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Quiet achiever Billy Williams leads Hall of Fame candidates

Billy Williams, who never got the recognition he deserved during his playing days, appears finally on the verge of entering baseball's Hall of Fame. This is the sixth year on the ballot for Williams, which is already ridiculous in view of the record he compiled during an outstanding 18-year major league career. Billy had a lifetime .290 batting average, 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 in one multi-season stretch, batted over .300 five times, and hit 20 or more homers 14 times.

One can't get away from the thought that these numbers would have put the slugging outfielder in Cooperstown long ago if he had played for more contending teams and/or in New York or on the West Coast. But Williams spent most of his career with the lowly Chicago Cubs of the 1960s and early '70s, where he was pretty much out of the media spotlight.

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This shouldn't have anything do to with it, of course, but over the years it's been pretty obvious that it does. In Williams's first year of eligibility, for example, he was named on only 97 of the 415 ballots cast, finishing a distant 13th in the voting.

He has moved up steadily, however, and last year was named on 315 of the 425 ballots - a tantalizing four votes shy of the 75 percent required for election.

Such a showing would seem to virtually guarantee his election this year - and as the statistics above indicate, it will be none too soon.

The committee making up this year's ballot has listed 28 candidates altogether - 23 returnees and five players newly eligible after the 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 the results to be announced early next year. And while Williams is by far the most clear-cut choice, there are a lot of other names on the list for which one can make a fairly strong case.

Catfish Hunter, who won 224 games, had five 20-victory seasons and pitched well in numerous playoff and World Series appearances, is probably the next strongest possibility. The former Oakland and New York Yankee star got strong support two years ago in his first appearance on the ballot and moved up last year to third place - behind only Willie McCovey (who was elected) and Williams.

A legitimate question, though, is why Jim Bunning, who finished 10 votes further back in fourth place a year ago, shouldn't get at least the same amount of support. The former Detroit and Philadelphia stalwart 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.

Based on last year's vote totals, Williams, Hunter, and Bunning are by far the ``big three'' among returning candidates - and the only ones with enough previous support to have any realistic hope of election. Their chances are strengthened this year, too, by the fact that there are no exceptionally strong candidates among those newly eligible.

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The biggest vote-getter of this quintet will probably be Bobby Bonds, but all you have to do is look at his .268 batting average with 332 home runs and 1,024 RBIs - figures that don't begin to compare with those of Williams - to realize what a long shot he would be. Of course Bonds was one of those rare players who combined speed with power, and he got a lot of publicity for such feats as hitting 30 or more homers and stealing 30 or more bases in the same season five times.

Also newly eligible is Mike Marshall, who pitched for several teams in a 14-year career, set a major league record by appearing in 106 games for Los Angeles in 1974, and is high on the all-time list for both wins and saves by a relief pitcher. The other first-timers are Sal Bando, who had a fine 16-year career mostly with the Oakland A's; Jerry Grote, a solid catcher who also put in 16 big-league seasons and whose strong defensive work helped the New York Mets to their 1969 and 1973 pennants; and Steve Stone, who pitched for several teams over an 11-year span, climaxing his career with a 25-7 Cy Young Award year at Baltimore in 1980.

All good players, to be sure, but it seems clear that none of these newcomers has the credentials to be elected in his first year of eligibility, if ever.

As for the other returnees, their vote totals in previous years don't offer much hope - although some of them certainly have the statistics to merit more than a passing glance.

Take base-stealing wizard Maury Wills, for example. 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 former Los Angeles Dodger star hit .281, led the National League in steals six straight years, and got the job done in the field, but has never received the sort of vote that would indicate he has any chance of eventual election.

Ditto, unfortunately, for Lew Burdette, a renowned ``money pitcher'' who won 203 games, mostly with the old Milwaukee Braves, and who beat the mighty New York Yankees three times in the 1957 World Series, and for Mickey Lolich, who had 217 victories and 2,832 strikeouts, and who also rose to the occasion in World Series play with three victories for Detroit over St. Louis in 1968. Both of these outstanding hurlers would seem to be in the same category as Hunter and Bunning, but neither has ever received comparable support.

And that hardly exhausts the list of possibilities. Tony Oliva was a three-time American League batting champion who hit over .300 six times, and whose lifetime .304 average is the highest of any current candidate. Harvey Kuenn won only one batting title, but bettered .300 on eight occasions and finished just behind Oliva with a .303 career mark.

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 with 379 homers and 1,365 RBIs) are also worth considering.

The rest of this year's candidates, all of whom have their supporters, are Dick Allen, Ken Boyer, Elroy Face, Curt Flood, Elston Howard, Don Larsen, Roger Maris, Minnie Minoso, Thurman Munson, Vada Pinson, Ron Santo, and Wilbur Wood.

The maximum number for which one can vote, however, is 10 - so some outstanding candidates have to be left off. It's a tough call, but after spinning it all around in my own mental computer, I decided to go this year with (in alphabetical order) Bunning, Burdette, Cepeda, Hunter, Lolich, Mazeroski, Oliva, Torre, Williams, and Wills.

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