COMMENTARY : Reggie Leads Off One Hall of Fame Ballot


He called it "the magnitude of me," and so it was. Reggie would appear from the clouds of some issue--likely of his own creation--and deliver something memorable.

It could be a titanic home run, a furious tantrum, a remarkable catch or a line that would stick in your mind for years. Four consecutive home runs in the '77 World Series after a season in a whirlpool was Jacksonian. It was him.

He was Reggie, and he didn't need more than one name any more than Hildegard or Liberace or Elvms did. He'd grimace himself into that big swing as if to screw himself into the batters box, and do that home-run strut. You couldn't forget him.

This is the time of the year when gray-bearded veterans of baseball writing exercise their franchise in voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame. It's the sports Hall of Fame with the greatest magnetism. Voting is entirely subjective, and I take the obligation seriously. Vote for one or none or as many as 10.

I like to share my considerations. It's not easy to separate the near-misses from the real goods.

No. 1 is Reggie. He stands out from the rest. He belongs in the Hall of Fame, and in Bartlett's Quotations.

He was the "straw that stirs the drink." He didn't come to New York to become a star, "I brought my star with me."

He was far from a perfect player. He was a flawed fielder, but he could do remarkable things in the field as well. What he did better than almost anybody was win. In 21 years he hit 20 or more home runs 16 times. He played in 11 League Championship Series--all with dramatics and histrionics.

Reggie would look at some youngster flashing his skyrocket and compare it to his own. "I've done all I can do, all you would ever have dreamed," he said. "The home runs I've hit at the right time: Bottom of the ninth against Boston, 56,000 people, September, playing for first place; that's what dreams are made of.

"What a future I've had."

Some voters think being selected on the first year of eligibility is reserved for someone special. So 23 of them left Willie Mays off in his first year of eligibility. So who was more special than Mays?

So Reggie wasn't Willie. I have to go for Reggie, first round. What a future he had.

There are some flaws in the system that says unless a man hits a lot of home runs he doesn't get enough respect. So there are some obscenities that have been created in the name of power. Put all those broad-bottomed sluggers together and they wouldn't win. That is the objective, isn't it?

Pee Wee Reese had to be selected by an oversight committee and Phil Rizzuto still isn't in. There are no great teams without outstanding shortstops. And Ozzie Smith probably will have a hard time, too.

So Richie Ashburn, who outran the ball in a 447-foot center field and hit .300 nine times batting lead-off, isn't in there. Score it an error.

So I'll vote No. 2 for Curt Flood. Every player ought to donate a dollar a day to a charity of Flood's choice for his contribution in fighting the reserve system. But Flood deserves his bronze for the way he could get a ball going left, right, out, in, or off the grass with the best center fielders ever. In 15 years he won seven Gold Gloves and batted .300 six times. If you don't have a center fielder, you'll lose a lot of games.

No. 3 and No. 4 are also votes fighting oversights:

It was hardly coincidence that Orlando Cepeda won with the San Francisco Giants, was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals and they won and was traded to the Atlanta Braves and they won. He hit over .300 nine times, drove in 100 runs five times. The story is that there was some doubt early in his career about whether Cepeda, with his big feet and rumble seat, could field. Whitey Lockman was assigned to coach him at first base and reported to Manager Bill Rigney that "the kid's about a year away."

"From what?" Rigney asked.

"The Hall of Fame," Lockman said.

After retirement Cepeda spent time in the marijuana business, and he paid his time. He belongs in.

So does Tony Oliva. He played in the obscurity of Minneapolis, and he struggled on battered knees his last five seasons. In 15 seasons he led the league in batting three times, including his first two seasons. He batted over .300 six times. He was a stunning outfielder with a marvelous arm. He could hit a rope on a two-strike pitch off his kneecap from a good pitcher. Too bad we didn't see more of him at his best.

No. 5 is Thurman Munson. He was a pain to deal with, but he was a wonderful player for the team. He hit .300 and had 100 RBI three successive seasons, which nobody in the American League had done in 23 years. He belongs not because his career was cut short, but because he was the best of his time in his league.

Now the judgment is not quite so clear. Dick Allen was a terrifying hitter, but he could be late for a game or absent from it even when he was there. George Foster has some startling statistics--52 home runs and 149 RBI in 1977--but Pete Rose said after he left the Reds' lineup Foster couldn't do it on his own. He couldn't. And he was a canker in the clubhouse.

No. 6 is Steve Garvey, the long-playing Dodger. His play every day at first base kept an infield shaky with Ron Cey and Davey Lopes from coming apart. He had 200 hits in six seasons, 100 RBI five times. His fourth game of the 1984 playoffs was one of the great individual performances ever.

No. 7 is Phil Niekro. He won a lot of games--318. You might say, he lost a lot of them--274--too, but he usually finished ahead of his team.

Now what? Vida Blue's comet burned out too soon and Luis Tiant's began too late. They were dominating pitchers for awhile. Nope. Mickey Lolich had a lot of strikeouts and two 20-game seasons; he also led the league in losses twice. Not enough top seasons; Fatman's Hall of Fame.

One more serious consideration: Tony Perez. He was Mr. Consistent for the Big Red Machine with between 90 and 129 RBI for 11 consecutive seasons. The Reds won five division titles in that span. He's No. 8.

That's enough until next year.

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