There are Hall of Famers, and then there are Hall of Famers. The distinctions are evident and incontestable ... or they're unclear and subject to persistent debate. Take your pick of candidates and/or adjectives, sit back and deliberate. The discussion can fill an hour, a summer or the better part of a lifetime.
For one 26-year period in the 20th century, most of us readily recognized the most distinguished Hall of Famers -- Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson. The five comprised the first class of Cooperstown. The Peach, the Babe, the Dutchman, the Big Train and Big Six were, and in some ways they remain, the select among the elite, elected in the first vote of the Baseball Writers' Association of America in 1936. They are the baseball equivalents of the founding fathers. Though many of the most notable accomplishments of each have been surpassed in one way or another, those five remain the game's Mount Rushmore, or at least the first granite sculpture of baseball royalty.
Not until 1962, after 19 additional votes, were other candidates elected in their first years on the ballot. And in those cases 50 years ago, the elected -- Bob Feller and Jackie Robinson -- were of stature comparable to the first five inductees.
In 66 elections since 1936 -- no vote was taken nine times -- the BBWAA has elected 39 others in their first years of eligibility. And the credentials of most of the 39 are beyond reproach. But where the waters muddy in this exercise is with those not elected in their first years on the ballot. The excluded include -- honest to Honus -- Joe DiMaggio, Cy Young, Rogers Hornsby, Yogi Berra, Carl Hubbell, Lefty Grove, Hank Greenberg, Robin Roberts, Whitey Ford, Eddie Mathews, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Harmon Killebrew, Jimmie Foxx, Ferguson Jenkins, Duke Snider, Mel Ott, Tris Speaker, Juan Marichal, Pie Traynor, Dizzy Dean, Roy Campanella, Bill Dickey and Catfish Hunter, among others.
Without them, the Hall would have no credibility, yet they were not immediately elected.
What are we to make of this seeming inconsistency? What does it suggest or prove other than the fickle nature of the electorate? What does first-year election mean anyway? Anything?
"By 1962, the BBWAA was pretty much done with the backlog of players who hadn't been elected in 1936," said Jack O'Connell, the secretary-treasurer of the BBWAA. "To me, '62 was the beginning of a new era of voting. Feller and Jackie came on the ballot, there were others still on it, but those were two special players. Both were great players and so important away from the field. Feller had been involved with players' rights, and we don't have go through all that Jackie did. There was no reason not to vote for each of them."
From 1963 through 1979, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Sandy Koufax, Warren Spahn, Mickey Mantle, Ernie Banks and Willie Mays were elected in their first years on the ballot. No one disputed their worthiness. Since then, though, some elections have raised an eyebrow or two, and not all public dissent has come from Reggie Jackson.
So what does the distinction mean? Here's a sampling of opinions from Hall of Fame inductees:
"We're all recognized the same," Roberts said in 1993, 17 years after his induction that had come in his fourth year of eligibility. "They don't have a special jacket or cap you get to wear if you're elected right away. Everyone is the same, everybody's treated the same. It think there's a distinction the year you get in. But it fades after that."
"When Jackie Robinson and I were elected, it was an honor on top of an honor to get in in your first year," Feller said in Cooperstown in the summer of 2005. "We were the first ones since the first class. Great, great honor. It still is and always will be. Just the same, you don't hang your head if it takes two years or five years or 10 years. It's the Baseball Hall of Fame. It's a big honor just being on the ballot."
"It's not like the guys who get elected in their first year get Cadillacs and the rest of us get Chevys," Ralph Kiner said, playing off his famous quote about the automotive difference between sluggers and non-sluggers. "We all ride in pretty nice cars in the [Hall of Fame] parade now." Kiner was elected in his 13th year on the ballot. "It took me a while, but no one ever asks me, 'What took you so long?'"
"It would have been better to go in the first year," Phil Niekro said two years ago. He was elected in 1997 in his fifth year. "That way I could have had more weekends up here [in Cooperstown]. I love it up here. But I'd be just as much a Hall of Famer if I waited 10 years."
"I was going to be inducted in '73 [his first year on the ballot]," Ford said, "but I had to wait a year for Mick to catch up. ... It was OK that way. We went in together. Cooperstown couldn't have handled one of us two years in a row."
Paul Molitor was elected in his first year on the ballot, as was classmate Dennis Eckersley, in 2004. "If it took 25 years, Molitor said, "I'd be just as happy."
And lest we forget, Roberto Alomar was miffed when he fell short of election in his first year of eligibility, in January 2010. He had expected election. He recognized the specialty involved in first-year election, and his disappointment underscored the lasting significance of a first-ballot vote.
"What can you do? It's out of my hands now," Alomar said after he finished eight votes shy. "I'm disappointed, but I feel good. Sometimes the writers have reasons not to vote for you, so you just have to deal with the situation. I had a lot of votes ... I have the [offensive] numbers. I was close enough. I just didn't have enough votes this year to get in."
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Voting for the Hall of Fame is as fickle as the winds at Candlestick before the stands offered protection. It always has been capricious. How else could Cobb, the Bambino, Mr. Theodore Ballgame, Stan the Man, Yogi, Bench, Spahnie, Schmidty, Bad Henry, Seaver, Mick and Bob Gibson not be elected unanimously?
The results of the first vote were announced on Feb. 2, 1936. The New York Times of Feb. 3 published a column by John Kieran, who in 1973 was the recipient of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, the equivalent of Hall of Fame induction for a baseball writer. Kieran wrote: "Still insisting that any voter is entitled to go to the polls and mark a ballot according to his own opinions and prejudices, it remains a mystery that any observer of modern diamond activities could list his version of the 10 outstanding baseball figures and have Ty Cobb nowhere at all in the group.
"Four voters accomplished that amazing feat. Eleven voters wrote down the names of their top 10 of modern times and ignored Babe Ruth completely. Eleven voters treated Hans Wagner in the same cavalier fashion.
"Beyond these items, the returns were fairly satisfactory. The fact that only five players received enough votes to qualify them for inclusion in the Baseball Hall of Fame is a good thing. A Hall of Fame for any field should not be filled too hastily."
And so it is a deliberate process of deliberation the subsequent electorates have inherited from the discriminating voters of 1936. All but three candidates -- Lou Gehrig, Roberto Clemente and Thurman Munson, whose careers were cut short by death, were exceptions -- have waited for five years after their final games for their eligibility to begin.
The potential candidates for each ballot are screened. Once on the ballot, players remain eligible for a maximum of 15 years if their candidacies receive the necessary percentage (five) of the votes cast each year.
Mention on at least 75 percent of ballots casts in a given election qualifies a candidate for a plaque and a place in Cooperstown. The same minimum requirement is necessary for first-year election. Excluding Gehrig and Clemente, 44 players have been elected in their first years on the ballots. The door doesn't open too wide at all.
Those elected in their first years of eligibility are almost always special. But not all of those who aren't aren't.