Chipper Jones and Jim Thome lead large class into baseball Hall of Fame

Atlanta Braves' Chipper Jones hits an RBI-single during the third inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Baseball Hall of Fame has rarely had a class like this.

On Wednesday it welcomed four new members — Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, Vladimir Guerrero and Trevor Hoffman — in voting by the baseball writers. A smaller committee elected two other players, Jack Morris and Alan Trammell, in December.

The six living inductees match the most ever, and will be honored for their playing careers at a ceremony in Cooperstown, New York, in July. The only other class of newcomers with six living player-inductees was in 1955, when Home Run Baker, Joe DiMaggio, Gabby Hartnett, Ted Lyons, Ray Schalk and Dazzy Vance made it.

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“We have a large class,” said Hoffman, the first pitcher to reach 600 saves. “I couldn’t be more humbled and excited to be part of such an amazing group.”

This year’s class was nearly even bigger — Edgar Martinez missed induction by 20 votes, collecting 70.4 percent of ballots from the 422 voting members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Others who gained more than half the votes, but fell short of the 75 percent threshold for induction, were Mike Mussina (63.5 percent), Roger Clemens (57.3), Barry Bonds (56.4) and Curt Schilling (51.2).

Bonds is the career home run leader and Clemens is the only pitcher in history with 350 wins and 4,000 strikeouts. But both have ties to performance-enhancing drug use, and failed to gain election on their sixth try. Candidates can remain on the ballot for 10 years, as long as they receive at least 5 percent of the vote. Manny Ramirez, a prolific slugger who served two drug suspensions, received only 22 percent in his second year as a candidate.

“Barry Bonds is the best baseball player that I’ve ever seen don a uniform,” Jones said. “It’s unfortunate that some of the best players of this era have a cloud of suspicion, because you’re talking about some all-timers.”

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Jones and Thome appeared on the ballot for the first time, and both gained entry easily, Jones with 97.2 percent and Thome with 89.8. Guerrero (92.9 percent) and Hoffman (79.9) made it on their second try.

Jones played 19 seasons for the Atlanta Braves, hitting .303 with a .401 on-base percentage and a .529 slugging percentage. Only two other switch-hitters, Mickey Mantle and Eddie Murray, hit more homers than Jones’ 468.

Jones won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1999 and led the Braves past the New York Mets in the NL Championship Series that October. He had torched the Mets for a .400 average in that regular season, and famously named his son Shea in honor of the Mets’ old ballpark.

“I have never had so much fun playing the game of baseball as I did against that team, that organization, and in that city,” Jones said.

Thome slammed 612 home runs across 22 seasons, including 13 years with the Cleveland Indians. He ranks eighth in home runs — and second in strikeouts, to Reggie Jackson — and his .956 on-base plus slugging percentage trails only 15 retired hitters on the career list.

While Thome appeared in the postseason for five franchises — the Indians, the Chicago White Sox, the Minnesota Twins, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Baltimore Orioles — he did not get there with the Philadelphia Phillies, who signed him away from Cleveland with a lucrative free agent offer in Dec. 2002. Even so, the Phillies honored Thome with a plaque in their Wall of Fame, and the Indians built a statue of him at their ballpark.

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“The message I would send would be that every Midwest kid can dream of a day like this,” said Thome, a Peoria, Illinois, native who was drafted in the 13th round in 1989. “I’m living it today.”

Guerrero was the last superstar for the Montreal Expos, electrifying the franchise for most of its final seasons. He moved to the Los Angeles Angels in 2004 (the Expos left for Washington a year later), and won the American League’s MVP award in his first season in Anaheim. After six years there, Guerrero made an All-Star team for the Texas Rangers and helped lead them to their first AL championship, in 2010.

Only five players can match Guerrero’s career figures in both batting average (.318) and home runs (449): Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx and Stan Musial. A fast runner in his early years, with an overpowering right field arm, Guerrero could hit nearly any pitch in any location. He was a classic “bad-ball” hitter — like the old New York Yankees catcher, Yogi Berra — and once got a hit on a pitch that bounced.

Asked how he hit so well on pitches far from the strike zone, Guerrero said he learned the skill as a boy in the Dominican Republic, using a broomstick against a rubber ball. The pitcher would bounce the ball and try to knock over a folded license plate on the ground.

“That actually opened up, to me, my hitting zone,” Guerrero said through an interpreter. “In order for you to hit the ball, you have to be able to hit balls down on the ground. A lot of times pitchers in the big leagues perhaps didn’t realize that sometimes you try too hard when the ball was thrown down the middle.”

Guerrero became the first position player from the Dominican Republic elected to the Hall of Fame. Two pitchers, Juan Marichal and Pedro Martinez, are also enshrined.

Hoffman retired in 2010 as the career saves leader, with 601; only Mariano Rivera has passed him since. Hoffman, who was drafted as an infielder by the Cincinnati Reds, reached the majors with the expansion Florida Marlins in 1993 and was traded that summer to the San Diego Padres. He earned 552 saves for the Padres, and his change-up — one of the best in history — helped him average 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings.

Hoffman learned the grip in 1994 from his teammate and catch partner, Donnie Elliott, then deadened the ball even more by shoving it deeper in his hand. The pitch came in so slowly that it made his modest fastball play up.

“It evolved to more of a palmball,” Hoffman said. “It allowed me to feel comfortable throwing the pitch like a fastball, and I got some decent action out of it.”

Hoffman joins Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter, Goose Gossage and Dennis Eckersley as the only pitchers in the Hall of Fame who primarily worked in relief. Rivera, who retired in 2013, comes up for election in December, with Roy Halladay, Andy Pettitte, Todd Helton and Lance Berkman among the other first-time candidates.

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