On Sunday, the Baseball Hall of Fame welcomed six new members: Barney Dreyfuss (Pirates owner who helped create the World Series), Bowie Kuhn (MLB Commissioner, 1969-84), Walter O'Malley (Dodgers owner whose team won four World Series championships and 11 NL pennants), Billy Southworth (St. Louis manager won two World Series championships), Dick Williams (Oakland manager won two World Series championships, later became second skipper to guide three different franchises to the World Series) and ace reliever Rich "Goose" Gossage, who finally received this much overdue honor. As Tom Paciorek once said after facing Gossage in his prime, "You need a cape to face Gossage, not a baseball bat."
It took the voters nine times to do something that they should have done as soon as Gossage became eligible. I've never understood the Byzantine set of unwritten rules that govern Hall of Fame elections, particularly with baseball but in other sports as well: certain guys are deemed worthy but not "first ballot worthy," other players receive virtually no consideration initially but then their candidacies mysteriously gain ground over the years even though their statistics have obviously not changed and other people who clearly belong in the Hall simply never receive enough votes. In this context it must also be mentioned that the Baseball Hall of Fame changed its rules after Pete Rose's lifetime ban specifically to keep Rose--a first ballot Hall of Famer if there ever was one--out of a shrine that is filled with mementos denoting his numerous achievements (people on MLB's banned list were not barred from being on the HoF ballot until after MLB Commissioner Bart Giamatti excommunicated Rose from the sport).
I could document all the reasons that Gossage should have been inducted nearly a decade ago but the great William Nack--longtime writer for Sports Illustrated--beat me to it with a wonderfully descriptive ESPN.com article that is based on some firsthand reporting that Nack did during Gossage's prime. You really should read the entire thing but here is a taste to whet your appetite:
"No pitcher in the modern era brought a more palpable aura of menace to his work. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, drooping handlebar mustache and all, his eyes as big as pie tins, Gossage would turn his back to batters as he wound up--actually facing toward left field and showing them his number--then explode towards home plate in a tangle of arms and legs, like a man falling out of a tree, hiding the ball until it finally came spinning out of the pinstriped blur. It's no surprise many opposing hitters would wonder, does he have any idea where this pitch is going? And then, discreetly, step to the back of the batter's box."
On October 2, 1978, Gossage's New York Yankees faced the Boston Red Sox in a one game playoff to decide the AL East title. The Yankees led 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth. There were two outs and two men on base when another Hall of Famer, Carl Yastrzemski, stepped into the batter's box to face Gossage, who had literally dreamed about such a matchup: "I went to bed the night before thinking about coming into the game, and I thought I might be facing Yaz with the game on the line. I thought about facing him because he was such a great clutch hitter...It might have been the biggest game of my life."
Gossage induced Yaz to pop up and Nack, who was seated behind home plate, vividly describes the scene: "That they could preserve that moment, in a diorama under glass, in some small corner at Cooperstown--the roaring crowd going instantly silent, as if cut off by a switch. Nearly 33,000 horrified faces looking up, all mouths open. The ball seeming to rise forever, hanging like a blue moon over Fenway, before plunging like an arrow into the heart of...Graig Nettles' glove."
Nack recounts that Gossage was so unhittable that sometimes his catcher would not even try to hide the signs, blatantly letting the batter know that a fastball was coming. It wasn't like there was anything anybody could do about it; Gossage sometimes struck out the side on just 10 or 11 pitches. Closers often work just one inning now but 193 of Gossage's 310 career saves required more than three outs. Nack concludes, "Of the big closers who preceded him to the Hall, including Rollie Fingers (341 saves) and Bruce Sutter (300 saves), Gossage was by far the most fearsome and intimidating, the guy you'd really want facing Yaz in the bottom of the ninth."
At least Gossage finally has been inducted and he lived long enough to enjoy this special day; the great Buck O'Neil passed away and the Hall still has not rectified the injustice that it did to him. O'Neil played 12 seasons in the Negro Leagues and also won multiple Negro League championships as a manager. Statistics from that era are not always reliable but if there was any question about whether his playing credentials earned him induction in the Hall of Fame then his decades-long service as a great ambassador for the sport--including his pivotal role in the creation of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City--should have sealed the deal without question. He played an instrumental role in prodding the Hall of Fame to grant induction to many Negro Leaguers whose achievements had been neglected for decades but in a sad and twisted irony O'Neil fell short of the required votes when he was placed on a special Negro League Hall of Fame ballot in 2006. If this unjustified slight made the then-94 year old bitter he did not let those feelings show publicly, declaring, "God's been good to me. They didn't think Buck was good enough to be in the Hall of Fame. That's the way they thought about it and that's the way it is, so we're going to live with that. Now, if I'm a Hall of Famer for you, that's all right with me. Just keep loving old Buck. Don't weep for Buck. No, man, be happy, be thankful." The Hall invited O'Neil to introduce the new Negro League Hall of Famers at the 2006 induction ceremony that should have been a crowning honor for him. Many people would have told the Hall exactly where to stick that invitation but O'Neil came there and stole the show. He passed away just a few months later.
It is obvious that O'Neil should have been inducted in the Hall of Fame but the Hall cannot seem to bring itself to correct this error; instead, after O'Neil's death the Hall built a statue of O'Neil to be placed in the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and created a Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award. The first winner is none other than O'Neil himself. I can't recall another example of an award being created to honor the person for which it is named but I guess this is the Hall's way of admitting it messed up without actually admitting it messed up.