Mauer just the 3rd catcher to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer

January 24th, 2024

MINNEAPOLIS -- Johnny Bench, Iván Rodríguez -- and now, .

Among the precious few catchers who have been skilled enough at their craft to even make it to the Major Leagues, there’s a very select echelon of Hall of Famers. And among those scant few who represent the elite of the elite, there are now only three who stand alone as having been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility.

Minnesota is the only place Mauer has ever called home, so Cooperstown will have to make do with being the adopted home for one of its newest honorees, whose 15-year career -- all for his hometown team -- has garnered the ultimate distinction to cap a decorated baseball life littered with accolades.

In his first year of eligibility, Mauer appeared on 76.1% of the ballots cast by members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America for the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2024, as announced Tuesday evening, clearing the 75% threshold necessary for election alongside fellow first-ballot honoree Adrián Beltré and Rockies legend Todd Helton.

“I definitely don’t take that lightly. It’s an unbelievable honor, one, to join the group, and, two, to join that group [of first-ballot catchers],” Mauer said. “I don’t think it’s fully sunk in, to be honest. I mean, there are so many great players, great catchers in the Hall of Fame. Just thinking of some off the top of my head, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella -- it's not lost on me.

“It’s unbelievable. I’m still kind of pinching myself to receive that type of news.”

The St. Paul native was the 2009 AL MVP winner, a three-time Gold Glover and six-time All-Star, but Mauer’s candidacy drew its most significant historicity from what he alone accomplished: His three batting titles in 2006, ‘08 and ‘09 while playing the most physically demanding position in the game make him the only AL catcher to win one, let alone three.

Six other players had already gone into the Hall of Fame representing the Minnesota Twins; Mauer will become the seventh, fitting for the man who wore No. 7 for his entire career -- a number that will never be worn again by anyone in the organization. The state of Minnesota had already been represented in Cooperstown by four other natives of the North Star State -- three of them also hailing from St. Paul: Dave Winfield, Paul Molitor and Jack Morris. (Charles "Chief" Bender, from Crow Wing County, is the fourth to precede Mauer.)

“Being a St. Paul guy and to join that group of St. Paul guys in the Hall of Fame with Paul and Dave Winfield and Jack Morris,” said Mauer, “really means a lot to me.”

Amid all that, Mauer’s storybook journey stands alone.

It just so happened that the year Mauer became eligible as a top Draft prospect who wreaked havoc in football, basketball and baseball at Cretin-Derham Hall High School was also the year that his hometown Twins lined up for the first overall pick in the Draft.

He lived up to the hype, seamlessly becoming the face of the franchise that the Twins had hoped for, part of not only extended success in the AL Central, but also as the glue of a fan-favorite group of players (headlined by the “M&M boys” -- Mauer and Justin Morneau) that defined a beloved generation of Twins baseball.

“I was maybe more nervous than you were leading up to this thing,” Morneau told Mauer on MLB Network. “It was truly an honor to watch you work. You were the best at your position. You were the best at what you did. Really, I was tearing up today when I got the news. It's just incredible. We're so happy for you and so proud. Hopefully, we'll get a little better tee time at Cooperstown this summer.”

Mauer caught Johan Santana’s best seasons. He won division titles. He won batting titles. He collected 2,123 big league hits in 1,858 games, slashed .306/.388/.439 for his career and walked nearly as many times (939) as he struck out (1,034). When it all came together in that 2009 MVP season that saw him slash .365/.444/.587 with 28 homers and 30 doubles while catching 109 games, it set a new bar for what a catcher could accomplish with a bat in his hands.

He made it all look easy with that swing cultivated with his dad in his St. Paul backyard, the swing that made him such a menace to strike out that when Mauer entered the Twins’ Hall of Fame in 2023, the club invited the one man to strike Mauer out in his entire high school career to be part of the ceremony. That’s the swing that sprayed doubles around MLB parks from coast to coast, the swing that broke up not one, not two, but three no-hit bids in the ninth inning.

It was all easy, until it wasn’t -- due to the difficult intersection of the concussion battle that ended his prime and moved him to first base for the final years of his career with the particularly meager years of losing Twins baseball in the mid-2010s.

“I was able to catch my first 10 years -- I feel like that's who I am as a baseball player, a catcher,” Mauer said. “Thankful to continue my career at first base, but I felt like we were the best version of the Minnesota Twins when I was at catcher. … I'm thankful for the writers that voted for me and did that digging to look back at the whole career, not just the last couple of years.”

When Mauer caught one final pitch in front of an emotional Target Field crowd in 2018 and walked off to music from “The Natural,” closing out the contract extension he signed in ‘10 that had made him the highest-paid player in club history and subjected him to all the scrutiny that entailed, it was perhaps a needed echo of the era that saw him reach unprecedented heights at one of the game’s most difficult positions.

“Just a process of watching him get better on both sides, behind the plate and hitting, because it felt like, if he really wanted to, I think he could probably have shaved a few points off his batting average and hit more homers," said Mike Redmond, the veteran who backed up Mauer for five seasons. “He just did what he knew he could do. He took what those pitchers gave him, and that was a lot of hits and a lot of batting titles. It was pretty sweet, pretty fun to watch.”

And through it all, Mauer was consistently, unabashedly, indisputably one of Minnesota’s own.

Quiet, humble and understated from the day he walked into the Rookie-level Elizabethton clubhouse in 2001 to the day he largely vanished from the public eye in ‘18, Mauer avoided controversy and gave back to his home community, embodying the Upper Midwestern ethos for kids and families all over Minnesota, from Plymouth to Duluth.

“Few people have embodied the values and spirit of the Minnesota Twins like Joe Mauer,” Twins president and CEO Dave St. Peter said in a statement. “From the moment his name was called on Draft day in 2001, Joe has been a true hometown hero and a cornerstone of our organization. His humility, leadership, kindness and care for others, paired with his unparalleled excellence on the diamond, have made him a role model for generations of youth across our region.”

Well-worn Mauer jerseys and shirseys dotting the crowd remain a staple at Target Field -- and likely always will. The man acted in milk commercials, was probably responsible for a spike in attempted growth of sideburns in the Upper Midwest, and for goodness’ sake, he and his wife, Maddie, even had twin daughters while he played for the Twins.

Hall of Fame elections and inductions serve as a celebration of what a player meant to the fans who supported him and the organizations for which he brought success and indelible moments; Mauer’s influence in Minnesota went well beyond the walls of the Metrodome and Target Field and the fans who passed through those buildings.

For a fiercely proud state and its citizens who retain a distinct and unequaled pride for “one of us,” as Minnesotans often say, the impact of Mauer’s dominance on the baseball diamond for his hometown fans transcended those chalk lines -- and that lived experience of a generation of Minnesotans will now find its encapsulation in a bronze plaque nearly 1,000 miles from home, at home amid the most revered memories and figures in baseball’s history.