COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Holy cow!
You could almost hear late Cubs announcer Harry Caray shouting his familiar refrain Monday as former Chicago star Ryne Sandberg finally set foot inside the Baseball Hall of Fame for his first tour of the sport's Mecca.
"Everything is just amazing," said Sandberg, who will be inducted with Wade Boggs on July 31. "To be here and feel a part of it is still at the overwhelming stage, and that might always be the case."
Sandberg couldn't hide his elation -- he never stopped smiling. His only other visit to Cooperstown was to play in a Hall of Fame game in the mid-1980s, and although he hit a home run in his first at-bat at Doubleday Field, the thrill of that paled in comparison to what he was feeling as he walked into the Hall of Fame gallery.
That his plaque will hang on a section of wall adjacent to the five members of the original class elected in 1936 -- Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson and Honus Wagner -- only stoked the emotions.
"Just to see the history and the names, heroes of mine, it's incredible to be a part of that family," said Sandberg, who was accompanied by his wife, Margaret.
Sandberg, the 1984 National League MVP for the Cubs, was a 10-time All-Star and nine-time Gold Glove winner at second base and played his entire career for Chicago, except for six at-bats with the Phillies as a rookie in 1982. Even though he played on just three winning teams in 15 seasons with the Cubs, he was picked in January by 393 voters, appearing on 76.2 percent of ballots and making the hall on his third try with just six votes to spare.
As he made his way through the displays on Monday, Sandberg was greeted by a longtime fan who was stunned to see the Cubs' former No. 23.
"I wasn't going to come here until you got in," said Steve Williams, who was wearing a navy blue hooded sweatshirt with the number 23 sewn on both arms. "You played the game the right way."
The 45-year-old Sandberg, his once-thick dark hair now thinning and tinged with a bit of gray, was amazed by the glimpses of the game's history -- from a glove that belonged to Negro League star Cool Papa Bell, to one used by Lou Gehrig when he was an amateur, to one without laces or a pocket that was worn by Cobb, the leather in the palm ripped to shreds.
"You can see the resin, the spit, the pine tar," said Sandberg, who holds the record for highest fielding percentage among second basemen at .989. "Bats could be replaced, but a glove was one thing that couldn't go missing. It was security. I never did lose one."
Then, one by one, he picked up bats once wielded by Ruth, Wagner, Shoeless Joe Jackson, and Hack Wilson, the latter with a handle nearly as thick as the barrel, the better to drive the ball over the infield in the manner the game was played in the early 1900s.
"That might last a whole year," said Sandberg, whose 277 homers were the most by a second baseman at the time of his retirement in 1997.
Sandberg will have a Chicago Cubs cap on his plaque, and it was an easy decision.
After playing 13 games for the Phillies, he was traded to the Cubs and spent the rest of his 16-season career in Chicago.