MLB Hall of Fame: Their mortality brought them immortality

PITTSBURGH, PA - CIRCA 1976: Dick Allen #15 of the Philadelphia Phillies and Willie Stargell #8 of the Pittsburgh Pirates stand next to each other during an Major League Baseball game circa 1976 at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Allen played for the Phillies from 1963-69 and 1975-76. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - CIRCA 1976: Dick Allen #15 of the Philadelphia Phillies and Willie Stargell #8 of the Pittsburgh Pirates stand next to each other during an Major League Baseball game circa 1976 at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Allen played for the Phillies from 1963-69 and 1975-76. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images) /
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(Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images) /

Harry Heilmann

One of the great hitters of Detroit Tigers history, Heilmann played 17 major league seasons, all but two of them for the Tigers. A career .342 batter, he won four batting titles, each of them with prodigious numbers. Heilmann batted .394 in 1921, .403 in 1923, .393 in 1925 and .398 in 1927.

When he retired in 1932, he ranked 11th in batting average. In the intervening 90 seasons, only one player – Ted Williams – has left the game with a higher batting average.

Heilmann was so beloved in Detroit that once his playing days were over he was a natural for the radio booth. Tiger fans could tune in regularly through the 1940s to hear him regale them with  stories of his playing days alongside Ty Cobb and other legends.

Somehow, however, he was not as highly thought of elsewhere. Perhaps Heilmann’s problem lay in the perception of him as one-dimensional. Yes, he could hit, but he was slow afoot, an indifferent fielder and with an arm that was average at best.

Perhaps for that reason, his Hall candidacy never took off. In the first five Hall elections, he never got more than 5 percent of the vote. That only began to change in the late 1940s. Still, by 1951 Heilmann’s pulling power had only peaked at 67.7 percent. That left him fourth behind Mel Ott and Jimmie Foxx – both of them inducted – as well as Paul Waner.

The election had been held early in the year. That spring Heilmann was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died in July, a few days after Cobb – in a gesture designed to make him feel comfortable in his waning mortality – told Heilmann that Hall of Fame voters had elected him. In truth they had not.

Within months, however, Hall voters gave truth to Cobb’s lie. In the 1952 election, he was the top vote-getter, picking up nearly 50 votes of support from the previous election.