Main Sections:
Front Page
Discussion Forum
Game Chat
Join OAFC
OAFC Column
Links
Mailing List
Contact Us
Search
Special Sections:
Bill King
Ballpark Watch
Mustache Gang
Selig on A's
Petition Analysis
Attendance
Elman Swings
Historical Hot Stove
Featured Book
(click cover for info)
cover
Fund Raiser:
Order Merchandise!

Historical Hot Stove
by Bruce Markusen
Previous Columns

Cooperstown Confidential - Spring Training Edition - 03/19/2003

Thirty Years Ago—A Special Election: Most Hall of Fame elections take place in January, when the Baseball Writers’ Association of America announces the results of its vote, or February, when the Veterans Committee selections are revealed. Yet, tragic events have sometimes changed the timetables for Hall of Fame elections, perhaps none more prominently than what took place 30 years ago. In the direct aftermath of the unexpected death of Roberto Clemente in a New Year’s Eve plane crash, the Cleveland Plain Dealer became one of the first media outlets to champion the cause of a special Hall of Fame election for the deceased superstar. “It would mean breaking a rule or two,” the newspaper’s editor wrote in its January 2, 1973 edition, “but under the circumstances, the baseball writers might want to consider immediate enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.” Jack Lang, the secretary-treasurer of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, announced that his organization would explore the possibility of holding a special ballot. The President of the Baseball Writers, Joe Heiling, supported the idea. “He would have been elected and inducted in his first year eligible,” said Heiling, comparing Clemente to first-ballot Hall of Famers like Sandy Koufax and Stan Musial. “So why wait?” Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, having been contacted by the Baseball Writers, added his support to the movement for a special election.

At the time, the writers were in the midst of holding their regular Hall of Fame election, and about 30 writers had already returned ballots with Clemente’s name written in, even though no decision had been made on his eligibility. The write-in votes for Clemente indicated the growing support for his election by the writers.

Under the existing Hall of Fame’s election rules, players had to wait five years after the end of their playing careers before they could become eligible. Yet, Lang cited a precedent involving New York Yankees’ great Lou Gehrig. In 1939, the writers had waived the traditional waiting period so that Gehrig, who was dying from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), could enter the Hall of Fame before his passing.

On January 3, the Hall of Fame’s Board of Directors announced that it had amended its eligibility rules in the case of Clemente, and would allow the baseball writers to hold a special election. On March 20, 30 years ago this week, the Baseball Writers’ Association announced the results of the balloting. Clemente received 393 out of 424 votes on ballots cast—good for 93 per cent of the vote—which put him well over the 75 per cent required for election. Only six previous Hall of Famers had received a higher percentage of the vote: Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Bob Feller, Ted Williams, and Stan Musial. Of the 31 “no” votes cast in the Clemente election, about half of the writers attached explanatory notes stating they were not actually voting against Clemente, but against the decision to waive the five-year waiting period. (Six years after Clemente’s election, the unexpected death of Yankee star Thurman Munson once again raised awareness of the Hall of Fame’s election rules. By then, the Hall of Fame had long since changed its voting procedure for such tragic circumstances. In August of 1973, the Hall had instituted a new rule that allowed a deceased player to become eligible for the next regular election scheduled to occur at least six months after the player’s date of death. Munson, who also died in a plane crash and coincidentally was Clemente’s teammate with the San Juan Senators during the 1969-70 winter league season, thus became eligible for the Hall of Fame’s 1981 ballot.)

The election of Clemente brought to mind an eerie story told by Al Abrams of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In July of 1968, Clemente and the rest of the Pirates had visited Cooperstown to play in the annual Hall of Fame Game. During the morning of July 22, Clemente visited the Hall’s Museum, snapping pictures of several plaques depicting Hall of Famers. A fan approached Clemente in the Hall’s Gallery. “This is where you belong. Some day they will be taking pictures of your shrine,” the fan said. “Thank you,” Roberto responded in kind. “I guess a fellow like me has to die to get voted in by the writers.”

