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.

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.

Marichal's statistics are at least as impressive as Gibson's (243-142 for a spectacular .631 percentage and a 2.89 ERA over 16 seasons). He didn't have the World Series opportunities of his rival, however, and there's also the negative aspect of the unfortunate incident which he seriously injured Los Angeles catcher John Roseboro by hitting him in the head with a bat. This must be weighed, too, because the criteria for election specify not only playing ability but "integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contribution to the team . . . and to baseball in general."

Munson was an outstanding clutch performer on several championship Yankee teams, but, sentiment aside, his .292 batting average and 113 homers in 11 seasons are not really Hall of Fame statistics. And none of the other first-time eligibles -- Glen Beckert, Ken Berry, John Briggs, Gates Brown, Leo Cardenas, Bill Hands, Bob Locker, Maxvill, Dick McAuliffe, Lindy McDaniel, Sam McDowell, Dave McNally, Jim Northrup, Claude Osteen, Jim Perry, Vada Pinson, and Sonny Siebert -- are serious candidates.

Among the holdovers, Aparicio seems the most logical choice, but his relatively low 124 votes last year in his first chance indicate that the voters continue to be mesmerized by slugging statistics rather than overall ability.

Throughout his 18-year career, Aparicio was the standard against whom all other shortstops were measured. And unlike so many classy fielders, Luis held up his end at the plate, once hitting .313, compiling a .262 career average, leading the American League in stolen bases nine times, and finishing ninth on the all-time list with 506 thefts.

Obviously the man who plays a vital defensive position so spectacularly and also contributes as much on offense as Luis did is a lot more valuable than some sluggers 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 (sorry about that, Harmon). But the voters never see it this way, and there's no reason to expect that they'll wake up now.

Wills was a shortstop who had even better offensive credentials (.281 lifetime average and 586 steals), and who benefited from more hype because of playing in Los Angeles and also because of his eye-catching 104 steals in 1962. Maury couldn't carry Aparicio's glove, however, and a few more hits and stolen bases aren't enough to overcome that gap, even though the voters may say otherwise.

Wilhelm finished fifth with 209 votes in his first year of eligibility a year ago, and could move up enough to have a chance this time. He certainly deserves strong consideration on the basis of a 21-year career in which he set major league records which still stand for most pitching appearances (1,070, most victories in relief (123), and most saves (227).

Last year when Snider and Al Kaline were elected, Don Drysdale finished next with 238 votes (he would have needed 289 for election, which requires being named on 75 percent of the ballots). The big right-hander who teamed With Sandy Koufax to form the Dodgers' 1-2 pitching punch in the '60s will probably get strong support again, though the presence of Gibson and Marichal (both of whom won more games) doesn't help his cause.

Hodges, fourth a year ago, seems likely to fall short again, along with fellow holdovers Richie Ashburn, Jim Bunning, Lew Burdette, Orlando Cepeda, Elroy Face, Elston Howard, Nelson Fox, Harvey Kuenn, Ted Kluszewski, Don Larsen, Roger Maris, Bill Mazeroski, and Red Schoendienst.

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