Baseball Hall of Fame requests jersey from Little League ace
PLANT CITY - It's the pinnacle of baseball achievement: the Baseball Hall of Fame. Babe Ruth has a home there. So do Hank Aaron, Cy Young and the rest of the greatest players ever to grace the field. Now, Plant City's 13-year-old Chelsea Baker - at least her jersey - is also part of the shrine to America's pastime in Cooperstown, N.Y. The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum asked Baker for the jersey she wore April 9 when she tossed a perfect game for her Brandon Farms team against J.R. Farms. It was her second perfect Little League game in a year.The Turkey Creek Middle School eighth-grader presented her jersey Aug. 16 to Hall of Fame officials. "I was just amazed and felt so accomplished to come this far. No words describe how happy I was," Chelsea said about the presentation. "I was speechless," said her stepfather, Rod Mason. "My throat was all tied up. To be under the same roof as Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio - priceless." Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson said the jersey will be on display within the next couple of weeks in the "Diamond Dreams: Women in Baseball" exhibit. It showcases the roles women have played at every level of the game. For baseball artifacts to be eligible to be entered into the museum, staff members have "to make sure those items tell a meaningful story for that moment in history," Idelson said. In the past four months, Baker's story has gained national attention. And it isn't just because of her perfect games against all-boys teams. The secret to Baker's success lies in a knuckleball she learned to throw from the late Joe Niekro, a Plant City resident who pitched 22 years in the major leagues. Before Niekro died in 2006, he taught Baker how to throw his famous knuckleball. She was 8 years old at the time. She ended up on national news, including ESPN's primetime newsmagazine "E:60" and ABC's "Good Morning America." John Odell, curator for the Hall of Fame, had been following the story and pitched the idea of having Baker featured in the exhibit. Idelson said staff members at the Hall of Fame meet once a month to discuss new ideas and artifacts to be inducted into the museum. He said some months pass without anything getting approved to be on display. But when the museum's staff heard that Baker not only was the most dominant pitcher in an all-boys' league, but that she also learned a knuckleball from Joe Niekro, whose brother Phil Niekro is in the Hall of Fame, she was a lock for Cooperstown. "The group agreed wholeheartedly about Chelsea," Idelson said. "Her story about her playing baseball with boys in Little League, Joe Niekro teaching her the knuckleball and her applying that knowledge shows that baseball offers an equal opportunity for everyone to play. "The role of women in baseball has been impressive," he said.
Aaron Oberlin can be reached at aoberlin @tampatrib.com.