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When It Comes To Hall Of Fame Enshrinement, It Isn't Supposed To Be Easy

January 24, 2018
This would seem to be the perfect time to discuss almost everything you need to know about baseball's Hall of Fame -- and maybe try to explain why so often it's tough to get there.

For openers, it's supposed to be tough. If it wasn't, any discussion would be a waste of time. And before going any further, I'd like to dispute the notion raised by some critics of the system that "it's only a museum." The building that holds the plaques is, indeed, a museum, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum to be precise, but let's dismiss the idea that's all we're talking about.

As of press time, the announcement of the 2018 class headed to Cooperstown, N.Y., hadn't been made, so we can't comment on anything official. But, based on the tracking of early public ballots, we can be assured it will be a crowded classroom, which will include a pair of first-time eligible players, Chipper Jones and Jim Thome -- which addresses one of the most frequent complaints about the Hall of Fame's voting system.

There is a belief among some that if a Hall of Famer isn't good enough to go in on his first ballot, then he isn't good enough, period. The argument goes that the numbers don't change, which is true, but this is definitely an instance when "one and done" isn't such a good idea. Prior to this year's election, there were 220 players in the Hall of Fame, roughly 1 percent of those who have played in the major leagues. Jones and Thome, if they get in as expected, would be only the 53rd and 54th to make it on the first try -- and that includes the five from the first class in 1936.

To fully understand the system and the recent ballot log jam that has developed because of the so-called "steroid issue," you'd have to go back to the very beginning, that inaugural class in 1936. There were no restrictions then -- everybody was eligible, including active players. Requirements remained somewhat sketchy for the first dozen years or so while the system adjusted itself.

One stipulation that has remained constant is the need to get 75 percent of the vote to be elected, and that degree of difficulty was established early. Although Ty Cobb (98.2), Honus Wagner and Babe Ruth (95.1), Christy Mathewson (90.7) and Walter Johnson (83.6) easily qualified, there were 37 others on that ballot who would eventually be elected to the Hall of Fame.

To give you an idea how difficult it was for electors in those days, it wasn't until 1947, when Carl Hubbell went in on his third try, that somebody other than those on the initial ballot was nominated. And it wasn't until 1962, when Bob Feller and Jackie Robinson were inducted, that somebody other than the "first five" was elected in the first year of eligibility.

First timers have become more commonplace lately, with 18 elected in this century, compared to 10 each in the decades of the 1990s and 1980s -- and only nine in the period between 1937 and 1979. 

While requirements were adjusted as the system formulated in the early years, there were no elections in nine years -- 1940, 1941, 1943, 1944, 1957, 1959, 1961, 1963 and 1965. There were also 10 years when nobody got the required 75 percent for election, most recently in 2013, the year that the "steroid era" impacted the ballot and started a log jam that still exists. 

As the numbers increased, and election became more difficult, the Hall of Fame Board of Directors made moves to help the process. It wasn't until 1968 that a screening committee was put in place, limiting the ballot to no more than 40 candidates. In 1979, the 5 percent rule was incorporated and any player not getting at least that percentage of the votes was dropped from future ballots.

There is still a five-year waiting period before eligibility for election, but in 2014 the length of time a player can remain on the ballot was reduced from 15 to 10 years, another move designed to speed up the voting process. The continuing debate about suspected use of PEDs by otherwise obvious candidates has clouded the process in recent years, resulting in a field of candidates more crowded than any time since those early years.

With the probability of at least four, and possibly as many as six, reaching the magic 75 percent goal this year, the ballot should open up somewhat in 2019. Vladimir Guerrero and Trevor Hoffman, the returning leaders from last year, and Jones and Thome, appeared to be in position to get the call this year. In addition, Edgar Martinez was making a strong move to make it a quintet, and Mike Mussina was close enough that a push from the undeclared could make this the biggest class ever.

That first class in 1936 is still the largest inducted. Four is the most since then, most recently in 2015, when Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Craig Biggio were inducted.

There is some ballot relief on the way, but it's still not going to get much easier. Mariano Rivera leads the 2019 freshman class, which will also include Roy Halladay, Andy Pettitte and Todd Helton among others. Derek Jeter is front and center in 2020, so it won't be until 2021 before we see an election without a slam-dunk.

It will still be tough. As it should be. 

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.

Issue 241: January / February 2018 

Originally published Jan. 19, 2018