The voting for baseball's Hall of Fame is always so unfathomable that I long ago stopped trying to figure it out. Consider, for example, three pitchers whom we will call A, B, and C. Their career victories, respectively, numbered 229, 217, and 224. All three were strikeout artists too, with respective totals of 2,416, 2,832, and 2,855. Put those figures plus the other accomplishments of this trio together and they come out looking pretty even. But that isn't the way they are going to look in this year's balloting.
Pitcher A is Luis Tiant, a newly eligible candidate who, it can be safely assumed, will get only modest support. Pitcher B is Mickey Lolich, who has been on the ballot for several years without receiving much backing, got only 84 votes last year, and seems clearly destined never to make it. But Pitcher C is Jim Bunning, who came close last year with 289 votes and will probably be elected this time.
Why such a tremendous disparity for three hurlers with almost identical records? Your guess is as good as mine. Furthermore, the same sort of vagaries exist throughout the voting for players at all positions.
There's no problem with the out-and-out superstars, of course. They always make it with a sizeable vote - usually in their first year of eligibility. But in the next echelon it seems that a player is affected by a great many extraneous factors, such as where he played; how much publicity he got; special one-shot achievements like no-hitters, home run records, etc.; and even gimmicks like a catchy nickname.
Trying to put aside all such considerations and go strictly by achievements, I would definitely vote for Bunning. There's no question in my mind that a man who won all those games pitching mostly for relatively weak teams, who is 11th on the all-time strikeout list (and was 2nd when he retired), and who pitched 40 shutouts, including two no-hitters, belongs.
But so does Lolich, whose figures are comparable and who has an additional credential in the form of his spectacular 1968 World Series performance when he won three games, beating the great Bob Gibson in the finale, to lead Detroit past St. Louis.
And ditto for Tiant, who won more games than either of the others, led the American League in shutouts three times and earned-run average twice, and was immense in a losing cause for Boston in the 1975 World Series.
Turning to everyday players, the top candidate this year is clearly Willie Stargell, who should gain election in his first year of eligibility. The former Pittsburgh slugger had 475 home runs and 1,540 RBIs - both figures far above those of any other candidate - and he too was a World Series star, batting .400 with three homers in the Pirates' victorious 1979 appearance. It's hard to see how the voters could leave him off, but they've done stranger things over the years, so he'd better not make his reservations for Cooperstown just yet.
None of this year's other new candidates can really be mentioned in the same breath with Stargell or Tiant, but there are still plenty of outstanding holdovers. Unfortunately, the vote totals these players have received in previous years suggest that they have no realistic chance of election, though in some cases it's difficult to see why this is so. Certainly several of them have the statistics to merit more than a passing glance.
Take Tony Oliva, for example. The former Minnesota star was a three-time American League batting champion who hit over .300 six times and whose .304 lifetime average is the highest of any current candidate. Or Harvey Kuenn, who won only one batting title but bettered .300 eight times and finished just behind Oliva with a .303 career mark.
Neither of these fine hitters has ever received the sort of vote that would indicate they had any chance of eventual election, however, and ditto for base-stealing wizard Maury Wills. Shortstops have generally received less than their due from the voters, who seem overly infatuated with slugging statistics, and Wills has been no exception. The former Los Angeles Dodgers star had a .281 lifetime batting average, was the first player to steal 100 bases in a season, led the National League in steals six straight years, and got the job done in the field, but is nowhere near the number of votes he would need to get in.
Then there's Bill Mazeroski, who did a lot more than hit the 1960 World Series-winning home run for which he is primarily remembered. The former Pittsburgh second baseman played 17 solid seasons, performing superbly in the field and contributing solidly to the attack. Catcher-infielder Joe Torre (.297 with good power statistics) and slugger Orlando Cepeda (.297, 379 homers, 1,365 RBIs) are also worth mentioning.
And that hardly exhausts the list of possibilities either, with such other holdover candidates as Dick Allen, Bobby Bonds, Ken Boyer, Elroy Face, Curt Flood, Elston Howard, Don Larsen, Roger Maris, Minnie Minoso, Thurman Munson, Vada Pinson, Ron Santo, and Wibur Wood.
Furthermore, in addition to Stargell and Tiant, the committee making up this year's ballot listed 22 other players newly eligible after the five-year waiting period following the end of their careers - though some are pretty far-fetched as Hall of Fame candidates. The list includes Stan Bahnsen, Mark Belanger, Ross Grimsley, Larry Hisle, Al Hrabosky, Grant Jackson, Randy Jones, Bill Lee, Sparky Lyle, Lee May, John Mayberry, Lynn McGlothen, George Medich, John Milner, Manny Mota, Willie Montanez, Ken Reitz, Joe Rudi, Reggie Smith, Jim Spencer, Del Unser, and Rick Wise.
The voting by 10-year members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America is being conducted between now and Dec. 31. Each voter can name anywhere from one to 10 choices, and any player named on 75 percent of the ballots is elected, with the results to be announced early next year.
We don't really have to wait that long, though, because the results can be predicted right now with a good deal of certainty: Stargell and Bunning, period.
As for my own ballot, I'll vote for these two plus the eight others I deem most worthy of consideration, even though it's doubtful that many, if any, of them will ever make it: Cepeda, Kuenn, Lolich, Mazeroski, Oliva, Tiant, Torre, and Wills.