50 years since the greatest Hall of Fame speech

Today, Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Each gave polite, well-received speeches to mark the occasion. Griffey even put on his trademark backwards hat near the end of his speech.

Nice as Griffey and Piazza’s speeches were, though, they don’t hold a candle to the greatest speech in Hall of Fame history. Perhaps no speech ever will.

On July 25, 1966, 50 years ago as of tomorrow, Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams gave a relatively brief, 562-word speech. While his address is worth reading in its entirety, one line in particular sticks out. Williams said, just before closing his speech:

I hope that some day Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will be voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols of the great Negro Players who are not here only because they weren’t given the chance.

As Paul Dickson noted in a fine article for The National Pastime Museum this week, some context is in order. It’s a little unfathomable looking back, but in 1966, no Negro League players had been inducted in the Hall of Fame. Writers like Shirley Povich of the Washington Post had been advocating for years to get them in. And Bob Feller had put in a plug for Paige in a 1962 Saturday Evening Post article.

Still, it might have been awhile longer for Paige, Gibson, and others if Williams hadn’t made his remarks. It takes important people speaking up sometimes for the world to listen and change to occur. It was that way in 1966; it’s still this way in 2016.

Within five years of Williams’ speech, the Hall of Fame had revised its rules to allow Negro Leaguers in. The Hall initially considered simply creating a Negro League exhibit. But when Paige rightly protested, saying he didn’t want to be ushered in the back door of Cooperstown, the Hall surprised him with full membership in 1971.

Scores of greats soon followed, including Gibson, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell, and Oscar Charleston, and the Hall of Fame got a lot better for it.

Would Negro Leaguers have eventually been inducted into Cooperstown without Williams’ help? Hopefully. Winds of change were blowing, and the 1970 publication of Negro League oral history Only the Ball Was White probably helped get a few black baseball stars enshrined. All the same, one can only wonder how much longer it would’ve been for them.

It’s a little unfortunate that more Hall of Famers don’t follow Williams’ lead in their induction speeches and use the occasion to push for good. Then again, the Splendid Splinter was one of a kind.