By Max Utsler
KANSAS CITY -- The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum on Saturday introduced four members of the inaugural class of the "Hall of Game," the museum's tribute to MLB stars who played the game with the same passion, determination, flair and skill as the heroes of the Negro Leagues.
Inductees Lou Brock, Joe Morgan and Dave Winfield attended the event. Roberto Clemente Jr. represented his father. Roy Firestone served as the emcee.
The four honorees shared traits of speed, power and baseball savvy, as well as a shared appreciation for the contributions of their Negro League forefathers. The museum honored the recipients on the 94th birthday of the Negro Leagues.
Brock helped lead the St. Louis Cardinals to three National League pennants and two World Series titles. He banged out 3,023 hits and stole 938 bases in his 19-year career. Brock started his baseball career at Southern University. He said he was a "walk-on with a fear of them walking me off."
Buck O'Neil, the former Negro League player and coach, had become a Chicago Cubs scout. O'Neil saw Brock, then a young outfielder, play and later signed him to a Cubs contract. The bond grew tighter when O'Neil became a Cubs coach.
"He thought he was my father," Brock joked. "He was the most important person in my life."
Morgan was a two-time NL Most Valuable Player Award winner and two-time World Series champ. He broke in with the Astros when he was 19, and retired 22 years later as a member of the Oakland A's. Along the way, Morgan stole more than 40 bases nine times and was among the leaders in walks and OBP for much of his career.
"I idolized Jackie Robinson," said Morgan, who wrote his senior thesis at Cal State-Hayward on the Negro Leagues.
"Only 'A' I ever got," Morgan said.
O'Neill also was a key influence in Morgan's career.
"Buck was similar to Jackie Robinson," said Morgan. "There was more to him than just baseball. He was probably the greatest ambassador the Negro Leagues had ever had."
Winfield was a 12-time All-Star over his 22-year career, winning a World Series with Toronto in 1992. He ended his career with 3,110 hits, including 465 home runs. Winfield began his relationship with the Negro Leagues museum while an executive with the San Diego Padres. Like Brock, he learned about the Negro Leagues from O'Neil.
O'Neil's influence spurred Winfield to put together a tribute to the Negro Leagues for 12 straight years, even though San Diego never had a Negro Leagues team. Winfield would invite between six and 10 former Negro Leaguers to attend each year.
"The San Diego Padres and the community of San Diego embraced them. It was one of the highlights, one of the things everyone looked forward to," Winfield said.
Clemente is another member of the 3,000-hit club and won four batting titles with the Pirates. He also won 12 Gold Glove Awards and earned two World Series rings. Clemente Jr. recalled his father telling him the story of how he would offer to carry Monte Irvin's uniform into the stadium in Puerto Rico when Irvin was playing winter ball.
Irvin was a Negro Leagues star in the late 1940s and became an MLB star with the New York Giants as their first black player. Irvin became Clemente's hero. Irvin and Clemente, who died on Dec. 31, 1972, were both inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973.
The NLBM also honored longtime Major League pitcher Jim "Mudcat" Grant with the Jackie Robinson Lifetime Achievement Award. Grant said he wants to "make sure the younger generation knows and has some idea, from a historical standpoint, of what happened."
In addition to his 14-year career in MLB, Grant has written a book called "The Black Aces," containing profiles of the MLB 20-game winners who are African American.