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The next elections

By Clark Booth
Posted: 12/5/2008

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Suddenly and happily the Hall of Fame election process -- too long the captive of purists and naysayers -- has opened up and we have the delightful prospect of three different elections to anoint new baseball immortals in a mere month. It furthers the welcome departure begun a year ago pronouncing an end to the narrow and elitist attitudes that governed the matter a decade.

Not that we’re looking for a stampede of marginals, borderlines, and unworthies to sully the rarified atmosphere of bucolic Cooperstown. But a decent crop of at least a half dozen solid lads should emerge from the process between the 8th of December and the 7th of January. Bravo!

You’ll recall that’s the number chosen last year with five of them led by Dick Williams and Bowie Kuhn making it courtesy of a new panel formed to consider managers and executives. It aggravated the hardliners, of course. But the pendulum has swung and they’ll have to accept it and if they can’t, the heck with ‘em.

More importantly, people like it and want it. If no one wants the baseball pantheon to be glutted with riffraff, most believe enshrinement should not be restricted to a dozen ungodly talents rearing majestically only every generation. The fun of the thing has to do with seeing the highly uncommon and distinguished honored along with the demi-gods. No one regards Burleigh Grimes, Catfish Hunter or Phil Niekro as being the equal of Walter Johnson nor does anyone fear such associations would insult “The Big Train”. The Hall is in no danger of becoming overpopulated.

Of the upcoming three electoral procedures two take place this weekend. Select 12-man committees will vote and the results will be revealed at next week’s annual winter baseball meetings. One committee chooses from a group of 10 nominees whose careers began before 1943. The second committee picks from a list of ten nominated players whose careers began after 1943 and ended in the early ’80s.

The third election is the ancient and annual plebiscite of the Baseball Writers of America (BBWA) which is rapidly loosing control of this issue, much to its chagrin. As usual, they’ll vote on players who retired over the last quarter of a century with the result being declared the first Wednesday in January. That’s when Jim Rice should at long last achieve redemption.

But my favorites are “the venerables”; the pre-1943 warriors. Near a century spans the careers of the nominees from Deacon White, who debuted in 1878, to Mickey Vernon, who retired in 1960. Others on that ballot are Wild Bill Dahlen, Sherry Magee, Carl Mays, Wes Ferrell, Bucky Walters, Allie Reynolds, Joe Gordon and Vern “Junior” Stephens, slugging Red Sox shortstop of their star-crossed, post-war years.

It’s an interesting ballot but quite flawed, in my opinion. If you seriously dig into the ancient ruins of 19th century baseball you should find a stronger candidate than Deacon White. Bob Caruthers, twice a 40-game winner, was a better pitcher. Also more deserving are George Van Haltren, a .316 lifetime hitter who stole 583 bases, and Jimmy Ryan, an early slugger (and Holy Cross man). Scholars of the era could doubtless cite a dozen more.

Others who hardly merit consideration are Magee, Reynolds, Walters, Stephens and I’m not sure about Gordon, although Ted Williams campaigned furiously on his behalf as an elector on the erstwhile Old Timer’s Committee. The rowdy Magee could play but there are easily 20 better candidates from the World War One era. Reynolds excelled for Casey Stengel’s Yankees. But they are already quibbling over the credentials of the recently retired Mike Mussina and he won almost 100 more games than “the Chief”. Moreover, Reynolds and Walters fattened their resumes during the war-years when the big boys were away. So too did Stephens plus his career was too short and curtailed by an acute fondness for the nightlife.

The best candidates are Dahlen, a feisty turn of the century shortstop who should have made it 20 years ago, and Mays, the nasty submariner who would have made it 40 years ago if he had not been the man who killed Ray Chapman with a fastball off the temple in 1920.

Sentimental picks for me would be Ferrell and Vernon. Both have strong Red Sox connections. At age 28 the fiery Ferrell was six times a 20-game winner and seemed headed for 300 wins whereupon his arm virtually fell off, which happens when you pitch about 300 innings every season. The stylish Vernon was a picture-book player of his era, elegant and classy as well as twice a batting champ. I pull for both while recognizing both are painfully borderline. Dahlen and Mays are the correct choices and both should make it. But you’d rather see four get in because this committee won’t convene again until 2013.

The ten nominees of the Veterans Committee that will consider the post-1943 golden oldies are: Joe Torre, Ron Santo, Gil Hodges, Jim Kaat, Dick Allen, Luis Tiant, Tony Oliva, Al Oliver, Vada Pinson and Maury Wills.

Torre is the most deserving of the group. He comes close as a player alone and his now properly famed works as a manager cement his case. But he’s still active which makes him ineligible at this time in my book. The minute he quits he should be elevated in a landslide.

My picks therefore would be Hodges, Tiant and maybe Santo with a huge sentimental tug in behalf of Kaat, a superb pitching workhorse who went on to become one of the game’s statesmen, and an even tougher struggle over Oliva whose hitting skills were almost magical.

The time has simply come for Hodges and probably Santo who have been hung out to dry in this interminable process for more than 30 years. Same goes for the inimitable Tiant who matched up with every great pitcher of his era and was every bit the equal of every one of them. Some players are greater than the sum total of their stats. El Tiante is an excellent example. Oliva may have been the finest pure hitter of his era had he been healthy. But the simple fact is he wasn’t healthy. He had more knee surgeries than Bobby Orr. You must have more than a half dozen top seasons to qualify. Otherwise, Wes Ferrell would have made it 50 years ago.

The case of Hodges is particularly aggravating. It’s fair enough to maintain -- as the nitpickers who’ve denied him all these years delight in doing -- that his lifetime stats are quintessentially borderline. But had he not done hard time for three years with the Marines during WWII -- and with distinction, for that matter -- his stats would have been rather beefier. He was a mainstay of the legendary ‘‘Boys of Summer Dodgers’’ and he was becoming a great manager when he died too young. His credentials are sufficient. The time for Gil Hodges has arrived.

The other nominees -- Pinson, Oliver, Allen and Wills -- all come up short although each poses a tantalizing case worthy of consideration. Some players aren’t equal to the sum total of their stats which is the case with Pinson and Oliver. Allen was brilliant but mercurial. But is he not as worthy as Santo? I wonder. Wills deserves special recognition as a revolutionary player who revived the art and strategical importance of base-running. But as a “special category” candidate I’d rank him third behind Roger Maris and Curt Flood.

And by the way, where are Maris, Flood, and the fabulous Minnie Minoso on this ballot? There’s no explanation for such odd omissions. Had I but one choice from all the categories and eras, it would be Minoso for reasons too complicated to engage at the moment.

In summation, my picks are Dahlen, Mays, Hodges, Tiant, Rice and Black Jack Morris while hoping a miracle of sorts also sweeps in Ferrell, Vernon, Santo, Kaat and I can sure live with Oliva. That’s enough for now; the conversation being, of course, endless.