Some Stay in the Vestibule Of Baseball's Hall of Fame

THIS weekend, Reggie Jackson will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. But while the spotlight will be on Jackson, we'll also hear the old debates about who should or shouldn't be enshrined.

Jackson is not controversial. In 21 seasons, the former Oakland and New York Yankee outfielder established his place with 563 home runs (sixth on the all-time list) and 1,702 runs batted in (16th). He's also No. 1 in all-time slugging percentage (.755).

Jackson ranks among those superstars whom everyone agrees belong. Then come the marginal cases - and the arguments.

Voting for the Hall of Fame is done by 10-year members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. They receive ballots listing eligible players, and may vote for up to 10. Players must have had at least a 10-year career in the majors and been retired for five years. (There are also special qualifications for 19th-century players and those from the Negro Leagues.) Any player marked on 75 percent of the ballots is elected.

This system has basically worked well, though no ballot pleases everyone. Omissions often cited include those of Richie Ashburn (two batting championships, .308 lifetime average) and Phil Rizzutto (shortstop for nine Yankee pennant-winners).

Among recent near-misses, the most publicized was that of pitcher Jim Bunning, who won 224 games in a 17-year career spent mostly with Detroit and Philadelphia. Bunning's credentials, including 100 wins in each league and two no-hitters, compare favorably with other Hall of Famers. He missed being elected by 21 votes in 1986 and seemed primed to make it in '87, but then a strange thing happened.

Nine New York sportswriters, apparently concerned lest marginal candidates get elected, submitted blank ballots. Bunning received 317 votes. Had those nine writers abstained, that would have been enough. But the blank ballots raised the total number of ballots cast to 427, 75 percent of which is 321. Bunning was four votes short. Submitting a blank ballot was within the rules, but many deemed it questionable.

Another heartbreaker was the case of Nellie Fox, a fine second baseman and .288 hitter over 19 seasons, mostly with the Chicago White Sox. Fox was a sentimental favorite in his 15th and final year of eligibility in 1985, and received 295 votes out of 395 cast. According to the formula, 297 votes were needed; he missed by two. But his supporters noted that those 297 votes came to 74.7 percent of the total - which could be rounded up to 75. The Hall of Fame has never rounded off vote totals this way, howev er, and wasn't about to start. So instead of being elected, Nellie has the dubious honor of coming the closest of any player in history without getting in.

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