COOPERSTOWN, N.Y — When Jim Kaat was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, he felt he wasn’t sure if he belonged.
For 32 years, voters also weren’t sure as he gained a decent amount of support, but never enough to be elected.
His numbers were borderline, he had spent more than 30 years being considered and he felt others deserved the honor more than he did.
But walking around Cooperstown this weekend with his face and name everywhere, including inside the Hall of Fame, the Zeeland native is finally wrapping his head around the fact that he is a Hall of Famer.
“I have been to (Cooperstown) many times. My first trip was in 1956 as a (Hope) college freshman and my roommate (Al Kober) was from (nearby) Herkimer (N.Y) and we came over on Thanksgiving break. I still have a postcard I sent my parents. I have been to the induction about 7-8 times for my teammates,” Kaat said. “I am so impressed with the attention to detail (everyone has) at the Hall of Fame. They just treat you like royalty. Now I am here with a lot of family. I played golf with my grandkids (Saturday) and seen a lot of the present Hall of Famers.
“I know how special it is. I am trying not to get too amped up because at my age (83) I am more humbled by it than excited by it.”
Kaat will give his speech on Sunday at the Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown, along with fellow living inductees Tony Oliva and David Ortiz. Families of the late Minnie Minoso, Gil Hodges, Buck O’Neil and Bud Fowler will also speak on behalf of the late inductees.
Kaat said he has treated the time between being elected in December to his induction like he treated time between his starts when he was still pitching.
“The toughest time for a pitcher is between starts. The day and night before, that is usually when you lose sleep. I am trying to use the experience I have as a player to slow things down and not get too amped up,” Kaat said.
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But it is difficult with the magnitude of the event, one that Kaat fans, Minnesota fans, Michigan baseball fans and hometown fans from Zeeland and Holland have been waiting for — for more than three decades. He joins fellow Michigan natives Charlie Gehringer, Hal Newhouser, Kiki Cuyler, Ted Simmons and John Smoltz (plus Derek Jeter who was born in New Jersey but grew up in Kalamazoo).
After winning 283 games and 16 Gold Glove awards from 1959-83, Jim Kaat first hit the Hall of Fame ballot in 1989 after retiring with a 3.45 ERA and 2,461 strikeouts, pitching mostly for the Minnesota Twins (and Washington Senators) but also with stops with the White Sox, Phillies, Yankees and Cardinals, where he helped St. Louis win the 1982 World Series. His best season was 1966 when he went 25-13 with a 2.75 ERA. He picked a league-leading 304⅔ innings and led the American League with 41 starts and 19 complete games.
On that first ballot, Kaat received just 19.5% of the vote, far from the 75% needed for election. He actually dropped in vote totals the next two years before jumping up into the 20s, peaking at 29.6% in 1993.
Then it was off to the Veterans Committee, which has since split into different eras to be voted on separately. He was a finalist on several versions of this committee coming as close as missing by two votes in both 2012 and 2015 on the Golden Era Committee ballot.
Then the call finally came 32 years later — a call he never thought would come.
But it did, and Kaat, along with former teammate Oliva — still a part of the Twins organization, as well as the first Black Latino player in AL/NL history — Minoso and Brooklyn hero and Miracle Mets manager Hodges are now where they belong. Ironically of the four elected by the Golden Era, Kaat’s wait was actually the shortest.
“It makes it even more special (going in with Tony),” Kaat said. “I know Tony’s backstory when he came up. I got to see him really develop from a player that could miss an entire fly ball without getting any leather on it, to four years later winning a Gold Glove. His road to the big leagues was much more difficult than mine. It is an honor to go in with Tony.”
Oliva has known Kaat since 1961, and like Kaat, has waited more than 30 years to be elected. He was honored to be elected with his former teammate and his idol, Minoso.
“Minnie Minoso I knew when I grew up on the farm in Cuba. I watched him play on the Cuban team. He was a big, big man for the Spanish ballplayers. He was like Jackie Robinson for us,” Oliva said. “This is special for me. I remember meeting Jim Kaat way back in 1961 when we played in the instructional league together. We have been Minnesota Twins for 61 years. To go in with Jim Kaat is special.”
David Ortiz, the lone player elected by the writers, remembers learning from Kaat and Oliva when he came up to the majors with the Twins.
“Tony and Jim Kaat have been around for a long time. It is amazing. I am very surprised I am going into the Hall of Fame on the same day that Tony and Jim Kaat go in,” Ortiz said.
So this weekend in Cooperstown, Kaat isn’t alone in once thinking the call to the Hall would never come. Along with the Golden Era quartet, Negro Leagues icon Buck O’Neil will be enshrined as well as Bud Fowler, the first Black professional player, who have both been passed over for years as well.
But the wait is over for all six.
No more missing by one or two votes for Kaat (and Oliva, Minoso and Hodges).
The debate is over. Kaat belongs — and now he always will.