Curt Flood deserves a plaque

On Baseball

January 14, 1996|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Curt Flood received 71 votes in his last year of Hall of Fame eligibility. The man who started baseball's economic revolution was named on about 15 percent of the ballots cast by the Baseball Writers Association of America, and so will get a footnote instead of a plaque for a courageous effort that brought him more pain than fame.

Flood was the first player to mount a serious legal challenge to Major League Baseball's reserve clause, which allowed teams to hold indefinite contractual control over their players. The lawsuit he filed in 1970 failed to break that ownership monopoly, but it was the beginning of the end of a closed-market system that had held players in virtual bondage.

That should have been worth more than 15 percent of the vote. Flood was an outstanding player. He batted .300 six times and had 200 or more hits in a season twice. Standing alone, his numbers don't warrant induction into the Hall of Fame, but the fact that he stood alone against a group of powerful and unforgiving owners -- and paid for it with the remainder of his career -- should have been enough to convince more than 71 writers that he belongs in Cooperstown.

Not everyone believes that free agency has been good for baseball. It has inflated payrolls to the point that some teams are in financial trouble. It is at the root of the three-year labor dispute that damaged the 1994 and '95 seasons, and every other work stoppage since 1971. But the freer movement of players also coincided with an unprecedented explosion in the popularity of the game and a dramatic increase in the value of franchises in every major professional sport.

Maybe it all would have happened anyway, but no one can deny that Flood played a major role in the revolution. He deserved more than 71 votes. He deserves a plaque.

The shutout revisited

Flood wasn't standing alone this time. Everyone on the ballot was passed over, including 300-game winners Don Sutton and Phil Niekro -- both for the second time.

That represents a dramatic shift in the philosophy of Hall of Fame voters. It used to be assumed that anyone with 500 home runs, 3,000 hits or 300 victories was all but an automatic Hall of Famer. Indeed, every eligible player with 500 homers and 3,000 hits is in, along with every eligible 300-game winner except Sutton and Niekro.

I voted for both of them, but I think I understand why a lot of others did not. Niekro and Sutton were very good pitchers for a long time, but a new generation of voters appears to be crunching the numbers a little harder than its predecessors. They are questioning -- perhaps legitimately -- whether a starting pitcher who won 20 games once in 23 seasons (Sutton) and a pitcher with a .537 winning percentage (Niekro) belong in the Hall of Fame.

Tony Perez ran into the same kind of mind-set, even though he is high on the all-time RBI list and was one of the main cogs in the Cincinnati Reds dynasty of the 1970s.

The Hall of Fame is an exclusive place, and maybe that's the way it should be.

A humble explanation

My ballot also had a few other names on it, including at least a couple that will have most baseball fans scratching their heads.

I voted for Jim Rice, even though he was one of the most dislikable players in the game, and I voted for Steve Garvey, who was one of the most likable. I also voted for Bob Boone. Here's a quick explanation of each:

Rice: If Perez deserves a vote because of his seven 100-RBI seasons and 1,652 RBIs, then Rice should be a no-brainer. He had eight 100-RBI seasons and had 1,451 RBIs -- and he only played 16 seasons -- seven fewer than Perez. My guess is that he didn't rank higher in the voting because he hated baseball writers and they hated him. That's going to cost him the borderline vote every year.

Garvey: Before you laugh, consider this. The guy has the longest consecutive-games streak in National League history and he was one of the best postseason and All-Star players of his time. He also had great defensive numbers and six 200-hit seasons. And one other thing. He was immensely popular. They do still call it "the Hall of Fame," don't they?

Boone: The toughest one to justify. Boone didn't hit much, but he was the Lou Gehrig of catchers, starting behind the plate for more seasons than any other player in baseball history. He'd have the all-time catching record if Carlton Fisk hadn't hung around the Chicago White Sox locker room two years beyond his usefulness just to break Boone's record.

Will anyone show up?

The BBWAA has, by electing no one, left it up to the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee to choose this year's inductees. The committee, which meets March 5, will consider a list of candidates that includes former Orioles manager Earl Weaver, Philadelphia Phillies pitching great Jim Bunning and color-line pioneer Larry Doby.

The committee is not obligated to elect anyone, either, but it seems highly unlikely that the March 5 meeting will break up without at least one inductee.

Will Angels show up?

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