Hall open for select group

Weekend vote could be last chance for some of baseball's greats of a bygone era

Section: Sports,  Page: C1

Date: Sunday, February 26, 2006

Should Buck O'Neil, the 94-year-old first baseman and coach of the Negro leagues' legendary Kansas City Monarchs, be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Monday, he'll have to prepare the speech of a lifetime.

Not to mention up to 37 other lifetimes as well. That's because O'Neil is one of only two living members on a ballot of 39 Negro leagues and pre-Negro leagues candidates being considered for induction by a 12-member panel that is meeting this weekend in Tampa, Fla. Results will be revealed Monday. Anyone named on nine or more ballots will join Bruce Sutter in the Hall of Fame Class of 2006, to be inducted July 30 in Cooperstown.

Representing an entire storied group would seem monumental, but it's nothing new for O'Neil.

"I've been speaking for these players for a long time," he said. "If I'm not even voted into the Hall of Fame, I'm going to have to be the one to speak for these guys. I'm the only one left."

Nobody has been more active in promoting the other side of pre-integration baseball than O'Neil. He led the charge for the foundation of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, and campaigned for his colleagues' induction into the Hall of Fame as a member of the Veterans Committee.

Unlike the 20 years O'Neil served on the Veterans Committee, he'll have no say in who's elected this time. A 12-person committee of experts on the history of black and Hispanic baseball will vote on 39 of the best players who played before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.

The vote is the culmination of a project commissioned and funded by a $250,000 grant from Major League Baseball in July 2000.

Why now

While the special ballot aims to celebrate the achievements of players whose entry into Major League Baseball was either denied or delayed because of segregation, only two of the candidates - O'Neil and Minnie Minoso - are around to enjoy a possible induction, an honor only 18 Negro leaguers have received thus far.

Those involved in the process, however, said a comprehensive compilation of statistics and records could not have happened much earlier.

"By the end of the '90s, there was a number of academically minded people focusing on the Negro leagues as part of their masters and Ph Ds, and it was the right time to engage in such a study," said Jeff Idelson, the Hall's vice president of communication and education.

Dick Clark, who with Larry Hogan and Larry Lester was tapped by the Hall to head the study, said time and money are big issues.

"Everybody who gets into the Negro league research heavily doesn't realize how difficult it is, and how time-consuming and even costly it can be," Clark said.

"Yes, it could've been done earlier, but not in the '70s or '80s. You had to get to the point where everybody has (computers) and have all these programs so you can run all this stuff and get it into databases."

A team of more than 30 researchers delved through the pages and microfilm of 128 newspapers charting the history of black baseball, specifically targeting the box scores from 1920 (the year the Negro National League was founded) to 1948 (the year after Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers) to compile an official record book.

By the end of the five-year study, the group had uncovered nearly 100 percent of the box scores from the 1920s, 90 percent from the 1930s and 50 to 70 percent from the 1940s. Combined with a growing library but a less complete collection of stats and stories from pre-Negro league baseball, Hogan says the study created "an emerging picture of great baseball played by great baseball players."

Complications: Baseball is married to statistics more than any other sport, and discussion over a player's worth usually centers on his numbers no matter his color. So while the Negro league statistics compiled by Clark, Lester and their assistants are more complete than ever, interpreting them poses unique challenges.

``A big part of the education process with the public is the reality of what constituted a Negro leagues schedule,'' Idelson said.

Those compiling the statistics only counted box scores from sanctioned Negro league games, in which a team either played a professional black team, or a team made up of professional white ballplayers. Official Negro leagues schedules were often only 50 to 60 games long. Teams would fill in the rest of the year barnstorming around the country playing semi-pro teams and other exhibition clubs. As a result, on average, for every three games a Negro leaguer played, only one could be counted.

Those who have heard legendary catcher Josh Gibson hit 850 home runs in his career might be disappointed to see only 115 on his official career stat line. Satchel Paige averaged 15 wins a season, meaning he would have to pitch 100 years to match some of the win totals attached to his name. Both Gibson and Paige already are in the Hall of Fame.

While Gibson's home run total is 640 shy of Hank Aaron's record, he could well have matched Aaron had their seasons been of equal length, because he hit homers nearly as frequently as Babe Ruth. Paige is a special case, because a large portion of the conflict lies in how he was employed. As the biggest drawing card in the Negro leagues, he rarely had a day off.

``He pitched all the time, but he pitched the first three innings in general, and seldom would he pitch into the sixth or seventh inning,'' Clark said. Major league rules state that a starter must pitch at least five innings to record a win. ``A lot of the games that stated that Paige was the winning pitcher, we didn't necessarily give him the win.''

The reduced win total should not diminish Paige's status as one of the greatest pitchers of his time. His earned-run average of 2.40 is the lowest in league history.

Last chance: For O'Neil and Minoso, Monday's ballot may be the last chance to enter the Hall. Under the old method, Negro leagues players were up for induction every two years with the rest of a select group of major leaguers on the Veterans Committee ballot.

However, with the known sources of sanctioned Negro league play history unearthed, accounted for and exhausted, there are no future ballots planned.

``We would never close the doors completely,'' Idelson said, ``but we won't hold another election until there's more research uncovered.''

This all-encompassing vote aims to shed light on those who were just as accomplished as the already-enshrined Negro leaguers but never received the same recognition, including managers and executives.

O'Neil said he worries about the fate of the 37 players he would be representing before his own. There is no guarantee another chance to have their legacies cemented in Cooperstown will come along.

If a second ballot was assured, O'Neil said, it would be OK to ``just put some in now and some in at another time. But I do believe that if this is the last draw, everybody on the list should be in the Hall of Fame.''

Jim Margalus can be reached at 454-5066 or by e-mail at jmargalus@timesunion.com.

****FACT BOX:****

Baseball Hall of Fame What: The Negro Leagues and Pre-Negro Leagues Ballots. Who: Ten names are on a ballot of pre-Negro leagues candidates, and 29 are on a ballot for players, managers and executives from the Negro leagues era. Procedure: A 12-member voting committee, appointed by the Hall of Fame Board of Directors and chaired by former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, is meeting this weekend in Tampa, Fla., to review the final ballots and cast votes. Any candidate with ``yes'' votes on at least nine ballots will be elected to the Hall of Fame and inducted on July 30, joining Bruce Sutter, the lone electee from the Baseball Writers' Association of America election for 2006. Results will be announced Monday. Candidate biographies: http://baseballhalloffame.org