By Adam Kilgore and Chad Finn, Globe staff
Jim Rice was watching his soap operas on television this afternoon, like he always does. At 1:10 p.m., he decided he would call Red Sox media relations director Pam Ganley. He wanted to ask her if she knew whether or not he was in the Hall of Fame.
Then he put the phone down. No, not right now, he thought. He had waited 15 years. What was a few more minutes?
At 1:17, his phone rang. “It’s either good, or it’s bad,” Rice said. “‘I’m sorry,’ or ‘You’re in the Hall of Fame.’ ”
It was the news he has long been awaiting. Jack O’Connell, representing the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, informed Rice he was a Hall of Famer.
The fierce and feared slugger who spent his entire 16-year major league career with the Red Sox, was named on 76.4 percent of the ballots. Seventy-five percent is required for induction. Rice received 412 of 539 votes, just seven more than the minimum amount necessary.
He will be joined in this year’s class by Rickey Henderson, who spent 25 years in the majors and ranks as the all-time leader in runs (2,995) and stolen bases (1,406), and who is widely regarded as the best leadoff hitter of all time. In his first year on the ballot, the 50-year-old Henderson received 94.8 percent of the vote. Induction ceremonies will take place Sunday, July 26, in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Rice, who batted .298 with 382 home runs and 1,451 RBIs from 1974-89 while following Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski in the Red Sox tradition of superstar left fielders, is the first player to be elected in his final year of BBWAA eligibility since 1975, when longtime Pirates star Ralph Kiner was chosen.
“It was a big relief,” Rice said during a 4 p.m. press conference at Fenway Park. “I didn’t have any weight on my shoulders, per se. But when I got the call, it seemed like everything fell back.
“It’s like, I’m not nervous. It’s over with. I feel real good.”
Rice, 54, was his typical steady self at his press conference. He walked out wearing a sweater vest over a long-sleeved polo shirt and slacks. He shook hands with Sox CEO Larry Lucchino, who whispered something that made him laugh. Rice first thanked Red Sox publicist Dick Bresciani, who had compiled a compelling statistical case for Rice and promoted his candidacy perhaps more than anyone else.
He said the first thing he thought about was his father. He thought about high school baseball, learning how to hit the ball to right field, “the little things,” Rice said. He has been steadfast that the wait did not wear on him, but the day brought emotions that suggested otherwise. And that was understandable, for it was a long journey to Cooperstown for Rice, whose candidacy had been a topic of intense debate among writers and fans since he first appeared on the ballot in 1995.
Rice’s supporters long contended that he was the game’s dominant slugger for a 10-12 year stretch, a notion that is frequently seconded by his peers. An eight-time All-Star, Rice was an elite hitter from 1975, when he was runner-up to teammate Fred Lynn for AL Rookie of the Year, until 1986, when the Red Sox fell to the Mets in the World Series.
“It’s about time,” Lynn told the Associated Press “Throw out the statistics. Jimmy was the dominant force in his era. That’s really all you can say when you’re trying to compare guys that played in the ’70s and ’80s to the guys that are playing now. . . . In his heyday, Jimmy was a feared hitter.”
Rice compiled 35 homers and 200 hits in three straight seasons, finished in the top five in Most Valuable Player voting six times, and led the league in total bases four times, including a staggering 406 in during the 1978 season, when he was named the American League MVP after hitting .315 with 46 homers and 139 RBIs in one of the finest individual seasons in franchise history.
“As a player, when I played with Jimmy, I thought it was his best year, which was 1978,” said former teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley. ” It was the most dynamic offensive year that I have ever played with anybody. His acceptance to the Hall is long overdue. As a person, he was a consistent guy. He was always there, every day as a person and every day as a player.”
Rice’s accomplishments became more impressive in retrospect considering they were compiled before the performance-enhancing drug era, which swelled home run numbers throughout the sport.
