There was a great commercial a few years back starring George Brett and Robin Yount. They’re arguing about something and when Yount says he’s sure he’s right, Brett asks, “Are you ninety-eight percent sure or only seventy-eight percent sure?” Brett is referring, of course, to the percentage of votes each of them received in the 1999 Baseball Hall of Fame balloting, the year both were inducted.
Receiving 98.2% of the votes is pretty damn good. He was definitely a better player than Robin Yount was and deserved to garner 20% more of the votes. Nolan Ryan did even better that year, receiving 98.8% of the votes; just 6 of the 497 voters in 1999 left him off their ballot. While Ryan was an amazing, freak-of-nature pitcher who set records that will likely never be broken (5,714 Ks and 7 no-hitters), he’s not an all-time top 5 pitcher by anyone’s standards. Surely, you must be thinking, there are several players who captured a greater percentage of HoF votes than he did…and at least 1 or 2 who received unanimous selections. And surely, you are wrong. Of the 107 players voted into the Hall in 74 years of balloting, Nolan Ryan is tied with Tom Seaver — another fantastic, but not all-time top 5 pitcher — for the highest percentage ever.
A quick roll call to drive that hard-to-believe-and-harder-to-accept point home…
- Joe DiMaggio, the greatest champion MLB has ever seen and the man known for the last 30 or so years of his life as “baseball’s greatest living player”: 88.8% of the vote in 1955 (28 writers left him off)
- Christy Mathewson, the best pitcher in the NL’s first ~80 years of existence and tied for 3rd all-time with 373 wins: 90.7% of the vote in the inaugural 1936 class (21 writers left him off)
- Ted Williams, the greatest hitter of baseball’s true modern era and the last player to hit .400: 93.4% of the vote in 1966 (20 writers left him off)
- Willie Mays, considered by many to be the greatest all-around player ever and a fan- & writer-favorite the world over: 94.7% of the vote in 1979 (23 writers left him off)
- Hank Aaron, career home run king (yes, I said it) and beloved baseball ambassador/elder statesman: 97.8% of the vote in 1982 (9 writers left him off)
- Ty Cobb, the best pure hitter and competitor baseball has ever known: 98.2% of the vote in the inaugural 1936 class (4 writers left him off)
Last, but not least. One of the best pitchers of his era. Two-time 20-game winner. Held the record for most consecutive World Series scoreless innings pitched (29 2/3) for over 40 years. Led the AL in HRs 12 times in 14 seasons. Took an also-ran and kicked off the only true dynasty in American professional sports, leading them to 7 pennants and 4 World Series victories in his first 13 years with the team (in addition to helping his previous team win 3 World Series in his 5 full seasons with them). Figuratively built the most famous sports stadium in America. Delivered the two greatest (legitimate) offensive years ever…in consecutive seasons (1920 & 1921). Retired as the career leader in OBP, SLG, OPS, HR, HR%, and RBI; and the single-season record holder for SLG, OPS, TB, HR, and HR%. Saved baseball following the Black Sox scandal. Given his pitching and batting exploits, he’ll never be overtaken as baseball’s greatest player.
And in the inaugural 1936 class, Babe Ruth captured 95.1% of the vote, with 11 people leaving him off the ballot. I ask you, who doesn’t vote for Babe fucking Ruth?
The writers who are honored as the gatekeepers of the Hall take their responsibility seriously. I argue that some take it too seriously and come up with strange reasons (conscious or not) for not voting people in — resulting in the aforementioned travesties. The two most blatant reasons I see/hear are (1) they punish a player who was a jerk to the media or they simply didn’t like (Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, probably Babe Ruth) and (2) they feel a guy isn’t good enough to be a first-ballot HoFer, so they’ll vote for him in subsequent years. Let me dump on both of these reasons.
- Jerk / don’t like him. The HoF is about greatness on the field, not joviality in the locker room. You claim to be arbiters of greatness? Then get over the fact that the players didn’t like you or may have dicked you around. They don’t play for your pleasure and amusement. They play to win (or at least for personal glory and money). Judge them on that. I shouldn’t really even have to argue this one.
- Doesn’t deserve to be a first-ballot HoFer. This reason really drives me nuts. HoF status is a binary thing, not a matter of degree. Nowhere on a player’s plaque does it say which ballot he entered in. Either he deserves to be in or he doesn’t. I can understand that circumstance, precedent, and the general passage of time can work to change a writer’s opinion. Perhaps over time — particularly in light of the recent PED debacle — more writers will come to realize the magnitude of Roger Maris’s accomplishment and change their vote from no to yes (actually, that can’t happen under the current voting rules, but you get the idea). No problem with that. And I can understand when writers don’t believe a particular player should ever get into the Hall even though 3/4 of their voting peers disagree (I think this happens with a lot of players who just make the 75% threshold, such as Robin Yount). But the idea that a particular player’s numbers are definitely worth getting in, just not in their first year of eligibility, is stupid. Do you really think you’re that important/omniscient that you deserve/need to send a message in this manner? You’re such an amazing writer and sacred keeper of the flame that you think Willie Mays should’ve done a little more to deserve to be a first-balloter? Should he have caught Vic Wertz’s fly ball with his cap? The really sad thing is that this line of reasoning is self-perpetuating. 11 guys decided that Babe shouldn’t be in, so when Teddy Ballgame comes up, they think, “hell, if the Babe wasn’t unanimous, no way Ted should be”.
Don’t use your vote to settle scores. And don’t split hairs, especially with the true greats. If they deserve to be in at all, they deserve to be voted in immediately.
For the record, my positions are as follows (including the two most famous ineligible players): Shoeless Joe yes; Maris no; Rose yes; McGwire no; Sammy no; Bonds yes.