On June 2nd, 1970, while I was just a little 8-year old wrapping up the 3rd grade year at Our Lady of Mount Carmel school in South Philly and had not yet become the big baseball fan that I have since, the Minnesota Twins called up from their minor league system a 19-year old right handed pitcher by the name of Bert Blyleven.
In that first abbreviated season of four months length, the kid with just 21 minor league starts under his belt used a devastating curveball to help him rack up 10 victories for Minnesota. For that debut performance The Sporting News selected him as it’s American League ‘Rookie of the Year’ for 1970.
Over the ensuing two decades, Blyleven continued to bedevil hitters in both the A.L. and N.L. with what became widely regarded by the end of his career as the best curveball ever thrown in the long history of the sport. He used that curveball to help two different clubs, the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates and the 1987 Minnesota Twins, win the World Series. He was the 1989 A.L. Comeback Player of the Year, a 2-time All-Star, and pitched a no-hitter in 1977.
Blyleven completed more than a third of his 685 career starts over 23 seasons, winning 287 games and registering 60 shutouts. He also used that curve to strikeout 3,701 batters which leaves him fourth on the all-time list behind only a quartet of living legends: Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, Steve Carlton, and Roger Clemens.
On Wednesday afternoon, a long injustice was finally, mercifully righted when Bert Blyleven was voted permanent enshrinement into the Baseball Hall of Fame. His election came in his 14th year of eligibility, leading to the obvious question: what took the voters so long?
The facts show that at the time he was first eligible in 1998, Blyleven was the best eligible pitcher not in the Hall of Fame at that point. Now that, of course, does not in itself mean he should have been enshrined. However, with his statistical achievements over a storied career, the man known as “the Dutchman” do to his having been born in Holland should certainly have been enshrined early in his eligibility.
Instead of early enshrinement, Blyleven found himself being named on only 17.55% of the necessary 75% of the voters ballots that first year. By the 2nd year of his eligibility, Ryan was elected to the Hall, and Blyleven had dropped to just 14.1% of the voters support.
Voters then seemed to begin slowly evaluating Blyleven’s stats and his worthiness. He had climbed to over 35% of the voters by 2004, and by 2006 he had received 53.3% of the voters ballots. No one who has ever received more than 50% has failed to eventually become enshrined in the Hall of Fame, and Blyleven’s support continued to rise as more and more voters began to realize the injustice of his having been passed over for so long.
The ridiculousness of what is running through the minds of some voters is a topic for another, lengthier article. Suffice it to say that during the period in which Blyleven was being passed over for enshrinement, votes were being cast for players who had no business receiving the support from any voter who knows what they are doing.
Good but obviously unworthy players such as Walt Weiss, Rick Dempsey, John Candelaria, and Steve Sax received votes for the Hall of Fame. Phillies fans will be happy to know that some voter in consecutive years cast ballots for John Kruk, Lenny Dykstra, and Darren Daulton. Nice players all. Hall of Famers, none. Ludicrous.
Finally the voters have gotten it right, although it says here that Bert Blyleven, who has gone on to a colorful 2nd career in the game as a broadcaster for his beloved Twins, should still have received even more than the 79.7% of the vote that he did eventually receive. He will enter the Hall of Fame officially in ceremonies this coming summer that will also honor 2nd baseman Roberto Alomar and former Phils GM Pat Gillick.
Now the question will turn to the next Blyleven, candidates who are worthy of selection but who have not yet gained admittance to baseball’s most exclusive club where less than 1% of those who have ever played the professional game have managed to enter. The Hall of Fame voters take up the cases next year of players such as Barry Larkin, Alan Trammell and Lee Smith, all of whom would have joined both Alomar and Blyleven on my own personal ballot this past year.