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Election controversies common in sports world, too

By Steve Aschburner | Friday, Nov. 7, 2008
You think there are political shenanigans leading up to the nation’s Election Day?

Ty Cobb
Few of his baseball colleagues would have thought Detroit’s Ty Cobb (shown in 1917) lived up to his “Georgia Peach” nickname, and several went so far as to sabotage the unpopular star’s efforts to win a contest.

Aching for a recount in any of the races this week? Feeling like your preferred candidate got hosed? Suspicious about exhumed voters, ACORN fiction or old-school dangling chads?

Well, we’ve got some sports elections, runoffs and balloting that will trump anything that took place Tuesday as far as close, questionable or controversial calls:

Nellie Fox’s Missing 0.4%
When Ted Williams was poised on the doorstep of a .400 batting average in 1941 — he began the season’s last day hitting .39955 — people urged him to sit out a final doubleheader against Philadelphia because baseball, like most of the free mathematical world, rounds up. Teddy Ballgame didn’t like that shortcut tactic (baseball’s John Wayne was a Marine Corps pilot during both World War II and the Korean War) so he played in both games, got six hits in eight trips to the plate and finished at .406, becoming the last man to hit .400 in a season for the past 67 years.

Baseball, however, didn’t round up when Nellie Fox needed it most. Fox, a terrific defensive second baseman, a batting order pest (he was virtually unwhiffable, striking out only once every 42.7 at-bats to rank third all-time) and the 1959 AL Most Valuable Player, died of cancer at age 47 in 1975. The popular player and coach was down to his final year of eligibility for the writers’ balloting for baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1985, when he received 74.6 percent of the votes. Ah-ah, not so fast — the Hall doesn’t round up, so Fox was outta luck. He went onto a five-year waiting list, and it wasn’t until 1997 that the shrine’s Veterans Committee gave Fox and his family members the honor of induction.

Splintering With the Electorate
Williams is one of only two players in major league history to win batting’s Triple Crown — leading the league in average, homers and runs batted in for a single season — more than once. Rogers Hornsby did it twice in the National League (1922, 1925) and Williams did it in the AL in 1942 and 1947. In neither season, though, did the Boston left fielder win the Most Valuable Player Award.

Frequently cantankerous in his dealings with the baseball writers, the Splendid Splinter might have caused some of them to cast votes for others. In 1942, while he was dominating the batting stats, Yankees second baseman Joe Gordon was leading the league only in strikeouts and grounding into double plays. Their final stats were not close: Williams batted .356 with 36 HR and 137 RBI, with 141 runs, 145 walks and a .648 slugging percentage, vs. Gordon’s .322, 18, 103, 88, 79 and .491, respectively. Yet Gordon got 12 first-place votes and 270 points to Williams’ nine and 249.

Five years later, it was another Yankee, Joe DiMaggio, edging out Williams in the closest and most controversial MVP result to that time, 202-201. This time, Williams’ numbers were .343, 32 homers, 114 RBI, 125 runs, 162 walks and .634 slugging. The great DiMaggio was less so at .315, 20, 97, 97, 64 and .522. But Mrs. Robinson’s favorite baseball player got eight first place-votes to Williams’ three — a total matched or topped by two other Yankees, pitcher Joe Page (seven) and first baseman George McQuinn (three). Worse, one writer left him off his 10-man ballot entirely. Had any of the 20 who put him second or lower bumped up Williams even one spot, he would have won the award.

As it was, the man who arguably was baseball’s greatest hitter ever won two MVP awards (1946, 1949) but deserved at least two more, with persuasive claims on the honor in 1941, 1948 and 1951, too. But just as in real-life elections, alienating the media makes winning tougher.

Someone Call SCOTUS!
In 2002, Montreal goaltender Jose Theodore won the NHL’s Hart Trophy as the league’s Most Valuable Player over Calgary’s Jarome Iginla in the closest vote ever. Actually, they tied with 434 points each, but Theodore took home the trophy because he had 26 first-place votes to Iginla’s 23. Iginla dominated the individual stats among position players, scoring 52 goals with 96 points, but his Flames team missed the playoffs. Theodore helped the Canadiens squeeze in as the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed, the team’s first postseason in four years.

But Theodore’s triumph in an apples (goalies) vs. oranges (position players), team success vs. individual stardom MVP competition wasn’t the only eyebrow-raiser that spring. He also took the Vezina Trophy on a tiebreaker, getting 15 first-place votes to 12 for Colorado’s Patrick Roy. Two elections in one season worthy of a Bush-Gore recount.

Voters Gone Wild!
The 1957 season in the National League featured such exciting performers and all-time greats as Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Duke Snider and Richie Ashburn. But when the fans’ votes were tallied for that summer’s All-Star Game, the eight NL defensive positions were manned by St. Louis’ Stan Musial and seven members of the Cincinnati Reds. It remains the most impressive example of civic ballot-box stuffing to this day, at least in sports.

The Cincinnati Enquirer triggered the effort by printing pre-marked ballots that readers could simply turn in, the names of the Reds players already checked off. There were rumors that some local taverns wouldn’t serve patrons until they first submitted a ballot. The league office claimed later that its investigation found that more than half of the votes cast came from Cincinnati. And mostly for Cincinnati.

