The 1996 ballot has arrived and with it comes the reminder that canonization depends on more than a player's credentials. It is also a competition among the eligibles. When there is a dominant candidate, some of the other worthies often are overlooked--not completely, but they are usually unable to draw the 75 percent of the vote required for election.
The voters are entitled to return a blank ballot, which means they don't believe any of the candidates measure up. No more than 10 players can be listed. Usually I vote for six or seven. This year I limited my selections to five: Niekro, Sutton, Perez, Jim Rice and Ron Santo.
A chapter can be written on each them. But there should be no need. Most baseball fans are aware of their achievements. Sutton won 324 games, Niekro 318. Perez had nine 100-RBI seasons, seven with 20 or more home runs. Rice, who played his entire career with the Red Sox, was the most dangerous right-handed batter of his time: 382 home runs and 1,451 RBIs.
This is the 13th year on the BBWAA ballot for Santo. It's difficult to understand why the fine-fielding and -hitting third baseman hasn't been elected, because he was among the best players in Cubs history. He never has received more than 37 percent of the vote, which he gained in 1993. He dropped to 33 percent in '94; last year it was 30 percent.
The voting, obviously, is an inexact science. Pitcher Bob Lemon drew 12 percent in 1964, his first year of eligibility. The next year he fell to 7 percent. His stats never changed, but he was elected in 1976 with 79 percent.
Luis Aparicio was almost taken off the ballot by a screening committee that eliminates first-year eligibles not considered Hall-of-Fame material. Aparicio, in my view, was the best shortstop of the last half-century. He drew 12 percent in 1981 and was elected three years later, in his sixth year on the ballot. Billy Williams of the Cubs also had to wait six years.
Luke Appling, probably the best all-around player in White Sox history, a two-time batting champion who in 1936 came within five hits of batting .400, got only two votes in 1953--two votes out of 264 for .0075 percent. The next time he was on the ballot, his percentage grew to a meager .0119. Appling never drew more than 30 percent of the baseball writers' vote. He was elected in 1964 in a special runoff--when nobody drew the required 75 percent.
But at least Appling has been enshrined. Billy Pierce of the White Sox was on the BBWAA ballot for five years and never received more than 2 percent. Pierce won 211 games. Whitey Ford of the Yankees, who was among Pierce's contemporaries and had 236 victories, was elected in 1974, his second year on the ballot.
Then there was the celebrated case of Nellie Fox, Pierce's sidekick. In 1985, Fox was named on 295 of the 395 ballots, 74.7 percent. In baseball and elsewhere, it is common to round off the figures upward. Hence, 74.7 was the equivalent of 75 percent.
Ted Williams hit .4057 in 1941, but his average, then and forevermore, is listed at .406. Carl Yastrzemski won the 1968 American League batting title with a .301 average. Yaz actually hit .3005. There are thousands of identical examples.
But Jack Lang, then the BBWAA secretary who counted the votes, didn't round off Fox's number. I'm certain he hadn't noticed. When I called him that night, instead of admitting it was an oversight, he stammered and insisted the rules called for a "pure" 75 percent. There was never any such rule. The directors of the Cooperstown shrine supported Lang. Poor Nellie is still on the outside looking in.
Frank Dolson, a columnist with the Philadelphia Inquirer, was among the purists then. Three years later pitcher Jim Bunning, who spent much of his career with the Phillies, drew 74.2 percent. I asked Dolson how he would feel if Bunning had drawn 74.5 percent.
"I wish there was a better way to do it," Dolson replied. "The problem is not the rule per se, it's the people who do the voting."
Light-hitting shortstop Rabbit Maranville (1912-35) had a career .258 average. On the ballot 14 years, he never came close. In 1954, when he was dying, he was employed by the Hearst newspapers. The Hearst sports editors rallied to the call and punched his ticket to Cooperstown.
As Dolson said, it's not the rules, it's the people doing the voting.