With the overwhelming support of the writers, the stage had been set for Clemente’s posthumous induction. On August 6, 1973, fans, baseball dignitaries and Pirate officials gathered in Cooperstown, New York to witness the induction of Clemente into the game’s shrine. Clemente’s Pirate teammates also attended the ceremony. (As a tribute to Clemente, the Hall of Fame and the National League had agreed to substitute the Pirates for the Phillies in the annual Hall of Fame Game scheduled for later in the day.) Ironically, Clemente’s induction coincided with that of Monte Irvin, his boyhood hero. Standing at the podium in front of thousands of onlookers, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn read from Clemente’s newly created Hall of Fame plaque:

“Roberto Walker Clemente, Pittsburgh National League 1955-1972. Member of the exclusive 3,000-hit club. He led the National League in batting four times. He had four seasons with 200 or more hits while posting a lifetime average of .317. He hit 240 home runs. He won the Most Valuable Player award in 1966. Rifle-armed defensive star set the National League mark by pacing outfielders in assists five years. He batted .362 in two World Series, hitting safely in all 14 games.”

After paraphrasing the words on the plaque, Kuhn continued his address. “The directors of the Hall of Fame unanimously elected to waive the five-year waiting rule in the case of this very remarkable man. So very great was he as a player, so very great was he as a leader, so very great was he as a humanitarian in the cause of his fellow men, so very great was he as an inspiration to the young and to all of us in baseball and throughout the world of sports, and so very great was his devotion to young people everywhere and particularly to the young people of his native island of Puerto Rico. Having said all those words, they are very inadequate to describe the real greatness of Roberto Walker Clemente. We are very deeply honored to have his wife, Vera Clemente, with us here today.”

The voice of Commissioner Kuhn, normally a stoic and reserved public speaker, wavered slightly throughout his address to those who had gathered in Cooper Park in front of the Hall of Fame’s Library. “Well, I’m not surprised that you heard that; that’s the way I felt,” Kuhn admits readily. “The ceremonies brought back the death and the poignancy of the death of Clemente—too soon and tragically. And I think that’s what you were hearing. To me, we in baseball had simply lost one of the greatest players that we’ve had, one of the greatest personalities that we had, and the tragedy of it was still, I think, in my mind. It no doubt manifested itself in what I had to say and the way I said it. I’m quite clear that that would be an accurate description of how I felt.”

After a brief exchange with Kuhn, Vera Clemente stepped to the podium. “I want to thank the commissioner of baseball, the members of the Hall of Fame, the baseball writers, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ organization and all the people who made this event possible, especially Roberto’s fans who were the inspiration of his baseball career,” Vera said softly. “This is a momentous last triumph, and if he were here, he would dedicate it to our people of Puerto Rico, our people in Pittsburgh, and to all his fans throughout the United States. Thank you.”

With his election and induction now complete, Clemente became the first Latin American to gain enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. He would be joined in later years by Cuban Negro League star Martin Dihigo, Dominican pitcher Juan Marichal, Venezuelan shortstop Luis Aparicio, Panamanian infielder Rod Carew, Cuban slugger Tony Perez, and fellow Puerto Rican Orlando Cepeda. After the 1973 ceremony, Vera tried to offer a further reaction to her husband’s history-making induction. “I have difficulty expressing the way I really feel,” Vera told reporters. “It’s not just for me and my children. It’s a goal for all Latin American children, too.”

More on Clemente: As part of a special 30th anniversary celebration of Clemente’s election to Cooperstown, I’ll be hosting several Sandlot Stories presentations on “The Great One” at the Hall of Fame. On Thursday, March 20 (exactly 30 years to the day of his election), I’ll host a presentation at 1:30 pm in the Hall of Fame Library’s Bullpen Theater. As part of the day’s festivities, a number of students from Cooperstown Central School will be visiting the Hall to learn more about Clemente. And then on Friday, March 21, there will be an encore presentation on Clemente’s life and career, also at 1:30 pm in the Bullpen Theater. For more information on these presentations, call 607-547-0261.

