From Walla Walla to the Waldorf
New Hall of Famers Ripken, Gwynn recall Minor League days
NEW YORK -- When Cal Ripken stepped in the shower on Tuesday morning, he was just a few hours away from receiving a phone call informing him of his election to the Hall of Fame.
Yet what happened next caused him to think back to when he was a 17-year-old prospect playing Rookie ball in Bluefield, W.Va. The hot water heater stopped working.
"I remember Bluefield, West Virginia, for that reason," Ripken recalled Wednesday at a Hall of Fame news conference at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. "There I was at the starting point of my Minor League career. The team had three showerheads and only one of them worked. So most of the time, we didn't have any hot water."
"I think in moments like waiting for a Hall of Fame call, it's good that all of a sudden there are certain reminders to not get too big for your britches. This is where your roots are, this is where you got started."
It is fitting that Ripken, a lifelong Oriole revered for his consecutive games streak, began his professional career where he did. After all, Bluefield has been a Baltimore farm team since 1958, the longest continuous affiliation in all of Minor League baseball.
"Bluefield was a great starting point for me, to see if I could be a big-league ballplayer," Ripken said. "It was a small town with a great Orioles history, and I went from being a large fish in a small pond to a small fish in a much bigger pond."
Ripken's performance in his first season left something to be desired. In 239 at-bats, he hit .264 with no home runs and 24 RBIs. Defensively, he committed two dozen errors in just 63 games.
"I struggled at first but got my feet on the ground towards the end of the season," he said. "That gave me enough confidence to push forward and think that I could make it. So I'll always remember Bluefield for that reason -- and not necessarily for the hot water heater."
Ripken's season in Bluefield turned out to be the worst of his pro career. In 1979, he hit .303 for Class A Miami, but his breakout season came the following year. With Double-A Charlotte, Ripken hit 25 homers and drove in 78 runs while playing every game of the season. He spent the first four months of the 1981 campaign with the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings before getting called up to the Major Leagues on Aug. 10. He never played in the Minor Leagues again.
While Ripken needed some time to get situated in the Minor Leagues, the other member of the Hall of Fame Class of 2007 hit the ground running and never looked back.
Tony Gwynn made his professional debut with the short season Walla Walla Padres in 1981 and went on to hit .331 with 12 home runs and 37 RBIs in just 42 games before receiving a promotion to the Double-A Amarillo Gold Sox.
"You could never forget a city with the name of Walla Walla," Gwynn recalled at the same news conference. "It was the home of the sweet onion."
Indeed, Walla Walla, Wash., has gained nationwide fame not only for having a funny name but for being a leading grower of sweet onions. Each summer, the city of approximately 30,000 hosts a festival celebrating the onions. The Walla Walla Padres, however, played their final season in 1982.
"You can't look at an old Padres uniform and not think about Walla Walla, Washington," Gwynn said. "Because those old uniforms that Rollie Fingers and Gaylord Perry wore, those were the same ones we wore.
"Starting out your career is fun because you are so focused on trying to get better and move up the Minor League ladder. So, for me, I look back fondly to those days, of getting on a bus in the middle of the summer with no air conditioning and the windows didn't work. I'd be sitting in the back of the bus with guys like John Kruk, who as you know from seeing him on TV always kept things lively."
While Gwynn was honing his skills in Walla Walla, his counterparts in the Major Leagues were in the midst of a debilitating midseason strike that lasted 52 games. While the strike was bad for baseball, it ended up helping Gwynn immensely.
"Since the Major League teams were on strike, I had the benefit of working with guys like Bobby Tolan, Frank Howard, Dick Williams and Jack McKeon," he said. "These guys were around the ballpark on a regular basis, and I felt like this gave me a head start in my playing career because I had Major League people teaching me every day."
"Soon, I got moved to Amarillo. I opened the next season in (Triple-A) Hawaii, and then, bam, I was in the big leagues."
Aside from a 17-game stint with Triple-A Las Vegas in 1983 as he rehabbed a wrist injury, Gwynn never spent time in the Minor Leagues again. By the time he retired in 2001, he had won eight batting titles while amassing 3,141 hits. These, and many other accomplishments, led to his decisive election to the Hall of Fame.
After Gwynn finished reminiscing about his Minor League days at the news conference, he paused and looked around at the Waldorf-Astoria's plush surroundings.
"Today is a far, far cry from Walla Walla," he said. "It's just amazing what can happen in the span of 26 years. In those days, I thought that this would be last place I'd ever be."
Benjamin Hill is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.