Editor's Note: On June 25 in Natchitoches, nine all-time greats will officially join the ranks of Louisiana sports legends as they are welcomed into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. The induction ceremony is set for 6 p.m. at Prather Coliseum on the Northwestern State University campus. Tickets are $25 each and can be reserved by calling the Hall of Fame office at 318-357-6467. This year's induction class includes Distinguished Serivce Award winner in sports journalism, Buddy Diliberto, and inductees Janice Lawrence Braxton, Mark Duper, Hoyle Granger, Tom Hinton, Randy Romero and three with LSU ties: Albert Belle, Sue Gunter and Durand "Rudy" Macklin. Here is a story written about Hall of Famer Albert Belle for the presenting Louisiana Sports Writers Association.
"He caught my attention the first time I saw him,'' Gaskill once said. "He could swing the bat with authority. He had power galore."
Gaskill's Cleveland Indians didn't draft and sign Belle for another three years. But when he got to Cleveland, Belle began a career that would see him become one of the most dominating sluggers in all of baseball.
His career ended in 2001 when he retired following a degenerative hip condition.
He is being inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in his first year on the ballot.
"It's a great honor to be inducted and to be recognized for the achievements I've made and representing the state of Louisiana," Belle says. "I was kind of surprised that it came about. It's a great accomplishment."
The honor touched Belle so much that he rearranged his wedding, which was originally scheduled for June 25, the same night as the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. Albert and the former Melissa Galus moved up the wedding a week. The honeymoon was put on hold until after the induction ceremonies, and a visit home to Shreveport.
Growing up in Shreveport, the son of a high school coach, Belle realized he was a gifted baseball player.
"Probably when I played Little League, when I was playing in Bossier City. I think my first year, when I was 11, we went 14-2 and the next year we went 16-0," Belle recalls.
"I kind of knew then, deep down I really wanted to play baseball. But it's kind of a dream back then and you didn't really think it was actually going to happen."
Belle certainly gave glimpses of what would unfold.
As a junior at Shreveport's Huntington High School, Belle hit .653 and drove in 38 runs. On the mound, he was 6-4 with a 2.43 ERA. He also led the Raiders to the state tournament for the first time in school history.
One year later, he hit .615 and drove in 47 runs. He was also 6-2 with a 1.54 ERA on the mound.
Belle's athletic ability wasn't limited to the baseball field.
He played quarterback at Huntington High School and helped guide the Raiders to the playoffs. As a senior, he rushed for 370 yards and passed for 546 yards. He also handled the kicking duties for the Raiders.
But baseball, not football, had Belle's heart.
"I liked football. I think I was more concerned about longevity back then.
When you retire from the sport you hear stories about these guys being banged
up, knee trouble and everything," he says. "I felt like I could play baseball
until I was 40, 45 years old. Football, you may not even make it
until you're 30."
Baseball was his future.
When Belle went to LSU, his future became more in focus as he put up big numbers. As a junior in 1987, he led the Southeastern Conference in home runs with 21 and led LSU with a .349 batting average. As a sophomore, he had a 21-home run season.
If Belle had any doubts about his ability, then they were fading away while he tore up SEC pitching.
"When I got to college and was told I was going to have the opportunity to play professional baseball, then it finally kind of sunk in," Belle says.
The Cleveland Indians didn't have a first-round pick in 1987. The Indians' front office sweated out until their pick in the second round.
When Belle was still there, they had their man.
Belle made his major league debut in 1989 with the Indians. He would go on to play 12 seasons in the big leagues. He appeared in 1,539 games during his major league career.
Along the way, he was a five-time American League All-Star. He had eight consecutive seasons of at least 30 home runs and 100 RBIs. He had nine consecutive seasons of at least 100 RBIs. And in 1995, he became the first player in major league history to have 50 home runs and 50 doubles in a season. He had 50 homers and 52 doubles that season.
"Albert legitimized the line-up we put on the field when we were in Cleveland," said then-Indians manager Mike Hargrove, now the skipper in Seattle. "When we were a young team trying to be taken seriously, his presence allowed us to do that. The other strong memory I have of him, is that he never once dogged it on the field. He gave the club everything he had, every day on the field, and I appreciated that."
Belle's fondest memory of 1995 is not his individual accomplishment but rather his team's accomplishment.
"The biggest highlight was playing in the World Series. Our '95 season was like the Cinderella story. It was kind of like the Boston Red Sox were last year,'' Belle says. "We came out of nowhere, won the division, went on to win the American League and went on to the World Series. Everyone was kind of rooting for us.
"Unfortunately we didn't win the World Series, but we just had a great team. It was kind of like a magical year where everything we did turned out to be the right thing. You look back at that year, I had the 50 homers and 50-plus doubles. Even though it was a strike-shortened season we were able to win 100 games as a team, that was a big accomplishment.
"The thing about it is back then we'd go over to Texas and my family would come to the games so it was exciting for them to see a part of some history there."
While Belle never won the elusive World Series championship, his stature in the game as a run producer continued to grow as his career took him from Cleveland to the Chicago White Sox and finally the Baltimore Orioles.
In his career, he hit 381 home runs and posted a .295 career batting average. He also had a .564 slugging percentage and .369 on-base percentage for his career.
"When you have a chance to work with some great players around you and a great organization, you have a chance to do great things,'' Belle says. "I was fortunate enough to have some great players around me and I was able to put up some pretty big numbers. You really didn't focus on the individual things.
"Now that I've had some time to sit back and reflect on everything, I kind of have to pinch myself sometimes. I've done some things in baseball that a lot of people in Cooperstown haven't done. I'm happy about that."
But a degenerative hip condition forced him into retirement at age 34.
"I would have liked to have finished playing Major League Baseball on my own terms," Belle says. "Kind of go out in a blaze of glory. I got injured.
"I think the thing a lot of people don't realize about professional sports is it's a pounding on the body. There's only so many games in your body. I was fortunate enough to play 12 seasons, pretty much 10 full years. I would have liked to have played longer, but my body just wouldn't let me do it. Things just didn't work out."
During his big league career, Belle quietly went about helping others - usually without media attention.
"I think there was a lot of good things I did for the community, where maybe at the time I didn't really want the publicity. You go to hospitals to visit sick children. In Shreveport I had a reading program where we turned out a record number of kids," Belle says. "I rewarded them with a trip to watch the games over in Texas. The church activities, whether it's at Galilee Baptist Church or up in Cleveland, Ohio.
"The thing about living in the community where I played, I was involved in a lot of community activities. I was able to reach out and touch a lot of people, not only kids but also adults. I think it should have been recognized a little bit more. Hopefully now it will."
While those activities were often overlooked in the media, any discretions on or off the field weren't.
Belle understands what he was up against.
"I think controversy sells a lot of newspapers. I guess we're a society where you expect controversy," Belle says.
Belle admits he tried to protect himself by being guarded with fans and media.
"I don't think people realize that being a professional athlete, you're constantly bombarded at all angles. You really have to be protective of yourself because there are a lot of people who will take advantage of you. I was very guarded and very protective of myself.
"It's unfortunate you have to be like that, because there are people out there who will take advantage of you. It's just the way our society has come. There's a lot of athletes, including myself, who have done some great things for the communities around America but they just haven't gotten recognized because maybe something negative happened that overshadowed it. You can do 99 great things and if you do one bad thing, the one bad thing outweighs the other 99."