But those skeptical of Rice’s qualifications also had a reasonable case. His run of true greatness was brief for a Hall of Fame-caliber player, and his skills eroded quickly — he hit just 31 homers in his final three seasons and was essentially finished as an above-average hitter at age 34. Further, they argued, his numbers were inflated by playing half his games in Fenway (he batted .277 on the road in his career), he had little speed and was merely an average left fielder, and he never had a defining postseason moment. (He missed the ’75 World Series with a broken wrist.)
Rice, whose reputation during his playing days as being aloof with the media may have hurt him with some voters, said today he doesn’t comprehend where his naysayers were coming from.
“I don’t understand about being overrated, the numbers spoke for themselves, and during that time, you look at the guys that played the game and the numbers they put up [and mine stand up],” Rice said. “So as far as being overrated, I have no idea.
“I think what you’re trying to get at is that some of the writers probably said I was arrogant. You know that wasn’t true. You want to talk about baseball, I talk about baseball, but I never talked about my teammates. I protected my teammates. I don’t think you should make any excuses, when I felt like as captain of the ball club, I took a lot of pressure off the guys because some guys could handle pressure, some guys couldn’t handle pressure, and I was the type of guy that I got paid to go out and play baseball.”
Rice, who received 72.2 percent of the vote last year, falling 16 votes shy, had history on his side this year. Twenty other players have gathered between 70 and 75 percent of the vote and every one of them ultimately made it to Cooperstown — though some were voted in by the Veterans Committee. The highest percentage for a player who wasn’t elected later was 63.4 by Gil Hodges in 1983, his final time on the ballot.
Rice received just 30 percent of the vote in ’95, his first year on the ballot, but his candidacy received a boost in recent years when Bresciani began sending his comprehensive annual report to Hall of Fame voters on why Rice is worthy of Cooperstown.
According to MLB.com, Rice’s percentage had peaked at 57.9 percent in 2001, and had been as low as 29.4 percent (1999). But in 2005 — the first year of Bresciani’s report — Rice’s percentage rose to 59.5, then 64.8 in 2006, a minor drop to 63.5 percent in ’07, then up to 72.2 percent a year ago.
Bresciani emphasized that Rice led all AL in homers and RBIs during his 16 seasons, and that the only retired players with both a career average and a home run total as high as Rice’s were Hank Aaron, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Mel Ott, Babe Ruth, and Williams — all baseball legends, all of whom are in Cooperstown.
Rice said today that Aaron was a particular inspiration.
“I’d probably say [I tried to be] more like Henry Aaron, I came from South Carolina . . . and of course I met him when he played in Milwaukee . . . I probably looked at Hank more than anyone else,” Rice said.
Andre Dawson, who spent two years with the Red Sox in the early ’90s but spent his prime seasons with the Montreal Expos and Chicago Cubs, was third with 67 percent of the vote, while righthanded pitcher Bert Blyleven was fourth at 62.7 percent. Former Red Sox slugger Mo Vaughn received six votes and was one of nine players who didn’t receive enough support to remain on the ballot.
Rice is the first player whose peak years came while playing for the Red Sox to be elected to the Hall of Fame since his former teammate Wade Boggs in 2005. (Henderson had a brief stopover with the Sox, spending the 2002 season in Boston.) He is also the first African-American player who spent the bulk of this career with the Red Sox to be elected. Other Red Sox who are in the Hall of Fame include Joe Cronin, Bobby Doerr, Rick Ferrell, Carlton Fisk, Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Williams and Yastrzemski.
At the press conference, Rice stayed composed and thoughtful while taking questions for 15 minutes. He told jokes — “Yes, I would be making $27 million today,” he said — and became emotional only once, when he talked about how much Yastrzemski meant to him. Rice gave Yaz credit for teaching him how to play the left field wall at Fenway, and for stepping aside and playing first base to allow Rice to take over in left.
“Yaz only played with one outfielder’s glove,” Rice said, his eyes moistening. “And I have it at my house.”