The Accidental Hall of Famer: Walker Begins HOF Indoctrination (videos included)
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Larry Walker began his career as an accidental baseball player.
And now, 35 years later, he is enjoying the crowning moment of a career very few have ever attained, induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
A kid who had his ambition of being an NHL goalie become an unfulfilled dream at the age of 16, wound up signing a professional baseball contract as much by accident as anything, and now, look at him, touring the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown on Tuesday, still unable to fully grasp the fact, he is now one of the members of a club that only admits baseball icons.
“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 Walker, who was 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. 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.”
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It's one of those hard-to-believe stories, of a kid who had his dream of playing in the NHL ended at the age of 15, and decided to give baseball a whirl.
click to view and listen: Surprise, Surprise, Walker finds a home in Cooperstown
And, more than that, Walker smiles at the suggestion he could become that player who opens the doors for Rockies players and position players from his native Canada to join him someday as an inductee into the Hall of Fame.
"I hope it is a big stepping stone for all of them," said Walker. "There is always talk about it. There's a lot of parks in the league that bring down the value of players and hopefully this opens the door for past or present players to do what I am doing and have this (plaque) put on the wall. You'd hate to say a player like Nolan Arenado plays his entire career there and gets discredited for it. The guy is an amazing ballplayer any team would love to have. Hopefully this opens the door for him."
Think about it. Walker's not just the first player who will be inducted in a Rockies uniform, he is the first player to even spend a day playing for the Rockies to find himself among the baseball elite in Cooperstown. He hopes he won't be the last. In addition to Arenado, he talked about Todd Helton as a candidate, and as someone, who much like Walker, will have to overcome a lack of early support
click to view and listen: Walker on impacting Rockies players HOF status
For Walker, the private tour of the Hall of Fame was an out-of-body moment.
"When I signed that first pro contract there were not great expectations," Walker said of that $1,500 bonus the Expos gave him as a 17-year-old who hit a dead end in hockey and decided school wan't his bag, either. "It was a slow learning curve. That first year I couldn't hit (the ball) out of the cage. Now, to have this honor, to be the first position player (from Canada), the second player (right-hander Ferguson Jenkins the first), I can't find the words.
"Maybe it will all sink in at the induction ceremony or next week or later tonight, but it hasn't yet."
On the field, Walker's athleticism made it looked like things came so easy for him, but getting into the Hall of Fame was no easy task. He was elected in his 10th and final year of eligibility on the BBWAA ballot, receiving support from 304 of the 397 voters, six more than the minimum needed to attain the 75 percent necessary for induction.
Never one to back down from a challenge on the field, he does, however, admit there is a bit of uncertainty about having to actually get up on the podium in Cooperstown and speak to the baseball public come the final Sunday in July.
“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.”
His climb from 34.1 percent of the votes in 2018 to reaching induction in 2020 was the most dramatic late-rush in Hall of Fame history. He went from receiving support from 97 writers, 21.9 percent of the voters, in 2017, to election to a spot in Cooperstown in three years.
And to think, in his youth his focus was on hockey, not baseball. Oh, he played in Little League, his father the coach of the team, but it was more something to fill idle time before he could put on the skates and get back on the ice.
“Being a Baseball Hall of Famer really never entered my mind," said Walker. "I’m a Canadian kid growing up playing hockey. 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.”
At the age of 15 he realized his dream wasn't going to come true.
click to view and listen: Walker on his hockey dreams ending
He gave up the sport, and after that decided he was through with high school. He had been a star on a fast-pitch team along with his three older brothers and his father. The 15-year-old Walker hit cleanup. At the age of 16, however, he began to play hard ball.
Bob Rogers, a scout for the Expos who lived in Washington, was intrigued by Walker’s talent, and “called about two weeks (after Walker dropped out of high school) ,” Larry Sr., explained. “He asked how the schooling was going. I mentioned he dropped out, and Bob wanted to talk to Larry right away so we met him in Vancouver the next day and talked about a contract with the Expos.
Walker signed -- for a $1,500 bonus.
And his first assignment? Well, a career that will be forever remembered in the Hall of Fame began in Utica, N.Y., 33 miles from Cooperstown, on a team that the Expos and four other teams provided players.
click to view and listen: Click to listen in to how it began 33 miles from Cooperstown
"I was really, really bad," he said. "I hit .223 with two home runs. 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.”
And it will end in Cooperstown, the final page of an eye-opening career.
The hockey dropout from Canada compled a .313 career batting average, .400 on-base percentage and .565 slugging percentage. He, along with Hank Aaron, George Brett and Willie Mays, are the only players to finish a career having 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 St. Louis 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 1997-2001, he recorded four seasons with a batting average of at least .350. The NL MVP Award winner in 1997, Walker also collected three batting titles, five All-Star selections and three Silver Slugger Awards.
Click to view and Listen, Not bad for a guy who describes himself as "average"
It is a life that unfolded unlike anything Walker ever envisioned. But it is a life that baseball fans will marvel at for ages, one that has led him to a spot in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
And as a final statement, a glimpse of Walker's day in Cooperstown, complete with him sharing some time with myself and close friend Bob Elliott from Toronto.