Paul Molitor overcame a string of injuries to become one of baseball's most prolific pure hitters. Dennis Eckersley changed roles mid-career and established himself as the model for the modern closer.
Each player took an unusual path to glory, but both ended up in the same place yesterday, earning induction into baseball's Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility.
Molitor, who ranks ninth on baseball's all-time list with 3,319 hits, was named on 85.2 percent (431) of the 506 ballots submitted by the voting members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. Eckersley, with 197 career victories and 390 saves, was named on 83.2 percent of the ballots (421), also comfortably above the 75 percent required for enshrinement at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
"It's the most overwhelming experience I've ever felt in my life," Eckersley said. "I don't think I ever even dreamt of it. I just dreamt of being in the big leagues."
Eckersley will become the third reliever to enter the Hall, joining Hoyt Wilhelm and Rollie Fingers. Molitor is the first player to be elected after spending a substantial portion of his career as a full-time designated hitter. He played 1,174 games - out of 2,683 total - in the DH role, which allowed him to extend his career and reach the 3,000-hit plateau that all but guaranteed him a plaque in Cooperstown. The induction ceremony will take place July 25.
"There were a lot of times I wasn't the best player on the field," Molitor said during a conference call with reporters. "But there is something about doing things over a long period of time and trying to do things the right way that eventually led to this."
Molitor, who played all four infield positions and outfield during his career, spent his first 15 seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers and helped lead them to the World Series in 1982. He also played in the 1993 World Series for the Toronto Blue Jays and was named Most Valuable Player after their dramatic victory over the Philadelphia Phillies.
If he had trouble staying healthy early in his career, he had no trouble staying productive well past his prime. He batted .341 and led the American League with 225 hits in 1996 - the year he turned 40. He retired in 1998 with a .306 lifetime batting average, 234 home runs, 1,307 RBIs and 504 stolen bases.
"Anybody who saw him on a daily basis like I did knows he's a Hall of Famer," longtime teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Robin Yount told the Associated Press yesterday. "I will put him up there with George Brett on consistency, because I never saw anyone other than he and George experience day-in and day-out success."
Eckersley won the Cy Young Award and was named American League Most Valuable Player after a 1992 season in which he was 7-1 with a 1.91 ERA and led the league with 51 saves, but he didn't emerge as a premier reliever until after he had spent 12 years as a full-time starting pitcher.
He won 151 games as a starter from 1975 to 1986, registered 20 victories in 1978 and pitched a no-hitter, but alcoholism nearly cut short his career. He underwent a month of alcohol rehabilitation in January 1987 and was traded two months later from the Chicago Cubs to the Oakland Athletics, who converted him into a relief pitcher ... and a future Hall of Famer.
"I started, I got sober, I relieved," said Eckersley. "The timing was incredible."
His emergence as a premier closer coincided with a run of three consecutive World Series appearances for the A's, but it was no coincidence. Eckersley led the league with 45 saves in 1988 and went on to save a total of 126 games over that three-year period. He would be viewed for nearly a decade as the most dependable late-inning stopper in the game.
"There's no way I would have gotten into the Hall just strictly as a reliever," he said. "Being a starter had to have something to do with distancing me from some of the other relievers."
His 390 saves rank third all-time behind Lee Smith (478) and John Franco (424). Smith, who spent one season with the Orioles, also was on the Hall of Fame ballot, but received only 185 votes (36.6 percent). Relief pioneer Bruce Sutter received 301 votes (59.5 percent) to rank behind only Ryne Sandberg (309, 61.1 percent) among the players who fell short of induction.
Pete Rose, who is ineligible for election because of his lifetime ban for gambling, received just 15 write-in votes, but he cast a larger-than-usual shadow over the announcement of this year's inductees after news broke Monday that he had admitted - in a television interview and his coming autobiography - to betting on baseball games when he was manager of the Cincinnati Reds from 1985 to 1987.
"I am a little disappointed in the timing of it," Molitor said. "Does it take away from the current class? ... In my mind, I think it does a little bit."
Tribune Publishing newspapers and the Associated Press contributed to this article.
Hall of Fame
506 cast; 380 needed; x-elected
x-Paul Molitor 431