Green: Hall of Fame voting is serious business
Nellie Fox stood at home plate, a chaw of tobacco puffing his left cheek, juice dribbling onto his White Sox uniform. He batted left-handed, and he choked up on his bat three inches above the knob. He was just 5 feet 9 and weighed 150 pounds, a craggy guy, a scrap-iron sort of ballplayer.
He was hardly a caricature of a Major League ballplayer.
But Nellie Fox is enshrined in Cooperstown in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
His plaque is on the wall in the Hall and when I visited Cooperstown a few years ago I stood in front of it and whispered thanks. Thanks a thousand times.
Voting for the Hall of Fame is an honor and a privilege, a responsibility. I've been doing it for 44 years. But in 1985, I booted it.
It was the late Nellie Fox's 15th and final year on the regular Hall of Fame ballot.
I sat at my desk in the sport department of The Detroit News deliberating over my votes. Fox's name was on the left column of the eligible candidates — and after considerable thought, I went past it. I left the square by his name blank.
A few weeks later, the Hall of Fame announced its class of 1985 inductees.
Nellie Fox had amassed 74.7 percent of the votes from eligible 500 or so voting member of the Baseball Writers of America. He needed 75 percent.
He was three-tenths of a percentage point short. Three-tenths amounted to one single vote.
I felt like . . . well, guilty.
Every year thereafter whenever I voted for the Baseball Hall of Fame I felt guilt ridden.
At last 12 years later, the Veterans Committee rescued me. The wise old-timers voted Fox into the Hall of Fame.
Voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame is not a frivolous matter.
It is super serious. I was not being frivolous that day nearly 30 years ago when I left Nelson Fox off my Hall of Fame ballot. I was exercising an opinion — an opinion that I ultimately changed.
It is how we vote — mostly by opinion. We vote, most of the 500-plus of us seasoned baseball writers, by knowledge, by experience, by observation, by conscience, by conversation with others.
They all mesh into opinion.
Sadly, there are a few eligible members of the BBWAA who toss their ballots away. Then there are the writers who do not vote for a player because that player offended them or refused to talk to them during his playing career. Some stubbornly refuse to vote for any player on the ballot for the first time.
And then there are the writers who simply mail back empty Hall of Fame ballots — thus having negative impact of the 75 percent total required for election. For years the Hall of Fame voting has been contaminated by the few small individuals who put their own agendas ahead of the responsibility, the duty.
Our responsibility is to Baseball, the game itself. It is to the players, the best few of those athletes who played the game. But mostly our responsibility is to the fans, those citizens who love sports and who love baseball.
As Denny McLain said so many years ago, "Nobody's Perfect."
I messed up when I failed to vote for Nellie Fox, the guy with the puffed cheek and the choke-up batting style. The guy who hit the home run that won an extra-inning game on Opening Day in Tiger Stadium, the winning hit for the White Sox over the Tigers. A home run that sticks in my imagination, more than a half century later, one of the 35 home runs this punch hitter hit in 19 seasons in the big leagues.
We are limited to voting for 10 guys — or fewer if our opinions dictate.
Statistics do matter. The numbers 3,000 and 300 are critical, regarded as traditional stats. No joke, I remain a traditionalist. To me, for a batter, 3,000 hits make a Hall of Famer. For a pitcher, 300 victories.
Ten votes are sufficient. Three or four will make it, when the Hall of Fame announces the results on Tuesday.
My ballot consisted of 10 ballplayers I deemed worthy: Craig Biggio, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez, Pedro Martinez, Mark McGwire, Mike Piazza, Tim Raines, Gary Sheffield and Alan Trammell.
Biggio, so close last season, had 3,060 hits for the Astros and should make it this time. Randy Johnson, with 303 victories, and Pedro Martinez, with only 219 victories, should make it in their first appearances on the ballot. Mike Piazza is likely to make it now.
Roger Clemens, with 354 victories and some unproven steroid allegations, has a miniscule shot because a multitude of voting writers consider themselves moralists with perfect lifestyles. Mark McGwire is destined to miss out for the same reason.
Trammell, statistically the finest shortstop outside the Hall of Fame, has been too far from the necessary 75 percent — and will drop into the Veterans Committee's voting group.
It must be noted that I did not vote for John Smoltz, who is likely to make it.
Again, these votes involve personal opinion. I do not consider any of my votes to be frivolous.
Smoltz won 213 games, mostly as a starting pitcher, and saved 154 as a reliever for the Braves. Great stats.
Jack Morris had greater stats with 254 victories, mostly for the Tigers. He was a dominant pitcher in his World Series and playoffs starts. He pitched for four World Series winners.
Morris was rejected 15 times by the voters of the BBWAA, some of whom just didn't like him because he was too often abrasive to the media. My opinion. Not frivolous.
In 1991, Morris vs. Smoltz was the greatest pitchers' duel ever — again, my opinion. Game 7 of a World Series, Twins vs. Braves, 0-0 into the 10th inning. Two magnificent pitchers in suspenseful battle. Smoltz was yanked by Hall of Fame Atlanta manager Bobby Cox in the eighth. Morris refused to be yanked when Twins manager Tom Kelly tried — and tried again.
In the 10th, the Twins scored a run. Jack Morris won the duel, 1-0, a complete-game winner over the Braves' bullpen.
As happened with Nellie Fox, Jack Morris ultimately must be voted belatedly into the Baseball Hall of Fame by the codgers on the Veterans Committee.
Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sports columnist. Read his web-exclusive coumns Saturdays at detroitnews.com.