letter that White merited induction.
Now, White’s special day is here, and great grandson Jerry Watkins will speak on his behalf. Dennis McNamara, a great grandnephew of O’Day, will deliver a speech on behalf of the 10th umpire to be enshrined, and Anne Vernon, great grandniece of Ruppert, will speak on behalf of the family.