When the esteemed members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America cast their ballots in 1936 for the inaugural Baseball Hall of Fame class, 11 of the 226 voters omitted Babe Ruth. The following year, Cy Young failed to appear on 48 of the 201 ballots cast in his first year of eligibility, narrowly making the 75 percent cut required for induction.
The pattern has continued through the years, with curmudgeonly scribes exercising their prerogatives to exclude obvious Hall of Famers for this reason or that. Tom Seaver is the closest Hall of Famer to unanimous, being named on 425 of 430 ballots (98.84 percent) in 1992.
The point is, no player has yet been deemed the perfect Hall of Famer by Cooperstown’s gatekeepers, and some voters continue to use those very examples as reasons to decline to vote for any first-time candidate.
I’ve always found this line of thinking is absurd. You’re either a Hall of Famer or you’re not. The one caveat to this is the arbitrary 10-player limit imposed on voters each year, potentially squeezing out players in the rare year that too many deserving candidates share the ballot.
This is one of those years. It also happens to be my first year as a Hall of Fame voter, promoting the annual who’s-in, who’s-out debate from idle-time filler to a task of some importance as I sorted through the 37-player ballot last month.
Many of those players are on the list only as a one-year courtesy, falling off when they don’t receive the needed 5 percent of votes to remain on the ballot: Woody Williams, Todd Walker, Aaron Sele and the like.
Then there are the guys who have maintained a loyal electorate through several years on the ballot but don’t quite rise to a level of support that indicates they’ll get in eventually: Dale Murphy, Don Mattingly, Fred McGriff, etc.
At this point, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro probably can be put in that category, as well. This is McGwire’s seventh year on the ballot and Palmeiro’s third, but it’s difficult to envision their support base growing much from last year’s 19.5 percent for McGwire and 12.6 percent for Palmeiro.
Both, of course, represent the first wave of steroid-era players embroiled in suspicion to reach the Hall ballot. McGwire, despite some remarkable power-hitting seasons, just doesn’t meet the Hall standard in the big picture, in my view. Palmeiro has the numbers, but his positive drug test is an automatic disqualifier to many, including me. Others clouded by performance-enhancing drug suspicions — McGwire, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa — at least were smart or savvy enough to avoid a positive test once baseball finally decided to crack down on PEDs.
Speaking of Sosa, he’s on the ballot for the first time this year, and it’s fair to assume his candidacy could be one-and-done. His 1998 duel with McGwire captivated fans and his 609 homers rank eighth all-time, but his career taken as a whole wouldn’t be Hall-worthy even without the PED suspicions (and confirmed cheating via corked bat).
We’re getting down to it now as the chaff falls away. First-timer Kenny Lofton is an interesting case (.299 career average, 15th all-time in stolen bases), but he has no chance in this field. Next is Lee Smith, who retired in 1997 as the all-time saves leader (478) and is now third on the list. He placed fourth on last year’s ballot — his 10th try — with 50.6 percent of the vote, and his excellence out of the bullpen is undeniable. But his career wins above replacement of 27.6 trails even the aforementioned Woody Williams. He’s out.
Craig Biggio is next and was my closest omission this year based on the numbers. He was a fabulous player for the bulk of his 20-year career with the Astros, but his numbers declined noticeably his final six seasons as he continued to play every day, and that dings him a bit. I think Biggio will get in eventually, and I’ll likely end up voting for him on a less-crowded future ballot, but not this year.
So who’s in?
• Tim Raines, a devastating leadoff man ranking behind only Rickey Henderson in the modern era.
• Alan Trammell, who continues to be criminally overlooked compared to his peers at shortstop, perhaps because he didn’t do enough backflips.
• Edgar Martinez, who shouldn’t be penalized for being a designated hitter; it’s been a position for 40 years and no one has done it better.
• Mike Piazza, whose offensive production as a catcher was exemplary.
• Larry Walker, a great all-around player unfairly downgraded in some eyes for playing much of his career at Coors Field.
• Curt Schilling, consistently excellent and among the greatest postseason pitchers of all time (11-2, 2.23 ERA).
• Jack Morris, the poster child of the numbers-vs.-eyeballs debate that has consumed baseball discussion. The overall numbers aren’t on his side, of course, most notably that 3.90 ERA, but one number courtesy of Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci put me over the top on Morris. Over a 14-season span, Morris pitched at least eight innings in 52 percent of his starts. That’s astounding, and a clear indicator of the regard in which Morris was held by managers of some pretty good teams — most notably the world-champion Tigers, Twins and Blue Jays squads he helped win rings.
Despite their obvious worthiness based on their statistics, despite my long-standing disdain for those who establish a double standard with their Hall votes, when it came time to mark down my final choices, I just couldn’t do it.
Illogical? Self-important? Call it what you will. I imagine I’ll vote for both next year and in future elections, but one last look at them this time just gave me too much pause.
It’s highly unlikely either player will get in this year, but just on the off chance, I didn’t want to be a part of either being a first-ballot Hall of Famer.