Ripken Enters MLB Hall of Fame, McGwire Snubbed

Baseball greats Cal Ripken, Jr. and Tony Gwynn got the call to Cooperstown on Tuesday, but much of the interest in this year's ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame centers on a player who didn't get elected: Mark McGwire. Author and columnist Alan Schwarz talks about this year's ballot.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Baseball greats, Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn, got the call to Cooperstown today, but much of the interest in this year's ballot for the baseball Hall of Fame centers on a player who did not get elected: Mark MaGwire, the man who broke Roger Maris' record and one of the top homerun hitters of all time. He is the first major steroids suspect to become eligible for the Hall of Fame.

There is no proof that McGwire did anything illegal, but he refused to address the issue and testimony before Congress and has vanished from public view afterwards, which led many baseball writers to believe he may well be guilty and baseball writers are the people with votes for the Hall of Fame.

The McGwire controversy, not only shadows overwhelming first ballot elections of Ripken and Gwynn, but the candidacies of longtime hopefuls like relief pitcher Goose Gossage and slugger Jim Rice. If you have a question about the vote, give us a call: 800-989-8255, or send us an e-mail: talk@npr.org.

Joining us now from our bureau in New York is our baseball pal, Alan Schwarz, who writes for Baseball America and the New York Times and Podcasts for ESPN. Happy New Year, Alan.

Mr. ALAN SCHWARZ (Sports Writer, Baseball America, New York Times): Well, thank you, Neal. It's great to be here again.

CONAN: And before we get caught up in suspicions, let me begin by asking you about two indisputable all timers, Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken.

Mr. SCHWARZ: Well, it's wonderful to see them elected with landslides. Somehow, six people did not vote for Cal, I'm not sure how. But in any case, Cal Ripken, of course, won two MVP awards, played in 2,632 consecutive games and really stood for a lot of the virtue in baseball, and a lot of the good things that baseball represents to a lot of people.

Tony Gwynn, meanwhile: a five-time batting champion, had a batting average - career batting average of, I think, 338, five gold gloves and right field for the San Diego Padres. He played in a small market, and yet, had the eternal respect of his peers and anyone who watched him - also had a lot to do with the onset of video use in baseball so each of those guys overwhelmingly elected and overwhelmingly deserving as well.

CONAN: And when you say video use, to study his swing and opposing pitchers, not necessarily to look at the highlights?

Mr. SCHWARZ: Oh, exactly. Yes. Although, he has certainly created enough highlights of his own, but he would carry around VCRs and tapes and decks and all sorts of clunky equipment on the plane flights. He would carry it himself in order to study at-bats on the plane and in the hotel when the rest of his teammates were, you know, drinking or playing cards or whatever. He was there studying up for the next day.

CONAN: And you mentioned how some people could not bring themselves to vote for a Cal Ripken or a Tony Gwynn, at least one writer said he sent in a blank ballot because he couldn't believe anybody from the steroid era until he had more information.

Mr. SCHWARZ: Well -

CONAN: And so even these overwhelming elections are stained by the steroid problem.

Mr. SCHWARZ: Well, I think - well, no one has ever been elected unanimously anyway. Tom Seaver received 98.83 - I believe it was - percent of the vote in 1992 and he has the highest percentage ever. So some people, you know, did not believe that Tom Seaver was somehow eligible.

People get a little weird on first ballots for Hall of Famers. They feel that almost no one is deserving of being a first ballot guy. Joe DiMaggio wasn't even a first ballot Hall of Famer, of all things. So you can't take the voting too seriously. I think, as an aggregate - there are 545 ballots - as an aggregate, they fairly represent the reputations of the players among most writers, but there are always going to be those outliers who mess things up.

CONAN: Mmm. We're talking with Alan Schwarz about the election today to baseball's Hall of Fame. You are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And I mentioned that Mark McGwire was the first major steroid suspect to appear on a ballot. I should say that also Jose Canseco, who implicated Mark McGwire, was also on the ballot.

Mr. SCHWARZ: Yeah. Well, yeah, Jose Canseco, though, has rarely been viewed as a deserving Hall of Famer in the first place. He did hit a bunch of homeruns but he didn't have the length of career that McGwire did and Gwynn and Ripken and other deserving players - people on the fringe like even Fred McGriff or Rafael Palmeiro. So I don't think Canseco would have been anywhere close to the 75 percent. I don't think that he would have even gotten 40 had he had no steroids suspicions whatsoever.

CONAN: And how many votes did Mark McGwire get?