To fix the fraud, commissioner Ford Frick removed outfielder Wally Post from the squad and made Gus Bell a reserve, opening outfield spots for Aaron and Mays. Then he took All-Star voting privileges from the fans, a decision that wasn’t reversed until 1970. Since then, all sports leagues — while craving the promotional impact of All-Star campaigns — have faced and developed safeguards against the “vote early and often” tradition.

Left Off the Ballot Completely
It wasn’t as if Boston pitcher Pedro Martinez missed a filing deadline for the 1999 AL Most Valuable Player election. Martinez, that season, didn’t miss much of anything, turning in one of the game’s greatest single-season pitching performances. He went 23-4 with a 2.07 ERA and struck out 313 batters. The Red Sox made it to the ALCS that year and Martinez was a unanimous choice for his second Cy Young Award. But he finished second in MVP balloting to Texas catcher Ivan Rodriguez, by a vote of 252 points to 239, because two baseball writers omitted him from their 10-man ballots. George King of the New York Post and LaVelle E. Neal of the Star Tribune applied their own eligibility filter, arguing that pitchers didn’t deserve consideration for MVP alongside everyday position players (no such rule exists). So even though Martinez received eight first-place votes to Rodriguez’s seven — and despite King’s irregularity in voting for not one but two pitchers in 1998 — the Red Sox star had no chance working with only 26 ballots to Rodriguez’s 28. Had the two writers thrown Martinez a pair of fourth-place votes, he would have won the award.

Cobb: Not the People’s Choice
Back before the major leagues even had MVP awards, it had performance-based honors. But even these were subject to the fine political subterfuge of rigging. In 1910, the Chalmers Motor Car Co. announced that it would present a Chalmers “30” luxury model to the AL’s best player, as defined by batting average (remember, home runs were rare in those pre-Ruthian days). Heading into September, Cleveland second baseman Nap Lajoie had a lead of 8 points over Detroit’s Ty Cobb, until Cobb went 5-for-6 in a New York doubleheader and 4-for-7 over two days in Chicago late in the season. Then Cobb, who had suffered from an inflamed optic nerve earlier in the month, sat out the Tigers’ final two games; he said his ailment had flared up, while some suspected him of preserving his lead in the batting race.

Cobb, remember, was an unpopular, even despised opponent, known for his obsessive competitiveness, a violent temper and his willingness to inflict pain (sharpened spikes) in pursuit of his wants. There surely was jealousy and envy mixed in; Cobb already had won three batting titles in four seasons and eventually would win eight more. At that rate, he would have needed a parking ramp for all his Chalmers trophies.

Lajoie, meanwhile, was friendly with and admired by his rivals, which got him a lot more than dangling chads. In a doubleheader against the St. Louis Browns on the season’s last day, Lajoie got a triple in his first at-bat — the Browns’ outfielder reportedly fell down. On his next seven trips, Lajoie bunted and reached safely each time. Seems that St. Louis manager Jack O’Connor had ordered rookie third baseman Red Corriden to play far back, near the outfield grass, ostensibly to avoid being hurt by a possible line drive. Lajoie wound up with eight hits. When the official stats were released, he had batted .384084 to Cobb’s .384944, although later research shaved a point off Cobb’s average; the Web site lists Lajoie as the batting champ (.384), with the Georgia Peach second (.383). AL President Ban Johnson learned of the chicanery and effectively ran O’Connor and Browns coach Harry Howell (who allegedly had tried to bribe the day’s official scorer with a suit of clothes) out of the league. Still, legend has it that Lajoie received a telegram of congratulations after his tainted performance from several of Cobb’s teammates.

The Chalmers folks loved the publicity and gave cars to both Cobb and Lajoie. But to avoid future embarrassments, it announced that subsequent Chalmers Awards would go to the league’s best player as voted by a committee of sportswriters.

Indecision Days 2003, 2005 and 2007
Imagine an election in which no one wins. No, wait, we’ve had those. So imagine an election in which no one wins and no one even ends up taking office or filling the position. That’s the result baseball’s Hall of Fame got from its Veterans Committee in 2003. And in 2005. And in 2007.

That group, which is entrusted with combing through the records of players passed over or neglected by the first-phase baseball writers, already had its process changed once after charges it was practicing cronyism. But then, after presumably going too easy on candidates, it seemingly went too hard. Worthy players such as Joe Torre, Ron Santo, Gil Hodges, Maury Wills, Dick Allen and — among those with Twins roots — Tony Oliva, Jim Kaat and Luis Tiant fell short in tough Veterans Committee balloting. So the procedure was tweaked again in 2003, and after the 2007 shutout as well. Now the 64 living Hall members will vote from a ballot of 10 names, with the results announced Dec. 8 for next summer’s class. If there is one.

Red vs. Blue? Or Apples vs. Oranges?
In conventional politics, voters try to predict which people will be effective leaders by reacting to their performances as candidates; the two jobs often are quite different, requiring distinct skill sets. In sports, such misdirection and confusion goes on all the time when intangibles get mixed up with tangibles.

