The recent annual Hall of Fame enshrinement party up at bucolic Cooperstown featuring the shamefully belated recognition of Ron Santo got me thinking again of all the needless and sometimes painful inconsistencies in this fascinating but deeply flawed process.
Santo, long the hard-hitting and slick-fielding third baseman of the Cubs who prevailed with such nobility in a lifelong and grueling daily battle with diabetes, was a towering example of Hall of Fame virtues. What meaning does this shrine have if it is not about recognizing a candidate like Santo, who played so well while dealing with such burdens?
It should have happened while he was still alive. What a joyous moment it would have been for a good man who yearned year after year for the call that finally came just a couple of weeks after he’d given up his good fight. The irony was bitter. It had always been recognized that he was Hall of Fame worthy and certain that he would eventually get elected. It was cruel and unusual punishment to deny a dying man his rightful honors, all in the name of mere “process.” It seemed ridiculous with everyone agreeing there’s something bloody wrong with any procedure that allows for so needless a blunder.
But what to do about it remains elusive. It’s happened before and it will happen again. Much as they try to get it right – and they do try hard – this stuff happens because there are no precise definitions, no universally accepted criteria. It’s all about the infinite variables of opinions, and everyone has them.
Some years ago – more no doubt than either of us wish to remember – old comrade and fellow Hall of Fame observer Bob Ryan of the Globe offered his list of the dozen worthiest candidates who to that point in time were still on the outside hammering on the door at Cooperstown. Eight of the chaps Bob nominated then subsequently got elected. I hope my batting average is near as good. Following his format, here’s my list:
12. Ken Williams: One of the more grievously forgotten old-timers was this stylish slugger of the St. Louis Browns of sainted memory. He was 30 by the time his big league career got rolling in 1920 after he lost most of two seasons to US Army service in WWI. Excelling throughout the Roaring Twenties he finished with a lifetime .319 while intruding on Babe Ruth’s dominance of home run honors by leading the AL with 39 in 1922. Has better numbers than at least a half dozen HOF outfielders.
11. Wes Ferrell: Substantially more deserving than Brother Rick, who has long enjoyed Cooperstown privileges. Legendary temper may have hurt his cause but he was no less among the most fascinating pitchers of his hitting-dominant era, winning more games for mediocre teams (Cleveland, Boston, Washington) than Lefty Gomez won for the almighty Yankees in the very same period. Wes won 20 or more six times while pitching huge innings until (not surprisingly) blowing out his arm at age 30. He may have been the best hitting pitcher of all-time. His omission borders on the sinful.
10. Cecil Travis: The great Senators’ shortstop left for the Army at age 28, lost four full seasons, suffered severe frost-bite in the Battle of the Bulge, never managed to regain his skills, and was thus finished at 34. Yet he never complained. The measure of Travis was his last true season – the unforgettable 1941 – when he hit .359 with 218 hits and was right behind Messrs. Williams and DiMaggio in terms of stardom. Honoring Travis would pay tribute to all the guys who sacrificed careers in WWII.
9.Carl Mays: Nastiest pitcher of his era (1915-1929) and also among the best during a time when pitchers were getting pummeled in the rising rage of the lively ball. He was a submarine (underhand) pitcher and quite as dominant as Walter Johnson. Pitching mainly for the Red Sox and Yankees, he was 208-126 with a 2.92 ERA while seven times winning 19 or more, with highs of 26 and 27 for the 1921-22 Yanks. Why wasn’t this man elected 50 years ago? Because he killed Ray Chapman with one of his blazing fast-balls. Presumably, it was unintentional.
8. Luis Tiant: In an era featuring a glut of superior right-handers, he was second only to Bob Gibson as a big-game pitcher. He won more games than Bob Lemon, Catfish Hunter, Don Drysdale, Jim Bunning, Dazzy Vance, and – yes – the aforementioned Senor Gomez. Had one of the greatest pitching seasons of the modern era (post WWII) in 1968. Second to none in élan, he was simply a superb entertainer, which is what it’s all about. Is it not?
7. Gil Hodges: Like Travis, a noble and stoic victim of willing service in WWII. His three years with the Marines – where he earned a bronze star – cost him five years in the majors. Yet he still finished with 1,921 hits, 375 homers, 1,274 ribbies, mucho fielding distinctions, and distinguished membership in the rarified ranks of “The Boys of Summer,”’ of whom he may have been the most beloved, at least in Brooklyn. Also managed the “Miracle Mets” of 1969.What more do you want?
6. “Wild Bill” Dahlen: Turn of the century shortstop and creative, brainy player who was one of John McGraw’s all-time favorites. His numbers are significantly better than HOF shortstops Tinker, Maranville, Wallace, Jackson, and Bancroft. But a Chicago sportswriter etched a poem featuring Joe Tinker, so he’s in while Wild Bill is not, and that’s wrong.
5. Tony Oliva: He was the Bobby Orr of baseball. As great as he was, it was but a slice of what might have been. With two good knees, Tony could have been (like T. Williams before him) the greatest pure hitter of his generation. Nonetheless, he finished with 1,971 hits, and a .304 average in 12 seasons while reasonably healthy in only five of them. Obviously those who do the voting must not have seen him play. There’s no better explanation.
4. George Van Haltren: Starring in the 1890s, George had 2,532 hits, 583 stolen bases, and a lifetime.316 B.A. These are hugely higher numbers than were logged by such fabled contemporaries as ‘King‘ Kelly – famed for his ‘Slide Kelly Slide’ act as a part-time vaudevillian – and Tommy McCarthy, one of the Braves’ so-called “Heavenly Twins.” Both were elected to the Hall seven decades ago. Van Haltren waits still. Celebrity trumps substance, even in the Gay Nineties.
3. Tommy John: It’s interesting that such legends as Dizzy Dean and Sandy Koufax were gleefully and swiftly elevated despite shortened careers sadly terminated by injury. It was entirely proper in that both had proven their unquestionable greatness in just a few seasons. And yet Tommy John, whose heroic acceptance of revolutionary surgery literally changed the profession, remains denied. It is so very dumb! After all, the man who accepted that historic role when it took a lot of guts to do so went on to win almost 300 baseball games.
2. Jimmy Ryan: Like Van Haltren, he’s a shamefully ignored 19th century stalwart. An early slugger out of Holy Cross College, his numbers compare favorably with such legends of baseball antiquity and Cooperstown honorees as Dan Brouthers, Joe Kelley, Hugh Duffy, Jesse Burkett, and Jim “The Orator” O’Rourke. Yet Ryan remains obscure. How does this happen?
1.Minnie Minoso: Never acknowledged as a true pioneer, Minnie in his role as pathfinder of black-Latins in baseball was every bit as heroic as Jackie Robinson for he had to deal with the barriers of language and culture as well as race. Almost 30 when he finally got his break, he went on to excel in every aspect of the game. He was a thrilling player. Before there was a Roberto Clemente, there was a Minnie Minoso. It’s long past time for this to be recognized.
There are others to be noted, more arguments to be made. So we’ll get back to this down the road. Stay tuned. In the meantime you should belatedly pay tribute to Ron Santo in the certain knowledge that he richly deserved it.