What constitutes a Hall of Famer? Some names come immediately to mind, of course -- players like Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, etc. But what about the hundreds of other stars over the years who may not have been quite as towering as these all-time greats, but who still have forged outstanding credentials of their own? The question comes up every year at this time when the Baseball Writers' Association of America holds its annual Hall of Fame election and those of us who are 10-year members study the list of eligible players.
There were no ``automatic'' names on the ballot for this year's voting, the results of which will be announced today in New York. But there are a dozen or more candidates for whom you can make a reasonable case based on the standards that have been established over the years. And therein lies the problem.
There are, one might say, two echelons of Hall of Famers -- the relatively few super-superstars, plus a great many others who weren't quite at that level. And when you consider the precedent established in other years, it's hard not to believe that at least a few of those on the current list must also belong.
In other words, you don't necessarily have to measure your selections against the Ruths or Aarons with their .300-plus batting averages, 700-plus home run totals, etc. You can use instead for your yardstick (just to pick a name out of the hat) Rabbit Maranville, who hit only .258 in his major league career and who quite probably owes his election at least in part to that catchy nickname. Or Joe Tinker (.263), Johnny Evers (.270), and Frank Chance (.297) -- some or all of whom might not have made it except for their good fortune of being in a famous poem. And these are just a few of the marginal candidates who have been enshrined over the years.
The list of pitchers doesn't exactly begin and end with Cy Young, Walter Johnson, and Christy Mathewson either -- as evidenced by such names as Addie Joss, Amos Rusie, and John Clarkson.
Looking at the current 41 candidates in this light, it's easy to find names that can be stacked up favorably against some of those who already have plaques at Cooperstown. And one of these, certainly, is Lou Brock.
This is the initial year of eligibility for the former great Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals outfielder after the mandatory five-year waiting period after retirement -- and considering his credentials he may well join the select list of those who made it in their first time on the ballot. Brock hit .293 in his 19-year career, is the all-time major league base-stealing leader with 938, and holds the National League single-season record of 118. He was also a ``money player,'' as seen by his World Series records for highest batting average (.391 in 21 games) and most stolen bases in a seven-game series (7 twice).
Pitchers Catfish Hunter (224 victories, five-straight 20-game seasons) and Mickey Lolich (217 wins, 2,832 strikeouts) are the other newly eligible candidates most likely to make it sooner or later -- both via their career records and because they too were able to rise to the occasion in the playoff and World Series games.
The only problem here, though, is that there are still some holdover eligibles with similarly outstanding pitching credentials. Hoyt Wilhelm, for instance, set major league records for most appearances (1,070), most victories in relief (123) and most saves (227). Jim Bunning equalled Hunter's 224-victory total despite pitching for much weaker teams, is 10th on the all-time strikeout list, and had 40 shutouts including two no-hitters. And Lew Burdette was a 203-game winner as well as a renowned ``money pitcher'' who beat the mighty New York Yankees three times in the 1957 World Series.
So whom do you vote for?
Getting back to everyday players, Brock is easily the strongest candidate among this year's newly eligibles, followed by Rico Carty, who hit .299 lifetime. Again, though, there are also several holdovers who at least deserve serious consideration.
Billy Williams is the leading candidate in this category. The former Chicago Cubs outfielder never seemed to get the recognition he deserved during his 18-year career, and one can't escape the belief that his .290 batting average, 426 home runs, and 1,476 RBIs would have been more than enough to get him elected if he had played in New York or Los Angeles.
Base-stealing wizard Maury Wills is another possibility. Shortstops have historically received less than their due from the voters, who seem overly fascinated by slugging statistics, but this was partly rectified last year with the election of Luis Aparicio, and while Wills wasn't in that class as a fielder, he got the job done with the glove, hit .281, and led the NL in steals six straight years.
Nelson Fox and Bill Mazeroski are others in this same general category -- good infielders who contributed more than their share to the attack. Catcher-infielder Joe Torre (.297) and slugger Orlando Cepeda (.297, 379 homers) have their proponents as do lifetime .300 hitters Tony Oliva and Harvey Kuenn and newly-eligible ex-New York Yankee catching and hitting star Elston Howard.
My own choices, after winnowing down these possibilities to the maximum number of 10, are (in alphabetical order): Brock, Bunning, Burdette, Fox, Hunter, Mazeroski,Torre, Wilhelm, Williams, and Wills.
A good guess, though, is that the only ones meeting the requirement of appearing on 75 percent of the ballots will be Wilhelm, who just missed last year, and Brock.