The Second Generation—Part Three: According to most polls and surveys, Adam LaRoche isn’t yet ranked among the Braves’ top 10 prospects, but the young first baseman has made a strong impression this spring. A 29th-round selection in the 2000 draft, he’s the son of former major league left-hander Dave LaRoche, a onetime hard-throwing closer who later gained fame for his “La Lob” blooper pitch. Adam doesn’t pitch, but he throws and bats left-handed, has a nice line-drive swing, and plays an excellent first base. On the down side, some scouts wonder whether the younger LaRoche will hit with enough power to justify everyday status as a first baseman in the major leagues. For now, the 23-year-old LaRoche will start the season at Triple-A Richmond… By the way, Adam’s father is still active in baseball. Dave serves as the pitching coach for the Royals’ Triple-A affiliate in Omaha.

Spring Training Sonnets: The Red Sox are still entertaining offers for Shea Hillenbrand, with the latest rumors centering on the Cubs, who have turned down Theo Epstein’s request for young pitching, and the Padres, who may be willing to include prospect Sean Burroughs as part of a deal. Still, if the Red Sox don’t get what they want for Hillenbrand, they shouldn’t be in any hurry to dump the versatile infielder. How many hitters as capable as Hillenbrand can play both infield corners, while also giving a team an emergency third-string catcher?... The Yankees are still holding onto hope that they will be able to find a taker for the overpaid Sterling Hitchcock, but most other teams want New York to pick up the vast majority of his $4.5 million base salary. Perhaps the team most interested in Hitchcock is the Rockies, who have offered left-hander Vic Darensbourg, who makes about $1.5 million. Some members of the Rangers’ brass would like to have Hitchcock (especially skipper Buck Showalter, who loves Hitch from his days as Yankee manager), but owner Tom Hicks doesn’t want to add the bulk of the left-hander’s contract to his payroll. The Mariners have also expressed interest, but would expect the Yankees to pay at least $3 to 3.5 million dollars worth of Hitchcock’s checks… As much as the Mets find themselves enthralled with the talent of top prospect Jose Reyes, Keith Hernandez made a great point on a spring training broadcast last weekend when he mentioned Reyes’ habit of bailing out slightly as a right-handed hitter. That tendency might be understandable against right-handed pitching, but Reyes is a switch-hitter, meaning he will always be facing a left-hander out of the right-handed batter’s box. And if Reyes is stepping toward the third-base dugout when he already has the platoon advantage, what does that say about his inclination to bail after major league pitchers start backing him off with inside pitches?… At the moment, the Mets still project Reyes as their starting shortstop within the next year, but his position could change depending on the state of next winter’s free agent market. With the A’s having made it clear that Miguel Tejada will not be re-signed, the Mets figure to show heavy interest in a player who would immediately become the best shortstop in the history of the franchise. (Sorry about that, Buddy Harrelson, Frank Taveras, and Rafael Santana.) Similarly, Japanese star Kaz Matsui remains the envy of most American scouts, including those who work for New York. In an ideal world, the Mets would love to sign one of those two young stars, move Reyes to second base, and allow the aging Roberto Alomar (who may be too sensitive for the New York spotlight) to depart as a free agent… Did the Pirates do a smart thing in signing free agent Kenny Lofton to a bargain baseman contract, or did they merely overcrowd an outfield that might have better options? If this were the Lofton of five years ago, he’s be a perfect addition for the Pirates, who need a quality center fielder and leadoff man like the Devil Rays need a new 25-man roster. Of course, the Lofton of 2003 is 35 years old, struggles to reach base even 35 per cent of the time, and lacks the range that once made him among the game’s elite defensive center fielders. In addition, Lofton figures to decrease the playing time of both Craig Wilson and Matt Stairs (each a more dangerous hitter than Lofton), which will only weaken the middle of the Pirates’ order… On the plus side, the signing of Lofton does improve the top of Pittsburgh’s lineup, with Lofton replacing the declining Jason Kendall as the leadoff man and Kendall succeeding the overmatched Jack Wilson as the No. 2 hitter. Lofton’s presence will also improve the Pirates’ outfield defense across the board. Lofton is a better center fielder than Brian Giles, who now moves to left field, where his defensive deficiencies can be better masked. In turn, Reggie Sanders moves to right field, giving the Bucs more range in that corner… All in all, I’d like the Lofton signing a little bit better if the Pirates were closer to playoff contention (and not just reaching for .500) and featured stronger bats at second base (Pokey Reese) and shortstop (Jack Wilson). With Lofton in tow, the Pirates are now carrying three particularly weak hitters as part of their up-the-middle lineup. Oh for the days of Al Oliver, Dave Cash, and Gene Alley. Well, at least Cash and Oliver… So what will happen to Wilson and Stairs in Pittsburgh’s new scheme of things? Wilson should be the platoon first baseman, sharing time with free-swinging Randall Simon, but will probably come off the bench as the heavily-paid Kevin Young continues to soak up undeserved playing time. Wilson could also see some playing time as Jason Kendall’s backup at catcher; Lloyd McClendon has smartly been using Wilson behind the plate during the spring. While not as versatile as Wilson, Stairs also figures to become a bench player, receiving an occasional start in right field against some of the league’s tougher right-handed pitchers.

