Hall of Fame's adjustment allows some deserving members to pass gate

March 08, 1995|By JOHN STEADMAN

TAMPA, Fla. -- It's a system that is too often misunderstood by the baseball public, occurring when the veterans committee of the Hall of Fame gathers annually to perform an awesome task of processing nominees and proceeding with the election process.

There have been years when it got exactly nowhere. In fact, the selectors finished in a frustrated self-administered shutout three times -- 1988, 1990 and 1993. They were stymied by their own insistence on disagreeing about all the candidates and the result was no player achieved the minimum 75 percent of the votes necessary for selection.

But not this time. The applause you're hearing is for the highly diversified class of 1995, including Leon Day, of the Negro leagues; Richie Ashburn, personifying the spirit and ability of the Philadelphia Whiz Kid Phillies; Vic Willis, a turn-of-the-century pitcher who won 243 games; and William Hulbert, who organized the National League in 1876 and staged a relentless war against gambling that brought respectability to the sport.

And, don't forget Mike Schmidt, the Phils' power-hitting third baseman who was earlier elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America. He was leading the parade as a solo act but now has company.

This means the Hall of Fame ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y., on July 30 will have a strong Philadelphia presence, with two productive Phils from the past, as represented by two men with contrasting styles but perfect fits for any team -- Ashburn, a singles hitter who twice led the league in batting, to get on base and Schmidt to drive him home.

For Maryland, the addition of Willis, born in Iron Hill, in Cecil County, brings the state's native representatives in the Hall of Fame to seven. Willis was preceded by Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Robert "Lefty" Grove, Frank "Home Run" Baker, Al Kaline and Judy Johnson. Those Marylanders with a measure of provincial pride have additional reason to glow.

Day, born in Alexandria, Va., 78 years ago, has lived most of his life in Baltimore, where he pitched for both the Baltimore Black Sox and Baltimore Elite Giants but was more prominent as a pitcher with the Newark Eagles.

"I think the new members reflect in a positive way what the Hall of Fame stands for in illustrious and credible performance," commented Ed Stack, chairman of the Hall of Fame. He's not going to be confronted with many arguments, although it was naturally disappointing for the supporters of Ned Hanlon, Nelson Fox, Jim Bunning, Earl Weaver, Dick Williams and others.

But their time will come . . . if deemed qualified. What made the grand slam of four possible is the direct result of new legislation. Starting this year and until the close of the century, supplemental categories will allow players, managers and executives from the Negro leagues and the 1800s (as witness Day and Hulbert) to be granted special consideration.

Hulbert and Willis are deceased, but they'll be represented by family members at the installation. For Ashburn and Day, it was a momentous, once-in-a-lifetime occasion -- receiving the highest honor the game bestows.

Day was interviewed by sportswriters via a long-distance telephone hookup from his room at St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore. "I was a little sick, but I'm feeling better now," he related. His first reaction at the news?

"I cried. I didn't think I would, but I did," admitted Leon, as he was surrounded by family, friends and former players for a Baltimore celebration.

Ashburn winters in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area, and thus made an appearance to thank the committee and answer questions. He said this was his 50th year in baseball, as a player, then a sportswriter for two Philadelphia newspapers and now as a broadcaster.

"I called my 90-year-old mother in Tilden, Neb., population roughly 1,000, and she cried," said Ashburn. "I suppose it meant so much to her. I never dwelled on the Hall of Fame. I'm surprised and pleased.

"I didn't know where I stood in all this. I never hit home runs and that hurt me, plus the competition I had in center field from Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider."

The Hall of Fame's committee on veterans had perfect attendance for its meeting. It includes Hall of Fame players, media members and club executives, 17 in all.

In 1993, Day missed by a single vote, explained by the absence of the then-ill Roy Campanella. And Willis, in the last decade, had 75 percent of the votes, but a rule then in force decreed that only one recipient could be taken into the Hall.

Such ambiguity has been eradicated, which means Willis' unfortunate omission has been corrected. By fine-tuning -- not necessarily revising -- its entrance exam, the Hall of Fame passed four more bona fide individuals to its exclusive membership.

They'll be bronzed for perpetuity.

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