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Famed class may be best since 1936


The issue with baseball's annual Hall of Fame balloting usually is over whether certain players are more deserving than others. This year, the issue is whether we're looking at the greatest Hall class of all time.

OK, OK, it's impossible for any class to top the original 1936 group, which included Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Matthewson and Walter Johnson. The standard was so high that year that Cy Young and his 511 pitching wins didn't get in. Yikes!

The Baseball Writers' Association of America balloting for the Class of 1999, which concluded last night, won't produce that much star power. But it could produce one of the best classes ever.

Nolan Ryan, George Brett, Robin Yount, Carlton Fisk and Dale Murphy are on the ballot for the first time. Tony Perez, Gary Carter, Jim Rice, Dave Parker and Bert Blyleven are back on the ballot after coming up short last year, when Don Sutton was the only candidate named on at least 75 percent of the 473 votes cast, confirming his election.

Several candidates obviously stand out. Brett and Ryan are locks. In 21 seasons with the Royals, Brett was a 13-time All-Star with 3,154 career hits and a .305 lifetime average. Ryan pitched a remarkable 27 seasons, threw seven no-hitters and recorded 5,714 strikeouts -- all major-league records.

It's a joke if both aren't named on 90-95 percent of the ballots, much less the minimum 75 percent.

Getting elected in your first year on the ballot is the ultimate tribute, a distinction that separates the game's greatest from the "routine" Hall of Famers, and Ryan and Brett are classic first-ballot inductees.

It's a rare year when two such players are elected together. The last time was in 1982, when Frank Robinson and Hank Aaron went in together. And before that? You have to go back decades.

This year, incredibly, there should be four first-ballot inductees. Yount and Fisk also are deserving.

Of the two, Yount has the stronger case. His is airtight, in fact, thanks to the 3,142 hits he compiled during a 20-year career with the Brewers that included two American League Most Valuable Player awards won at different positions, shortstop and center field. A career .285 hitter, he compares favorably to Cal Ripken.

Fisk is a tougher call even though he played 24 formidable seasons with the Red Sox and White Sox and holds major-league records for home runs by a catcher (351) and games played by a catcher (2,226). Working against him are his career .269 average, hardly spectacular, and his career total of 1,330 RBI, which averages out to 55 a season.

But he was an 11-time All-Star who hit one of the most famous home runs in World Series history in 1975, and more importantly, he defined the toughest of all positions in the American League for almost a quarter-century. Some borderline players just have Hall of Fame written on them. Fisk is one.

Murphy, on the other hand, doesn't. He was a fine outfielder for 18 years, with his 398 home runs, back-to-back NL MVP awards in 1982 and 1983 and five straight Gold Gloves. But he was a career .265 hitter and had almost 200 fewer career RBIs than Rice, who has failed in his first four years on the ballot. Sorry.

So, that's four first-ballot inductees in the end, and that's enough. Four is a typical total for, say, a decade, not a year. As a voter who prides himself on having tough standards, four in a year is almost embarrassing.

But you know what? There are even more deserving candidates on the ballot this year. My ballot last year included votes for Carter and Blyleven, Carter because his career as a catcher compared surprisingly favorably to Johnny Bench's, and Blyleven because his career was somewhat similar to Sutton's. The vote for Carter stands. He's the NL's Fisk. He belongs. Blyleven was a stretch and it's tempting to back out. In fact, upon further review, we will. He didn't win 300 games like Sutton. That's a big difference.

The other serious candidates are Perez, Rice and Parker. Perez came close last year, falling just 34 votes short, and he certainly ,, has a case to argue: He's 16th on the career RBI list, and all 15 players ahead of him are already in the Hall.

But he was just a good player on the great Cincinnati teams of the '70s, a solid presence more than a star. He never won an MVP award or a home run, RBI or batting title. He was an average fielder. He's a near-miss.

Rice and Parker? They have legitimate career numbers, with higher averages and more RBIs than Yount and Fisk. But as with Perez, something is missing in their candidacies. They didn't surpass any of the milestone numbers or establish any defining records or standards. They, too, are near-misses.

The final result? Five yays: Ryan, Brett, Yount, Fisk and Carter. If they all make it, they'd be one of the Hall's finest classes ever, maybe even the best since 1936. Here's hoping they're elected.

Pub Date: 1/01/99

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