ARLINGTON -- Ken Griffey Jr. loved playing baseball. On Sunday, Commissioner Bud Selig made it clear that the game loved Griffey back. Griffey, whose excellence and effervescence thrilled legions of fans throughout his 22-year career, received the Commissioner's Historic Achievement Award, which recognizes achievements and contributions of historical significance. Griffey received the award at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington during a news conference Sunday preceding Game 4 of the World Series. Griffey's body of work was certainly significant. He made 13 All-Star teams, earned 10 Gold Gloves for his defensive prowess in center field, won the American League Most Valuable Player Award in 1997 and hit 630 home runs, fifth all-time. He accomplished enough in the midst of his career to be named to Major League Baseball's All-Century Team in '99. At the time, he was a month shy of turning 30.
But Griffey, whose father had an impressive 19-year Major League career as an outfielder, belonged in the rare breed of players who transcended their statistics. On the field, he captivated millions (he drew a record 50,044,176 All-Star votes) with his flair for the spectacular, picturesque swing and obvious enthusiasm. Off the field, he devoted considerable time to numerous charities -- usually when nobody was watching. Moreover, Griffey developed a tribute that would leave any marketing director or creative consultant envious: He suggested to Selig that on-field personnel across the Major Leagues should wear No. 42 on Jackie Robinson Day in homage to baseball's greatest pioneer. That tradition has become one of MLB's staples. With virtually every endeavor, Griffey's ardor for baseball drove him. "I came in this game just wanting to play baseball," said Griffey. "It wasn't because I thought I was going to win an award. It was because of the guys that I watched on TV, not necessarily my dad, but everybody else, the smiles on their face." He cited stars of his youth such as Willie Randolph, Kirby Puckett and Rickey Henderson as influences. A young Griffey also was held spellbound when other notables visited the family home in Cincinnati. Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Willie Stargell would drop by. So would Chuck Harmon, the first African-American to play for the Reds, and Joe Black, the right-hander who was a key figure on the Boys of Summer-era Brooklyn Dodgers. Griffey and his boyhood friends were especially impressed by Mays, with whom he frequently would be compared as he rose to stardom. "We were like little kids when he came to the house," Griffey said, recalling that Mays would discuss "the respect that he had for the game and the things that he went through to play this game, that a lot of us will never know and could never fathom what he had to deal with day in and day out. And from that point on, it was just go out and play. He said, 'We did all the hard work. It's time for you to just go out and play and have fun,' and that's the attitude that we all took." Like Mays, Griffey towered over his sport. His sheer popularity is widely viewed as the primary factor in Major League Baseball's survival in Seattle, where he began his career. The presence of Mariners president Chuck Armstrong and his wife, Susan, at Sunday's ceremony attested to this. "He is Seattle sports history," said former Mariners catcher Dave Valle, an MLB Network analyst. "Whenever you talk about the Northwest, he's front and center, beyond all the people who played there. His legacy there, over the period of time that he played there, he had the biggest impact in that area. He put us on the map." Given Griffey's clout, on and off the diamond, Selig made sure to listen keenly when Griffey telephoned him on a Sunday night in 2007 to propose the Robinson idea. Asked what inspired him to suggest honoring Robinson, Griffey said, "If he didn't play, you never know how long it's going to take for another African-American to play, and would my dad have played, and would I have the love for the game if my dad didn't play? So [Robinson] was the start of it all, for not just African-Americans, but everybody else to play. It was my way of respecting him for what he did, for him wearing that uniform allowed me to wear my uniform, and you have to give thanks in a certain way, and it was my way of saying thank you." Bestowing the award upon Griffey was Selig's symbol of gratitude. "I think this award is a fitting way for Major League Baseball, as an institution, to say thank you to one of its all-time really great players," Selig said. "His career is obviously Hall of Fame worthy, there is no doubt about that." The Commissioner also lauded Griffey for "staying out of controversy [and] playing the game the way it was supposed to be played and should be played." Fittingly, Griffey is the first recipient of the Commissioner's Award since Robinson's widow, Rachel, was honored in 2007 for sustaining her husband's legacy and for her service to Major League Baseball. Griffey, who played for the Mariners (1989-99, 2009-10), Reds (2000-08) and White Sox ('08), is the 12th person to earn the award, which was created in '98. Griffey, 41, spends his days coaching youth football, watching his three children's athletic endeavors and reveling in being a husband and a father. To much of the outside world, of course, he remains a legend. Asked how he wants fans to remember him, Griffey said, "That I enjoyed baseball. I went out there and played hard and enjoyed it, had a smile and that I cared a lot about the game itself."
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.