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Cooperstown review


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According to recent revelations by the BBC, the prize jury assigned to choose the winner of the 1961 Nobel Prize for Literature had among its nominees Graham Greene, Robert Frost, E.M. Forster, Isak ("Out of Africa") Dinesen and Mr. Hobbit himself, J.R.R Tolkien. Instead, they chose an obscure teller of tall tales from Yugoslavia named Ivo Andric, whose obscurity has only deepened over the half century since past.

The point of this precious little anecdote being, obviously, that when mere human beings attempt to confer the laurels of immortality on other human beings a certain amount of dumb thinking leading inevitably to irrational pratfalls is not uncommon. It is this thought that helps us understand the otherwise inscrutable behavior of the people that decide who should be in Baseball's Hall of Fame.

Not that I would on my own dumbest day compare the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWA) or the Hall of Fame Veterans' Committee to the Nobel Prize gang, or suggest that the artistic claims of Graham Greene and Jack Morris are comparable. But the process for conferring honors in the fields of both are similar and there are those who will insist a well played baseball game is a work of art just like a good book, nor is it necessary to quibble about which has deeper meaning.

The bottom line is this. When you pass out lofty honors you assume a tremendous responsibility so you need to be both smart and honest about how you do it. That seems to me rule number one.

In their latest deliberations proclaimed in the annual opening salvo of the new year, the BBWA has anointed Barry Larkin, a quite worthy shortstop who labored all of his 19 seasons for the Cincinnati Reds acquiring along the way the nice reputation of being a terrific fellow and truly class act. Is all of that last stuff relevant? Not terribly, but it's often a huge factor which is worrisome.

Now it should be stressed, and I do, that Larkin is not being honored just for having been "a swell guy." One has no problem with his selection. He deserves a niche in Cooperstown. If not quite a "great" player he was certainly a very good one even if frequent injury kept his overall stats a bit on the low side. Still he was a lifetime .295 hitter who won an MVP, three Gold Gloves, had speed, hit for decent power, and was named to a dozen all-star teams, although that last distinction doesn't mean near as much as it once did.

But the question is this. If Barry Larkin, then why not Allan Trammell? The classy shortstop and leader both on and off the field of some fine Detroit Tiger teams in a 20-year career, Trammell compares well with Larkin in all the meaningful statistical credentials. Dominant characters in their respective leagues, they were strikingly similar in terms of both skill and presence. Overall, the edge does go to Larkin and he deserves the nod ahead of Trammell. If one belongs, so does the other.

Yet in this year's balloting Trammell lagged far behind Larkin. In only his third year of eligibility, Larkin got 495 votes and was named on 86 percent of the ballots (with 75 percent necessary for election) whereas Trammell in his 11th year on the ballot got 211 votes good for 36 percent. With only four years of eligibility left, Trammell's chances of getting selected -- at least by the BBWA -- range somewhere between mighty slim and forget-about-it. At some very distant point, the Veterans' Committee may redress this deplorable discrepancy but Trammell will be a mighty old buck if and when that happens and it's even money that whatever acclaim eventually comes his way will arrive post-mortem.

It is simply not fair. There is simply not that much difference between Barry Larkin and Alan Trammell. And, certainly not enough to justify immortality for one and total rejection for the other.

Moreover, this vexing contradiction is hardly isolated. There are too many such examples. In December the Veterans' Committee tapped Ron Santo, long the Cubs elegant third-baseman (1960-1974). It was hardly inappropriate; indeed, many believe it was totally over-due as well as bitterly ironic given that Santo finally made it around the first anniversary of his death. However, with the naming of Santo there was an immediate clamor on behalf of his archrival, Ken Boyer, the long-time and highly estimable Cardinals third baseman. If Santo, then why not Boyer? If you look it up, you'll find the difference in their respective cases is marginal.

Old-timers would take this argument even further and demand, if Santo and/or Boyer then why not Stan Hack or Jimmie Dykes? A few years ago, the Veteran's Committee came close to naming Kennie Keltner. Earlier, Larry Gardner was a popular cause. If you factor in his highly regarded (in his time) managing skills -- and why would you not -- the most worthy of all these dear old third-sackers for enshrinement at Cooperstown is probably Dykes. On and on it goes. When you get into the game of "if so and so is in, then why shouldn't what's-his-name get in too," the possibilities become almost infinite. This is why many of those who have a vote reject these arguments totally.

If that is all that aggravates them, it is some of their behavior that fiercely aggravates me. Popularity has always been a factor in this process and that is wrong. Larkin, a smart and affable fellow, was always a pet of the press as a player and continues to be prominent in baseball circles as a high profile anchor on the Major League Baseball TV Network. Does all of that translate into significant additional support in the Hall of Fame election? But of course, old Sport! How could it be otherwise?

Let me put it this way. If Barry Larkin had been an aloof and moody player who slipped quietly into retirement and disappeared he would still eventually get into the Hall of Fame because he's unquestionably deserving. But he wouldn't have made it this year -- not in only his third year of eligibility -- and he and Allan Trammell would have been a heck of a lot closer in the voting. Popularity, personality, visibility, connections, pals, and politics all make a difference. They always have. They always will.

Let me give you an even more fascinating historical example. Back in the 1930s Dizzy Dean of the Cardinals and Cubs and Wes Ferrell who pitched for the Indians and Red Sox among others were highly comparable. Both were raw-boned, swaggering, flame-throwing, country-boys with plenty of attitude and both briefly burned brightly before flaming out with dead arms, finished by age 30. Dean won 20- games four times with a high of 30 and a total of 150 victories. Ferrell won 20 or more six times, winning 25 twice and a total of 193. Dean was a happy, fun-loving, even charming character in a country-bumpkin sort of way, and a huge favorite with the press. After he burned out, he remained in the game as an immensely popular broadcaster. Ferrell was cranky, famously hot-tempered, and disliked, even feared, by the press. After he burned out, he disappeared. In time, Dean was swept into the Hall of Fame on a wave of sentiment. Ferrell never got a whiff.

Was Dean better? Maybe a little. Was he that much better? What do you think?

A variation on that same theme was in play in this year's voting. Jack Morris, the best pitcher of his times and one of the best big-game money pitchers of the entire modern era, should have made it with Larkin. However, when Jack played he was an aloof and cranky guy who never curried favor or befriended the press. He got 382 votes good for 67 percent and that brings him painfully close. With only two more years on the ballot however, probably not close enough.

Maybe that's what happened back in 1961 too. Maybe the Nobel folks just decided Andric was a better guy than Forster, Tolkien, Frost, or Graham Greene. Let's hope not.

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