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Hall of fame


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In the end, Marvin Miller was right. As usual! The cagey old fox had been cautioning for weeks that the deck was stacked against him in the newly revised veterans’ format for electing old codgers to Baseball’s Hall of Fame. Many had unwisely assumed his election -- so long a no-brainer -- was now in the bag. But Marvin knew better. As usual!

Otherwise, the reformed process worked splendidly. After nearly five years of having aggravating shutouts pitched in the old-timer’s election, an amazing five selections were made, making up for a lot of lost time.

Clearly, returning the process to the traditional sub-committee of a dozen qualified voters works best if your goal is to actually elect people. This will not please folks who believe Cooperstown is some sort of Olympus that should be restricted to the Ruth’s, DiMaggio’s and Zeus. But if they can’t take a joke, the heck with them.

It’s great to see the process revived. It’s also important to have the concept of the Hall of Fame as an open and growing state of mind re-affirmed. Some would have it serve as a mere mausoleum for the demi-gods. But the game’s history is too rich and varied and subtle to have its symbol of eminence restricted to such a narrow premise. That’s yet another reason why the election of Miller, the irascible and legendary union boss who shook the sports establishment to its core, would have been smart as well as much deserved.

For the category in which he was being considered -- “non-playing executives and pioneers” -- the governing criteria have everything to do with “impact.” That is the key word and, really, the only consideration. Could anyone in his right mind quibble about the degrees of impact of this man who not only revolutionized his game but profoundly altered all of professional sport? The answer, obviously, is “no,” unless you deeply believe that mere ballplayers making too much money is inherently evil. That’s not the case in my book although it sure can be inherently stupid.

Still, that’s not Miller’s fault. He stole from no one and forced nobody to pay anybody anything. It was not Marvin who put a gun to Hank Steinbrenner’s head and demanded he give A-Rod $300 million. Marvin simply liberated the system, making it conform to the laws of the land and the free-market forces of supply and demand.

Had the committee picked Miller, it would have been a powerful statement. For it’s composed of five present owners and executives, a former owner -- our own John Harrington, ex of the Red Sox -- a retired American League president, Bobby Brown, two Hall of Famers (Messrs Killibrew and Irvin), and three sportswriters. Not sure about the scribes, but I would estimate that eight of the nine other voters -- including ex-player Monte Irvin who long labored for the commissioner’s office -- can very safely be termed vigorously ‘‘pro-management.’’ Had such a group picked their arch-foe on the grounds of principle and merit it would have been mighty impressive.

Instead they chose Bowie Kuhn and that, for many, will be a most irritating rub. It had occurred to me that anointing both Kuhn and his nemesis Miller could be an interesting and even artful compromise; one that might even appease the fierce opponents that both of these polarizing characters arouse.

Not that they were actually equals. In their many classic jousts in the labor wars of the ’70s and ’80s the relentless players’ association chief cleaned the pompous baseball commissioner’s clock again and again and again. Yet in some faintly amusing way this oddest of couples belong together. Having them rise to baseball’s Valhalla in lockstep might have been ironic enough to please the most perverse among us. For many reasons -- some of them quite personal -- Kuhn is a tough call and, while I can see both sides of the argument, I had been leaning in favor.

But Bowie without Marvin just isn’t right. The committee blew it. At 90, this was Marvin’s last shot. Denying him only looks petty. Electing Bowie while rebuffing Marvin looks too much like a “house job.” Though his wit and sophistication are undiminished by age, Marvin had trouble masking his bitterness. ‘The process,” he says, “does not seem quite kosher.” The old lion is at his best when he is ticked.

Otherwise, I am pleased to repeat, the results were dandy.

The committee dealing with execs and pioneers made a terrific choice in Barney Dreyfuss, turn-of-the-century owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates. A worthy ancient, Barney was the chap most responsible for launching the World Series which remains after 106 years our premium sporting event. He was a Jewish merchant and had to endure the mean little prejudices of those times; race being a multi-faceted hang-up back in the good old days. The Pirates franchise that he formed was the first to try to break the infamous “color-line” and has always been one of the classiest.

The committee voting on managers and umpires came up with fairly stunning choices. Along with Miller, the classy Umpire Doug Harvey was the heavy favorite. Miller and Harvey had topped the voting in the last Vet’s Committee election, both coming within a dozen votes of making it. But the process is nothing if not arbitrary. Harvey didn’t register this time. Umps remain a tough sell.

Chosen instead were managers Billy Southworth and Dick Williams, both with memorable Boston connections although their finest hours occurred elsewhere.

The Southworth selection strikes a sweet note with that diminishing breed that dimly recalls the Boston Braves of beloved memory.

It was Southworth who bullied the Braves to the 1948 pennant in their last defiant utterance before disappearing into history. The Braves were a patchwork creation built around gritty old pro’s Bob Elliot, Tommy Holmes and Jeff Heath and sustained by a peerless pitching combo of hardened war veterans, Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain. They had seen real combat. The National League didn’t phase them.

What a summer we had! And it was Southworth who brought it all together, although his finest times were in St. Louis where he led a much better, deeper Cardinals team to a string of titles. The ’48 Braves were Billy’s last hurrah. His son had died heroically in the war and the sadness wore bitterly on the father. Two years later he was gone, quietly and for good.

Does Southworth belong in Cooperstown? Was he a better manager than, say, Jimmy Dykes or Charlie Grimm, or Paul Richards, Whitey Herzog, Gene Mauch? I don’t know. Maybe nobody does for sure. But it’s the wonder of this game -- and this extraordinary institution called “the Hall” -- that we still care enough to want to figure it out more than a half century later.

Of this much, though, I am sure. Dick Williams belongs. He has been a favorite cause of this space for a long, long time. He would have made it about a dozen years ago had he not imprudently gotten himself into a messy situation that involved some unpleasant publicity on the eve of an election. But then he was always a difficult fellow; capable of being ornery when irked and quick to offend. He liked his scotch too much and he was always too candid for his own good, especially with his bosses.

But he was also smart and brassy, had tons of guts, walked the walk, and understood this game and the people who played it maybe better than any fellow I ever knew. His performance in Boston in 1967 remains the single finest job of leading a team -- any team in any game -- that I ever witnessed.

Of the fabulous five, who now form the “Oldtimers Class of 2007,” Dick is the only one still on the right side of this mortal coil and thus able to revel in the moment. He’ll enjoy it mightily. You can be plenty sure of that. Might even pour myself a glass and salute the fellow. He deserves it.

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