Cooperstown, N.Y. One glance at the wall behind him was all it took for Jim Rice to feel he was home at last.
“It’s an honor to be chosen to be in this elite group of men that played the game of baseball,” the former Boston Red Sox slugger said after touring the Baseball Hall of Fame, the plaques of the first class of Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner, and Walter Johnson gleaming in the background.
“I think I’m ahead of the game. I never thought one day I’d play in the big leagues,” said Rice, now 56 with flecks of gray streaking his beard. “If it was the other way around, if I wasn’t sitting here today, I wouldn’t be angry or anything like that because I’m ahead of the game.”
Rice, who retired in 1989 after playing his entire career with the Red Sox, was elected to Cooperstown in January in his final year of eligibility on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot. After missing out for 14 years, he received 412 votes — seven more than he needed — from the 539 ballots cast to earn induction alongside stolen bases leader Rickey Henderson.
Also to be honored at the July 26 induction ceremony are former Yankees and Indians second baseman Joe Gordon, elected last month by the Veterans Committee, as well as broadcaster Tony Kubek and writer Nick Peters, winners of the Frick and Spink awards, respectively.
From posing for photos with an elementary school group to grasping bats once wielded by Babe Ruth and Rabbit Maranville, Rice, accompanied by his wife, Corine, smiled often during his first visit to the museum. He was a man at ease after so many years of waiting and wondering if his day would come.
“All of a sudden you’re able to touch some of the memorabilia of players that made the game what it is today, some that I enjoyed playing against,” Rice said.
During his Hall of Fame tour a week earlier, Henderson said some modern players tainted the game by using performance-enhancing drugs, but added it was difficult to pass judgment on whether they deserve a place among baseball’s greatest players.
Rice, who never had a warm relationship with the media, also declined to pass judgment.
“The writers are the ones that have got to vote on that,” Rice said. “We as Hall of Famers ... are probably going to say, ‘Hey, you used drugs to cheat the fans, the opposing team, and everything else? Maybe not.’”
Playing at a time when offensive numbers paled in comparison to those of the steroid era, Rice hit .298 with 382 home runs and 1,451 RBIs. He earned eight All-Star selections and finished in the top five in American League MVP voting six times. He won the award in 1978 when he batted .315 with 213 hits, 46 home runs, 139 RBIs, a .600 slugging percentage and 406 total bases, the only AL player to top 400 total bases since Joe DiMaggio in 1937.
Asked whether he was happy to have played when he did, Rice smiled again.
“I think we should get respect because when we played, we didn’t have the things the guys have now,” he said. “We didn’t have video, we didn’t have steroids, we didn’t have computers. You had to learn by experience. You had to learn by talking to guys like Yaz (Red Sox teammate Carl Yastrzemski). You picked up from that. You didn’t need any video.”
Rice also questioned why any batter today would even need steroids.
“The average weight of a bat is 33 ounces — you don’t need it,” he said. “Steroids are supposed to make you get stronger. So what if you hit the ball maybe 15 rows in instead of 10 rows? What’s the big deal? Why do you need it?
“These guys here,” Rice said, pointing to the plaques of Ruth, Cobb, and the other three members of the class of 1936, “they never used steroids, and they’re in the Hall of Fame.”