Newcomers Yaz, Bench, Perry head unusually tough Hall of Fame ballot

In more than a decade as a baseball Hall of Fame elector I've had some difficult choices to make, but this year's ballot is by far the toughest I've ever wrestled with. Carl Yastrzemski, Johnny Bench, and Gaylord Perry head an impressive list of newly eligible candidates, while there is also a solid core of holdovers topped by Jim Bunning, who missed election by the barest of margins a year ago. The maximum total one can vote for is 10, and there have been years when I couldn't find that many worthy candidates. This time, however, the problem is clearly one of narrowing the list down.

Yastrzemski has to get the vote of anyone who saw him play regularly during his heyday with Boston in the 1960s and '70s - particularly his incredible MVP season of 1967 when he led the Red Sox to the pennant and won the Triple Crown with a .329 batting average, 44 home runs, and 121 RBIs. Dick Williams, who played with some great Brooklyn teams in the '50s and who managed the dominant Oakland A's of the early '70s, often said he never saw any player have an all-around season like the one Yaz had that year. Time and again he came through in the clutch, both at the plate and in the field, where his ability to play caroms off the wall plus his skill at charging singles and throwing runners out provided added dimensions that didn't necessarily show up in the box scores.

One season doesn't make a Hall of Famer, but Yaz had many other big years. He won three batting crowns, hit 40 homers two other times, and drove in 100 runs five times. He holds the American League record for most games (3,308) and most at-bats (11,988), and joins Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Stan Musial in the exclusive club of those who have achieved both 3,000 hits (he had 3,419) and 400 home runs (452). He played in 18 All-Star Games, hit .455 in the playoffs and .352 in 14 World Series games, won six Gold Gloves, and set a major league record by leading his league in assists seven times.

Bench seems a similarly automatic choice. In 17 seasons with Cincinnati he built a reputation as one of the all-time great catchers, both behind the plate and at bat. He did have a relatively low lifetime average for a big hitter (.267), but he always hit with power, and holds the major league record for most home runs for a catcher (327). He played on 14 All-Star teams and won 10 Gold Gloves.

Perry also should get in on his first try according to the unwritten rule that says any pitcher with 300 wins belongs in Cooperstown. The big right-hander was a 20-game winner five times in his 22-year big league career, won two Cy Young Awards, and finished with 314 victories.

Unfortunatley, the attention sure to be lavished on this trio may make it difficult for any holdovers to garner enough votes - a particularly tough break for Bunning. After missing by four votes last year - one of the slimmest such margins in history - the former ace right-hander, who won 224 games, pitched no-hitters in each league, and had 40 shutouts, would normally be expected to go over the top this time. Perhaps he still will, but the addition of Yastzremski, Bench, and Perry to the ballot doesn't help his chances any.

That's about it for those who figure to have a real shot this time, though it hardly exhausts the reasonable candidates.

Among pitchers there are Luis Tiant and Mickey Lolich, both of whom have career statistics similar to Bunning's, though inexplicably neither has ever received the same kind of support. Newly eligible Ferguson Jenkins (284 wins) and Jim Kaat (283) also merit consideration, but with Perry's 314 victories overshadowing them, and with Bunning's previous close calls also a factor, they probably will have to wait a while.

As for everyday players, the leading choices after Yaz and Bench (based on last year's voting) are Tony Oliva, Orlando Cepeda, Harvey Kuenn, and Bill Mazeroski, none of whom has ever received enough support to look like a real possibility although some have very impressive career statistics.

Other holdovers include Maury Wills, Ken Boyer, Ron Santo, Minnie Minoso, Elroy Face, Vada Pinson, Joe Torre, Sparky Lyle, Dick Allen, Curt Flood, Thurman Munson, Wilbur Wood, Bobby Bonds, and Manny Mota. The remaining newcomers placed on the ballot after the mandatory five-year waiting period following retirement are Jim Barr, Bert Campaneris, Terry Crowley, Joe Ferguson, Woody Fryman, Cesar Geronimo, Dave Goltz, Jon Matlack, Rudy May, Bake McBride, Don Money, Bobby Murcer, Bill Robinson, Gene Tenace, and Richie Zisk.

The voting by 10-year members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America is being conducted through Dec. 31. Each voter can name anywhere from one to 10 choices, and any player named on 75 percent of the ballots is elected, with the results to be announced early next year.

As for my ballot, I'll vote for Yaz, Bench, and Perry, all of whom probably will make it; Bunning, in hopes that he'll finally get the few extra votes he needs; and the six others who I think have the best cases, even though it's a virtual sure thing they won't get in: Oliva, Cepeda, Mazeroski, Kuenn, Tiant, and Lolich.

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