It was a strange sight: hundreds of Baseball Hall of Fame visitors laughing hysterically. For that rare burst of comedy in Cooperstown, New York, thank The Simpsons. Saturday morning, the museum celebrated the 25th anniversary of “Homer at the Bat.” There was a showing of the classic episode on a giant screen, a roundtable discussion featuring three of the nine major leaguers who guest-starred in it, and a mock induction of one Homer Jay Simpson.
I knew that this would be a looser ceremony than the type usually held at the hallowed institution when current Simpsons showrunner Al Jean — who along with Mike Reiss helmed the program’s third (1991–92) and fourth (1992–93) seasons — stepped to the microphone. That their once-fledgling animated series was being honored at such a sacred space freaked out Jean. “I must be on drugs,” he joked to the crowd.
Over the next 45 minutes, Jean, Reiss, fellow writer-producer Jeff Martin, animator Jim Reardon, and casting director Bonnie Pietila were joined by Wade Boggs, Ozzie Smith, and Steve Sax — in full uniform for that afternoon’s Hall of Fame Classic — to breezily reminisce about the making of a cult classic. Pietila revealed that she tried and failed to land both Rickey Henderson and Nolan Ryan for the episode. Sax joked about the piddly royalty checks that his appearance on the show has yielded. And Reiss, when he wasn’t commending Sax’s good looks or dishing on Ken Griffey Jr.’s difficult voice-recording session, admitted that he doesn’t like baseball. “This is a beautiful museum,” he said, “of something I have no interest in whatsoever.”
I can’t confirm this, but it had to have been the funniest, most irreverent event in the 81-year history of the Hall of Fame. (Pete Rose’s unauthorized annual autograph signings at a memorabilia store down the street don’t count.) The gathering wasn’t a 450-foot dinger that will launch baseball back into the pop cultural pantheon, but so what. The most buttoned-up American sport’s shrine has wrapped its arms around a subversive cartoon.
“For us to have a ceremony like that, of course it’s going to be a little different,” Baseball Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson said, “but it’s part of baseball.” The Hall has commemorated pop cultural baseball touchstones like A League of Their Own and John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” in the past, but neither brought out the kind of obsessive fans I saw over the weekend.
Among the Derek Jeter and David Ortiz shirseys were scruffy 20- and 30-somethings in Homer Simpson tees under their flannels. Scott and Jack Williams, a father and son, wore bootleg versions of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant softball team jerseys seen in “Homer at the Bat.” Brian Maslowski, who drove up from New Jersey with his girlfriend, wore a replica of Mr. Burns’s old-timey Zephyrs uniform. Even Cooperstown Mayor Jeff Katz, who told me that he’s a “devoted” Simpsons fan, came dressed for the part. While on the dais kicking off the celebration, he sported the same white MAYOR sash worn by Mayor Quimby.
The public celebration was capped by the presentation of Homer’s faux Hall of Fame plaque, a recorded speech by the honoree, and an appearance by someone in a giant Homer suit. The only thing that would’ve improved the day is if Bart had appeared and stomped on the costumed character’s foot.
Predictably, there was an important person missing from the festivities: John Swartzwelder. The writer of “Homer at the Bat” has never given a substantial interview and rarely makes public appearances. But in the absence of his legendary former colleague, Jean told a story about how Swartzwelder — while eating Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups — once claimed that if he trained for six months, he could play Major League Baseball.
Swartzwelder may not have been a five-tool player, but one thing is certain: He’s a die-hard baseball fan. According to Jean, Swartzwelder has a collection of Pacific Coast League memorabilia. For a time, he even rented out Safeco Field in his native Seattle once a year so that he could host a game for his friends. His love of baseball comes through in “Homer at the Bat,” which is full of obscure, Swartzwelderian references. For example, Barney Gumble and Wade Boggs fight over who was a better British prime minister: Lord Palmerston or Pitt the Elder.
“When I got to L.A. to do the lines, I didn’t know I was getting punched out in a bar,” said Boggs, who claimed to still believe that Pitt the Elder was better than Lord Palmerston. “I’m sure if they would’ve ran that by me in the beginning and said, ‘You’re gonna get punched out in a bar,’ I might’ve rethought and said, ‘Why aren’t I clucking like a chicken?’” (In the episode it’s Boggs’s then–Red Sox teammate Roger Clemens who clucks like a chicken, not the Hall of Fame third baseman, who among other things is known for having a taste for poultry.)
Like Boggs and Sax, Smith said he still gets questions about “Homer at the Bat.” The only thing the Hall of Fame shortstop is asked about more is whether he can still do his signature backflip.
“It’s like if you ever had anything to do with the Beatles,” Martin said Saturday after the ribbon cutting of the Hall of Fame’s new “Homer at the Bat” exhibit case. “People still care.”
“It’s just one thing we did 25 years ago,” Reiss said. “It couldn’t be greater that people still talk about it. It’s just nuts.” That The Simpsons has endured amazes Reiss. He joked to me that he started writing children’s books — he’s penned 18 — as penance for working on a show that early in its run was considered transgressive.
“It was 1991 at my [10-year] college reunion,” Reiss said, “The Simpsons is red hot and I’m running the show now, and I’m thinking I’m gonna be a hero. And I see one of my pot-smoking old jazz friends and I think he’s gonna embrace me, and he just starts yelling, ‘How can you put that crap on the air? I have kids! I can’t let them watch that stuff.’”
Since then, things have changed. Like baseball, The Simpsons has become a national pastime.