When Barry Larkin gives his acceptance speech during the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony today, the former shortstop probably won’t dwell on the 103 games he played for the Triple-A Denver Zephyrs.
This was in 1986, when I lived within walking distance of Mile High Stadium – the Zephyrs’ home – and watched Larkin’s here-today, gone-tonight track from the American Association to the Cincinnati Reds. Impressive? The word doesn’t do his talent justice. He sprayed line drive after line drive into the gaps of the spacious park, and ran a tick shy of the speed of sound, and contested just about any ground ball hit between second and third.
Off the field, the University of Michigan graduate had a composure rare for a 22-year-old with only 72 games of pro experience before his promotion to Triple-A. Teammates gravitated to him. He was going places, and going in a hurry, but with a humility that was genuine.
Larkin got called up to the Reds in the middle of August, hit .283, and though a second-season slump found him finishing at .244 – take consolation, Dustin Ackley, it happens to the best of the best – he went on to become a 12-time All-Star, a three-time Gold Glove recipient, a World Series winner (1990) and a National League MVP (1995).
It’s a body of work that should’ve qualified Larkin for Cooperstown in 2010, his first year of eligibility, but he needed the approval of 75 percent of the voters, and he only got 51.6 percent. After drawing 62.1 percent in 2011, Larkin achieved induction this year with an 86.4 percent showing.
Advancing to baseball’s Hall of Fame is a tough process, and yet the idea persists that voters are too lenient. Even though Larkin and the late Chicago Cubs third baseman Ron Santo, a veteran’s committee selection, are the only players who’ll be enshrined today, I’ve heard complaints about the Hall’s deteriorating admission standards.
Seriously? A Cooperstown class of two players – one the pre-eminent NL shortstop of the 1990s, the other the pre-eminent NL third baseman of the 1960s – and the class is too big?
Shrines that honor the notable athletes, coaches and executives of other sports are nowhere near as exacting, but for some reason, there was little grousing when the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame added a class of 12 into its ranks this year. New members include Chet Walker, a very good player who was never prominent in an MVP discussion, and Jamaal Wilkes, selected for three All-Star games after an outstanding college career at UCLA.
Nothing against Walker or Wilkes – I’m happy for them – but neither were the kind of force on a basketball floor that Larkin and Santo were on a baseball field.
The basketball hall also inducted sporting-goods magnate Phil Knight as a “contributor.” Uh, OK, fair enough, it’s a Hall of Fame, and Knight is nothing if not a man of fame.
Meanwhile, Buck O’Neil, whose work in preserving the history of the Negro Leagues contributed a hundred times more to his sport than any marketing campaign overseen by Phil Knight, has a posthumous presence at Cooperstown (an award is presented in his name), but he’s not listed as a member.
The failure to recognize O’Neil during his lifetime – he died in 2006 – was more than a violation of common sense. It deprived baseball fans of an unforgettable acceptance address, delivered by a storyteller whose ability to mesmerize audiences made him a national treasure.
Speaking of speeches, the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, will enshrine its six newest members on Aug. 4. Given the typical length of acceptance remarks at the football hall, the ceremony figures to conclude sometime on Aug. 6.
Still, a Hall of Fame class of six strikes me as a reasonable balance between the all-inclusive basketball hall –somewhere, Vincent Askew is wondering when he’ll get called – and a baseball hall that couldn’t find room for Buck O’Neil.
This year’s class of players is small, and it’s still larger than the one-man classes of 2002 (Ozzie Smith), 1993 (Reggie Jackson), 1988 (Willie Stargell) and 1965 (Pud Galvin). The ’65 ceremony must’ve been surreal: Because electors in those days voted on a conventional ballot only every other year, the lone player selected was Galvin, a 19th century pitcher chosen by the veterans committee. On the day baseball honored his career, Galvin had been dead 63 years.
The Hall revamped its voting format after that, allowing the baseball writers to consider eligible players annually. Further changes could be afoot if nobody reaches 75 percent next year. That’s a possibility, because the ballot will be cluttered with such Steroid Era superstars as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro. Although none will come close to 75 percent, each will draw votes, diminishing the chances of everybody else.
But that’s next year’s headache. Today belongs to the family of Ron Santo, the personification of true grit, and to Barry Larkin, who needed only 175 minor-league games before he was judged to be ready for the big club.
Now he joins the most exclusive club of firstname.lastname@example.org