Hall trio is deemed first-rate; Ryan, Brett, Yount biggest 1st-year class voted in since 1936 ; Fisk 43 shy in initial try; At 98%, strikeout king, 3B among top 4 all-time

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Nolan Ryan sat at home writing holiday thank-you notes and trying to treat the day like any other. George Brett stayed inside with his wife, watching the clock and feeling like a prisoner. Robin Yount plopped down in his office, never far removed from a telephone.

The calls came for all three players yesterday. And while they may not have arrived at precisely the times they expected, the wait was hardly a long one.

In one of the most eagerly awaited Hall of Fame elections in baseball history, all three players were voted into the Cooperstown, N.Y., shrine in their first year of eligibility.

This is the biggest class of first-time candidates since Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Honus Wagner and Christy Mathewson comprised the inaugural group in 1936. A record 497 ballots were cast this year by members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, with players needing to be named on at least 75 percent to be inducted July 25.

As expected, Ryan made it with room to spare. He was named on 98.79 percent of the ballots, the second-most ever behind Tom Seaver (98.84). Ryan and Seaver were teammates with the New York Mets on the 1969 world championship team.

George Brett was named on 98.19 percent of the ballots, the fourth-highest total in history, and Yount was named on 77.46 percent.

Ryan held or shared 53 records when he retired in 1993 after a 27- year career spent with the Mets, California Angels, Houston Astros and Texas Rangers. Among the milestones were a record 5,714 strikeouts and seven no-hitters.

"It's an honor to be inducted with [Brett and Yount] because I had the opportunity to see both of them come into the league and pitch to them as youngsters and watch them develop. I had the opportunity to truly view the start of their careers all the way through," said Ryan, whose 324-292 record ties him with Don Sutton for 12th place in career victories.

Ryan said he'd most likely go into the Hall representing the Rangers. "I really believe the years that I played with Texas brought a focus on my career that I hadn't experienced. Those five years with the Rangers kind of brought visibility that escalated me to another level," he said.

Never one to reflect much on the past, Ryan said being elected "is the final chapter of my career. For a professional athlete, it's the highest honor you can receive. I know it's something I never really anticipated, so when it does happen you don't really know how to sum it up. It's overwhelming."

Brett batted .305 and was named to 13 All-Star teams in a 21-year career spent entirely with the Kansas City Royals. Yount, his close friend, took a similar path by playing all 20 of his seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers. Neither club has the financial resources to lure expensive free agents or heap riches on their own players, so Brett and Yount are viewed as something of a dying breed.

"It's going to be tough for a lot of small-market teams to have a guy stay there for 20 years and have the success that I had or Robin had," Brett said. "They're not able to pay those types of salaries. I don't think you're going to see it that much anymore.

"Cal Ripken probably will end his career in Baltimore and Tony Gwynn will end his career in San Diego, but now there's such a discrepancy in the large markets, what they're willing to pay. Back when we were playing, you could have been a free agent and gone someplace else and made $100,000 more than you were making and it was a very easy choice. But now you're talking about millions and millions of dollars and it's something you have to think about."

Brett, whose pine-tar bat already is in the Hall, had been told by his wife that a call confirming his selection would come around 11 a.m. More than an hour passed before he received official word.

"I was kind of saying, 'Well, when do we get to go on with our lives and sit by the phone again next year?' When I was told I had gotten in and it was 98 percent, I was flabbergasted. It knocked me on the floor," he said.

"I kind of figured Nolan was a lock. I talked to Robin the other night and he asked how I was feeling. I said I was a little nervous. He said, 'You shouldn't be nervous. I'm the one who should be nervous,' and we were giggling. When I heard I had made it, obviously I was very, very pleased, but in all honesty I was just as pleased for Robin. I talked to him after I heard we had made it and we were laughing and saying, 'Who the [heck] are we to be in the Hall of Fame?' "

Brett then choked back tears as he spoke of entering the Hall with Yount. "Of all the guys I played against," he said, his voice cracking, "probably Robin is the guy I enjoyed playing against the most. It's pretty special."

Yount was a three-time All-Star who finished with 3,142 hits. Perhaps his most notable accomplishment, however, was being named Most Valuable Player at both shortstop and center field.

"It was an incredible honor for me to even be thought of as a potential Hall of Fame inductee," he said. "To be in the class with Nolan Ryan and George Brett -- and some awful good players didn't make it -- it's very difficult for me to imagine being mentioned in the same breath as those people."

There's room in the Cooperstown gallery for only three more plaques before it is expanded elsewhere. The display begins with Ruth and will conclude with Yount.

"That's certainly a good way to start it," he said, "but I don't know if it's the right guy to end it."

Since the storied 1936 class, there had never been more than two first-time candidates elected to the Hall in the same year. The last pairing had occurred in 1990 with Jim Palmer and Joe Morgan.

First-ballot candidates Carlton Fisk and Dale Murphy fell 43 and 277 votes shy, respectively, of the required 373. Tony Perez, a major run-producing cog in Cincinnati's Big Red Machine in the 1970s, missed on his eighth try with 302 votes, or 60.76 percent.

Also excluded were Gary Carter (168 votes), Steve Garvey (150), Jim Rice (146), Bruce Sutter (121) and Jim Kaat (100). Minnie Minoso (73) and Mickey Lolich (26) missed on their 15th and final time on the ballot. Pete Rose, still under a lifetime ban and not eligible for induction, received 16 write-in votes.

The Hall's membership of 240 probably will increase again March 2 when the veterans committee meets in Tampa, Fla.

Without a doubt.

Highest percent of vote in history of Baseball Hall of Fame balloting:

Player, year elected Percent

Tom Seaver, 1992 98.84

Nolan Ryan, 1999 98.79

Ty Cobb, 1936 98.23

George Brett, 1999 98.19

Hank Aaron, 1982 97.83

Mike Schmidt, 1995 96.52

Johnny Bench, 1989 96.42

Steve Carlton, 1994 95.82

Honus Wagner, 1936 95.13

Babe Ruth, 1936 95.13

Willie Mays, 1979 94.67

Carl Yastrzemski, 1989 94.63

Pub Date: 1/06/99

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