Winnowing the 39 eligible for baseball's Hall of Fame
The 1981 electees to baseball's Hall of Fame are being announced today, creating the usual air of anticipation, even though this year's ballot is a bit lower on the excitement scale that some recent predecessors.Skip to next paragraph
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There's no "automatic" selection this time, as in 1974 with Mickey Mantle or 1979 with Willie Mays -- or as there will be next year when Hank Aaron becomes eligible. There's no big sentimental push for a candidate in his last year of eligibility, as when Ralph Kiner finally made it in 1975. And while everyone has his own pet peeves about the annual voting by 10-year members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, there's no major controversy or glaring omission, as when 286-game winner Robin Roberts was passed over three times before being elected in 1976, or when Duke Snider had to wait more than a decade before getting his last year.
The top candidates this year appear to be Bob Gibson and Harmon Killebrew, both eligible for the first time. Juan Marichal, another new name on the ballot , is a possibility. Thurman Munson, who was killed in a plane crash in 1979, also is eligible via a waiver of the five-year waiting period, as was done in the case of Roberto Clemente several years ago. But while Munson will undoubtedly be named on a fair number of ballots, he doesn't really have Clemente-type credentials and probably won't get enough votes for admittance.
Among the holdovers, Hoyt Wilhelm, Maury Wills, and Luis Aparicio are all still in the early phases of their 15-year eligibility periods and have plenty of support. There are also several "veteran" candidate who were outstanding players and keep getting some votes, but never enough.
In all, there are 39 names on this year's ballot -- 18 holdovers and 21 new eligibles. Some border on the ridiculous (i.e., Dal Maxvill: .217 lifetime batting average and six home runs in 14 seasons), but after you weed out 15 or 20 such names who could not possibly be considered, you still have an equal number who deserve some thought -- and at least a few who definitely belong in Cooperstown.
Foremost among these, in my opinion, is Gibson. The great St. Louis right-hander had a 251-174 record over 17 seasons for a .591 winning percentage, posted an outstanding 2.91 earned run average, and is second to Walter Johnson on the all-time strikeout list, with 3,117. He was also formidable in his World Series appearances, compiling a 7-2 record and emerging as the only pitcher ever to win the seventh game on two separate occasions. He won two games, including the decisive seventh contest in the Cardinals' 1964 conquest of the New York Yankees; beat Boston three times -- again including the seventh game -- in 1967; and won twice more in the Cardinals' losing effort against Detroit in 1968.
Killebew is also a strong candidate on the strenght of his 573 home runs, which put him fifth on the all-time list, ahead of such luminaries as Mantle, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, Mel Ott, and Lou Gehrig. Harmon wasn't really in that league, of course, as his defensive shortcomings and .256 lifetime average attest, but that big homer total should ensure his election sooner or later.
At one time Killebrew, and even Gibson, might have had to wait a couple of years before getting in. There used to be a sort of unwritten rule that election on one's first year of eligibility was reserved for the game's truly towering figures (Mays, Mantle, Williams, etc.), but this tradition seems to have gone by the boards a bit in recent elections, so perhaps one or even both will make it.