The annual Baseball Hall of Fame election is upon us again, and as always there are some tough decisions to make. Everyone has his own idea of what constitutes a Hall of Famer, and you have to balance objective statistics with subjective opinions, so seldom will two voters agree completely. That makes it difficult for any but the really top players to get the 75 percent support necessary for election - which is as it should be in the case of the game's highest honor.
This year's ballot doesn't include any ''automatic'' selections like Mickey Mantle in 1974, Willie Mays in 1979, or Hank Aaron last year. It does, however, present the usual array of superior performers for whom a good case can be made. And therein lies the problem: sorting through all these outstanding names, checking out the statistics, calling up memories of how they played, then deciding which ones you think belong in Cooperstown.
There are 46 nominees this year - 23 holdovers and 23 players newly eligible following the five-year waiting period after retirement. And while the overwhelming majority will never make it, there are some who are worthy of serious consideration, including a few who will no doubt get in sooner or later.
First and foremost among the newly eligible players is Brooks Robinson, the spectacular-fielding, hard-hitting third baseman who forged such an outstanding 23-year career with the Baltimore Orioles. His .267 batting average with 268 home runs and 1,357 RBIs aren't Mantle/Mays/Aaron-type figures, but when you add them to the glove work which led many to call him the greatest defensive third baseman of all time, it makes a combination that is pretty hard to deny. It certainly doesn't hurt his cause, either, that both his fielding brilliance and his solid hitting were on display in several World Series, including the 1970 classic in which he was the MVP.
Robinson will surely be elected, as he should be - and he probably won't have to wait past this first year of eligibility.
The next strongest new candidate appears to be current Atlanta manager Joe Torre, a nine-time All-Star during an 18-year career as a catcher and infielder in which he hit .297 lifetime and won both the National League batting title and MVP award in 1971. That may or may not be enough to get him in eventually, but certainly not in this first year of eligibility. Ditto for Dick Allen (.292 with 351 homers in 15 seasons), while the rest of the first-timers are not really serious candidates.
Among the holdovers, the most probable electee is Juan Marichal, who just missed last year when he got 305 votes instead of the 312 that would have put him in. The high-kicking ace of the San Francisco Giants throughout the 1960s certainly seems to belong on the basis of his 243-142 record for a scintillating .631 winning percentage, his 2.89 earned run average, and his six 20-victory seasons. This is his third year of eligibility, and he should get the few additional votes he needs.
The next highest vote-getter a year ago was Harmon Killebrew, also now in his third year on the ballot. The ex-Minnesota slugger got 246 votes in 1982, which leaves him with a bit more ground to make up. Apparently some voters are put off by Harmon's defensive shortcomings and relatively low .256 batting average. Sooner or later, though, it seems hard to deny admission to a man who hit 573 major league home runs - fifth on the all-time list and ahead of such names as Mantle, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, Mel Ott, and Lou Gehrig, just to name a few.
Next in the 1982 balloting was Hoyt Wilhelm, the former bullpen ace of the old New York Giants, the Chicago White Sox, and several other teams. He deserves strong consideration, too, on the basis of a 21-year career in which he set major league records for most pitching appearances (1,070), most victories in relief (123) and most saves (227).
Don Drysdale is another who has received strong but not quite strong enough support, yet for whom a case can be made. Though overshadowed by teammate Sandy Koufax during his best years, the big right-hander fashioned quite a record in his own right, including 209 victories, 49 shutouts, the major league record for most consecutive shutouts (6) and most consecutive scoreless innings (58), and nine All-Star team selections.
Drysdale's onetime Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodger teammate Gil Hodges is appearing on the Baseball Writers' Association of America ballot for the 15th and last time, after which his only remaining chance for election would be later via the Oldtimers Committee). The slick-fielding first baseman has some pretty impressive credentials, including 370 home runs and seven consecutive 100-RBI seasons, and later proved to be a fine manager for nine years until his death in 1972.
There are separate categories for players and managers, and the voting is basically for greatness at one or the other occupation - not for being good in both. In that sense, Gil's managerial feats are irrelevant here. On the other hand, the rules for election do indicate that non-playing factors can be considered, since the criteria listed are: ''playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, (and) contribution to the team on which they played and to baseball in general.''
One more who must be mentioned is Luis Aparicio, who most definitely belongs, but who will undoubtedly again be victimized by the infatuation so many voters have for slugging statistics. Throughout an 18-year career in Chicago, Baltimore , and Boston, ''Little Looie'' was the standard against whom all other shortstops were measured, and he also was an offensive force, once hitting .313, compiling a .262 lifetime average, and leading the American League in stolen bases nine times.
Obviously a player like this is a lot more vaulable than some slugger who stands around like a statue on defense, hits into a lot of double plays when he's not striking out, and once in a while bangs one over the fence. But equally obviously, the people who cast these ballots are mesmerized by power statistics, and Aparicio's relatively low vote totals in his first three years of eligibility indicate that, like Marty Marion, Pee Wee Reese, and Phil Rizzuto before him, Luis will probably wind up on the outside looking in.
The names mentioned so far are by no means all of the reasonable possibilities either. Other well known holdovers are Billy Williams, Red Schoendienst, Bill Mazeroski, Nellie Fox, Maury Wills, Jim Bunning, Lew Burdette , and Jim Perry, along with Orlando Cepeda, Elroy Face, Elston Howard, Harvey Kuenn, Don Larsen, Roger Maris, Thurman Munson, Tony Oliva, and Vada Pinson.
The newly eligible group offers slimmer pickings once you get past Robinson, Torre, and Allen, but there are some names that ring a few bells even if none is likely ever to have a plaque in Cooperstown. Alphabetically, the list reads: Mike Cuellar, Larry Dierker, Pat Dobson, Al Downing, Dave Giusti, Tommy Helms, Joe Hoerner, Randy Hundley, Carlos May, Ken McMullen, Bill Melton, Felix Millan, Gary Nolan, Boog Powell, Doug Rader, Cookie Rojas, Ray Sadecki, Diego Segui, Bill Singer, and Jimmy Wynn.
Each voter can pick from one through 10 candidates, in no particular order. I'm marking seven names, and in my own order of preference they are Aparicio, Marichal, Robinson, Killebrew, Hodges, Wilhelm, and Drysdale, but a good guess is that only Marichal and Robinson will make it.