Walker gets history lesson in visit to Hall of Fame

Part of the HOFVISITS series
Written by: Bill Francis

Exactly five weeks after receiving THE phone call that informed him he was joining baseball immortality, Larry Walker was sitting in the Baseball Hall of Fame’s cathedral-like Plaque Gallery, echoes of the past legends seemingly reverberating between its high walls.

“I’m kind of trembling inside right now. I feel like I’m shaking. Nothing seems right about it right now. It really doesn’t,” said the awestruck Hall of Fame Class of 2020 member, in Cooperstown for the Orientation Visit afforded all new electees.

“All the cameras are here and I’m talking about it so I guess it’s reality, but I’m still trying to absorb it all,” he said during a 20-minute press conference on Feb. 25, in the room encircled with the bronze images of previous Hall of Fame inductees. “It hasn’t happened yet. I don’t know when it’s going to happen. Maybe it’s going to be in July. Maybe it’s going to be later today. I just don’t know. It’s crazy to think about.”

Walker, 53, looking fit and dressed in a black shirt and jeans, was at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum along with girlfriend Donna Szczepanski, as they prepare for the Induction Ceremony on Sunday, July 26.

On Jan. 21, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America announced the Hall of Fame elections of Walker and longtime Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. The four-member Hall of Fame Class of 2020 will also include Modern Baseball Era electees Marvin Miller and Ted Simmons, who were elected in December.

Walker, a five-tool right-fielder for 17 big leagues seasons for a trio of National League squads, garnered 76.6 percent of the vote in his 10th-and-final year on the BBWAA ballot.

“I got to see Ted (Simmons) down in (Cardinals) Fantasy Camp this year. I didn’t realize how hilarious he was. So I’m looking forward to listening to him talk. And what Marvin (Miller) did for the game of baseball as far as the players was impressive,” said Walker about his fellow 2020 electees. “And with Derek (Jeter), it makes it easier for Ted and me for sure because I think a lot of people are going to be here to see him.

He’s one of the icons of the game. It’s a big thrill for all of us to not only be going in, but to be going in with such a recognizable person and figure of the game.”

Asked for his thoughts on his upcoming Induction Ceremony, Walker began with a joke.

“It’s (July) 26th, right? So I think I’m looking forward to the 27th,” Walker said with a laugh. “Right now, there’s some really miserable nights that I don’t sleep because I keep (thinking about) that speech. And I’ve heard it’s going to be like 140 degrees and I’m going to have a suit on and I’m going to be sweating. Everything sounds miserable.

“It’s an amazing weekend, but I’ve been so nervous about it. A part of me is also so excited. I want it to hurry up and get here because I can’t wait to experience what it’s going to be like and see what happens. Hopefully I’ll see a lot of Canadian flags flying around.”

As for his induction speech, to be presented with dozens of Hall of Famers sitting behind him, tens of thousands at the site and a national television audience on MLB Network tuned in, the soft-spoken Walker seemed overwhelmed.

“I got two pages into it and I was just going along smoothly. And then it just came to an end because I got lost. I didn’t know where to go next,” he said with a bemused look.

“I still have to do a speech on April 19 in Colorado. The Rockies are retiring my jersey number (that day). And I have to go out on the field and talk there. So I’ve got that one as well.

“I don’t know if I’m speaking good right now because everything is just flying out of my mouth. But to think about those two things is quite daunting.”

Throughout a distinguished career, the Maple Ridge, British Columbia, native recorded a .313 batting average, a .400 on-base percentage and slugged .565. He is one of four players – along with Hank Aaron, George Brett and Willie Mays – to finish his career with at least a .300 batting average, 300 home runs and 200 stolen bases.

“Baseball has taken me down roads that as a kid growing up in Maple Ridge, British Columbia, working at a bowling alley until I was 16 years old, didn’t seem possible,” Walker said. “I played 15 games a summer as kid playing baseball. We didn’t have high school baseball.”

A product of the talented Montreal Expos player development system, Walker later excelled for a decade with the Colorado Rockies, receiving National League MVP votes in six of his seasons in Denver. Finishing with the Cardinals, his veteran leadership helped the Redbirds to a pair of postseason appearances and a World Series berth in 2004.

