Five years ago New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner went to his senior media adviser, Arthur Richman, with an order: Get former Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Richman got in touch with his friends on the Hall's veterans' committee, men whom he had helped throughout his life: Gabe Paul, former White Sox manager Al Lopez and others.
Result: Rizzuto entered Cooperstown in 1994.
"I busted my cookies to get him his votes," Richman said.
Richman's efforts on behalf of Rizzuto are perfectly legitimate and some would argue that they were warranted for a five-time all-star who was the American League most valuable player in 1950.
But some critics question politicking in hall of fame selections. They say too much back-scratching or score-settling among voters for the four major sports' halls results in honoring the wrong people and leaving others out.
"Sometimes the hall of fames receive a great deal of political pressure, and therefore it's not always the case that the best ballplayers will be inducted that year," said Richard Lapchick, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society. However, Lapchick and several other sports observers said that the process is generally fair and beneficial to the sports involved.
The debate over who gets in and who doesn't is likely to be renewed after the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announced its 1999 inductees at a news conference at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday.
This year many in the Washington area are following the Basketball Hall's selections because two of its most important sports figures are among the 19 candidates: former Georgetown University men's basketball coach John Thompson and DeMatha High School coach Morgan Wootten. Thompson was the first African American men's basketball coach to win a national championship; Wootten is one the country's most successful high school coaches.
The Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., has tried to insulate itself from politics by not disclosing who makes up its four screening committees and its honors committee. Members of the committees don't even know who their fellow voters are because the meetings are held via telephone.
The four screening committees are composed of seven members each, four of whom are Hall of Famers. A candidate must receive five of the seven votes to pass through to a 24-member honors committee. Candidates who receive at least 18 votes from the honors committee are inducted into the Hall.
Former Philadelphia 76ers and Portland Trail Blazers coach Jack Ramsay, now a television analyst for ESPN, said the secrecy keeps the selectors from being besieged by lobbyists. Ramsay said for two years he wrote letters to the Hall of Fame nominating his friend, Alex Hannum, who was elected last year.
"I promoted his cause," Ramsay said.
While noting "there's a lot of crazy reasons" why candidates don't get enshrined, Buffalo News columnist Larry Felser said the selection process for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, is the most democratic. Its 36 selectors, mostly media members, narrow 75 nominees down to about 15 potential inductees. During a closed-door meeting on Super Bowl Sunday, there are hours of discussion as each member states their case for or against nominees, who are narrowed to six. Each member of the final group of six, plus a senior player, must get 80 percent of the votes on a paper ballot to make the Hall of Fame.
Felser said a block of NFL writers wouldn't vote Oakland Raiders principal owner Al Davis into the Pro Football Hall of Fame for years because of Davis's one-time leadership of the American Football League, which merged with the NFL in 1968. In 1992, Davis got in. Other opposition froze former Baltimore Colts star John Mackey, a players' union activist, out of the Hall of Fame until former Giants general manager George Young, who is respected in the league, worked on Mackey's behalf.
The Baseball Writers Association of America votes by mail each year for players nominated by a special screening committee. Players are not eligible to enter the Hall until they have been retired for five years, and then they have up to 15 years to be elected.
In addition to those selected by the baseball writers, the veterans' committee is allowed to vote in one person each year. This year the veterans committee's selection is umpire Nestor Chylak, who was championed by Hall of Famer Ted Williams, who sits on the committee.
Richman said that "as the years go by [the Hall of Fame selection] is becoming more political, especially on the veterans committee. There are guys who should be in the hall like Mickey Vernon," who played with the Washington Senators and led the AL with a .353 batting average in 1946.
"If he played for the Yankees," said Richman, "he would have been in 20 years ago."
1999 Basketball Hall of Fame Nominees
Selections will be announced on Tuesday:
Morgan Wootten, DeMatha H.S.
John Thompson, Georgetown
Jim Phelan, Mount St. Mary's
Gus Johnson, former Bullet
Maurice Cheeks, former 76er
Dennis Johnson, former Celtic
Bob McAdoo, former Brave
Kevin McHale, former Celtic
Sidney Moncrief, former Buck
Chet Walker, former 76er
Jo Jo White, former Celtic
Tex Winter, coach
Wayne Embry, NBA executive
CAPTION: John Thompson won an NCAA title in 1984 and coached the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team in 1988.