Balloting for the Heisman Trophy in 1997 produced perhaps its most controversial outcome. Tennessee’s Peyton Manning was torching defenses on his way to becoming the best quarterback in SEC history (and eventually one of the NFL’s best ever). But up in Ann Arbor, Mich., cornerback Charles Woodson was helping Michigan to the 1997 national championship, its first since 1948. He was spectacular, with a memorable punt return against Ohio State and an oft-replayed interception against rival Michigan State, though swiping the Heisman from Manning might have topped that on highlight reels. Woodson became the first defensive player to win the award, finishing with 1,815 points and 433 first-place votes. Manning, judged by completely different stats and standards, had 281 first-place votes, 263 seconds and 1,543 points.

The NFL’s Harold Stassen
Compared to baseball’s and some other sports’ Hall of Fame selection process, the Pro Football Hall in Canton, Ohio, truly is a smoke-filled room straight out of old-time politics. A star chamber of football writers gather for face-to-face discussions, with the participants’ personalities and relationships within the room often influencing the verdicts as much as the nominated players’ credentials. That, at least, is how some insiders explain the difficulty certain Vikings had gaining enshrinement; Sid Hartman was their advocate.

Still, you had to wonder just what was being smoked behind those closed doors for seven long years, when Art Monk’s name would come up. The first NFL receiver with more than 900 receptions, Monk finished his career as the league’s all-time leader with 940. Playing 14 of his 16 seasons with Washington, he finishd with 12,721 receiving yards and 68 touchdown catches. He was a three-time all-pro selection, a member of the 1980s all-decade team and a part of three Super Bowl champions, but he didn’t make many circus catches or dazzle at a pivotal point in a memorable game, so he didn’t get an invitation to Canton  until his eighth try. By that time, cornerback Darrell Green, drafted by the Redskins three years after Monk, was joining his old teammate in the Class of 2008. In Green’s first year of eligibility.

The Big Near-Unanimous
Shaquille O’Neal, a monster in dimensions even in his most docile moments, had a particularly Godzilla-like season in 1999-2000. Then with the Lakers, the big man had his most statistically dominant season (29.7 points per game, 13.6 rebounds, 3.02 blocks) and led his team to a 67-15 record and its first NBA championship in 12 years. He was an easy choice for league MVP and would have been the first unanimous selection in the award’s history, if not for sportscaster Fred Hickman.

Hickman, with CNN at the time, voted for Philadelphia’s Allen Iverson. Everyone else among the 121 voters opted for O’Neal. Unwittingly, Hickman was left on an island, coping with death threats on his voicemail at CNN headquarters and angry that his not-so-secret ballot leaked out. “I can’t find out where it came from, but somebody gave me up,” said Hickman, who felt that Iverson’s supporting cast in Philadelphia was far inferior to O’Neal’s in L.A. Obviously, none of his peers applied that standard. Wrote respected NBA maven Bob Ryan in the Boston Globe: “Face it, Freddy. You’ve made a fool out of yourself for all sports eternity.” Even low-key NBA legend Jerry West, the Lakers’ VP of basketball operations, said at O’Neal’s trophy presentation: “God, I feel sorry for the one guy who didn’t vote for him.”

Circle Bert This Time, Please
Someone, by definition, has to qualify as the best player not elected to his respective sport’s Hall of Fame. It’s a designation that no one really wants, however, endlessly sitting in the green room as the last minutes of the late-night talk show tick away. Every night, year after year.

That has been Bert Blyleven’s lot for 11 years so far, most of them spent with the designation, simultaneously impressive and vexing, cited above. Blyleven certainly is the best pitcher not enshrined at Cooperstown. In fact, since 1900, only one man (Nolan Ryan) ranks higher than Blyleven in victories and in strikeouts and in shutouts. His curveball ranked with Sandy Koufax’s in the game’s signature pitches — Walter Johnson and Ryan’s fastballs, Steve Carlton’s slider, Phil Niekro’s and Hoyt Wilhelm’s knuckler, Bruce Sutter’s splitter, Gaylord Perry’s spitter. He won 287 games, struck out 3,701 batters and threw 60 shutouts; the eight pitchers who threw more than 60 and the next 13 in order behind Blyleven in that category all are in the Hall.

Still, it hasn’t been enough to impress the requisite 75 percent of Hall voters. And here’s the quirky thing: In 2007, Blyleven’s support went down for the first time rather than up, his votes slipping to 260 from 277, his percentage to 47.7 from 53.3. Even though none of his achievements changed at all. “If you vote for me one year, how can you not vote for me the next year?” wondered Blyleven, who gets criticized by some for never winning a Cy Young award (Ryan and Juan Marichal never won one either) and reaching 20 victories in a season only once. “I don’t think I lost any more games. I didn’t give up any more home runs” since the earlier year’s voting.

With four more years of eligibility, Blyleven comes up for election again in December. Which, at least, is more than most of Tuesday’s runners-up can say.

Steve Aschburner, who has been writing about sports for nearly three decades, writes about sports and other topics for