Baseball Hall of Fame: how exclusive a club?

This year's Baseball Hall of Fame voting points up the tremendous difference of opinion among the nation's writers as to what constitutes proper credentials for election. At one end of the spectrum, marginal candidates like Bill Lee, Reggie Smith, Lee May, and Al Hrabosky were able to attract some votes. At the other end, even Willie Stargell, while achieving election in his first year of eligibility, was left off nearly 18 percent of the ballots. And despite the presence of Stargell, Jim Bunning, and a host of other big names, nine writers were so unimpressed with this year's field that they returned signed ballots without votes - a tactic designed to reduce the chances of all candidates.

So what constitutes a Hall of Famer? The shrine at Cooperstown was opened in 1936 with a charter membership of Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson - and some writers apparently think the voting should have ended right then and there! Well, maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but there is one school of thought that says membership should be limited to a relative handful of obvious choices - players like Ruth, Cobb, Willie Mays, etc.

Over the years, though, the doors have opened to a lot of other players who, while outstanding in their own right, were really not at the same level with those all-time superstars. And of course every time a player like that gets in, it raises the question of who else in the same general category deserves consideration.

It's a tough question, and one that gets debated again each year at election time. Does a pitcher like Bunning (224 victories, 2,855 strikeouts, 40 shutouts) belong? Not if you are going to limit it to Johnson, Mathewson, Lefty Grove, Warren Spahn, and others who won 300 or more games. But definitely yes if you are going to include Bob Lemon (207), Don Drysdale (209), and Hoyt Wilhelm (143) - all of whom have been elected in the last dozen years.

My own view is that, according to the standards that have been set over 52 years of voting, there are still a lot of players out there who deserve election by the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Stargell, who hit 475 home runs during 21 years with the Pittsburgh Pirates, was a logical choice. Fortunately, the voters concurred, making him the only player elected in this year's voting. He was named on 352 of the 427 ballots for an 82.4 percent total - well above the 75 percent figure required for election. That still means, though, that 75 writers left him off their ballots.

The case of Bunning is a sad one. In his 12th year of eligibility (a player gets 15 years on the ballot), and after missing by 21 votes last year, the former Detroit and Philadelphia star fell just four votes short this time, garnering 317 for a 74.2 percentage. In fact, if those nine voters hadn't sent in blank ballots, the total number would have been 418, the 75 percent figure would have been 314 - and Bunning would be in.

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