One of the premier defensive right fielders in the game, he finished with 154 outfield assists and was a seven-time Gold Glove recipient. From 1997 through 2001, he recorded four seasons with a batting average of at least .350. The National League MVP in 1997, he also collected three batting titles, five All-Star selections and three Silver Slugger Awards.

Amazingly, Walker made his not-so-successful professional baseball debut in 1985 at the age of 18 in Utica, N.Y., a city about 35 miles northwest of Cooperstown.

“I remember I was really, really bad. I hit .223 with two home runs (in 215 at bats),” Walker said. “But it was a big thrill. I had the great, late Ken Brett as my manager and Gene Glynn was one of the coaches. It starts somewhere and for me it started in Utica.”

Walker did make news soon after his Hall of Fame election when he announced that the cap his bronze plaque will be sporting beginning this summer will be that of the Colorado Rockies.

“It’s pretty neat. I’m the second Canadian in the Hall of Fame, the first position player from Canada, and the first Rockie,” he said. “I hope it’s a steppingstone for future Rockies players down the road. I know there’s that uncertainty about players from Colorado. We took the field everyday trying to beat those other 25 guys – it didn’t matter where we were playing.”

Walker mentioned throughout the press conference his love of hockey growing up.

“Being a Baseball Hall of Famer really never entered my mind. I’m a Canadian kid growing up playing hockey,” Walker said. “The Hall of Fame for me was the Hockey Hall of Fame. It wasn’t the Baseball Hall of Fame. It never entered my mind that I would be sitting here talking about me as a Hall of Famer. Not once.

“My dream was to play hockey. For two years I tried out for the Regina Pats of the WHL and I failed both years. My last year they were going to send me to Junior B in Swift Current (Saskatchewan). I remember driving into Swift Current, saw the rink, and for some reason somebody tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Don’t do this.’ I listened to whoever that was and decided to pack it in. Baseball found me after that.”

As was his good nature throughout, when Walker was told the press conference was over, he slyly said, to many laughs, “I was just getting warmed up, man.”

Prior to meeting with the media, Walker went on a two-hour tour of the Museum guided by Hall of Fame Vice President of Exhibitions and Collections Erik Strohl. Interested throughout, he was able to witness exhibits from baseball’s long history as well as revisit his own past.

Early on the tour during a stop at a 19th century baseball exhibit, Walker joked: “You’re talking to a hockey player here. You’re talking about a lot of things I’ve never heard of.”

It was while looking at a Ted Williams artifact focusing on the strike zone, Walker remarked, “As long as the pitcher was throwing it where I was swinging, everything was great.” And when faced with a Montreal Expos label regarding the team’s ill-fated 1994 campaign, a season stopped midseason due to a strike, he added, “If the Expos win the World Series that year, maybe the team never leaves Montreal.”

In the collection storage area, Walker had the opportunity to hold bats used by Mike Trout, Ken Griffey Jr., Ted Williams, Honus Wagner, Dante Bichette, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, check out a Ty Cobb glove (“You’d definitely have to use two hands.”), and see a Gary Carter Expos jersey (“He was fun to be around and loved the game.”).

It was there that Walker was reunited with a few of his own donations from his career: A bat and batting gloves used to collect a NL record six consecutive extra base hits on May 21, 1996 and May 22, 1996 against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Coors Field, and a bat used during his 1997 NL MVP season.

“To walk around places people don’t get to go, to pick up things people don’t get to hold, and see things people don’t get to see, it’s almost like the day I got the phone call. Everything was a whirlwind,” Walker said. “And today was the same way where you’re in awe and you’re grateful and appreciative of everything that has happened. Today was a great day. And it just got capped off by signing the wall where my plaque’s going to go. Which still doesn’t seem right, but I just did it.”

The two BBWAA electees, Walker and Jeter, will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame at 1:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, July 26 on the grounds of the Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown along with Modern Baseball Era electees Miller and Simmons.

Ford C. Frick Award winner Ken Harrelson and Spink Award winner Nick Cafardo will be honored during Induction Weekend at the Awards Presentation on Saturday, July 25, at Doubleday Field.


Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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Part of the HOFVISITS series