A DAY OF INFAMY

Why not journey up to lovely Cooperstown, New York, this summer and take in the sights? Babe Ruth's bat. Norman Rockwell's watercolor depicting a crew of umpires with their eyes turned upward and palms outstretched to a sky full of sprinkles, weighing the merits of a rain delay. The ball Nolan Ryan threw a hundred miles an hour in his fifth no-hitter. Ty Cobb's spikes.

Wonder if they've enshrined George Steinbrenner's ego yet. Or Ricky Henderson's mouth.

Let's see here. Cooperstown. Better drop by and see the Cardiff Giant, the famous anthropological fraud they keep in a pit over at the Farmers' Museum. He's the last word in missing links--carved out of stone by nineteenth-century con men. Staff members at the museum will also show you how to make a little pinky ring out of a horseshoe nail. And churn butter. Don't forget to catch the water skiers on Lake Otsego. And the bar at the Cooper Inn. Okay, then. You can play golf.

But don't bother making plans to attend the induction ceremonies at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. There aren't going to be any.

For the first time in 25 years--and the seventh time since this very exclusive club opened six decades ago--470 voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America have collectively decided that no player is worthy of entering the Hall in 1996. Among others, the snubbed parties include Bill "Whoops, There Goes the World Series" Buckner, Jeff "Penitentiary Face" Leonard (who, upon being traded from the Giants to the Brewers, endeared himself to his new fans by asking: "Where the hell is Milwaukee?") and the illustrious utility man Claudell Washington, who could run like Mercury and so belonged on the track team.

These former major-leaguers were among ten players who received fewer than 24 of the 353 votes required for election and will be dropped from future ballots. No one really expected Dan Quisenberry or Bob Knepper to be making any speeches out there under the elm trees. As for Johnny Ray and Jerry Reuss and Chet Lemon, the voters won't have them to kick around anymore, either.

On the other hand, the peerless knuckleballer Phil Niekro has just been shut out of the Hall for the fourth year running by getting just 321 votes. Clutch-hitting Tony Perez, a cornerstone of Cincinnati's fabled Big Red Machine who stands sixteenth among modern players in runs batted in, was passed over for the fifth time with 309. And Sudden Don Sutton, a righty with more than 300 wins, fell short for the third straight year with 300 votes.

What's going on here?
Last year, when the great Philadelphia third-baseman Mike Schmidt was the sole inductee at Cooperstown, no one could argue with the choice--or with the fact that he made the trip to upstate New York in splendid isolation. Schmidt was in his first year of eligibility, and he was a mortal lock for election. So were lone inductees in other recent years--Steve Carlton, Reggie Jackson.

Increasingly, though, the voters seem to be seized by an epidemic of short attention span. Among them, Niekro, Perez and Sutton played in seventy major-league seasons, and their statistics are an embarrassment of riches. But in recent years the writers have been giving Hall of Fame candidates only one trip to the plate. Players become eligible after five years of retirement, and they remain so for fifteen years (as long as they get 24 or more votes each year). But the writers haven't elected any player after his first year of eligibility since 1987, when A's and Yankees ace Jim "Catfish" Hunter made the Hall on his third try and Cubs slugger Billy Williams got in after six years.

Since then, the virtues of durability and consistency have been devalued: Current wisdom dictates that a player who was great for ten seasons or so outranks one who was almost great for much longer. The logic of such thinking is certainly questionable, but on that receding tide the Hall of Fame hopes of three outstanding players are almost certainly being swept out to sea. Each year is bound to mean fewer votes.

Exhibit A: Philip Henry Niekro.
The boy's father, an Ohio coal miner, taught him to throw the knuckleball in 1949, when he was ten years old. "Knucksie" kept flinging that mirage up there--and baffling batters--for another forty years. In 24 big-league seasons, most of them with the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves, he won 318 games--seven more than Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, 94 more than Catfish Hunter--and retired in 1987, at the age of 48. He's fourth all-time in innings pitched, seventh in strikeouts (3,342) and tenth in games started. But Phil Niekro never won a Cy Young Award--probably because the light-hitting Atlanta teams of his prime rarely gave him the run support to be a twenty-game winner--and that seems to be what will keep him out of the Hall of Fame. The Braves erected a statue of Phil Niekro outside Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, where the World Series trophy now resides, but he probably won't join longtime teammate Henry Aaron in Cooperstown.

For the past two seasons, Niekro has taken on another tall order--managing the Colorado Silver Bullets, the first women's professional baseball team to take the diamond since the 1950s. In this, Knucksie's been praised for his patience, skill and big heart. But when word came last week that he'd been passed over again for the Hall, he didn't want to talk about it.

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