Tony Perez was way off base. I was sure of it. When the Cincinnati Reds' beloved slugger started to read racism into his exclusion from Baseball's Hall of Fame, I figured it for frustration rather than fact.
Maybe I was mistaken.
A trio of economists at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts have studied Hall of Fame voting patterns and concluded the Cuban-born star would have been inducted by now if he were white.
The charge is impossible to prove, and difficult to dispute. Professors Michael Robinson, James Monks and Arna Desser claim to have found a statistical pattern of voting bias against Hispanic candidates for Cooperstown, enough to keep Perez and Orlando Cepeda on the outside looking in.
"The model that we examined showed there were between four and seven percent fewer votes received by Latin baseball players," Robinson said Wednesday afternoon. "We controlled for a whole series of statistical measures. We used the usual suspects: batting average, RBI and home runs, and we put in variables of whether you're in the top 50 of any category."
A borderline candidate
The relevant math is far too complicated for this forum (and its author), but the results are simply stated and terribly troubling. "We do find evidence of discrimination in voting against Hispanic players," the professors wrote. "We also find evidence that white Hall of Fame nominees have significantly weaker career statistics than African-American nominees and to a lesser extent significantly weaker career statistics than Hispanic nominees."
The Baseball Writers Association of America has been known to hold grudges against difficult personalities - Albert Belle and Ted Williams were each deprived of Most Valuable Player awards because of their attitude toward the media - but racial bias in the press box has rarely been quantified before.
Frankly, I'm still not convinced.
Much as he is revered by Reds fans, Tony Perez is plainly a borderline Hall of Fame candidate. He spent 23 seasons in the major leagues, but never led the league in a significant statistical category. He was more reliable than remarkable, a steady run producer in a lineup that afforded abundant run-producing opportunities. In short, a very good player on a very great team.
I justify Perez' place on my Hall of Fame ballot each year because of his staying power rather than his starpower. For 11 straight years - from 1967 through 1977 - he drove in at least 90 runs per year. With a runner on third base, he was dinero en elbanco.
"If the game goes long enough," Dave Bristol liked to say, "Tony Perez will find a way to win it."
Hall rewards patience
It is painful to watch such a proud and decent man be disappointed year after year, but patience is a big part of the Hall of Fame process. Only baseball's finest players find Cooperstown on the first try, and the rest are required to wait until a consensus forms about their candidacy.
Phil Niekro, who will be enshrined Sunday, finally made it on his fifth year on the ballot. Billy Williams did not succeed until his sixth try.
Duke Snider spent his whole career in the media markets of New York and Los Angeles. He finished with 407 homers and in various seasons led the National League in hits, slugging, homers, runs and RBI. The Duke also happens to be white, yet he was still denied 10 times before he ultimately attained immortality.
This doesn't disprove the Mount Holyoke hypothesis, which was formulated following an examination of the elections between 1980 and 1997. But it does raise the question of whether the overwhelmingly white baseball writers are racist or just slow.
Either way, the study and any attention it receives probably suits Tony Perez' purpose. It places a burden of proof on the voters, and it will surely lead some of them to reassess the Big Dog's career.
"I hope so," Perez said Wednesday. "I hope they just go through it again and check my numbers and check what I did for the teams I played for. I think I belong. I'm sure I belong."