GORDON WHITE: Odd Votes in Baseball Hall of Fame
He was the biggest thief in the history of his profession. Few attempts to prevent his larceny were successful. Yet he never spent a minute in the hoosegow.
Instead, Rickey Henderson was voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame last Monday largely because of his thievery.
This flamboyant and very colorful athlete, whose second favorite sport is talking endlessly, fully deserved his election to the Hall on this, his first year of eligibility. In a quarter century career in major league baseball the super fast and exciting outfielder set the single-season and career records for stolen bases with 130 thefts in 1982 and 1,406 over 25 years. He also set a career record with 2,295 runs scored.
This speedster who did not give up MLB until he was 45, always seemed to be traveling in a fifth or sixth high gear and verbalizing at the same rate. He was a complete ball player who ran around the outfield and literally snatched fly balls back handed for the outs.
Considered the greatest lead off hitter in MLB history, Henderson had 3,055 hits to rank 21st on the career list. He might well have stolen close to 1,700 bases if it had not been for the fact that 297 of his hits were home runs which prevented him from stopping at any base in order to steal the next one.
He set a MLB record of 81 home runs to start off games for the Oakland A's, New York Yankees and seven other teams, 1979 to 2003.
As lead off man he would invariably get a single, a walk, beat out a bunt or cause an error by an infielder rushing the throw to get him at first. Immediately, the opposing pitcher was in deep trouble.
Everyone in the ballpark knew Rickey Henderson, a bundle of well muscled kinetic energy, would then take off for second base on one of the first three or four pitches to the second batter.
Very often Henderson ran on the first pitch to the No. 2 batter and stole second just as he ran into the Hall of Fame on his first chance this year.
Henderson was a lock for the Hall of Fame. The 50-year-old ex-ballplayer was one of those superb MLB players you would expect to be selected by every single one of the 539 members of the Baseball Writers Association of America voting this year.
But, strangely, there has never been a unanimous choice for the Hall since the BWAA first conducted these elections in 1936. Henderson was named on 94.8 percent of this year's ballots or 511 of the 539 cast. Apparently 28 writers were not impressed by Henderson. How unfortunate for them since they will never see a better base runner or lead off batter.
Jim Rice, the former Boston Red Sox outfielder and slugger, was also picked for the Hall this year. He just managed to squeak in on his 15th and final year of eligibility for election by the BWAA. Rice, who first appeared on a ballot in 1995 when he was named by only 29.8 percent of the voters, was picked by 76.4 percent of the writers voting this year or 412 of them.
A player must appear on a minimum of 75 percent of the ballots cast in order to get into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
I have never been able to figure out what some of these writers have in mind when they cast their votes.
For example, the list of obvious choices for the Hall of Fame is lengthy and includes Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth, two of the five elected on the initial 226 Hall of Fame ballots in 1936. If ever there were two players deserving of unanimous selection, Cobb and Ruth were those two.
I also wonder why Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Warren Spahn, Hank Aaron, Steve Carlton, Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. were not unanimous choices, although each of these super stars was picked for the Hall on his first year of eligibility.
Each person who has been an active member of the BWAA for at least 10 years is eligible to vote. And each of these electors may vote for as many as ten of the players listed on each year's ballot. A player becomes eligible for the Hall 5 years after retiring from his MLB career. That career must involve a minimum of 10 active MLB years over the 20 years prior to his retirement. The 5-year retirement rule came in many years after the initial 1936 voting.
If a player is not elected to the Hall within 15 years of becoming eligible, he is then placed on the Veterans Committee ballot. This group, which consists of all living members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, votes during odd numbered years such as this year.
Joe Gordon, the former New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians second baseman, was selected this year by the Veterans Committee and will be inducted, along with Henderson and Rice, at the Cooperstown, NY, ceremonies, July 26.
A smaller Veterans Committee of a dozen people selects baseball executives, managers, owners and other worthy notables of organized baseball.
There were 226 writers who voted in the initial Hall of Fame election of 1936 when there were only 16 MLB teams in 10 cities. But there were quite a few more newspapers per city in those days.
With the post World War II expansion of MLB that continued well into the 1990's, the number of writers has increased. This may be cut back as newspapers are in serious financial difficulties of late. But the largest number of voters was 545 in 2007 when they voted Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn into the Hall.
I voted for the Baseball Hall of Fame in the 1960's, 1970's and 1980's. I selected Bob Feller and Jackie Robinson on my first such ballot in 1962 along with Phil Rizzuto, Joe Medwick, Luke Appling, Red Ruffing and Marty Marion. Feller and Robinson made it that year. The others made it since 1962.
But Robinson, the man who bravely broke MLB's racial barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers and became one of our most famous and heroic African-American citizens of the 20th century, was named on only 124 of the 160 ballots cast in 1962.
Did racism play a part in that election?
There have been 74 years when there could be Hall of Fame voting. During that time there were nine years when there was no election at all because there were no eligible players and ten years when no player was named on 75 percent of the ballots. There are 202 former MLB players in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Of these, 102 were selected by the BWAA and 100 by the Veterans Committee.
It has always boggled my mind that Joe DiMaggio did not get into the Hall of Fame until the third year he was on the ballot. And when he was selected in 1955 DiMaggio was named by only 223 of the 251 writers voting. There must have been a number of Red Sox writer/fans voting. Yes, unfortunately, some writers are partisan fans of the teams they cover.
Juan Marichal and Don Drysdale, two of the National League's finest pitchers after the Giants and Dodgers moved west, needed a number of years on the ballots before getting into the Hall. Marichal got in on his third year and Drysdale had to wait 10 years.
Ty Cobb received 222 of a possible 226 votes while Ruth and Honus Wagner got 215 each in that inaugural election for the Hall in 1936. Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson, two of baseball's greatest pitchers, were also named to the Hall that first year of voting. Not since then have the writers selected as many as five players for the Hall in one year.
Cobb, still considered by some as the greatest MLB player in history, was named on 98.2 percent of the 1936 ballots. This was the highest percentage of success in the vote until 1992 when Tom Seaver got into the Hall with 98.8 percent or 425 votes of 430 cast.
I would hardly put Seaver in Cobb's or Ruth's class although Seaver was a superb and long lasting pitcher for the New York Mets, Cincinnati Reds, Chicago White Sox and Boston Red Sox. He achieved almost automatic entre to the Hall with 311 victories. Any MLB pitcher with 300 or more triumphs is sure to become a Hall member, unless he is involved in the current streroids issue.
But Nolan Ryan and George Brett got 491 and 488 votes of a possible 497 in 1999. Ryan, the MLB record holder with 5,714 strikeouts and seven no-hitters, thus equaled Seaver's 98.8 percent of the votes. Ryan and Seaver were teammates with the Mets, 1968-1971.
However, Cal Ripken Jr., who played shortstop and third base for the Baltimore Orioles for 21 years and set a major league record by playing in 2,632 consecutive MLB games, received more Hall of Fame votes than any other player in history. He was selected on 537 of a possible 545 ballots in 2007 for a 98.5 percent approval rating by the writers.
Tony Gwynn, the superb San Diego Padres hitter for 20 years, was also picked in 2007. Gwynn was on 532 of those 545 ballots making him second to Ripken in total votes garnered in the history of the Hall of Fame votes.
What one has to wonder is what were those four voters thinking who did not vote for Ty Cobb in 1936 or those seven who refused to name Babe Ruth on their ballots that year?
Who knows why eight writers did not pick Cal Ripken in 2007 or how six of them chose not to name Nolan Ryan in 1999?
Even the Shadow can't say he knows.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is email@example.com.
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