Mr. SCHWARZ: Mark McGwire received 128 votes for a percentage of 23.5. And, of course, I'm only one person but I think it's quite - I think it's overwhelmingly likely he would have reached the 75 percent required had none of this ever happened. He didn't had a quite the slam-dunk career that many people think. He had 583 homeruns, which is 7th all time. He had the 70 homeruns in 1998, there's no question about it. But he had a very low batting average.

He had a really very bad middle of his career. The beginning and end of his career were both very good, but the middle was not. So there were some demerits on his career long before the steroid implications. However, I am positive he would have made it pretty easily had none of this taken place.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in. This is Nate. Nate with us from Kansas City.

NATE (Caller): Hi. I had a comment about the candidacy of Bert Blyleven, and I didn't know if his candidacy is alive and kicking or getting better, or I think I had read that one sportswriter changed his mind and decided to vote for him. And I'm wondering what Mr. Schwarz has to say about him because, I think, -

Mr. SCHWARZ: Sure.

NATE: - he's been underappreciated for what he had to offer.

Mr. SCHWARZ: Sure. Well, for those people who don't know Bert Blyleven, he was a longtime right-handed pitcher, mostly for the Twins and Rangers and Pirates and then a bunch of teams later. He was very good for a long time. He was never necessarily elite but he was very good for a long enough time where he amassed 287 wins, which is very close to the magic 300 mark. He had a 3.31 ERA. He pitched for a lot of bad teams. He was an excellent pitcher. He was rewarded for this with 260 votes, which is 47.7 percent, which is far below the 75 percent threshold but it is enough to suggest that he might garner enough support in the next several years.

A lot of people, like Bruce Sutter last year, have climbed from the 30 or 40 percent level to reach the point where they are elected. Why this happens is a whole separate conversation, but Bert Blyleven is generally considered the modern pitcher with the closest resume for Cooperstown who probably will never make it. It doesn't mean he was bad, it just means he wasn't quite elite enough.

CONAN: Nate, thanks very much.

NATE: Uh-huh.

CONAN: There's a whole bunch of people who are right on the fringe of election, last year, like Goose Gossage, the great reliever for any number of teams, and Jim Rice, the slugger for the Boston Red Sox, Andre Dawson, a lot of people had - next year there are no great names on the ballot for first time. Is next year the year that some of these players might get in?

Mr. SCHWARZ: Yeah. I'll be very surprised if Rich Gossage does not get in next year. I was a little surprised he didn't make it this year. He was 21 votes short and relievers, specifically, Bruce Sutter last year, they always climb up about 5 percent and then they make on a year when there aren't quite as many big names there. It happened with Bruce Sutter last year.

This year, a lot of people voted for Ripken and Gwynn and thought, you know what, I'm happy with three or four names. I'm not going to put Gossage on this time. Now again, why a guy can go on or off the ballot from one year to the next, we can spend another segment on that. But I'll virtually guarantee that unless he testifies before Congress, Rich Gossage will be inducted at the Hall of Fame next year. He was an outstanding relief pitcher.

CONAN: Let's see if we can squeeze in one last call. Steve is with us from New York City.

STEVE (Caller): Hey, my biggest concern is the guy who has the most votes while he was eligible from his active career and then the most votes as an old-timer, Gil Hodges, 370 lifetime homeruns, when he retired he was the all time leading right-hand batter in the national league, all time -

CONAN: And - don't mean to cut you off - but manager of the Miracle Mets -

STEVE: That's right. 1969. First baseman for the Dodgers. And what happens to these old-timers now? When do they get reconsidered? They still got a crack at this or not?

Mr. SCHWARZ: Well, there is the veterans' committee, and I believe that the veterans committee this year, I'm speaking off the top of my head, is electing - if they are electing anybody - they will announced, I think, Feb. 28th. Hopefully Jeff Idelson isn't hearing this and freaking out. But I think that's what it is.

And so I believe that Gil Hodges is on that ballot, along with other old-timers like Ron Santo and as well as some other folks who didn't make it in the 15 years of their normal baseball writers eligibility, but then can be elected through the other door. Joe Torre will easily get in that way when he retires as a manager.

CONAN: Steve, thanks very much for the call. And Alan, I guess, it's not too many weeks away before we hear that magic phrase, pitchers and catchers report.

Mr. SCHWARZ: That's right. I just booked my flights six weeks from today.

CONAN: Alan Schwarz is our baseball pal, a writer for the New York Times and Baseball America, Podcaster for ESPN, with us today from our bureau in New York. Alan, thanks very much.

Mr. SCHWARZ: Hey, it's always a pleasure, Neal. Take care.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I am Neal Conan.

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