Some Hall of Fame candidates are no-doubt picks, cruising into Cooperstown on the first ballot. Other cases aren't so simple, requiring years of debate, hand-wringing, and consternation, as supporters try to change minds, and doubters dig in their heels. Sometimes progress is incremental, and sometimes it comes all at once.
A select group of candidates go all the way down to the wire before finally getting the call from the Baseball Writers' Association of America -- as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling and Sammy Sosa hope to do in 2022, their final years of eligibility. In fact, just the seven listed below have been elected in their “last chance.”
Note: Under BBWAA rules, players first appear on the ballot five seasons after their last in the Major Leagues. They used to be granted 15 years of eligibility once on the ballot, but the limit was reduced to 10 years prior to the 2015 election.
Larry Walker, 2020
Final-year vote total: 76.6 percent
Over 17 Major League seasons, including 10 with the Rockies, Walker hit .313/.400/.565 (141 OPS+) with 383 homers and 230 steals. He also won seven Gold Glove Awards and collected 154 outfield assists. However, for his first eight years on the ballot, Walker looked like a long shot to make the Hall of Fame, as voters seemingly penalized him for playing nearly a third of his career games at hitter-friendly Coors Field.
Walker earned 20.3 percent of the vote in his first year on the ballot in 2011, and he fell to 10.2 percent in '14. As recently as 2018, Walker was still at just 34.1 percent.
But Walker made up significant ground in his last two years of eligibility, as more voters began to recognize his all-around excellence. After jumping to 54.6 percent in 2019, Walker received enough votes to earn his place in Cooperstown in '20, becoming the second Canadian-born player to make the Hall.
Edgar Martinez, 2019
Final-year vote total: 85.4 percent
It was not an easy climb for Martinez, who garnered just 36.2 percent of the BBWAA vote when he debuted on the ballot in 2010 and actually saw that total plummet to as low as 25.2 percent in '14. The longtime Mariners great didn't cross the 50-percent threshold until his eighth year, making it all the more remarkable that he breezed in with plenty of room to spare in his final opportunity.
The biggest challenge for Martinez was the idea that a player who took more than 70 percent of his plate appearances as a designated hitter could not be worthy of a spot in the Hall. But voters warmed to the idea over time, as they embraced advanced metrics and Martinez's sheer brilliance at the plate -- with a push from the Mariners and others who took up the cause.
"All these years I've had the mentality that it's something I didn't have any control over," Martinez said of the voting results. "I kind of just hoped that things will change over time, and over time it did change. Some of the sabermetrics really helped."
Tim Raines, 2017
Final-year vote total: 86.0 percent
Bert Blyleven was probably the first player to ride a wave of sabermetric support to his Hall of Fame election in 2011 (his 14th and penultimate year on the ballot), but Raines elicited the most passionate groundswell.
The former Expos star garnered less than one-quarter of the BBWAA vote when he debuted in 2008, and didn't cross 50 percent until his sixth year of eligibility. But a grassroots online campaign began convincing voters to look beyond Raines' lack of traditional Hall standards like 3,000 hits or a .300 average. Raines' on-base ability, stolen bases and underrated power swayed voters to boost him by 31 percentage points over his final two years on the ballot.
"I think social media played a big role," said Raines. "You've got these new stats. You've got WAR. You've got all this stuff. People really didn't look at it back in the day. The more they looked, the better it turned out for me."
Jim Rice, 2009
Final-year vote total: 76.4 percent
Rice's three-year peak with the Red Sox from 1977-79, when he led the American League in total bases three straight times, slugged .596 with 124 homers and captured the '78 AL MVP Award, was undeniably spectacular. But modern voting standards -- particularly after some of the video-game numbers posted by hitters during baseball's "Steroid Era" -- made Rice a divisive candidate.
Rice saw 21 other players gain election through the BBWAA during his 15-year wait, but the tide began turning in 2006 when he crossed the 60-percent threshold for the first time. The Red Sox legend missed election by just 16 votes in his penultimate year, setting up a final-year push that helped him clear the barrier by seven votes in 2009.
"The only thing I can say is I'm glad it's over with," Rice said the night he was elected. "I'm in there and they can't take it away."
Ralph Kiner, 1975
Final-year vote total: 75.4 percent
The Hall's voting rules stipulate that a player must have logged at least 10 Major League seasons to earn consideration, and a back injury forced Kiner to retire after exactly that many campaigns at just 32 years old in 1955. Kiner packed a lot into those 10 years, claiming seven straight NL homer crowns beginning his rookie year and pacing all of baseball in a record six consecutive seasons from 1947-52. He also became the first NL player to record multiple 50-homer seasons.
Kiner became arguably even more famous as a Mets broadcaster, but the brevity of his playing career made him a particularly tough case for the BBWAA. The slugger earned just three votes when he debuted on the ballot in 1960, and had to wait even longer than the usual candidate because the BBWAA did not vote on an annual basis in the early part of that decade. Kiner was elected by the smallest possible margin -- one vote -- in his final year of consideration, making him the ultimate comeback story in the annals of BBWAA voting. Per the Hall, only three other players (Wee Willie Keeler, Al Simmons and Ferguson Jenkins) have gained election by a single vote since the BBWAA elected its first class in 1936.
Joe Medwick, 1968
Final-year vote total: 84.8 percent
An ignition key for the Cardinals' famous "Gashouse Gang" teams of the 1930s, Medwick gained fame for both his colorful personality and his superb hitting talent. He remains the most recent NL player to win the Triple Crown, doing so in 1937, while also holding the league's single-season record for doubles with 64 the year prior. But Medwick had a rocky relationship with the press, which may have been a chief contributor to the wait he equated to a "20-year slump." He finally cleared the threshold by 27 votes in 1968.
Red Ruffing, 1967
Final-year vote total: 86.9 percent (runoff election)
Ruffing was a big contributor to six different World Series championship clubs in the Bronx, but his .548 win percentage and 3.80 ERA weren't the usual dominant metrics of a slam-dunk Hall of Fame pitcher. The right-hander was a bridesmaid a handful of times in BBWAA elections and placed second to shortstop Luke Appling in a runoff in 1964. Like Medwick, Ruffing was hurt somewhat by the BBWAA's inconsistent voting periods of the early 1960s, but he finally prevailed in another runoff in '67, edging out Medwick by 5.9 percent to get his long-awaited ticket to Cooperstown.