The first part of this year's Baseball Hall of Fame balloting takes only a couple of seconds; you just put check marks next to the names of Henry Aaron and Frank Robinson as quickly as you can. Then comes the annual agonizing over the rest of the list -- especially the handful who may not be automatic choices like the above pair, but who seem to qualify based on the standards that have been established over the years.
Even Aaron and Robinson won't be unanimous selections, or at least one can reasonably assume as much from the fact that no one ever has since the first election was held in 1936. There are always a few voters who seem to think the doors at Cooperstown should have been nailed shut after the enshrinement of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth -- and some of them aren't even sure about the Babe!
It is difficult, of course, to see how anyone with the credentials to be an eligible voter (at least 10 years' membership in the Baseball Writers Association of America) could leave Aaron off his ballot. If the man who broke Ruth's all-time records for home runs and RBIs, stands second to Cobb in total hits, and batted .305 over a 23-year career doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame, who does?
Robinson would seem a similarly open-and-shut case -- not only for his .294 batting average, with 586 homers and 1,812 RBIs, but for the fiery, inspirational play that enabled him to lead teams in both leagues to pennants and to become the only man ever named MVP in each circuit.
They'll both be passed over by some writers, though, if you can go by the previous example of Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, etc. -- and even of Ruth and Cobb themselves. In that first election 46 years ago, 4 of the 226 writers decided that Cobb wasn't a Hall of Famer, 11 snubbed the Babe, and even larger numbers ignored such luminaries as Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson. And so it has gone ever since.
Both Aaron and Robinson do appear shoo-ins, however, to get the necessary 75 percent vote for admittance in this, their first year of eligibility. And chances are they may well be the only ones so honored.
You can make a strong case for any one of half a dozen or more candidates at the next echelon, but that is precisely why none of them are likely to get in, since the large number of more or less reasonable choices is certain to divide the vote.
Also, the writers have always been reluctant to admit too many players at once for fear of cheapening the honor. So even though each voter can check as many as 10 names if he wants to, the presence of superstars like Aaron and Robinson on the ballot always lessens the chances of others in that particular year.
This year's list of 43 candidates includes 14 who are eligible for the first time after the mandatory five-year wait following retirement, along with 29 holdovers.
The top candidates in the latter group (based on the order of last year's voting, when Bob Gibson was the only electee) are Don Drysdale, Gil Hodges, Harmon Killebrew, Hoyt Wilhelm, and Nellie Fox. The strongest newcomer, after Aaron and Robinson, would appear to be Billy Williams. But a good guess is that none of them will make it this time.
My own top choice (after the two automatic ones) is Luis Aparicio, who built a reputation throughout his 18-year career as the standard against whom all other shortstops were measured. No less an authority than Ted Williams called him the best he had ever seen at his position. And unlike so many classy fielders, Aparacio held up his end at the plate, once hitting .313, compiling a .262 career average, and leading the American League in stolen bases nine times.
Obviously a man who plays a vital position so spectacularly and also contributes as much on offense as Luis did is a lot more 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. But equally obviously, the people who cast these ballots are mesmerized by power statistics rather than overall ability, and Aparicio's relatively low vote totals in his first two years of eligibility make it clear that, like Pee Wee Reese and Phil Rizzuto before him, Little Looie is going to wind up on the outside looking in.
Another all-around player who loses out with the voters because he didn't swing a home run bat is Richie Ashburn. The fleet outfielder was a two-time batting champion, hit .330 or more on three other occasions, led the National League in hits three times and walks four times, and averaged nearly 100 runs scored per season for a 10-year stretch. He is also one of a relatively small group of lifetime .300 hitters (.308) who also had more than 2,500 hits -- and almost all of the others are in the Hall of Fame. But Richie's vote totals so far indicate that he, too, is unlikely to make it.
For the reasons mentioned in the above two paragraphs, a more likely electee -- either now or in the next couple of years -- is Killebrew. Harmon's defensive shortcomings and .256 average leave him well out of the superstar class, but it would be hard to deny admission eventually to a man who hit 573 major league home runs -- more, for instance, than Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Foxx, Williams, Mel Ott, or Lou Gehrig, just to name a few.
And there are so many other possibilities in addition to those already named. How about Red Schoendienst, Maury Wills, Roger Maris, and Harvey Kuenn, all of whom received some support last year? Or in the pitching department, what about Jim Bunning or Lew Burdette?
It's a tough call, and you have to balance a lot of objective statistics with subjective opinions, so seldom will any two people agree completely. My own ballot for 1982 says Aaron and Robinson (both of whom will certainly make it), Aparicio and Ashburn (both of whom almost certainly won't), and Killebrew (who might). That's enough for this year.