The Roots Of The Baseball Hall of Fame: A Relevant Irony

Posted: January 8, 2014 by The Cheap Seat Fan in MLB
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Today is the day that newest class for the Baseball Hall of Fame will be revealed. It is a class that had the potential—if all things were created equal—to be greatest induction class of all-time. There are a total of 15 Most Valuable Player, 14 Cy_Young and 5 World Series MVP Awards up for the vote this year, an outstandingly high level of achievement.

However, we all know that it is not an equal playing field, even for the owners of these achievements. Because the game has morphed into a different type of machine than it was when the doors in Cooperstown first open in June of 1939, a time that was much different than today. And while it is both cliché and antiquated to reach for the value of baseball in generations that have long passed, it is also an exercise in tireless purpose. Because more than any other game, history has more relevance in baseball than any other sport and it still shapes the present and the future of the game acutely. It defines the highs and lows equally, a phenomenon that is still actively going on to this day.

However, on a day where debate will take an equal billing with celebration, it seems to be good time for context back to the beginning of the Hall of Fame, the first days where the task of sorting out a Hall of Famer was a truly arduous task, albeit one devoid of much of the reserve that has made the decision now so confounding.

When the doors to Cooperstown opened up in 1939, the Hall of Fame as an entity had been established already for three years, but there was no physical location for it to be observed. But once this was established, the most comprehensive and star-studded induction ceremony ever took place. Ironically, the early rules were as unintentionally complicated as the current ones (which are somewhat similar) have been made to be. The main guideline was for a player to get 75% of the vote, which has endured. Yet before there was some clarity brought to the request of voting for an inductee, it was spread all around the ballot and even extended to some active players and retirees that had not yet been done for the now-requisite five years.

Yet when it was sorted, out the results of it were fantastic, and here are the initial four classes that built the Hall of Fame, in retrospect, both then and enduring. What’s to come nobody knows, but here’s where it all started.

1936—The First Class

Ty Cobb—Detroit Tigers: The greatest player of the dead-ball era, Cobb’s reputation as dubious asset to mankind did not damage the impact he had as a ballplayer. Because at the time of his induction to the Hall, he was the most accomplished athlete in professional sports history, and an owner of 90 varied records in the game.  Among these are a .366 career batting average, 4,191 hits, 12 batting titles and 54 steals of home plate. He received the highest vote total of any original inductee, with a 98.2% return.

Walter Johnson—Washington Senators: With 110 shutouts, 420 wins, eleven seasons of a sub-2.00 ERA and being the inaugural member of the 3,000 strikeout club, the Big Train was (and still is) the greatest pitcher of all-time. He was the best pitcher on losing teams in history as well, with the annually bad Washington club likely coming in his way of pushing for the all-time wins title as well. Johnson was elected in on 83% of the ballot.

Christy Mathewson—New York Giants: The first crossover superstar in baseball history, Matty was also one of the first control artists from the mound. Armed with his devastating screwball, he won 363 games, including four seasons of 30 wins or better. One of the most respected players of his time, whose reputation as a gentleman was directly contrasted by his fierce postseason presence on the mound. In the 1905 World Series he had potentially the greatest performance ever in the Fall Classic. He started three games and won all three—with a shutout in each appearance. He was voted in with 90.7% of the vote.

Babe Ruth—New York Yankees: At the time, the Babe was the most famous player alive, and still remains among the most revered figures in American history, with his name alone being used as a measuring stick for greatness in a field. This is due to the fact that he single-handedly transformed the way the game was played. He hit 714 career home runs, and his style of play has based every evolution that the game has taken over the past 90+ years. He led the American League in home runs 12 times,  and still carries the highest slugging percentage of all-time. He was voted in on 95.1% of the vote.

Honus Wagner—Pittsburgh Pirates: The first five-tool player, The Flying Dutchman is still the safe bet for greatest shortstop ever, as he has repeatedly been elected over the last century. Wagner topped 3,400 hits, 600 doubles, 200 triples and 100 home runs, then a remarkable slate of accomplishments. The complimented this with a powerful arm in the field. The eight-time batting champ was elected on 95.1% of the vote, the same number as Ruth and second highest total overall.

1937—The Second Class

Nap Lajoie—Cleveland Naps: Such a great player that they felt the now-Indians had to carry not only him at second base, but his name for the entire team. It is understandable, as the five-time batting champ and two-time RBI champion (a ridiculous notion for a second baseman of the times) was a transformative player. He hit over .350 ten separate times, with five batting titles, including a high of .426 in 1901. He was elected on 83.6% of the ballots.

Tris Speaker—Boston Red Sox: One of the great defensive outfielders ever, Speaker holds two prominent records to this day. At the plate, he hit 792 doubles, while in the field he has an outstanding 449 assists—from centerfield. His 3,514 hits remain the fifth highest total ever, and he was voted in on 82.1% of ballots.

Cy Young—Cleveland Spiders/Boston Red Sox: The greatest oversight from the first class was the then, now and forever all-time wins king. The game’s top pitching award was named for Young in honor of his 511 win career, which featured 15 years over 20 victories. To this day, he holds the high water mark in eight separate pitching categories, and was voted in on 76.1% of ballots.

1938—The Third Class

Grover Cleveland Alexander—Philadelphia A’s/Chicago Cubs: As the greats of the early years continued to be worked in, the fourth of the great turn of the century hurlers was called in. Old Pete was a warhorse on the mound, a winner of 373 games (third most ever) and an artist of the shutout. From 1915-1917, he won 30 games each season with an ERA below 2.00 and only once did not reach at least 10 shutouts. He was elected on 80.92% of the ballot.

1939—The Fourth Class/The Hall Opens

Lou Gehrig—New York Yankees: By the time that Gehrig was inducted, the disease which premature ended his career and life, and continues to carry his namesake, was close to claiming his life. However what it did not dim was the accomplishments of a man that is still considered to be the standard for all first basemen. The RBI machine drove in 1,995 runs (included seven seasons of 150 or better) and earned his Iron Horse moniker by playing in over 2,130 games. Gehrig was elected by acclamation and had the standard five year waiting period waved due to the severity of his illness, making him the youngest inductee to Cooperstown for decades.

George Sisler—St. Louis Browns: Before the Cardinals ruled the city, Sisler was the preeminent part of St. Louis baseball. The first baseman was hits machine set the all-time single season hits record with 257, which stood for over 80 years and hit .400 twice. He was elected on 85.8% of the ballot.


For more on today’s Hall of Fame news to come in real time, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan

  1. S. Whitener says:

    How informative! Wonderful job.

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