December 4, 2009

Fiery, Controversial...Hall of Famer?

A couple of weeks back, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) released the names of those that will be considered by the Veterans Committee for Hall of Fame induction.

And sorry Cubs fans…Ron Santo is not on that list.

You see, this year, the list is comprised of managers, umpires and executives…not players.

On the executives ballot are former owners Gene Autry, Sam Breadon, John Fetzer, Ewing Kauffman, Gabe Paul and Jacob Ruppert, former general managers Bob Howsam and John McHale, players' union founder Marvin Miller and former player, broadcaster and National League president Bill White.

And while the “Singing Cowboy” Autry is getting most of the publicity…the ten names that make up the managers and umpires list are equally (if not more) impressive.

On that list…former managers Charlie Grimm, Whitey Herzog, Davey Johnson, Tom Kelly, Gene Mauch, Billy Martin, Danny Murtaugh and Steve O'Neill and umpires Doug Harvey and Hank O'Day.

Sure, Mauch has the most wins (1902) of any Hall eligible manager not enshrined and Kelly led the perennially hapless Twins to two World Series championships in 1987 and 1991, but legendary Yankee skipper Martin is the name that will jump out to most.

When I asked BBWAA Historical Overview Committee member Mark Whicker of The Orange County Register about Martin’s chances...he kinda caught me off guard.

“I think his chances are almost nil,” Whicker responded. “The veterans on the committee were not supportive last year.”

What the...not supportive? How is that even possible?

In his 16 years as a manager, Martin compiled 1253 wins…good for a .553 winning percentage. Add to that his five division championships, two pennants and a memorable 1977 World Series win over the rival Dodgers and you have the most, if not one of the more qualified managers on the ballot.

Let's put it this way. Of all the managers with more than 2000 games under their belt...there is only one with a higher winning percentage that isn’t enshrined and that is fellow 2010 nominee Davey Johnson at .564.

By comparison, Dick Williams (the last manager to go into the Hall in 2008), while he managed two World Series rings to Martin's one...had a considerably lower winning percentage at .520.

“Both were very demanding and both very knowledgeable,” former reliever Darold Knowles said of his old quail hunting partner Martin and his former Oakland skipper Williams, “but Billy wanted the limelight more it seemed.”

Knowles is probably right. That quest for the limelight made a household name and face out of Martin. All told, Martin managed five different teams during his 16 years as field general…Minnesota, Detroit, Texas, Oakland and on five different occasions, the New York Yankees.

At the time of his untimely death, he was said to have been prepping for a record sixth stint at the helm of the Bronx Bombers.

“I would have enjoyed playing for Billy, and I came close once after having lunch with him,” 1972 All-Star outfielder Richie Scheinblum said of the late Martin, who died in a one-car accident on Christmas Day, 1989. “He was always kind to me, always had positive things to say and was fun to play against.”

“I wasn’t around Billy on a sustained basis,” Whicker said of the often colorful figure, “but I know he sometimes fought his players, generally supported them and almost always got them to play hard for him.”

Unfortunately, it is probably those fights and a host of other unconventional moves that Martin will best be remembered for.

On one Saturday afternoon in 1977, on national television and against the rival Red Sox no less, he fought with Yankees star slugger Reggie Jackson for failing to hustle.

In 1983, it was Martin’s protest of a George Brett home run off Goose Gossage that incited the melee in what is now referred to simply as “The Pine Tar Incident”.

And two years later, Martin suffered a separated shoulder after brawling with pitcher Eddie Whitson in a hotel bar.

But it was his public love-hate relationship with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner that Martin will best be remembered for.

“We need more characters like Billy, like Lou Pinella, Ernie Banks, Pete Rose and many others,” Scheinblum added, “players who just love the game.”

So back to the logistics of the vote itself…any candidate that receives at least 75 percent of the votes cast makes it into the Hall of Fame. The managers and umpires ballot will be reviewed by a 16 member electorate, whereas the executive ballot electorate is made up of 12 members.

Fans of Martin will have to wait until baseball’s Winter Meetings next week to find out if the fiery manager will find his rightful place in Cooperstown.

Should he make it in…I’m driving to the site of the former Howard Wong’s restaurant in Bloomington, Minnesota (Google it, gang) and celebrating by throwing haymakers.

Matter of fact, I might do it if he doesn’t get in…who’s with me?



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