Baseball's 'experts' finally recognize the Duke

It's impossible to guess what will happen over the entire period, of course, but at least the baseball Hall of Fame voters started out the new decade with a lot more common sense and logic than they showed during most of the last one. They elected Al Kaline, who certainly belongs, and they finally rectified 10 years of injustice by giving Duke Snider his well-deserved place in Cooperstown too.

Kaline, who batted .297, hit 399 home runs, and amassed 3,007 hits during his 22-year career with the Detroit tigers, was virtually a sure thing in this, his first year of eligibility.

The big question, therefore, was whether the voters would finally come to their senses in the case of Snider, who had been denied admission throughout the 1970s despite a great career that obviously merited the honor.

Certainly when the Duke was in heyday with the old Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s, it seemed pretty obvious that he was a future Hall of Famer. He was a devastating hitter who was usually around .300, equaled the major league record by hitting 40 or more home runs five years in a row, and averaged over 100 RBIs a season for more than a decade. Furthermore, he had great speed and was a spectacular outfielder whose wall-climbing catches were something to behold.

Back then, in fact, a big annual debate in New York was how to rank the city's trio of outstanding center fielders -- Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Snider. It was a tough question, and each had plenty of supporters as well as statistics to back up the argument.

Both Mantle and Mays, of course, were elected overwhelmingly the moment they became eligible, but year after year Snider saw his totals fall short of the required total.

To be fair, the Duke wasn't quite in the Mantle-Mays class in terms of overall records -- partly because injuries curtailed his effectiveness in mid-career and he had fewer big seasons in which to pile up the slugging statistics so dear to the hearts of the voters. For a few years in the mid-'50s , though, there was very little to choose among them -- and even on a career basis their batting averages are within a few points of each other (Mays .302, Mantle .298, Snider .295). The Duke was a great clutch player too, performing brilliantly in six World Series with 11 home runs and 26 RBIs -- both figures the most ever by a National Leaguer.

Furthermore, there's no rule that says you have to be compared with Mantle and Mays to enter Cooperstown -- and considering the records of some other electees the Duke with his 407 homers and 1,333 RBIs plus all the aforementioned attributes surely belongs.

Ironically, in fact, when you consider lifetime batting average, slugging statistics, defensive skill, clutch ability, etc., Snider and Kaline are very, very close. So why does one such player get elected immediately while the other has to wait more than a decade?

The voting, after all, is done not by the man in the street and not even by just any old baseball writers -- it is limited to members of the prestigious Baseball Writers Association of America who have been in the organization long enough (10 years) that presumably they know something about the game.

Unfortunately, that presumption has not always proved correct.

Perhaps the most outrageous recent example was the case of Robin Roberts, who despite pitching mostly for weak-hitting teams won 20 or more games six years in a row and finished with 286 victories -- a total higher than those of most Hall of Fame pitchers. If ever there seemed a living cinch for election, Roberts was one, yet he was passed over three times before making it in 1976.

Since then, the snubbing of Snider had taken over as Exhibit A, and now, happily, this injustice also has been corrected.

The rules for election say a player must be named on 75 percent of the ballots, so with 385 writers participating this year, 289 votes were needed for election. Kaline topped the list with 340, and Snider, who had missed by an agonizing 11 votes a year ago, also made it easily this time with 333.

No one else was really close, with former Dodger pitcher Don Drysdale finishing third at 238, the late Gil Hodges fourth at 233, and veteran knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm making a strong showing in his first year of eligibility to finish fifth with 209 votes.

A disturbing, though not particularly surprising, aspect of this year's voting was the relatively poor showing of Luis Aparicio (124 votes) in his first year of eligibility. Throughout his 18-year career, Aparicio was the ultimate shortstop -- the standard against whom all others were measured. No less a baseball authority than Ted Williams called him the best shortstop he had ever seen. And unlike so many classy fielders, Little Luis was no slouch at the plate either, once hitting .313 and compiling a quite respectable .262 career mark. He led the American League in stolen bases nine years in a row and finished ninth on the all-time list with 506 thefts.

Shortstop, of course, is one of the key defensive positions, so a man who can play hat position spectacularly and also contribute as much as Aparicio did on offense is a lot mroe valuable than some slugger who stands around in the field like a statue, hits into a lot of double plays when he's not striking out, and once in a while bangs one over the fence.

You'd expect the so-called "cream of the cream" among baseball writers to recognize this fact and vote accordingly, but it never has. Phil Rizzuto and Pee Wee Reese are two recent examples, and now Aparicio, who was about equally effective as these two on offense and far better than either on defense, is apparently going to be similarly overlooked.

One really wonders why we should bother having so-called experts vote if all they do is what any man-in-the-street could do: run their fingers down the "batting average," "home run," and "RBI" columns and just pick out the guys with the highest totals.

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