Card Corner: Dick Allen always seems to be in the “news” amongst the general baseball and Sabermetric communities, if only because he provides a fascinating case for Hall of Fame debate. Allen was recently bypassed by the Hall of Fame’s new Veterans Committee, but will receive another shot at baseball immortality through the Baseball Reliquary’s “Shrine of the Eternals” election, which is taking place as we speak. So it’s probably a good time to look back at one of Allen’s trading cards, with the 1970 Topps regular issue providing one of the most interesting subjects. This card portrays him with the name of “Rich Allen,” one of three different names that appeared on his Topps cards over the years. (The others were “Richie Allen,” which is how he was known during most of the sixties, and “Dick Allen,” which is what he wanted to be called for most of his career, but did not stick until after he joined the White Sox; that name remains his preference today.) The 1970 card, numbered 40 in the set, exhibits the rarely-used profile image seen on only a smattering of Topps cards, an angle that allows the card manufacturer to hide the logo on the cap in the case of a player changing teams. That’s exactly what happened here; the team name of “Cardinals” appears as part of the frontal design of the card, but Allen is actually wearing a Phillies’ cap and uniform, with its red pinstripes (which the Cardinals’ jersey did not have). Since the side angle of the photograph only partly masked the Phillies’ logo on the cap, Topps card designers decided to obliterate the rest of the logo by smudging some black stain over the middle of the cap… Allen had spent the entire 1969 season with the Phillies, marking the final season of his first tenure with Philadelphia by slugging .573 and hitting 32 home runs. On October 7, just four days before the start of the World Series, the Phillies ended their relationship with Allen by including him in the controversial Curt Flood swap. Allen, infielder Cookie Rojas, and pitcher Jerry Johnson joined the Cardinals in exchange for Flood, catcher Tim McCarver, outfielder Byron Browne, and side-arming lefty Joe Hoerner. With the trade having been made after the season, and Topps having no opportunity to photograph Allen in his new Cardinals duds, the company elected to use the existing profile image. Topps only needed to do a minimum of airbrushing, since both the Phillies and Cardinals featured red as the primary color in their caps and uniform trim… Curiously, Topps used this same image of Allen two years later, as part of its 1972 set. By then, Allen had been traded twice more, from the Cardinals to the Dodgers after the 1970 season, and then by the Dodgers to the White Sox after the ’71 campaign. Rather than airbrush one of the photos of Allen wearing Dodger Blue, Topps figured it could get away with the old Phillies photograph, since the White Sox also featured red pinstripes as part of their home uniforms in 1972. (The Sox have changed their uniforms repeatedly since then.) Thankfully, Allen remained with the White Sox beyond the 1972 season, allowing Topps to finally show him in action wearing his actual Chicago uniform on the 1973 card… Staying with the subject of Allen, I’ll discuss his career further next week, when I submit my ballot for the Baseball Reliquary.

