Over the years, a great many outstanding ballplayers have lost out for one reason or another in the annual voting by baseball writers for election to the Hall of Fame. Among the most glaring examples, of course, were those who never got a full opportunity because of the color of their skin - which means all black players before 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the game's infamous ``color line.''
Clearly, the top players in the old Negro Leagues would have been stars in the majors as well. Those who were young enough when the change came - such as Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, etc. - demonstrated that point convincingly enough. But for many others, 1947 arrived too late - either after their playing days were over, or when they were too far along in their careers to showcase their true abilities.
Ray Dandridge was such a player. A hard-hitting, slick-fielding third baseman throughout most of the 1930s and '40s, Dandridge was 34 years old and a veteran of 14 seasons in the Negro Leagues, the Cuban winter league, and the Mexican League by the time organized baseball belatedly opened its doors to players of his color.
For him, it was too late. Oh, he probably could have put in a couple of years somewhere, but nobody was too interested in a player obviously near the end of his career. As he recalls it, he was making more money in Mexico than any big-league team wanted to pay him. So he stayed put - though even then, in the twilight of his playing days, he went on to play five years at the Triple-A level.
Fortunately, the baseball establishment recognized the inequity of this whole situation several years ago, making Dandridge and other such individuals eligible for Hall of Fame consideration. And last week Ray became the 11th player elected to Cooperstown primarly for accomplishments in the Negro Leagues - joining a list that also includes Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Irvin, Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson, Oscar Charleston, Martin Dihigo, John Lloyd, and Rube Foster.
The first nine were elected during the 1970s by a special committee created just to consider players in their category. The committee then recommended its own disbanding, turning over any future such elections to the regular Veterans Committee, which chose Foster in 1981 and has now elected Dandridge.
Few would question the right of these great athletes of another era to finally receive at least a portion of the recognition they were unfairly denied during their playing days, and thus there is seldom any controversy over their election. Things aren't so smooth, however, when it comes to the other part of the Veterans Committee's job: to elect deserving candidates from a list including former executives, managers, umpires, and former major leaguers who have been retired at least 23 years.
All one has to do is look at a list of non-Hall-of-Famers to realize that the writers have passed over some pretty fine ballplayers in their own annual voting. Thus, one reason for the existence of the Veterans Committee is to rectify the omission of players who clearly seem to belong. And over the years it has elected quite a few in this category: Lloyd Waner, Goose Goslin, Waite Hoyt, Earl Coombs, Lefty Gomez, Billy Herman, Hack Wilson, Chuck Klein, Johnny Mize, Arky Vaughn, Pee Wee Reese, Enos Slaughter, Bobby Doerr, and Ernie Lombardi, to name a few. And even with all these, a lot of pretty good ballplayers remain on the outside looking in.
Still, not everyone likes the idea of the Veterans Committee. Some people contend that if a player's name appears on the writers' ballot for 15 years without earning election, he has had opportunity enough, and that giving him a second chance via the Veterans Committee runs the risk of ``cheapening'' the honor by admitting some who don't really have the proper credentials.
From this corner, though, it appears that the justification for the committee far outweighs any such risk - and all one has to do is look at that list of electees to see why. It is a concern, though, and is one reason the committee thinks long and hard before electing a former player the writers have turned down.
It's really a ``no win'' situation for the committee, though, no matter which way it leans. This year, for example, it didn't elect anyone in the ``former-major leaguer'' category - and that, too, caused controversy.
The list of candidates included quite a few well known names such as Phil Rizzuto, Richie Ashburn, Tony Lazzeri, Babe Herman, Red Schoendienst, Carl Mays, and Mel Harder. But it takes a 75 percent vote for election, which meant 14 votes from the 18-member committee, and this year no one except Dandridge got that many.
The actual voting was not announced, but a good assumption is that Rizzuto was the closest to election. At any rate, it was the failure to name the former New York Yankee shortstop that caused the greatest controversy.
Ted Williams, a member of the committee, stormed out of the room in anger when the results of the voting were announced. And current Yankee owner George Steinbrenner later blasted the committee for not picking Rizzuto, who helped the Bronx Bombers of the 1940s and '50s win nine pennants during his 13-year, war-interrupted career, excelling in the field and on the basepaths while also contributing a solid .273 career batting average.
Indeed, it did seem as though ``the Scooter'' might make it this time. The voters used to regularly overlook such players in favor of sluggers with big home run and RBI statistics, but this has changed recently - as witness the election of Luis Aparicio and Pee Wee Reese in the last few years. Now it would appear to be Rizzuto's turn - but he'll have to wait at least another 12 months.
Another cause of eyebrow-raising is in the manager category, where, inconceivable as it may seem, the name of Leo Durocher is still not enshrined in Cooperstown. Over the years, the Veterans Committee and its predecessors have elected most of the other big-name managers of yesteryear - Connie Mack, John McGraw, Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, Bill McKechnie, etc. And a few years ago the committee named Walter Alston, who, of course, managed even more recently than Durocher did. So how can they keep bypassing Leo the Lip?
Surely his record speaks for itself. In 24 years as a major-league pilot, Durocher led his teams to 2,019 victories (sixth on the all-time list), three pennants, and one World Series triumph. These statistics compare favorably with those of most other Hall of Fame managers, and should be enough to put him in Cooperstown by themselves. Furthermore, his overall contributions also include a 17-year career as an outstanding defensive shortstop with several teams, including the Yankees of the late 1920s and the Gas House Gang St. Louis Cardinals of the '30s.
Technically, to be sure, these are separate categories, but one can hardly help thinking that at least some weight should be given to the man's entire baseball career. And when you put it all together, it is really difficult to see how the committee can continue bypassing an individual who played such a key role in the game for half a century.
As an old Dodger, though, Leo knows what to say about this, while as an old Yankee, Rizzuto is finally learning how the other half lives - because for both of them the only thing to do now is ``Wait 'til next year!''