Billy Williams and Willie McCovey, two players who for one reason or another never got as much recognition as they deserved during their careers, appear to be the top candidates in this year's Baseball Hall of Fame balloting. If there is any justice, both will make it -- and based on the voting patterns of recent years, that seems like a good possibility. Williams, in an 18-year career spent mostly with the Chicago Cubs, hit .290, with 426 home runs and 1,476 RBIs. He was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1961 and the batting champion in 1972, played in 1,117 consecutive games, batted over .300 five times, and hit 20 or more home runs 14 times.
One can hardly help thinking that these numbers would have put the slugging outfielder in Cooperstown with ease if he had played for more contending teams and/or in the media spotlight of New York or Los Angeles, which should not have anything to do with it, but obviously does. He has moved up in the balloting consistently, however, and is the top returning vote-getter from a year ago, so perhaps this will be his year.
McCovey, the top candidate among those eligible for the first time this year, spent much of his 22-year career playing for the San Francisco Giants, where he was somewhat overshadowed by another Willie -- Willie Mays.
The big first baseman compiled some impressive statistics of his own, however, topped by his 521 home runs (tied for ninth on the all-time list and the most ever for a National League left-handed batter). He led the NL in homers three times and RBIs twice and holds the league record for most grand slam homers in a career (it's 18).
There are 41 candidates this year -- 27 returnees and 14 players newly eligible after the required five-year waiting period following the end of their careers. The voting by 10-year members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America is being conducted between now and Dec. 31, with election going to any player named on 75 percent of the ballots. And while Williams and McCovey probably have the best chance of making it, one can make a strong case for any of a dozen or so other candidates.
The election of Juan Marichal, Don Drysdale, and Hoyt Wilhelm in the last three years rectified some glaring injustices in the pitching department, but there are still several other hurlers with strong credentials.
Catfish Hunter, who won 224 games, had five 20-victory seasons, and pitched well in numerous playoff and World Series appearances, got strong support last year in his first time on the ballot and is a possibility this time around. So is Jim Bunning, who equaled Hunter's victory total despite pitching for much weaker teams, is 10th on the all-time strikeout list, and had 40 shutouts, including two no-hitters.
Two other moundsmen who seem to this observer to be in the same class but who haven't received the sort of support given Hunter and Bunning are Lew Burdette and Mickey Lolich.
Burdette, was a renowned ``money pitcher'' who won 203 games and beat the mighty New York Yankees three times in the 1957 World Series, while Lolich had 217 wins and 2,832 strikeouts, and also rose to the occasion in World Series play with three victories over St. Louis in the 1968 classic -- but neither got the kind of vote totals a year ago that would produce any real hope of election.
Among everyday players, my next choice after Williams and McCovey is base-stealing wizard Maury Wills. Shortstops have historically received less than their due from the voters, who seem overly fascinated by slugging statistics, and Wills has been no exception. The election of Luis Aparicio a couple of years ago may have awakened some writers in this regard, though, and while Wills wasn't in that class as a fielder, he got the job done with the glove, hit .281, and led the NL in steals six straight y ears.
Bill Mazeroski is remembered primarily for the home run he hit to win the 1960 World Series, but the longtime Pittsburgh second baseman did a lot more than that in his 17 seasons -- performing well with the glove and contributing solidly to the attack.
Catcher-infielder Joe Torre (.297, with good power statistics) and slugger Orlando Cepeda (also .297 lifetime, with 379 home runs and 1,365 RBIs) are also worth mentioning.
There are others with their supporters too, such as Roger Maris, Harvey Kuenn, Ken Boyer, Tony Oliva, Thurman Munson, Dick Allen, Elston Howard, and Curt Flood. The maximum number for which one can vote, however, is 10 -- so some outstanding candidates have to be left off the ballot. And after whirling it all around in my own mental computer, my choices in no particular order are Williams, McCovey, Hunter, Wills, Burdette, Lolich, Torre, Bunning, Cepeda, and Mazeroski.