Image credit: (Photo by Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y.—Former Atlanta Braves third baseman and newly elected Hall of Famer Chipper Jones got his first taste of baseball immortality Tuesday, when he was asked to put on white gloves to hold his own bat during a personal tour of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
Talk about an orientation.
The Rawlings MS20 the former switch-hitting third baseman used to compile a 14-game extra-base hit streak in 2006 is an artifact now, taped up from an RBI single he’d shattered it on a couple of plate appearances later.
Museum curator Erik Strohl had retrieved the bat from their basement vault and laid it out for Jones to size up, along with bats belonging to Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Honus Wagner and more contemporary figures like Mike Schmidt and Eddie Murray.
“It’s been mind-boggling,” Jones said after the tour, seated in front of plaques belonging to the Class of 1936: Ruth, Wagner, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, and Christy Mathewson.
The trip is designed to give recently elected Hall of Famers the lay of the land and an idea of what to expect when they return for the induction weekend in July. But it ends up being more than that. It’s a chance to get used to the idea of being a Hall of Famer.
Just a couple of alcoves down in the Plaque Gallery rotunda hung a corian slab marking the spot where his plaque will be installed in July. It was two spots to the right of his former general manager John Schuerholz and adjacent to fellow electees Jim Thome and Trevor Hoffman.
“I’m so nervous,” Jones said as he leaned in to sign his name, something he’s done thousands of times.
Strohl, the Hall of Fame’s Vice president of Exhibitions and Collections who had led the tour for Jones, his wife, agent, and a handful of media, asked him how it felt to be 20 feet from Babe Ruth forever.
”If you could measure the size of the goose bumps…” Jones responded.
Jones was making just his second trip to Cooperstown and first since 2004 when the Braves played an exhibition game against the Minnesota Twins. Both teams used the game to showcase some minor leaguers, so Jones didn’t play in the game, only the home run derby before. The team had arrived late the night before and had to fly out immediately after the day game, so Jones chose a little more sleep over an early morning museum tour.
Jones said he didn’t travel to Cooperstown for the recent inductions of Braves teammates Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, manager Bobby Cox and Schuerholz because he wasn’t sure how to navigate the crowds without becoming a distraction.
So touring the museum Tuesday morning was a first for Jones, but it also had the feeling of being a long time coming. Larry Wayne Jones, Jr. grew up the son of a baseball coach and historian in his own right in Larry Wayne Jones, Sr.
Jones, a “chip off the old block,” was raised to switch-hit like his father’s boyhood hero, Mickey Mantle. The first wood bat he ever touched was a replica of Mantle’s Louisville Slugger M110, which stayed in a den closet. Jones could pull it out to admire, and that was about it. When it came to playing backyard games against his father, he hit with PVC pipe.
Jones had spent hours at a time sitting in front of that same den closet rifling through scrapbooks that chronicled his father’s career as a shortstop at Stetson University. So it seemed full circle, in a way, when Jones rounded a corner in the museum Tuesday morning into the “scrapbook” style display featuring greats of the early 20th century.
Jones lingered at a display about Ruth, “the mightiest batsman of them all.” He pointed to Ruth’s left-handed stance in a photo of his first game with the Yankees following his “transfer from the Red Sox.”
“Not much has changed,” Jones said. “Look at those angles.”
He smiled a crooked grin when Strohl mentioned Pirates third baseman Pie Traynor hit .321 for his career.
“Is that all?” he quipped.
Strolling past an exhibit for Lawrence Peter Berra, he said: “Yogi’s name was Larry too? How about that?”
He read aloud from a caption under a photo of Hank Aaron, standing at a railroad station in Mobile, Ala. waiting for a train to his first professional stop with the Indianapolis Clowns, “Mama was so upset she couldn’t come to the train station.”
And Jones choked up after stopping to sit for a photo on a bench in front of a life-sized version of the iconic photo of the first group to be inducted in the Hall in 1939, including Ruth, Wagner, Cy Young, and Walter Johnson.
“I don’t deserve to be sitting here,” Jones said. “I’m going to get misty.”
The Hall of Fame staff does its best to make inductees feel comfortable by pulling out and pointing out artifacts they can relate to; for Jones they were items like a team-autographed ball from the 1995 World Series, where he eventually found his name “very, very small.” He laughed as he picked up a “Chipper bar” joking that the chocolate candy was, “America’s bestselling for a very, very short time.” He gripped the bat his teammate and mentor David Justice used to homer in Game 6 and clinch the 1995 World Series.
The tour ended in the Plaque Gallery, where Strohl made a point to stop at plaques for Mantle, Aaron and former Braves righthander Phil Niekro. Jones veered off when he saw Willie Stargell’s plaque, pointing out that he had coached Jones in the minor leagues.
“This is my guy, Pops,” Jones said and beckoned his wife Taylor, whom he called “Boo,” to take a photo. She is six months pregnant with a son they plan to name Cooper because he is due the weekend of the induction ceremony.
Stargell is the coach who encouraged Jones to swing a big bat, repeating his mantra, “Do you want to swing a toothpick or a telephone pole?” Tuesday morning in the basement of the Hall of Fame, Jones had gotten to handle a little of both.
“That’s a toothpick,” he said, sizing up the bat Tony Gwynn used for his 3,000th hit.
Then when he was handed a bat Ruth used in 1931, he said, “That’s a club. It’s got to be 36 (ounces).”
Jones, who swung a 35-inch, 34-ounce bat during his career, was right. It was 36 inches and 36 ounces.
“I thought it would be bigger, to be honest with you,” he added.
The last bat Strohl showed Jones belonged to a third baseman named Levi Meyerle. He had used it to win the home run title in 1871 for the Philadelphia Athletics of the National Association by hitting a whopping four home runs. Strohl was just beginning to explain who Meyerle was when Jones interjected: “Yeah, he hit .492.”
Jones had recognized Meyerle’s name from a display he’d read on his own walking through the museum.
Jones came to Cooperstown with an appreciation for the game’s history. He’ll leave with a greater appreciation for his place in it.
“I had to stand 60 feet six inches from Randy Johnson,” said Jones, acknowledging the more recent Hall of Famers whose plaques hung nearby in the rotunda. “I got to play behind Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine. I had to play Craig Biggio in on the grass and just hope he didn’t rifle stuff down the third base line. Mike Piazza. It’s now starting to hit home that you’re standing (alongside) your contemporaries.”
“But down that hall right there?” he said, pointing toward the older portion of the gallery. “That’s the mind-blowing stuff…That is history there. That’s what it’s all about.”