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Maese: Hall of sons, fathers, too

There's a part of Cal Ripken Jr.'s Hall of Fame induction speech he's both anticipating and dreading. He's been rehearsing it privately, hoping to smooth out the voice cracks and the sniffles. He's normally a composed and articulate speaker, but when Ripken talks about his father Sunday, even he can't predict where his emotions might take him.

It's the subject matter that gets him --- fathers and sons. And baseball. The three are intricately tied together, and wouldn't you know it, among the artifacts on display at the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum - where you can find everything from Babe Ruth's bowling ball to the cap Ichiro Suzuki wore in the 2007 All-Star Game --- is a subtle tribute to the most enduring facet of America's storied pastime.

Officially, there are 280 inductees in the Hall of Fame, a list that includes 198 players, 35 Negro leaguers, 23 executives, 16 managers and eight umpires. Unofficially, there's only one Hall of Fame Dad.

"If you walk around here on any given day, you'll see that the game is personal to people," says Ted Spencer, chief curator for the Hall of Fame. "And many are connected to it because it was given to them by their parents. Many adults pass it along to their children, who pass it along to their children. So in that sense, it's not that surprising that a guy like Pat O'Donnell came in here and did what he did."

Reunited in leather

The best place for us to start is probably with Pat O'Donnell and his own son, Rick, out back of Pat's old tavern. This was 22 years ago, on Pat's 38th birthday, and though Rick was a young man by then, the two hadn't built much of a relationship. A divorce, some distance and plenty of time apart does that.

Pat walked out the back of the Blarney Stone - he can't remember why - and saw his son drive up.

"Hi, Rick."

"Hey, Dad."

Without another word, Rick reached into the back of his car and tossed something toward his dad. "Happy birthday," he said.

"It was a baseball glove," Pat says today. "I can still remember it like it just happened. He threw it to me, and it was almost like it was suspended in midair. By the time it hit my hands, it was like a huge healing had taken place in a split-second."

Rick brought along his own glove and a ball, and the father and son started playing catch right behind the bar. They only made it a few throws before Pat walked over and hugged his son. Both men were in tears.

Pat went home that night and started thinking about his own dad and how perfect their relationship had always felt. Joe O'Donnell worked at an oil refinery in Wellsville, N.Y., and even though he came home filthy and tired, he always had time for a game of catch, always had energy to hit pop-ups for the neighborhood kids. And when the community needed new ball fields, Joe volunteered to help build them.

Joe was already pretty well-known in the area. He was a catcher for the refinery team before Pat was born, and baseball always seemed to play a role in their relationship. Even today, Pat remembers a conversation about the Hall of Fame.

"What's that?" an adolescent Pat asked.

"That's where they put the best of the best," his dad told him.

And for several years, the two talked about visiting Cooperstown together. They never made it, though. Joe O'Donnell had a heart attack and died in 1966. He was 50; Pat was 18.

That day playing catch with Rick planted a seed for Pat, but three years would pass before he was finally able to take his dad to the Hall of Fame, more than 20 years after Joe O'Donnell's death.

Taking along a friend

In 1988, Pat O'Donnell was scheduled to finally visit Cooperstown for a charity golf tournament, and he got to thinking about the trip he and his father never took. Almost as an afterthought, Pat grabbed an old photograph of his dad and shoved it in his wallet. "I said, 'Come on, you're coming with me,'" Pat says today.

As often happens to visitors at the Hall of Fame, Pat was struck by the enormousness of the game, its history and its characters. He kept thinking how much his dad would appreciate the exhibits, how Joe O'Donnell could've lost himself in those halls forever.

Pat walked out and sat on a bench. He pulled the photograph from his wallet. The front features a young ballplayer with a bat over his right shoulder. He's wearing a flannel baseball uniform and a friendly smile. Pat flipped the photo over and started scribbling on the back. Still today, he isn't sure where the words came from; they just came pouring out.

You were never [too] tired to play catch. On your days off you helped build the Little League field. You always came to watch me play. You were a Hall of Fame Dad. I wish I could share this moment with you. Your son, Pat.

Pat went back in the museum, into a room with an exhibit about baseball during World War II. He asked a buddy to serve as lookout and bent down near a display case.

"There wasn't much room," he says. "I started wiggling it around and it started sliding between the carpet and display case. I kept wiggling and it kept moving. It was so tight, there was no way I could pull it back out. In fact, I wasn't sure that I didn't ruin the picture."

He exited the museum and went home, leaving his father in the Hall of Fame. Joe O'Donnell was among the best of the best. Forever, Pat hoped. He was content with the secret induction and never considered that the photograph might be unearthed.

Staying power

During a renovation in 1994, a museum worker found the weathered photo under a display case. Thinking it was misplaced from the archive of more than 500,000 photographs, she immediately notified Spencer, the museum curator. But the photo wasn't Ruth or Ty Cobb or Willie Mays. Spencer had never before seen the man in the Sinclair Oil Refinery uniform. The photo would've been doomed for the Dumpster were it not for the message on the back, which sparked Spencer's curiosity.

Eventually, the story found its way into the notebook of Sports Illustrated writer Steve Wulf, who wrote about the mysterious photograph and the relationship between an anonymous father and son. Then a newspaper reporter back in Wellsville put a couple of facts together and called the Blarney Stone.

The voice on the phone asked Pat if he'd ever been to Cooperstown and if he knew anything about a picture of an old ballplayer. Pat spotted a similar photo of his dad displayed near the bar's cash register and thought, "Uh-oh, am I in trouble?"

Quite the opposite actually.

Hall of Fame officials were enamored with the idea of a son inducting his father into the Hall and had already decided that the photo should remain in the museum, that it belonged in the vast collection amid the 35,000 bats, balls and uniforms. Still today, the photo of Joe O'Donnell, a semipro catcher who always had time to play catch with his son is hidden beneath a display case in a room honoring the 1930s, not far from where it was originally found.

"To just take my dad to the Hall of Fame, he would have been elated with the idea," Pat says. "And if someone said that he could stay there for an entire day, that would have knocked the wind right out of him. But the fact that they're letting him stay in there forever, that he's there permanently ... oh, my goodness. It's unbelievable."

The photo is 3-by-4 inches. The front is of Pat's dad, and the back features Pat's words. Looking back, Pat realizes that it remains in the Hall of Fame today because the photograph represents something much bigger. While baseball was something that made their relationship special, it's their relationship that makes baseball so special.

"For something so small to take on a life so large is really incredible," says Spencer, the curator. "For us, it's an important reflection of the strength and the meaning of the game."

There's quite a bit worth celebrating in the Hall of Fame, but when you strip away the statistics and plaques - and if you can forget the steroid controversies and eight-figure contracts - the heart of the game is still just a dad and son playing catch.

Nearly two decades later, the small photo of Joe O'Donnell is still in the Hall of Fame for the same reason Ripken will choke up making his induction speech: Every boy just wants to take his dad with him to Cooperstown. It's a truth that connects baseball royalty like Cal Ripken Sr. and Jr. with baseball mortals like Joe and Pat O'Donnell.

Fame, fortune and glory didn't bring the O'Donnells to the Hall of Fame, but there's still a place for them there. There's a place for every dad who has time to play catch after work and every son who years later has time to appreciate it. After all, the sport is built on fathers and sons like the O'Donnells. Sure, they needed baseball, but the game needs them, too.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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