Claim to fame: Belle may be the fourth-best power hitter of the 1990s after Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds and Frank Thomas. In a 12-year career from 1989-2000, Belle hit 381 home runs with a .295 batting average. He smacked at least 30 homers eight straight seasons, led the league in RBI three times and made five All Star appearances. He also did so apparently without steroids. Famously surly, Belle told a Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter last year, “I was just an angry black man.”
Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Belle appeared on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot twice, receiving 7.7 percent of the vote in 2006 and 3.5 percent the following year, which removed him from future ballots. He will be eligible for enshrinement by the Veterans Committee in 2021.
Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Short of Lou Whitaker receiving 2.9 percent of the Hall of Fame vote from the BBWAA his only year of eligibility, I think Belle peaking at 7.7 percent of the vote is the greatest Cooperstown injustice of the past decade. But it isn’t surprising.
Belle’s attitude may have influenced at least one voter. And historically, if a non-white player has been perceived to have character issues, he shouldn’t count on making the Hall of Fame. Just ask Dick Allen, Dave Parker, Dwight Gooden and Maury Wills. Ask Jose Canseco, who would’ve lost votes even if it never was confirmed he did steroids. Same goes for Bonds who alienated writers long before he (probably) started juicing.
Many white players with questionable characters have been enshrined, from Ty Cobb, so reviled by fellow players that only three attended his funeral, to Tris Speaker, Rogers Hornsby and Gabby Hartnett who told sportswriter Fred Lieb they were in the Ku Klux Klan. Pete Rose was barred for life for gambling in 1989, and he still received as many Hall of Fame votes in 1992 as Belle got in 2006 with 40.
I took a look at recent white inductees to the Hall of Fame, and none appear to be scumbags. Off the cuff, I couldn’t think of any recent white player denied Cooperstown for this reason. But that could have more to do with the fact that the sports media doesn’t seem to negatively label white players as often it does others.
If a minority wants to be enshrined, he’d better be as beloved as Jackie Robinson, Ozzie Smith or Kirby Puckett. And Puckett ballooned to 300 pounds, developed hypertension and died at 45, after it emerged he was, in fact, human, rather than a lovable stereotype.
Occasionally, minorities with less than glowing reputations are honored. Jim Rice, a player who clashed with the media, made it with the BBWAA on his 15th try. The Veterans Committee tabbed Orlando Cepeda, who served a drug-related prison sentence. The writers also selected one of their arch-nemeses, Eddie Murray, on his first ballot, but with 3,255 hits and 504 home runs, anything less would have been unjust. For fringe candidates, I venture character keeps a minority out of Cooperstown more often than it gets him in.
Belle is a fringe candidate. Baseball-Reference ranks him similar to two batters in Cooperstown, Ralph Kiner and Hank Greenberg, as well as another who’s destined to join them, Albert Pujols, and a few other players who could make it eventually, including Allen; Belle also rates near or above on three of the four Hall of Fame monitoring metrics listed on the site.
I ding Belle most for quitting at 34 due to injuries, like my subject here last week, Don Mattingly and for being somewhat one-dimensional, simply an amazing hitter. Belle was dominant enough in this capacity for most of his career I’d probably honor him, but I suspect I’m in the minority, to pardon the expression.
Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here that debuted June 1.