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Big hit in Cooperstown

DATE OF EVENT: Sunday, July 25, 1999

DATE PUBLISHED: Monday, July 26, 1999, in The Kansas City Star

Editor’s note: George Brett’s 1999 induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame honored him for his 21-year career with the Kansas City Royals, the only team for which he ever played. His successes here were manifold: Brett was the first player to accumulate, collectively, 3,000 hits, 300 home runs, 600 doubles, 100 triples, 1,500 RBI and 200 stolen bases. His career batting average was .305. Thousands of Kansas Citians traveled to Cooperstown to watch Brett’s induction and speech.

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. –– George Brett has always had a flair for the dramatic.

So it was only fitting that, on the day he was catapulted into baseball immortality, Brett hit one out of the park.

“He had the best speech up there,” said Eva Piercey, from Overland Park. “It was so heartwarming. I was crying like a baby.”

Her tears were inspired by his. Brett wept several times in a speech that was emotional and poignant, heartwarming and amusing. He thanked a host of names familiar to Kansas City fans: Dick Howser, Hal McRae, Whitey Herzog, Charley Lau.

“I have so much to be thankful for, and the people of Kansas City have made it possible for me,” Brett said.

Brett, whose 21-year career ended in 1993, on Sunday was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame before a record crowd of 50,000. He was the first player to enter the hall for his accomplishments as a Kansas City Royal.

He had been sweating through a steamy Sunday afternoon, fanning himself with the official “Induction Ceremony” program as the bright sun penetrated his pinstriped suit. Speaking last, he was scrunched in a folding chair, wedged between fellow inductee Nolan Ryan and baseball commissioner Bud Selig.

Ryan, Robin Yount and Orlando Cepeda set the tone with composed speeches.

Then Brett broke down.

“That’s what made him such a great player –– that emotion, that passion,” said John Wathan, a former Brett teammate and manager who was in Cooperstown for the ceremony.

The whole afternoon seemed to build up toward a Brett grand finale. Long before the ceremony even began, Brett fans were fed a steady stream of Brett clips and sound bites.

The song “Kansas City” blared from the system’s mammoth speaker system.

Finally, the Kansas City crowd heard the words they had been waiting for: “George,” Selig boomed into the microphone, “welcome to Cooperstown.”

Brett stood on the podium and peered out at the crowd, at the scads of Royals fans who made the pilgrimage to Cooperstown and now held signs that hollered, “Brett for president!”

He looked at his wife and three sons sitting in the front row, at the ESPN cameras staring holes right through him.

Behind him was the plaque bearing his likeness, the one that will hang in Cooperstown’s hallowed halls.

Surrounding him were some of the greatest players in the history of the game, guys like Hank Aaron and Willie Mays.

The sweat was beading up on his forehead, the knot churning a hole in his stomach.

“Today concludes a long journey that has taken me from Southern California throughout America,” Brett said, “and I very honestly stand humbly before you today in Cooperstown.”

The emotions started to flow when, almost 10 minutes into the speech, Brett tried to express gratitude toward good friend Jamie Quirk, a former teammate and now a coach for the Royals.

Brett could muster the strength only to point and whisper, softly, “Thanks.”

“It was the thrill of a lifetime,” Quirk said after the speech. “It was amazing.

“But he didn’t have to say anything at all. I already knew.”

Brett talked about his mother, Ethel, about his father, Jack.

And, when he addressed his three older brothers, he nearly lost it.

Brett recovered, of course, and even shrewdly got out of the jam by joking to his brothers that “right now, I wish it was one of you” standing on stage. …

Brett even stole a page from “Jerry Maguire” fame before it was over, thanking wife Leslie for making his life more enjoyable and reminding her, “You had me from hello.”

Brett addressed his three sons, the scout who first signed him, and Ewing and Muriel Kauffman, who had owned the Royals.

And he saved one of his final expressions of gratitude for the Kansas City fans. Looking earnestly into a camera, he even addressed the throng that eventually watched the speech at Kauffman Stadium.

“When I first arrived in Kansas City in 1973, you welcomed me into your beautiful city and into your homes,” Brett said. “It’s the place where I met my wife and our three children were born, and to this day I’m so proud to call KC home.”

When it was over, and Brett had delivered a speech that stopped just short of 18 minutes long, the crowd roared its applause with a standing ovation. …

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