Hall of Fame balloting’s upon us; Marvin Miller in spotlight

Dovetailing nicely with the holidays and very much in their spirit, we have the Baseball Hall of Fame elections upon us. Ballots have been posted. Electors are in place. Let the lobbying, posturing, and furious harangues begin.

For roughly a decade, forces that might be politely described as “reactionary” struggled to restrict the process. The hardliners – including members of the Baseball Writers of America (BBWA) and a small, rather elitist band of sitting Hall of Famers – claim standards have been watered down by unqualified electors often guilty of cronyism.

The charges, if not entirely groundless, were exaggerated and ill-advised. Still, they succeeded in effectively freezing the Veterans Committee, which over the years has elected the majority of Cooperstown’s honorees. For seven years they elected nobody. In fact, they dang near succeeded in wiping out the Vets panel, which has long served effectively as a court of appeals designed to re-consider old-timers bypassed by the too-often arbitrary
BBWA. Had that happened, those who didn’t meet the BBWA’s whimsical criteria would have been officially cooked.

But the public digs the Cooperstown thing and most sensible folks don’t get apoplectic when a Bill Mazeroski, who may not have been as great a second baseman as Rogers Hornsby but nonetheless made his mark on the game in his time, finally makes it after patiently waiting in line 30 years, hat in hand. The purists don’t seem to understand that this is not about sainthood. It’s about baseball. We are not deciding who gets into heaven here.

Happily, the hardliners have been vanquished. Lovers of the game want enshrinees every year. They don’t believe that immortalizing a couple of hundred lads from a century and a half of baseball turns this most estimable of lodges into a flop house. Sometimes the great unwashed public has more common sense than the alleged experts. This is one of those times.

Recognizing as much, Cooperstown’s poobahs, along with assorted sachems of the game including that otherwise dubious fellow, Czar Bud Selig, have combined to force the revamping of the process. Different committees with changing membership assigned to consider players from different categories will rotate from year to year. The revamped process is aimed at promoting more intense research and professional debate and, with that, greater fairness.

But above all, it’s intended to actually elect people. In its first swing, two years ago, the mightily revamped process elected a commissioner, (Bowie Kuhn), two owners, (Walter O’Malley and Barney Dreyfuss), and two managers (Dick Williams and Billy Southworth). It was a nifty start and, hopefully, only just the start.

They assemble again this weekend with the results being proclaimed on Pearl Harbor Day, the 7th. There will be two categories, with 10 nominees and 12 electors for each.

Managers and umpires compose the first ballot. The managers nominated are Billy Martin, Whitey Herzog, Gene Mauch, Danny Murtaugh, Tom Kelly, Davey Johnson, Steve O’Neill, and Charlie Grimm. The umps are Doug Harvey and Hank O’Day.

The second ballot is for owners, executives, and so-called pioneers with the nominees being Gene Autry, Ewing Kauffman, John Fetzer, Jacob Ruppert, and Sam Breadon (owners) Bill White, Bob Howsam, John McHale, and Gabe Paul (execs) and the one and only Marvin Miller (pioneer).

On the surface this election seems a slam dunk for Miller, that brilliant and outsized revolutionary of the sporting labor movement. When he was snubbed two years ago – embarrassingly securing only one vote – there was much protest. It became clear that however controversial Marvin remains, most people who know and love this game and understand what its Hall of Fame should be all about strongly believe Miller belongs in Cooperstown, given his immense impact on not just baseball history but that of all sport.

While this sentiment may not be universal it is clearly overwhelming. Moreover, Marvin, who has been retired a quarter of a century, is pushing well into his 90s. Given the inevitability of his election, deferring it would seem needlessly cruel. Let the old man have his moment, you say, and I totally agree.

But this is where the issue gets fuzzy. A lot of baseball men who freely concede Marvin deserves to be enshrined don’t necessarily believe he deserves the satisfaction of being able to revel in it while he is still on this side of the grass. A member of the committee that snubbed him two years ago told me that was precisely the sentiment that governed the committee’s thinking. The majority, he said, wanted Marvin in Cooperstown but not while he was still alive and therefore able to boast about it.

Keep in mind that this particular committee is dominated by owners and executives aligned with ownership. Their grievances linger and not all of those grievances are invalid. Nonetheless, their logic on Marvin’s Hall of Fame issue strikes me as a tad chilling.

But such thinking is hardly unprecedented. Over the years, there have been other victims of such narrow machinations. They waited until Bill Veeck was dead before eagerly installing him because they were afraid Bill would pull some stunt that would embarrass them or deliver a speech at the Cooperstown ceremonies revealing their dirtiest secrets and otherwise making them squirm mightily.

In the case of Veeck – one of the loveliest characters ever to grace the scene – such fears were preposterous. In the case of Marvin, they may be well founded. Can you begin to imagine what Marvin may have
to say when he mounts that dais? Frankly, my friends, I can’t wait.
The betting here is that Marvin makes it this time. The demand is too strong. The electors know that the backlash, should he again be denied, would be hefty. They’ve run out of excuses. Marvin’s time has come. And most will also be immensely pleased he’s still alive and kicking and feisty as ever and hence sure to enjoy it immensely.

The Miller issue dominates this round. He could be the only one to make it through the gantlet. Still, while one doubts as many as five will survive the process this time, it would be no surprise if at least three make it – a pioneer, an umpire, and a manager.

It would be a huge surprise if Doug Harvey doesn’t add to the thin corps of umps in the Hall. He’s believed to have come within a vote of election on at least two different occasions. He’s widely deemed the best ump of his era, the ‘70s and ‘80s. He was rock-solid and a class act. He ought to be a cinch. They need to elevate an umpire, at least every decade or so.

As for the manager, it will probably be that old cool cat, Whitey Herzog, who is immensely popular in the game. My preference would be Charlie Grimm first and Billy Martin second. Grimm not only excelled as a manager (two pennants with the Cubs) but was a fine first baseman with 2,300 hits and a .290 lifetime batting average. A manager’s achievements as a player ought to be a part of the equation. Billy Martin’s brilliance as a manager – and there was none better in his time –ought to out-weigh all his considerable baggage. But it won’t. Frankly, I’m not sure what the stampede in Herzog’s behalf is all about but it’s undeniable. I suspect Whitey’s a lock.

As for some of the others, Gene Autry and Ewing Kauffman were exemplary owners and Jake Ruppert probably should have made it a half century ago. Gene Mauch was a fine gentleman and a great manager, albeit star-crossed. Danny Murtaugh was another prince. But none of them quite meets the Cooperstown measure, in my book. This field is most striking for the fellow who should have been nominated but wasn’t. We speak of George Steinbrenner. Rant all you wish, but the Boss belongs in Cooperstown in much the same sense that Marvin Miller does, although for very different reasons, obviously. Look for him to be elevated after he departs this mortal coil.

As ever the process is fascinating. And in a month the modern nominees get considered by the BBWA marching band and chowder society. More on that when the time comes.