Cooperstown calls for Henderson and Rice, Murphy still waits

Grant McAuleyContributor IIJanuary 13, 2009

The National Baseball Hall of Fame welcomed two new members on Monday, as both Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice were voted in by the Baseball Writers of America. Both players inclusion in Cooperstown may help shine a new light on the superstars of the 1980s, including Atlanta Braves legend and all-around good guy, Dale Murphy.

No decade has had more confusion as to how the merits of its most dominant players will earn them induction in the Hall of Fame. It may have taken some convincing with Rice, but there was absolutely no question about Henderson's credentials.

Henderson was named on 511 of the 539 votes cast, or 94.8 percent of the vote. His record of 1,406 stolen bases will likely never be approached, let alone broken. The combination of both speed and power to go along with a keen eye at the plate made Henderson one of the biggest stars of the '80s, perhaps baseball's most under-appreciated decade.

While Henderson's mantle was that of the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history, if the topic turns to great sluggers of the '80s, Dale Murphy is a name that usually surfaces early and sticks around late in the conversation.

A quick look at Murphy's numbers might make it easy to dismiss him in the light of a first ballot shoo-in such as Henderson. Coming up as a catcher before moving to first base and eventually landing in the outfield, Murphy solidified his game and became one of the biggest shining stars in the sport, both on and off the field.

Murphy captured back-to-back National League MVP awards in 1982 and 1983, joining the 30-30 club in the second of those campaigns. He lead the league in homers in both '84 and '85 and cobbled together a consecutive games streak of 740 all the while.

His work at the plate was matched by his work in center field, where he captured five Gold Glove Awards. Throw in seven All-Star appearances, including being the leading vote-getter in 1985, and four Silver Slugger Awards, and you start get an accurate representation of how good Murphy was in his prime.

Detracting from Murphy's Hall of Fame case is his precipitous decline that began in 1988 and saw his career end due to chronic knee problems after the 1993 season. His career batting average of just .265 would not be the lowest in the Hall, but is usually the first place one starts to build the case against his enshrinement.

The 1,748 times Murphy struck out ranked him seventh at the time of his retirement and provides the second blow of a one two punch that is likely enough to give any voter pause. Though he was unable to reach 400 homers, standing at 398, Murphy can likely thank the work stoppage of 1981 for that shortcoming.

Many noted sluggers of the '80s, guys like Murphy, Rice, Andre Dawson, and Dave Parker, who did not also reach the 3,000-hit plateau, have found it harder to meet the admissions standards of the voters. Eddie Murray and Dave Winfield are two prime examples of sluggers who reached 3,000 hits to solidify their candidacy.

While some voters will take the performance of these players and place it in the context of the era in which each man played, others have likely had their power number standards forever altered by the performance enhancing drug scandals of this past decade.

Rice caused voters to languish over the slugging achievements of his first 12 seasons, ultimately giving him 412 votes for 76.4 percent on his 15th and final time on the writers' ballot. Players must be named on 75 percent of the vote to gain entry.

A .298 career hitter with 382 homers and 1,451 RBI over parts of 17-seasons with the Boston Red Sox, Rice put up more than half a dozen MVP-caliber years and captured the award in 1978.

The onslaught of 400, 500, and even 600-home-run club members with questions surrounding their accomplishments only serves to diminish the power numbers attained by players like Rice, Murphy, Dawson, and Parker in the minds of many of the writers charged with the task of selecting baseball's best for enshrinement.

Much of the debate around these borderline Hall of Fame candidates is that when placed against his peers, there is generally always one player from their generation that sets the bar. You could make a case that Mike Schmidt—with his 548 home runs—was the primordial power hitter of Murphy's era.

Voter standards for comparison are made both statistically and by the position, but no two writers utilize an identical standard. That leaves a player's accomplishments up for interpretation, based on his era, the teams he played for and his mastery of the game against both his opponents and statistical peers.

Putting aside his amazing consecutive game streak for a moment, Cal Ripken's numbers make him one of the greatest slugging shortstops of all-time, but would not land him a spot near the top of the best slugging outfielders or first basemen in the game's history.

That does little to change the fact that Ripken's numbers, at any position, would still be Hall worthy.

There is no set formula of achievements and milestones that creates a Hall of Famer. Mythical statistics, such as 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, remain the most readily identifiable resume points to identify a player who has the numbers that define greatness at the plate. The latter of those may change in the face of this past decade's PED scandals. Just wait until Rafael Palmiero is on the ballot.

With Murphy, Dawson and Parker joining the likes of Tim Raines, Don Mattingly, Alan Trammell and others, it may be still another decade more before the Hall voters en masse are truly able to appreciate some of the greatest position players of 1980s.

In the end, the Veterans Committee may be the ones who hear the cries of baseball's often overlooked stars of yesteryear.