January 7, 2014
What the 1936 Hall of Fame Ballot Tells Us About Today's
Hall of Fame voting is decidedly broken. Or maybe it’s only a mess depending on the alarmism factor of the columnist who says so. Or maybe the Hall itself is broken and beyond repair.
The problems are deep-rooted and comprehensive, covering everything from interpretation of the ballot to the moralizing of the voting base.
There are major issues with the rules of the ballot, which will have to be looked at in the coming years. There are “look-at-me” voters who will prevent a unanimous vote for one of the most obviously qualified candidates you could ever have. There is the perhaps overbearing interpretation of the character-related conditions that will cost some of the greatest talents ever their due votes. And perhaps worst of all, there is a backlog of worthy candidates that’s going to take years if not decades to slog through.
As Thomas Boswell wrote on WashingtonPost.com: “Every year, as ballots are cast by New Year’s Eve, the impossible conundrum will sit there like a smoldering reminder of an era of bad faith. You can’t close the joint. But the Babe deserves better.”
Which is sorta funny because, in addition to nobody having any idea what “.com” means, the Babe hasn’t even been inducted yet, and “the joint” is still three years away from opening its doors.
Welcome to 1936, where all these voting problems you think are so interesting and apocalyptic in 2014 really aren’t that exceptional. And where if you think the Hall of Fame just broke under your watch, you’ve forgotten about us.
Ballot rules controversies
Changing rules on the fly? Sure. But BBWAA leadership now has 10 ½ months until next year’s ballot is sent to the voters to get this issue resolved. That’s nothing compared to the confusion of that first ballot.
“Some members of the BBWAA thought that they were being asked to list an all-star team instead of the 10 greatest players without regard to position,” explained Hall of Fame librarian and historian Bill Francis. “Those ballots sent in with what looked to be an all-star team were returned … along with a new ballot and a letter making it clear that the voter can nominate 10 players from any combination of positions.”
This was far more than an isolated state of confusion of a few voters. As recently as one month before the vote, the New York Times devoted an entire “Sports of The Times” column to a bizarre and old-school-basebally ballot controversy regarding how the ballot came about.
Ford C. Frick, the National League president back when there was such a position and such a position mattered, was upset with both the American League-heavy ballot and the taunts that he’d hear from American League supporters. The Times columnist John Kieran couldn’t resist getting his own jabs in at the senior circuit in a trolling column that he set at Frick’s New Year’s party.
The idea was to get a lot of National Leaguers on the ticket for the Hall of Fame and then some miscreant injected the question of baseball ability into it with the sad result that the American League was –
’No, no!’ said Mr. President with great dignity. ‘That is all wrong – entirely wrong – absolutely wrong. Not an all-star team at all. A Hall of Fame for baseball players – men who have meant something to the game – men who have made lasting contributions to –‘
Kieran ascribes much of Frick’s resistance to the all-star idea to the notion that the NL would get trounced in that voting, losing as many as seven or eight spots with only “Hans Wagner” saving face. (The Pittsburgh Pirate Wagner, generally known as Honus, would have been unopposed at shortstop.)
As it was, with five elected that year, Wagner was one of two NLers. Because the format allowed two pitchers, National Leaguer Christy Mathewson was able to join Walter Johnson, whom he actually ended up out-balloting contrary to some of the fears. Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Johnson were the AL representatives in the first class. (The full BBWAA ballot is here, along with the rather disorganized Veterans Committee ballot that failed to yield anybody and would be reformed shortly after.)
Also harmlessly but still kind of annoyingly, somebody won’t vote for Greg Maddux. That’s how it always happens. Cobb was left off four ballots, Ruth and Wagner off 11. Tom Seaver, who holds the record for vote percentage, was missing from five. Henry Aaron was absent from nine, Willie Mays from 23, Mickey Mantle from 43. If those guys didn’t get elected unanimously, nobody will, the thinking goes.
When it happened to Ruth, though, as we go back to 1936, it was pretty unexpected. Per the Associated Press on February 2, 1936:
The committee in charge of the vote tabulation, headed by Henry Edwards, secretary of the Baseball Writers Association, figured the struggle for ballots among the moderns would be a two-man battle between Cobb and Ruth. When the first 100 votes were counted, both Cobb and the home run king were unanimous.
Ruth was the first to fall out, losing a vote from a writer who had watched him hang up some of the greatest records. The committee was amazed. Vote counting stopped momentarily for a discussion for how any one could leave the great Ruth off the list of immortals.
There may have been some reasons for the omission, though.
Those awful character clauses
As it turns out, just as the problems with voting based on these requirements aren’t new, sportswriters complaining about those lost votes isn’t new, either. In Kieran’s column post-announcement, the Times writer offers some theories on why some of the best candidates lost some of their votes. Let’s just say the reasons back then were a little more fun than steroids.
It may be that these voters disapproved of Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth for some of their deliberate or care-free antics in the past. The Babe was no role model of deportment when he came roistering along the road to fame some fifteen years ago. The fiery Cobb made plenty of enemies during his baseball career.
There were episodes in the life histories of these two glittering stars that could not but make the judicious grieve. The Bambino at times refused to be shackled by club training rules. He had fights with his manager, with umpires, with Judge Landis, whom he invited to jump into Lake Michigan. Once he leaped over the dugout and chased an insulting fan out the back entrance of the Polo Grounds.
Ty Cobb, roused by insults from the Philadelphia bleachers, went scrambling over the barrier to land a few punches on one tormentor and then discovered that the man was a cripple. There was a fearful row about that. Then there was the Dutch Leonard correspondence that didn’t show the Georgia Peach in the light of an Abraham Lincoln or a George Washington.
Some of the older voters may have remembered these things as they marched to the polls. To them Ruth and Cobb may have failed in the character test.
Some dated stories, sure, but some familiar language at the end for players just as good as a couple of those who will miss the 75 percent cutoff this year.
The dreaded backlog
That first ballot had decades’ worth of credible candidates. Of the 50 people (mostly players, but a couple of managers, too) who were on the first ballot, 42 ended up getting in eventually. None of them was forgotten about even when they fell off the BBWAA ballot because there were just too many other names, like there are today.
Of the 50 candidates:
5 got in on the first ballot
Some took a while. The BBWAA was voting players from the initial ballot in as late as 1955, when Gabby Hartnett and Dazzy Vance were elected. Part of that had to do with the fact that in 1936, active players were eligible, and Harnett wouldn’t see another ballot for nine years. Vance, though, was on every year and took 15 elections plus a nominating vote and a runoff thrown in the middle to make it to 75 percent.
The last of the 42 to make it who were present on that first BBWAA ballot weren’t inducted until the 1970s, with pitcher Rube Marquard getting the Veterans Committee nod in 1971 and Ross Youngs receiving it the following year.
The parallels obviously aren’t quite parallel. The character issues appear to be more significant in the voting now than they were at the time, when it took about nine years to get the backlog mostly cleared and 19 to get all the writers’ selections in.
Most of this journey back to the first ballot was just a trip through some fun historical sources to show how far we’ve come in how discussions are framed, and at the same time how little has changed in the big picture.
The actual takeaway, if there is one, seems to be from this last section about the backlog, though. Voters of all types will get it wrong because there’s never been a perfect ballot in the first eight decades of this annual tradition.
But time will get it right. However much time it takes and however much ink is cast for or against them, Hall of Famers make the Hall of Fame.