Jim Kaat, now a legend of Zeeland and Cooperstown after ‘surreal’ Hall of Fame induction

Detroit Free Press

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — When Jim Kaat spoke to the thousands of fans at his Baseball Hall of Fame induction, it finally sunk in: The pride of Zeeland now has a home in Cooperstown as a Hall of Famer.

After 25 years pitching in the majors …

After 283 wins on the mound …

After 16 Gold Glove awards …

After eight decades in baseball …

After 32 years coming up short for the Hall of Fame (including twice by two votes or fewer) …

After finally getting the call at age 83 …

After the thrill of finding out teammate Tony Oliva also got the call …

After months of practicing his speech …

The wait was finally over on Sunday; Kaat was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

“It is pretty awesome when you see the crowd stand up and you see the group on stage that you are now a part of,” Kaat said. “It is still pretty surreal. I had my picture taken in the museum with Ruth, Johnson and Cobb. My first thought was, ‘What am I doing here?’ It is still kind of hard to believe that I belong, but I am grateful that they rewarded longevity and dependability.

“It is extra special because, quite frankly, I had the Hall of Fame in my rear-view mirror, and wasn’t bitter about it. This might be the first time they rewarded durability and longevity, and it feels nice to be here.”

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Kaat was joined by Oliva, his longtime Minnesota Twins teammate; Minnie Minoso, the first Black Latino star in the majors; Brooklyn star and Miracle Mets manager Gil Hodges; Negro Leagues icons Buck O’Neil and Bud Fowler; and Red Sox legend David Ortiz in the Class of 2022.

“I have read about Bud Fowler, I got to know Buck O’Neil and I knew Tony’s background story,” Kaat said. “I was just glad everyone got to tell their story.”

And so did Kaat, referencing Zeeland and Holland, Michigan, as well as Hope College, in his speech in Cooperstown, as well as thanking his wife and family in attendance.

“That is a big part of it,” Kaat said. “I didn’t have a pitching coach growing up but I had American Legion coaches and high school coaches that encouraged me, like Bob Hoover in Zeeland. It is nice to be able to point out what a great community to grow up in it is. And then of course, my one year at Hope College. The big thing, in addition to the community, to point out is (what I did in my speech). If I had one more bad start (in the minors), they might have sent me home. Jack McKeon said no, and 240 innings later, I was on my way. I wanted to let everyone know how fine the line is between being a Hall of Famer and maybe your career ending.”

His career got a strong start at Hope College in 1957 when he was the top pitcher in the league before being signed by the Washington Senators — who became the Minnesota Twins four years later — on his way to 283 wins, a 3.45 ERA and 2,461 strikeouts in the majors.

“I think it just speaks to the tradition of the program and all of the great players that have worn the orange and blue,” Hope baseball coach Stu Fritz said. “To have a former Hope player be enshrined with all of the other greats is in line with the transformational experiences that Hope has provided for so many. We’re proud to say that Jim Kaat was a Hope College baseball player.”

Just as Cooperstown put baseball history on the map, Kaat has put Zeeland on the map. The Village of Cooperstown is not much smaller than Zeeland. Both embrace the small-town feel and connection to history.

For Zeeland, it is the connection of families living in town for decades, passing on traditions, something Kaat referenced, highlighting his father John, who owned a turkey hatchery in Zeeland, but was known as much for his love of baseball.

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“I had great parents and grew up in a great community — Zeeland, Michigan —  and I was gifted with the ability to play baseball,” Kaat said in his acceptance speech.

For Cooperstown, it is the connection of generations through baseball that the Hall of Fame and village embrace.

It is fitting that Kaat has found a home in both places.

In his speech Sunday, Kaat spoke of his father’s love for the game, which led to his father traveling all the way from Zeeland to Cooperstown for Lefty Grove’s induction in 1947.

Just 12 years later, Kaat was in the major leagues, starting his own long path to Cooperstown.

“It’s very surreal. I think about my dad driving here in 1947 (and everything that has happened since),” he said, referencing his duel with Dodgers great Sandy Koufax nearly 60 years ago. “I was probably more nervous today than I was before Game 7 of the 1965 World Series.”

But Kaat is now a Hall of Famer, joining Michigan natives Charlie Gehringer (Fowlerville), Kiki Cutler (Harrisville), Hal Newhouser (Detroit), John Smoltz (born in Detroit before moving to Lansing) and Ted Simmons (Southfield).

The Hall of Fame is no longer an abstract idea waiting for voters to agree on. It is no longer months or years away. It is no longer wondering if it would happen in his lifetime, let alone ever.

His plaque will hang in the same gallery that showcases Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Lefty Grove, the hero of Kaat’s father.

It is placed in a corner that spans nearly the entire history of the game, with fellow inductee Bud Fowler, the first Black professional player in the 1800s, to last year’s inductee Derek Jeter, whom Kaat knows quite well after his time broadcasting the Yankee dynasty for the YES Network. From left-to-right, Jeter, Fowler, Kaat and Oliva are next to each other.

It is beyond fitting for Kaat.

“It was great, especially (to go in) with Jim Kaat,” Oliva said. “I have known him a long time. We played together for many years. He is a great person.”

Jim Kaat, a man of Zeeland and Cooperstown, is now forever a Hall of Famer.

Contact Holland Sentinel Sports Editor Dan D’Addona at Dan.D’Addona@hollandsentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanDAddona and Facebook @Holland Sentinel Sports.

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