Three kinds of players dominate the Baseball Hall of Fame: batters who hit a lot, sluggers who homer a lot, pitchers who win a lot. Their glitzy stats jump out of the bios sent to electors. But there are equally deserving players who don't make the Hall: men whose numbers aren't catchy enough and whose contributions are often too subtle to be summarized. Some of them are subsequently elected by the Veterans' Committee, but that group's deliberations don't begin until 23 years after a player has retired.
One way to try to right these wrongs is to build up support for worthy but underrated players before they get lost in the shuffle. I have in mind three current players who merit election to the Hall but possibly will not make it based on past voting patterns: Tony Perez, Ron Guidry and Ozzie Smith.
Every time I mention Perez to an elector, he begins his reply with a doubtful "Well...." Going into this season Perez had a .280 lifetime average, 2,681 hits and 377 homers—excellent but perhaps not sufficiently eye-catching numbers. But consider his 1,623 runs batted in. That total is the highest among active players and 14th on the alltime list. Perez began the season only 13 behind Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, and every other RBI man ahead of him is in Cooperstown except Carl Yastrzemski, whose election is assured.
"My job isn't to hit .300, although I've done that three times," says Perez. "My job is to drive in runs. One thing people don't notice is consistency—I've had that." Perez had 90 or more RBIs for 11 consecutive seasons from 1967 to '77. "With a man on second and two outs," California manager Gene Mauch once said, "Tony Perez is the best player in my lifetime."
When the Reds were winning world championships in the mid-'70s, Perez's teammates considered him the key to the attack. Then, after the 1976 season, at age 34 and supposedly almost over the hill, he was traded to Montreal and had three more good years, averaging 80 RBIs per season. He became a free agent and had a 25-homer, 105-RBI season for the Red Sox in 1980 and since then has been an exemplary role player in Boston, Philadelphia and again in Cincinnati. Last year, playing his 22nd season, Perez hit .328, with six homers and 33 RBIs in only 183 at bats.
But forget about stats for a minute. Perez is a winner. After trading him, the Reds stopped collecting pennants; then-manager Sparky Anderson later admitted that the loss of Perez was the beginning of their downfall. The Expos won 20 more games in 1977, the first year Perez played for them, than they had in 1976. Philadelphia won a pennant in his lone year on the roster. Cincinnati almost took the division the second season after his return.
What the stat men don't realize is that an exceptional leader can mean as much to a team as any numbers. Perez deserves credit for what he does on the bench and in the clubhouse as well as on the field. His mixture of patience and prodding has especially benefited Dave Conception and other Spanish-speaking players. "You have to have fun to play 162 games a year," Perez says. "It's natural to get down; I try to keep guys up."
Ron Guidry? people ask incredulously when I mention his name. How many games has he won? How many good seasons has he had?
Going into 1986, the answers were 154 and eight. If these numbers don't sound impressive enough, consider that Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax had 165 wins and six fine seasons. There are strong parallels between the two lefthanders. Like Koufax, Guidry came of age in his mid-20s and was soon the best pitcher in baseball. Guidry has the highest winning percentage (.694) of any pitcher in history with 200 or more decisions; Koufax (.655) ranks 10th. I grant you that Koufax was more intimidating in his prime, winning five straight ERA titles, but Guidry has overcome some obstacles Koufax never faced. Sandy petered out before his fastball did; he retired at age 30 with an arthritic elbow. Guidry, 35, has lost a little off his heater but has gone on winning—witness his 22-6 mark in 1985.
"Ron definitely deserves to be in the Hall," says Ray Miller, the Minnesota manager and former Baltimore pitching coach. "He throws strikes and has great leverage when he comes over the top. And he's one of the best fielding pitchers I've ever seen. Sure, his fastball isn't what it used to be, but he throws two different sliders and mixes in curves and change-ups. The only problem with Guidry is that he doesn't talk up his own case."
Indeed, Guidry says, "I don't deserve to be in the Hall yet. This will only be the 10th season I've pitched a lot of innings." The same number of seasons, Ron, that Koufax pitched.
Ozzie Smith's chances are quickly dismissed. He's strictly a defensive player, critics say, and fielders aren't Famers. Now wait a minute. Lest we forget, shortstops make the Hall with their gloves as well as their bats: Of the 15 shortstops at Cooperstown, only six had career averages of .300 or higher. And by every measure of excellence, from the memories of old men to the complicated formulas of young computer whizzes, Smith is the greatest fielding shortstop of the last half century.
But Ozzie has a lower lifetime average (.243) than any Hall of Fame shortstop, comes the refrain. Well, batting average can be misleading. Would you take Mike Schmidt and his .266 lifetime average—or Ken Oberkfell and his .286?
O.K., Smith doesn't have Schmidt's power, but Ozzie isn't the offensive liability he has long been perceived to be. For one thing, a .243 average isn't that bad for a No. 8 hitter being fed breaking balls and off-speed pitches. Averaging 56 walks, 34 stolen bases and only 35 strikeouts a season, Smith is a guy who can reach base with two outs and make sure the pitcher doesn't lead off the next inning. Or, with fewer than two outs, he can steal second himself if the pitcher fails to bunt him over. "I have pride in being able to do little things, like score a man from third with fewer than two outs or move a man into scoring position," Smith says.
Last year he learned to drive the ball and had his best season—hitting .276, with six homers and a game-winning tater in the playoffs—while winning his sixth consecutive Gold Glove. In the 1986 Baseball Abstract, Bill James calls Smith, not Willie McGee, last season's National League MVP.
"It's a little early to be talking Hall of Fame," Smith says. Technically he's right. He won't qualify for selection until he completes his 10th season in 1987. Then he should be considered a solid choice. Tony Perez and Ron Guidry are already in my Hall of Fame.