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Good For Harold

As a kid my heroes were Fox, Aparicio and Minoso. For my two sons, it was Harold. As in Baines, who was surprisingly voted into baseball's Hall of Fame on Sunday by the 16 members of Today's Game Era Committee, a group that was one of three begotten when the Veterans Committee was dissolved in 2010.

Twelve votes are required from committee members for admission to the Hall, and Harold garnered just that many. Cub reliever Lee Smith justifiably was a unanimous choice.

One can assume that Harold's candidacy was bolstered by two committee members, Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and Tony LaRussa, Baines' manager for the first seven seasons of his 22-year career. But, c'mon people, as citizens of Chicago, what's the big deal? Besides, this is more transparency than we usually get.

Former players from Baines' era, Bert Blyleven, Roberto Alomar, Joe Morgan, Greg Maddux and Ozzie Smith, are also committee members, so let's conclude that most, if not all, of them developed a profound respect for Harold's ability.

The unassuming Baines, a guy who wasn't often quoted in the press because of his quiet nature, said, "[I] wasn't really expecting it, but very grateful it happened. I have four wonderful kids who are very proud of their dad today." Typical Harold and quite refreshing in this Age of Bluster.

I learned about Baines' selection when son Billy texted, "HOF Harold." The kid must have taken a course in the Harold Baines School of Understatement. My response, "I'm beyond thrilled. This is great news!"

He and his brother were far more animated for those Opening Days in the early '80s when we pulled them out of school, grabbed all the down clothing the closet had to offer, and sat in our regular seats in the frigid lower deck in right field at Comiskey as Harold patrolled the real estate in front of us.

At the age of 18, Baines was the very first choice in the amateur draft of 1977. He had just graduated from St. Michael's High School in Easton, Maryland and was no stranger to Sox owner Bill Veeck, who after his initial ownership of the Sox retired to his farm on Maryland's eastern shore in 1960 because of health concerns. According to the story, Veeck first spied Baines as a 12-year-old Little Leaguer, and he kept tabs on him, especially after Veeck re-acquired the team in 1975.

It took Baines just three seasons in the minor leagues before his big league debut in 1980. The Twitter world lit up after the announcement of Baines' selection with the majority claiming that there are far more deserving players, such as Edgar Martinez, Larry Walker, Fred McGriff and others. The never-ending discussions about who should or shouldn't be Hall of Famers were ignited although most were respectful of Harold's record.

Part of the opposition stems from the fact that for more than half of his career Baines was almost exclusively a designated hitter. Forget the fact that the DH has been around for 40 years, and that Baines was an above average outfielder until his knees prevented him from playing in the field. He's a prime example of how the DH lets fans watch and appreciate a player who can still excel in the offensive aspect of the game.

Over the last nine years of Harold's tenure, he played exactly two innings in right field for the Sox in 1997. No one hit the ball to him. I have no recollection of even seeing him play catch toward the end of his career. Nowhere has it been documented that he so much as had his own glove after the age of 35, but certainly he must have.

Much is being made of Harold's low career wins above replacement (WAR), which is 38.7. He also never got more than 6.1 percent of the vote when he was on the ballot for the baseball writers' tally. In his last year on that ballot, 2011, he got 4.8 percent, far below the required 75 percent for admission to the HOF.

So what? Ozzie Smith was a career .262 hitter, and he's in. So is Phil Rizzuto, a .273 hitter. But they were shortstops, and shortstops - especially in Scooter's era - weren't supposed to hit then. Both of those guys also could do a lot of other stuff, like make plays, steal bases, and, in Rizzuto's case, win ball games surrounded by all those Yankee superstars.

What Harold could do was hit - in the clutch over a very long period of time. He's 20th all-time in games played with 2,830, and only 33 players have more than his 1,628 RBI. Harold collected 2,866 hits, ranking 46th in history, just seven behind - get this! - Babe Ruth.

Arguably Baines' most memorable home run among his 384 came on May 9, 1984, a walkoff job that gave the Sox a 7-6 victory in 25 innings. Actually the game started the day before and was stopped by mutual agreement after 17 innings with the scored tied at 3. The teams resumed play the next day at Comiskey. When Harold ended it, the clock read eight hours and six minutes, the longest game in major league history. At the time we joked that Harold simply got tired of playing so he hit a home run, enabling the regularly scheduled game to be played. Looking back, there's probably some truth to that assumption.

Talking about Comiskey Park, in his 14 years with the White Sox, Baines played more than 800 games in the cavernous old stadium. Had he played in the present park on 35th Street, he most certainly would have hit a lot more home runs.

While the arguments will continue, Baines' election provides a touch of justice for Sox fans like myself who feel that Minoso, whose entry into the American League was delayed because of the color of his skin, should also be in the shrine. Minnie's birth year has always been a mystery, but when he first appeared in a Sox uniform in 1951, he was somewhere between 25- and 28-years-old. Baseball guru Bill James avers that Minoso would be among the top 30 players all-time if he hadn't been sidelined by the color barrier.

Baines' ascendancy also coincided with the election of Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor, in 1983. "You want Harold?" Washington said on election night, "Well, here's Harold." At Comiskey that meant Baines, and when he came to bat, the ballyard reverberated with chants of "Har-old, Har-old, Har-old." He responded that season with 20 homers and 99 RBI as the Sox juggernaut under LaRussa's direction won 99 games and outdistanced the division by 20 games before losing a tough playoff series to the Orioles. The All-Star Game that magical summer also was played at Comiskey, celebrating the 50th year of the so-called classic. Baines didn't make the team that season, but he went on to play in six All-Star Games.

When Veeck greeted the media upon drafting Baines more than 41 years ago, he claimed that Harold's "next stop will be Cooperstown." It's scary how prescient Veeck was. Veeck, who had a number of enemies within the baseball establishment because of his outspokenness and disdain of the status quo, nevertheless was voted into the Hall in 1991. Now he'll be joined by that 12-year-old kid he first saw on that Little League diamond back in Maryland.

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Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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1. From Tom Essig:

Harold Baines has a bobblehead figurine which certainly should've helped in his HOF selection.

bainesbobble2.jpg

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2. From Brad Herzog:

Roger, you wouldn't believe how many people have e-mailed and texted me about Baines. I guess I have the reputation of being a BIG fan. I've been telling people that I grew up in Chicago in the 1980s - the heyday of Payton and Jordan - and still, Baines was my favorite athlete. If HOF voters were White Sox fans between the ages of 40 and 60, he'd have been unanimous a long time ago.

I've been telling the haters he's kind of like Frank Gore in the NFL. Never thought of as a Hall of Famer, but now that he's 5th all-time in rushing yards, he's going to end up in Canton. Longevity and consistency can count for something. Baines had more career hits than George Sisler, Charlie Gehringer, Chipper Jones . . . more homers than Jim Rice, Gil Hodges, Joe DiMaggio . . . more RBI that Brett, Schmidt, McCovey, Kaline, Speaker, Stargell . . .

I had forgotten about that Veeck quote about Cooperstown. We all thought he didn't quite live up to it. Go figure.

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