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It's that time again. As the opening number in baseball's biggest off-season gala, the annual "Winter Meetings", we are about to be presented with another immortal or two from the considerable ranks of worthies long ago passed over by the baseball writers. It's the "Veterans" turn and the unveiling is on Monday, the 5th of December.
It's all about the numbers. The rather pretentiously named "New Historical Oversight Committee" -- composed of 11 media greybeards, historians, and savants -- has drafted a 10-man ballot from which a panel of 16 electors -- composed of ex-players, retired front-office moguls, and (allegedly) distinguished scribes -- can choose two, three, even four new members of the Hall of Fame. But it takes 12 votes to anoint even one which isn't as easy to garner as you might expect.
Still, we at least have a process again which so far appears to be working. The previous system was totally controlled by living Hall of Famers who proved to be astonishingly narrow-minded, condescending, and nit- picky about adding to their ranks and seemed to take great pride in electing nobody, which they cleverly managed to do for a string of years. The process was literally dying on the vine.
But after struggling several years to reform the system, the keepers of the flame at Cooperstown with much prodding from the Commissioner, seem to have at last gotten it right. "Hurrah", says I. And that's the first time in recent memory I've said that about anything Czar Selig has done.
The revised system divides all baseball history into three distinct eras. It restricts the annual field of contenders to a short list of nominees -- 12 last year and 10 this year -- with all of them coming from just one of the three eras whereas formerly the field was totally open with anybody and everybody eligible.
The new system rotates ballots, eras, and electors from year to year in an effort to minimize cronyism which became a problem back when the old Veteran's Committee was dominated by the likes of Ted Williams and Stan Musial. It also aims for greater diversity with nominees from various categories, not just good old ball- players of cherished memory.
The results have been interesting. The three new Hall of Famers minted the last two years have been a manager (Whitey Herzog), a general manager (Pat Gillick) and an umpire (Doug Harvey) with a controversial union boss of historical clout (Marvin Miller) and an even more controversial owner (King George Steinbrenner) narrowly missing election. Three years ago they tapped two owners (Walter O'Malley and Barney Dreyfuss) and two managers (Billy Southworth and Dick Williams). Clearly, by focusing the process more rigidly and advancing the causes of illustrious characters who made their mark beyond or apart from the playing field, they have opened and expanded the process and that is good.
Eight fine players, a zany owner, and a loveable baseball lifer grace this year's ballot and it's a nifty bunch. Two are slam-dunks with the rest quite deserving, if in varying degrees. They are all drawn from the second of the three 'era's, which is the so-called "Golden Age" (1946-1972). The nominees are:
Senor Luis Tiant who scarcely needs introduction in these parts where he's the overwhelming sentimental choice. Elsewhere, his lifetime mark (229-172) is not deemed sufficient. But Catfish Hunter's numbers (224-166) were hardly more impressive, nor were Don Drysdale's (209-166). Among Looey's contemporaries, you'll find Hall of Famers Don Sutton, Phil Niekro (both 300-game winners), Jim Bunning and Fergy Jenkins. Which of them would you take over Tiant in his prime? Frankly, if there's one game I have to win I'd take Looney over Gaylord Perry or even Nolan Ryan.
He was -- as those of us who had the pleasure of catching his act will gladly attest --- one of the great big-money gamers. His grand theatrics and memorable élan further enrich his case in my book. If Waite Hoyt, Dazzy Vance, and Urban Faber belong in Cooperstown, so does Looey Tiant.
Orestes "Minnie" Minoso, who should have been elected 20 years ago. It could be argued Minnie was to Latin players of color what Jackie Robinson was to American Blacks. For in his relatively innocent and amiable way, he too was a great pioneer. Segregation denied him his chance until he was 28 (two years older than Robinson) yet he went on to play 17 years and eclipse Jackie in every single offensive category except batting average.
Minoso was every bit as dramatic and daring as Jackie and I would argue, almost as important. What he only lacked was the zealous promotion Robinson's cause enjoyed, which greatly derived from Jack's good fortune in getting to play in New York in the glory days. Minoso is the most deserving person on the ballot. He's a no-brainer and the thought of him being denied again at the age of 89 is most upsetting.
Ron Santo, the elegant Cubs third-baseman. Some regard him the very best player in baseball history not to have made it to Cooperstown and that is mighty high praise.The thought of him finally making it mere months after his passing given that he struggled so greatly for such recognition during long years of illness is also upsetting.
Ken Boyer, the elegant Cardinals' third-baseman. He's roughly Santo's equal down to the last detail and may have been a more dangerous player yet he's rarely mentioned in the same breath. It's odd.
Allie Reynolds. Indisputably a great money pitcher for the Yankees in their salad days but he doesn't quite belong on this list.
Jim 'Kitty' Kaat. One of the all-time class acts, some argue his 283 wins are what only recommends him and he had 25 seasons to compile them. But he won 10 or more games 15 straight years, pitched 200 plus innings 14 seasons. Who does anything like that anymore?
Tony Oliva. For a too brief span in the mid-sixties he was easily the finest hitter in baseball. Yes, my friend, he was better in those days than Aaron, Mantle, Mays, Clemente, or Rose. But arthritic knees essentially finished him at age 30. Still, the stylish Twins' slasher deserves a nod. He was that special.
Gil Hodges. If it seems he's been in the running for several decades that's because he has and it has become simply silly. Though he was probably the classiest of Brooklyn's fabled "Boys of Summer" his pure numbers as a player don't quite merit selection. But when you consider he lost at least three seasons to WW II as a Marine who won a bronze star in the South Pacific, and when you also consider that he'd become a much admired manager by the time of his death at only 47, you are left with just one question. What possesses the electors to year after year and time after time keep this man out of the Hall of Fame?
Buzzy Bavasi was a Dodger GM second only to Branch Rickey, which is rather like being a Bohemian musical composer second only to Antonin Dvorak. But even more than the Mahatma, old Buzzy was the very epitome of the baseball-lifer truly beloved by those who knew him and a pure baseball man, right out of central casting.
Charles Oscar Finley. The rascal contributed as well as rabble-roused. But he should not even be considered before the likes of Marvin Miller or George Steinbrenner make it. If he and George were vaguely two of a kind as owners in terms of controversy, Charlie was hardly in the same league as "the Boss" in terms of impact.
So that's the lineup for the fifth. If I am voting my picks in order are: Minoso, Hodges, Tiant, Oliva, Kaat, although regrettably one has no hopes of seeing all five make it, even if that were quite reasonable. The process simply doesn't allow for such a windfall. But landing two is feasible.
Just as long as they don't draw a blank. We've had too much of that ragtime.