Shortstop Aparicio may be short hop from Hall of Fame, finally
Ask any baseball manager to name the two most important positions for everyday players and he's almost certain to include shortstop. This is the key to the infield defense - the foundation on which championship teams are built. Among the regular players, only the catcher could conceivably be considered as vital.
Shortstop is such a key position, in fact, that no team is likely to win a pennant without a good one. You can ''hide'' a weak-fielding slugger at other spots, but if you don't have a topflight shortstop, you can probably forget about post-season play. And probably because of this very importance, the shortstop frequently also emerges as a team leader - one who is expected not only to play his own game but also to settle down his fellow infielders and the pitcher in crucial situations.
A player who does all this doesn't really have to hit much to justify his place in the lineup. Teams have won pennants, in fact, carrying shortstops whose batting averages weren't much higher than the numbers they saw when they stepped on the scales (Baltimore's Mark Belanger was the most recent example). And if you come up with one who can do the job defensively and contribute to the offense too, he is almost literally worth his weight in gold - as witness Robin Yount of Milwaukee and Cal Ripken Jr., of the current Orioles, who have won the American League MVP Award the last two seasons.
In view of all this, it is truly amazing that over the years the writers who choose Hall of Famers have elected only six shortstops - Honus Wagner, Joe Cronin, Rabbit Maranville, Luke Appling, Lou Boudreau, and Ernie Banks. And although the Veterans Committee has partly rectified matters by enshrining some of those the writers had snubbed, including Dave Bancroft, Joe Tinker (of ''Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance'' fame), and Travis Jackson, there are still plenty of similar injustices that need attention.
One thinks immediately of such standouts as Pee Wee Reese, Phil Rizzuto, Marty Marion, and Maury Wills. But the most incredible omission of all - and one that is finally expected to be rectified this week - is that of Luis Aparicio.
Throughout his 18-year career in Chicago, Baltimore, and Boston, ''Little Looie'' established a reputation as the quintessential shortstop - the standard against whom all others were measured. He had great range to both sides, a sure glove, and a powerful, accurate arm. He set all sorts of records for assists, putouts, chances accepted, and double plays at his position. No less an authority than Ted Williams, in fact, called him the best shortstop he had ever seen.
Furthermore, unlike many classy fielders, Aparicio held up his end at the plate, once hitting .313, compiling a .262 career average, and leading the American League in stolen bases a record nine times. He wasn't a slugger (few people with the agility to play shortstop well also have the strength to hit a lot of home runs), but he played a key role in the offense by getting on base and scoring runs, and by moving other runners along.
Obviously, anyone who plays such a vital position so spectacularly and also contributes this much on offense is a lot more valuable than a slugger who stands around in the field, hits into a lot of double plays when he's not striking out, and once in a while bangs one over the fence.
It's obvious, that is, to everyone except the voters - who year after year are mesmerized by slugging statistics. But indications are that they are finally coming to their senses concerning Aparicio, and that this is the year he will finally be named on the necessary 75 percent of the ballots. (The voting by 10-year members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America has been going on for several weeks by mail, with a deadline of today for receipt of the ballots, and with the announcement of the results scheduled for tomorrow.)
This is Aparicio's fifth year of eligibility, which in itself is absurd. His support has increased steadily, though, and last year he got 252 votes, just 29 shy of election. Now in a year when there are no mega-names on the ballot like Frank Robinson or Hank Aaron, the personable Venezuelan should finally make it.
Wills played recently enough that he too is still on the ballot, but although he hit .281 and was also a great base-stealer, he wasn't the defensive genius Aparicio was - and as noted, that is the No. 1 priority for a shortstop. Understandably, therefore, Maury doesn't have the overall support Luis does, and will probably eventually be relegated to hoping for selection by the Veterans Committee.
This is already the case with Reese, Rizzuto, and Marion, all of whom have had the limit of 15 years on the writers' ballot without gaining election, although a good argument can be made for each.
As for other candidates this year, the most likely electee along with Aparicio is Harmon Killebrew. With his .256 average and defensive shortcomings, the former Minnesota Twins slugger was strictly a one-dimensional ballplayer - but he was pretty good at that one dimension. Harmon's 573 home runs put him fifth on the all-time list - ahead of such names as Mickey Mantle and Lou Gehrig , to name a few. A statistic like that can hardly be ignored forever, and although Killebrew missed out in his first three years of eligibility, he has been close - he needed just 12 more votes last year - and is also expected to make it this time.
The 10 names on the ballot for the first time this year after the mandatory five-year waiting period plus a screening by a writers' committee all seem strictly along for the ride. There are, of course, still plenty of other familiar names among the returnees, including Hoyt Wilhelm and Don Drysdale (the next two highest vote-getters after Killebrew and Aparicio last year), plus such other standouts of the recent past as Wills, Lew Burdette, Orlando Cepeda, Nelson Fox, Bill Mazeroski, and Joe Torre. All of them have been on the ballot before, though, and they always seem to get some support, but not the 75 percent vote necessary for election.