Canadian Hall of Fame Inductions: Cormier and Melvin, Part I
On Saturday, June 23 the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame held its annual Induction Ceremony in the picturesque town of St. Marys Ontario. It was a beautiful sunshine-filled day. Not that it mattered – for this day all eyes were on the stars.
St. Marys, a hamlet set deep in the Ontario countryside only a stone’s throw from Stratford and its world renowned Shakespeare Festival (a stone’s throw that is if your name is Ellis Valentine) is home to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. The Hall holds its annual induction ceremony every June, and this year’s honorees included three prominent Canadian baseballers and a senior team of distinction.
The three honorees were southpaw Rheal Cormier, baseball executive Doug Melvin, and the Montreal Expos’ first iconic member, Rusty Staub. They were joined by Canada’s Senior National men’s baseball entry in the 2011Pan-American games held in Guadalajara, Mexico. To the delight of everyone, except perhaps the Cubans and the Americans, this time it was Canada’s turn to walk away with the gold, a first for our country.
As happens every year, the event was held on the Hall’s spacious grounds under an oversized marquee tent, before an audience of 500 or more. Following the pro forma words of welcome, opening remarks, introductions and the like, including an unforgettable serving up of both the American and Canadian national anthems by internationally renowned singer Michael Burgess, the main ceremony got underway.
First up was Rheal Cormier of Cape Pele, New Brunswick. A descendant of French-speaking Acadians who settled that area almost four centuries ago, Cormier was especially grateful for the honour. The diminutive southpaw Cormier toiled 16 years in the majors, with St. Louis, Boston, Philadelphia, Cincinnati – and Montreal. His career was third longest was among Canadian ballplayers, while his 683 appearances, mostly in relief, place him second behind Paul Quantrill among his countrymen.
Although Cormier now lives in Park City, Utah, he is deeply proud of both his Acadian roots and his family. He and his wife, also of Acadian heritage, have made a point of imbuing in their three children an appreciation of their heritage and knowledge of the French language. Cormier reflected this commitment in his acceptance, noting that while his rise to the big leagues was driven by a combination of passion, faith and dedication, “perhaps the greatest thing I learned as a ball player was to value relationships.” And as if to underscore the point, the Cormiers were accompanied by friends from both Park City and New Brunswick.
Cormier spoke of his atypical early development on the mound in New Brunswick – he had little access to organized ball of any kind – and recalled that when as a high school senior he had begun to show promise on the mound, three of his friends insisted that if he ever reached the majors he would either have to throw “the biggest party ever seen in these parts or pay us $3 a day, for the rest of our lives.” Cormier never forgot – and during their school’s 25-year reunion not long he hosted the granddaddy of all reunion parties. “It was either that,” he said, “or go broke paying out three bucks every day for as long as I lived.”
He was determined on the field as well. Once in Double-A, the story was told, Cormier was 0-2 on a batter, and decided to throw a purpose pitch, high and inside, just to keep the hitter honest. The ball came in a bit too high and too far inside for the batter’s liking, who dropped dramatically to the ground. As he arose and was brushing himself off, he glowered menacingly at Cormier and gestured as though he wanted a piece of him. Cormier took a couple of steps toward the plate, and shouted: “Hey! You want to charge the mound, or what? No! Then get back in the box. So I can strike you out.” Which, of course, he did.
Because Doug Melvin never made it to the bigs as a player, his name, not to mention his fame, are not especially known to baseball fans – unless they happen to be Sabermetrics fanatics or close followers of the Milwaukee Brewers. Those who do have more than a passing appreciation for his talents know that not only did he build a team that came within a cat’s whisker of making the World Series last year, but he is also stand-up-comic funny.
Melvin is from Chatham, Ontario, home of Ferguson Jenkins, the only Canadian ballplayer enshrined in Cooperstown, and Billy Atkinson, a wily pitcher who got into 98 games with the Expos before it all ended prematurely. Sadly for Melvin, in a case of third time unlucky, he never made it to the big leagues: his pitching prospects dried up while he was still hammering away at the AA level, first with the Pirates, then with the Mets.
As it turned out, this became the good news, for from these ashes arose a brilliant journey up through the front offices of baseball until he reached the pinnacle as general manager, beginning in Texas and theses days in Milwaukee. He was named Baseball America Executive of the Year in 2011.
In his remarks, Melvin first thanked the man who had just introduced him, Gord Asch, for his laudatory comments. Then, looking right at Asch, he added: “Of course, how can you expect Gord to dish out dirt on me? You’re still working for me!” Melvin expressed gratitude, but admitted surprise, for his selection to the Canadian Hall. “Maybe it’s my reward for trading Brett Laurie to Toronto,” he suggested.
Melvin warned the audience that he had a few things to say. “They told me I had 10 minutes. If they wanted me to stop at 10 minutes, they should have inducted me 20 years ago.”
He gave a quick overview of his growing up a baseball fanatic in Chatham in the shadow of Fergie and Billy Atkinson, and of his nonstop involvement with all sports. It got to the point where his school work was suffering and his parents insisted that get serious and drop some activity. He agreed, and after some reflection he told them he would quit school. “I am not sure if I ever actually received my high school diploma.”
Following a brief minor league career that never got him past the low minors, he became involved in the running of the game. Among his early bosses was George Steinbrenner. “George hired me I believe because he had never yelled at or fired a Canadian before”
Melvin unabashedly singled out Roland Hemond as his mentor. They worked together in Baltimore, where the genial Hemond, general manager at the time, “taught me the lessons of life” and prepared him to take on the role of general manager. After a successful turn as a GM in Texas, he ended up in Milwaukee, where the challenge, he said was to “make the team more popular than the sausage race.”
That he succeeded, and how, was made evident last season when the Brewers excelled both during the regular and post-seasons. “Baseball is still a dream come true.”
The Pan-Am Games gold-medal winners were represented by their manager Ernie Whitt, a former Toronto Blue Jay and himself a member of the Canadian Hall, and Greg Hamilton of Baseball Canada. Whitt spoke for the group. He praised the tenacity and commitment of the players, only a handful of whom had major league experience, including former Expo Mike Johnson, and underscored their desire to win gold. “This was a team where everyone had confidence in everybody else,” said Whitt, as he donned the ceremonial blazer given to all new inductees. “No one fussed over personal stats. Our only goal was to come home with the gold – and we were never going to let anything beat us.” And they didn’t, edging out the U.S. in the final game.
Much as does the National Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, the Canadian Hall also rewards members of the media for their contributions to the game. The award is named for Jack Graney, an early major leaguer from Canada who became a legend of sorts as a broadcaster in Cleveland. Past winners include Dave Van Horne, Tom Cheek, Ernie Harwell, and Jacques Doucet. The 2011 honoree was sportswriter Bob Elliott, who in 2012 will be awarded the J. G. Taylor Spink Award for “meritorious contributions to baseball writing” by the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown on Induction weekend in July. Here in St. Marys, the 2012 Jack Graney Award winner was W.P. Kinsella, author of the classic novel “Shoeless Joe”, and one of the great writers of baseball fiction still living. Sadly he was ill and could not attend the presentation.
And that brings us to Rusty Staub – and Part II of this easy. It will be posted in a couple of days.