Spring Training In Upstate New York: Baseball returns to Cooperstown on March 31, when Army takes on Navy in a rare college game scheduled for Doubleday Field. Of course, that’s assuming that the historic ballfield has been cleared of snow; as of this writing, the entire field is still covered by a blanket of winter precipitation that hasn’t completely melted from the Christmas Day snowstorm. Speaking of Navy, the team’s pitching ace is Matt Foster, who throws in the nineties and could be the first Midshipman drafted by a major league team.

Hall of Fame Handbook: This week’s topic deals with the annual revelation of the Frick Award, a prestigious honor that is presented each year by the Hall of Fame to a legendary baseball broadcaster. One of the game’s funniest and most colorful characters, the incomparable Bob Uecker, is this year’s recipient and will be honored as part of this summer’s July 27th Induction Ceremony in Cooperstown. Although the Frick Award has been part of the Hall of Fame’s fabric since Mel Allen and Red Barber were first honored in 1978, much of the national media continues to get the story wrong when reporting on both the Frick Award and the Spink Award, which is given to an outstanding baseball writer. How often have we read the following headlines or statements over the past week?: Bob Uecker has been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Uecker to enter Cooperstown shrine later this year. Uecker will be inducted into the writers’ wing of the Hall of Fame on July 27. Unfortunately—and this is not meant in any way to diminish the accomplishments of Uecker, who has been such an entertaining broadcaster at both the local and network levels—none of these italicized statements are factually accurate. Uecker has not been elected to the Hall of Fame, just as Allen or Barber have never gained enshrinement. In fact, no one has ever been elected to the Hall of Fame based on his broadcasting abilities. (Some might raise questions about Richie Ashburn and Ralph Kiner, but both were elected based on their playing careers.) That’s because broadcasters and writers are not eligible for membership in the Hall of Fame through election; they are eligible only for the Hall’s two major awards, as determined by a vote of their peers. As for the writers’ “wing,” it’s really not a wing at all, but rather an exhibit called “Scribes and Mikemen,” which is contained in the Hall of Fame’s Library… Let’s also consider the official language that the Hall of Fame uses in describing the Frick and Spink honors. “The Ford C. Frick Award goes to a broadcaster for major contributions to the game of baseball.” And the Spink? “The J.G. Taylor Spink Award honors a sportswriter for meritorious contributions to baseball writing.” There is nothing said about election, enshrinement, or induction. In fact, the descriptions of the Frick and Spink awards are not even included in the Hall of Fame’s official “Rules For Election…” Again, none of this is said to belittle Bob Uecker or Hal McCoy, this year’s recipient of the Spink Award. These men have garnered arguably the most prestigious awards that a broadcaster or writer can win. They have achieved the highest level of recognition that someone in their field can attain. Most baseball writers and broadcasters would kill to receive these awards. It’s just that these awards are not the same as being elected to the Hall of Fame. That’s a different story.

The Latest From SABR: The Society for American Baseball Research has already begun announcing plans for its 33rd annual National Convention, scheduled to take place in Denver from July 10 through the 13. The convention will be highlighted by a “Baseball 2020” discussion panel, which will focus on the future of baseball. The panel will include noted writers and researchers Leonard Koppett (a Spink Award winner), William Gould, Andrew Zimbalist and Gary Gillette, and will be moderated by Tom Goldstein, the editor and publisher of Elysian Fields Quarterly… SABR 33 will take place at the Denver Marriott City Center. For additional information on the convention, visit the web site, www.sabr.org

