With 55 of the 66 living Hall of Famers in Cooperstown this weekend to welcome to their fraternity a six-man class that includes Braves icons Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Bobby Cox, conversations turned Saturday to where it ranked among the all-time groups of inductees.
“I think it’s the second-best class ever,” former Royals hitting extraordinaire George Brett said cheerfully between holes of a Saturday morning Hall of Fame golf tournament, “besides 1999 with me and Nolan Ryan, and Orlando Cepeda and Mr. (Nestor) Chylak.”
The 1999 class featured two of the five highest-percentage vote-getters in Hall history in Ryan (98.79 percent) and Brett (98.19), along with two-time American League MVP Robin Yount and Veterans Committee selections Cepeda, Smokey Joe Williams, umpire Chylak and manager Frank Selee.
This class has three first-ballot selections: 300-game winners Maddux, whose 97.2 percent ranks eighth (behind Tony Gwynn and ahead of Mike Schmidt), and Glavine, whose 91.9 percent is 25th all-time; and former White Sox slugger Frank Thomas, a Georgia native who appeared on 83.7 percent of the ballots. It also has three of the five winningest managers in history: Cox, Joe Torre and Tony La Russa, all unanimous selections by the Veterans Committee.
Hall of Fame pitcher Bert Blyleven called this class “fantastic.”
Braves broadcaster and Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton said, “It’s the best class that I’ve been fortunate to see since I’ve been coming (to Cooperstown). I consider myself fortunate to have watched the best of Maddux and almost all of Tom Glavine, two guys who I think could teach books on pitching.”
Maddux, Glavine and Cox are the first trio of living inductees in the same class from the same team. The Braves’ front office chartered a jet to bring 50 team employees and sponsors to Cooperstown for one of the franchise’s most significant events.
Braves president and longtime former general manager John Schuerholz put it in perspective.
“You’re proud to be a world champion,” he said. “But when the organization is represented like this, the excellence that is reflected in these three guys for what they did in baseball, to be recognized all at one time – in our organization, buttons are popping off our shirts. That’s how proud we are.
“We brought a plane load of people to celebrate. We would’ve liked to bring more, but we have games back in Atlanta (against the Padres) that we have to have some people take tickets and put people in their seats, so they’re back there working. But they’re here in spirit with us, and we’re representing.”
Until now, there were four Braves in the Baseball Hall of Fame from the Milwaukee and Atlanta eras: Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Warren Spahn and Phil Niekro.
Now the Braves add three more to their Cooperstown clan in one day, and could have three more in the next four years: John Smoltz is eligible in 2015, Chipper Jones in 2018, and Schuerholz when the Veterans Committee considers Expansion Era candidates again for the Class of 2017.
“It’s great,” Cox said. “We’ve got three going in, hopefully one next year, then hopefully Chipper’s turn is going to be down the road a little bit. John Schuerholz should be popping buttons everywhere because he hired us on, signed everybody. He’s got to be proud of that. I’ve seen John a lot here. We’ve had a lot of fun.”
While other Hall of Famers in Saturday’s golf tournament wore caps advertising golf courses, club manufacturers, favorite restaurants or whatever, Niekro wore a familiar Braves game cap, blue with red brim and white, cursive A.
“It’s not Alabama, or Arkansas; it’s Atlanta. You know that?” he quipped to a reporter asking about his cap choice.
As for what it means that Cox and two of his “Big Three” starting pitchers will be inducted Sunday, Niekro smiled. “We’re catching up with some other organizations now, is what we’re doing. There’s quite a few of us in here now, and the next couple or three years there might be two or three more,” he said.
Two others in the class have Braves connections: Torre played for and managed the Braves, and La Russa briefly played for them.
“Remarkable,” Sutton said. “Unless it was back in the early days of the Hall of Fame, we haven’t seen it before. I think it’s just a remarkable credit for the Braves.”
The famed early-1900s Cubs double-play trio of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance were selected by the Veterans Committee for induction in 1946. Chance had been deceased for two decades.
Maddux, Glavine and Cox are fresh in the memory of Braves fans. The pitchers were aces along with Smoltz for much of the run of 14 consecutive division titles.
“As great as this whole experience is, it’s just that much better to have those two guys here going through it, too,” Glavine said after Saturday’s golf tournament, where his foursome included his two sons and stepson.
Maddux, whose foursome included his son, brother and dad, said the makeup of his class made it more special for him.
“Glav, Bobby — I spent half my career with those two guys,” he said, “And I also got to pitch for Joe Torre (with the Dodgers) and coach with him in the World Baseball Classic. Frank used to live in (Las) Vegas (where Maddux resides), so I ran into him a lot.
“And Tony,” Maddux added, “just trying to make sure you beat him for 20 years; it’s nice to finally be on his team.”