JASPER — Tommy John’s face is on one of the luminaries’ plaques that decorate the walls of the Indiana Baseball Hall of Fame.
Forget his arm injury that has become synonymous with baseball pitcher repair work in the medical community. It was what he accomplished when his left arm was healthy that really matters.
The 79-year-old native of Terre Haute won 288 Major League games over a 26-year career. It can be argued John’s victory total means he should be enshrined in that other Hall of Fame, the big one in Cooperstown.
Despite being one of the Indiana historical baseball figures honored in Jasper, John said growing up, he loved basketball more and recently said from his current home in Sarasota, Florida, he had more than 50 college hoops scholarship offers.
Loving basketball more than baseball?
“I had to,” John said. “I grew up in Indiana. I would have been looked like as a Communist if I didn’t.”
For those who would like an off-field nearby summer baseball fix this summer, the Indiana hall offers an educational experience while reminding local fans of Hoosier greats.
There are special exhibits on Jasper’s Scott Rolen, formerly of the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds, on Don Mattingly, the former Yankees star from Evansville, and a display featuring old-timers who are doubly honored in Cooperstown.
Executive Director Ray Howard has presided since 1991 at the site located at Vincennes University’s Jasper campus, though its roots date to the 1970s when it existed in the hallway of a Holiday Inn.
Howard, 83, played high school baseball at Ben Davis, pitched for Indiana Central and coached Indiana high school ball.
“Good enough that a couple of teams were interested in me,” Howard said of his youthful capability.
He got married 62 years ago to Janet instead of pursuing a professional career.
Howard is enough of a baseball fan his Dodge wears the license plate “basball.” He said he is teased constantly that “You know, you spelled it wrong.” But that’s what was available.
The 1979 class is a prominent one. It included Carl Erskine of Anderson, 95, who won 122 games for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers between 1948 and 1959.
That year also featured long-ago stars and national Hall of Famers from Indiana such as Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown, Sam Rice, Max Carey and Edd Roush.
Brown, born in Nyesville in 1876, had his hand initially damaged in a farm accident as a youth, yet won 239 games with a 2.06 earned run average.
Rice, born in Morocco, batted .322. Roush, who forever confounds readers with the double D in his first name, was born in Oakland City and hit .323 lifetime. Carey, from Terre Haute, led the National League in stolen bases 10 times.
More recent Indiana selections to the hall in Jasper include pitcher LaTroy Hawkins from Gary, Lloyd McClendon, also from Gary, Ron Kittle another with Gary roots, Don Larsen of Michigan City, who pitched a perfect game for the Yankees in the 1956 World Series, George Crowe from Whiteland, a pioneering African-American Indiana Mr. Basketball prior to his Major League career, 217-game-winner Fred Fitzsimmons from Mishawaka, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis of Logansport, baseball’s first commissioner, Cooperstown hall slugger Chuck Klein from Indianapolis and Oscar Charleston, also of Indianapolis, considered one of the game’s greatest performers for his accomplishments in the Negro Leagues.
The Indiana hall plays a role in the staging of high school state championships and all-star games and every fall is the beneficiary of a fundraising golf tournament.
Galleries of plaques honor the inductees. There also are individually inscribed bats noting Indiana high school champions, including single-class and multiple-class winners. Seymour won the 1988 title.
A mix of exhibits, including signed Negro Leagues displays, an old baseball game played by childre, and other related memorabilia, can be viewed.
Attendance was not heavy on a scorching 90-degree weekday, but the Kluesner family of Loogootee was immersed in the baseball items. Mom Emily, Grayson, 12, Liam, 10, and their sister, Hattie, gravitated to the Rolen display. The boys, who play on travel teams, are big-league Cardinals fans and are especially fond of Rolen. Hattie is about to take up softball.
Grayson works and plays so hard at baseball, his mother said, “Every weekend, we tell him to chill a little.”
The Mattingly and Rolen exhibits featuring life-sized figurines of the players are distinctive. Mattingly, who once batted .463 in high school, won the American League Most Valuable Player award and was a nine-time Gold Glove winner. The New York Yankees retired his No. 23 top, and a replica is a centerpiece of the Mattingly display.
The Jasper hall embraces a broad view of regional baseball in southern Indiana and Louisville, recommending a Historic Baseball Trail.
Such stops could include a gigantic mural honoring Gil Hodges in Petersburg, where he was a high school star, and particularly timely since Hodges was just recently inducted into the hall in Cooperstown; Gil Hodges Field in Princeton; the Louisville Slugger Museum; League Stadium in nearly Huntingburg, where some of the movie “A League of Their Own” was filmed; and Bosse Field in Evansville, where other scenes were filmed. The address there is 23 Don Mattingly Way.
The sponsor of the Indiana hall is the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association. The hall’s hours are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Admission for those 13 and up is $4, 5 to 12 is $3 and under 5 is free. Admission for seniors 60-plus is $2.
It is unlikely a visitor will bump into John or one of the other stars on any given day, but John has plenty of baseball memories to share.
At 17, John said his American Legion team played against inmates at the Terre Haute Federal Correctional Institution. John threw all nine innings.
“I struck out 23 batters and their coach said, ‘Do you think you can stay longer?’” John said. That was an invitation he could refuse.
John pitched for several big-league clubs, but he is probably most closely identified with the Dodgers when Tommy Lasorda began his Hall of Fame managing career.
Lasorda informed the players he brought in a sports psychologist for them. The players groaned, John said.
“And then the door opens and in walks Don Rickles,” John said.
The comic insult specialist dispensed his own brand of sports psychology.
At the end of the 1977 season, John pitched his most memorable Major League game, outpitching the Philadelphia Phillies and Steve Carlton in a playoff outing.
The victory won the National League pennant for the Dodgers.