Remembering Decker: Lately, there’s been too much bad news for baseball fans of the seventies. Bobby Bonds has been diagnosed with lung cancer. Tug McGraw has had a large brain tumor removed, though there have been differing diagnoses as to whether it is malignant. And a lesser-known pitcher, whose career spanned most of the 1970s, died way too young after a horrible fall down a staircase. That pitcher was George Henry Decker, who was known as Joe Decker during a career that included stops with the Chicago Cubs, Minnesota Twins, and Seattle Mariners. Sadly, Decker died in Detroit on March 2 at the age of 55, as the direct result of a head injury suffered from a fall down a set of stairs in his home… The Cubs’ first-round draft choice (eighth overall) in the first-ever amateur draft of 1965 and the recipient of a $50,000 signing bonus, Decker made his big league debut four years later, pitching briefly during Chicago’s disappointing 1969 season. Decker never established himself in the Windy City, but found some success after the Cubs traded him, veteran right-hander Bill Hands, and minor leaguer pitcher Bob Maneely to the Twins for Dave LaRoche. Yet, before that success came near legendary struggles with control. When called into a game from the bullpen, Decker would typically throw a couple of warm-up pitches into the dirt or over the catcher’s head. On one occasion, Decker threw a ball so errantly that it bounced onto the screen behind home plate and caromed all the way into the upper deck… A hard-throwing hurler who was once clocked at 97 miles per hour, Decker inspired the following comparison from Twins owner Calvin Griffith: “I think he can be another Nolan Ryan.” Well, that never happened, but Decker did enjoy a 10-win season in 1973 and reached his peak in 1974, when he won 16 games and posted a 3.29 ERA for the Twins. Decker then hurt his arm, never again reaching his previous form. He missed all of the 1977 and ’78 seasons, before making a brief nine-game comeback with the Seattle Mariners in 1979.

Here are two other baseball deaths from earlier this month.

Al Gionfriddo (Died on March 14 in Solvang, CA; age 81; collapsed while playing golf): Gionfriddo played only three seasons in the major leagues, but he was more famous than most journeymen players because of the dramatic catch he made against Joe DiMaggio in the 1947 World Series. Playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers as a late-inning defensive replacement, Gionfriddo flagged down a 415-foot drive to left field at Yankee Stadium, robbing DiMaggio of an extra-base hit (as Baseball Primer’s Eric Enders rightly points out, the ball did not have home run distance) and preserving an 8-6 win for the “Bums” in Game Six of the Series. Gionfriddo’s remarkable catch inspired one of the most memorable play-by-play calls in baseball history, as delivered by Dodgers radio broadcaster Red Barber. “Here’s the pitch,” Barber described to his listening audience. “Swung on, belted. It’s a long one deep to the left center. Back goes Gionfriddo. Back, back, back, back, back, back. He makes a one-handed catch against the bullpen. Oh, doctor.”…Although Gionfriddo’s miraculous grab saved Game Six and infuriated DiMaggio (who kicked at the ground near second base), the Dodgers went on to lose the Series. Still Gionfriddo remained famous for making one of the most acrobatic catches in postseason history, a play that is still talked about with the same kind of reverence used to describe World Series catches by Sandy Amoros and Joe Rudi. The sixth game of the ‘47 World Series also marked the end of Gionfriddo’s playing days, as he never again played in a major league game. Gionfriddo, who sat on the bench all of Game Seven, was then sent back to the minor leagues during the spring of 1948… Gionfriddo spent his first two big league seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, before joining the Dodgers in 1947. At 5’6”, Gionfriddo had tremendous range in the outfield, but little power at the plate, finishing his career with only two home runs in 580 at-bats. He batted only .266 lifetime, but did boast a career on-base percentage of .366.

Alta Cohen(Died on March 11 in Maplewood, NJ; age 94): Nicknamed “Schoolboy,” Cohen was the oldest living alumnus of the Brooklyn Dodgers franchise. After achieving Triple-A all-star status for Toledo, the left-handed hitting outfielder made his major league debut for the Dodgers in 1931, collecting two hits in three at-bats. He played the following season for Brooklyn before finishing his career with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1933. In 29 major league games, the Brooklyn native batted .194.

Bruce Markusen is the author of A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s (ISBN number 1-878282-23-9), which is available at www.amazon.com and at many major bookstores, including Borders Books. Markusen has also written The Orlando Cepeda Story and Roberto Clemente: The Great One.


by Bruce Markusen

 

Questions? Comments? Corrections? Please contact info@oaklandfans.com.