Chasing Cooperstown: Baseball’s Biggest HOF Voting Oddities

Six players will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this weekend. It’s a star-studded class headlined by Atlanta Braves great Chipper Jones. He and 600 home run club member Jim Thome both gained election in their first try.

For some in this class, however, the road to Cooperstown was a little bit more treacherous. Detroit Tigers standouts Alan Trammell and Jack Morris starred in the 1980s, a decade that has been hard-pressed to produce Hall of Famers. The former teammates will go in alongside Jones, Thome, Vladimir Guerrero and Trevor Hoffman, all of whom began their trek to baseball immortality in the 90s.

With that in mind, it’s a fine time to look back at some of the most peculiar and downright frustrating voting oddities in baseball history.

For a multitude of reasons, too many to list here in fact, there has never been a player to receive the full complement of votes. That’s right, no player has ever been listed on every ballot and garnered the now mythical 100 percent approval of his constituency. This dates all the way back to the inaugural class of 1936, when Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner became the first five men to receive what has since become baseball’s most prestigious honor from the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Jones was listed on 410 of the 422 ballots cast to earn election. That’s 97.2% of the vote, which is 10th best among 127 put in the hall by the writers.

This post could literally spawn thousands of words if not a book, but I’m going to attempt to keep it streamlined by pointing out just five of the oddities and inconsistencies that have highlighted the BBWAA’s annual hall of fame voting results. This includes the surprisingly low percentages of some household names as well as the number of years it took for other legends to gain entry. In some cases, it’s both. As one might imagine, this is by no means a complete list.

Joe DiMaggio | Class of 1955 (4th Year) | 88.84%

The “Yankee Clipper” leads off this list, and he has a fascinating story to tell. Joe DiMaggio retired following the 1951 season and was voted in as the headliner of a four-man class in 1955. DiMaggio was not subjected to the customary five-year waiting period prior to election, but instead a one-year hold which was put in place in 1946.

At that time, a player only needed to be retired for a single season before becoming eligible for Cooperstown. Prior to that, there was no waiting and no standardized ballot for that matter. This resulted in countless active players receiving votes as well as a handful of hall of famers likewise being named on ballots years after their induction.

The now familiar five-year waiting period was instituted in 1954, but DiMaggio and other retired players who’d already been voted upon were grandfathered in, hence he gained election early despite it taking four tries. When naming baseball’s icons of yesteryear, DiMaggio is routinely among the first five or 10 brought up. That makes it a bit of a head-scratcher that he was not a first ballot hall of famer. If you think the process isn’t perfect now, well, it’s come a long way.

What’s even weirder is that DiMaggio didn’t even receive 50% of the vote in his first year on the ballot. He checked in at 44.3% before doubling that total two years later to gain election on his third attempt.

One last piece of trivia: Joe DiMaggio was the last active player to garner a hall of fame vote. He received that odd distinction in 1945 while spending time away from the Yankees while serving in the armed forces. That constitutes DiMaggio’s first year on the ballot and makes his Hall of Fame wait all the more unique.

The Entire 1950 Ballot | No players inducted

Remember not too long ago when the BBWAA failed to elect anyone? Multiple players from that 2013 ballot should and will make it into the hall eventually.

That group will still pale in comparison to the failure of 1950.

Exactly how insane was it? One hundred men received at least one vote that year – and 48 of them were future hall of famers. Of course, some of those eventually made it courtesy of the veterans committee, but it’s still perplexing to see the likes of Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx, Bill Terry, Paul Waner, Al Simmons and Hank Greenberg (among others) spending years and years on the ballot. Any of those men could headline a class, but instead languished for years while the electorate fumbled about sifting through the glut of players, deserving or otherwise.

Let’s look at two men in particular, both members of the 500 home run club from a time when that was extremely rare. Ott (3rd year) and Foxx (7th year) both gained election in 1951, but how either advanced beyond their first year on the ballot speaks to the backlog of candidates and general disorganization of the voting populous and process at that time. This was a running theme for decades early on.

Foxx was only the second player to hit 500 home runs (the first being Babe Ruth) and was the youngest man to reach that plateau (since surpassed by Alex Rodriguez). He finished his career second on the all-time home run list and first among right-handed hitters. Foxx held that distinction until Willie Mays hit homer No. 535 on August 17, 1966. With a 96.4 WAR compiled over a 20-year career, Foxx is tied with Eddie Mathews for 19th all-time among those enshrined. Making a retroactive case for Foxx is beside the point. He’s in. Hooray. Baseball’s evolution has shone a brighter and brighter light on statistical achievement through the use of advanced metrics and analytics, but even the most rudimentary analysis should have punched the ticket for Foxx in short order.

As for Ott, he holds similar marks to Foxx, if not better in some categories. “Master Melvin,” he of 511 homers (3rd all-time when he retired) and a tidy 107.8 WAR (14th among hall of fame hitters) should have never gone begging for one year, let alone three. Those were the times though, and it speaks even more to the imperfect system in place back in 1950.

Still, if you sit back and ask yourself what a sure fire hall of famer looks like statistically, it’s hard to imagine voters looking at Ott’s numbers and saying, “Next.”

Cy Young | Class of 1937 (2nd Year) | 76.12%

Widely regarded as the greatest pitcher of all-time on the strength of his talent, longevity, durability and countless records, this legend squeaked in as part of the hall’s second class.

It’s amazing, but not unheard of, that the voting could be so fractured at the very beginning of the process. Cy Young didn’t have to wait long, but the pitcher who boasts the career victories record (among countless others) atop a sterling resume and went on to have an annual award of excellence bearing his name shouldn’t have been waiting around at all.

Even more amazing, Young barely eclipsed the threshold en route to Cooperstown. He was listed on just 153 of the 201 ballots collected in 1937, yielding a 76.12% mark that ranks 109th of 114 hall of famers voted in by the BBWAA.

Shockingly low.

Lefty Grove | Class of 1947 (4th Year) | 76.40%

Like fellow southpaw Warren Spahn, Robert Moses “Lefty” Grove did not pitch regularly in the majors until his age 25 season. Despite that, Grove went on to win 300 games while establishing himself as perhaps the very best left-hander in the history of the game during a 17-year career. Sure, Spahn and Sandy Koufax came after and well-deserved praise is heaped their way, but Grove set a standard of excellence that was and is a cut above.

His rookie year stands as the lone losing campaign of his career, which is highlighted by nine ERA titles, seven strikeout crowns, four seasons leading the AL in victories, five times leading in winning percentage and capturing a MVP award to go with a pair of pitching triple crowns (one of those in 1930 while leading the league in saves).

Grove started 457 games and completed 298 of those (65 percent). Not only did he complete games, but he won them at a historical rate. His .680 winning percentage is 8th all-time, but the highest of any 300 game winner in baseball history. Put all of that together, and you get a member of the All-Century team.

Grove was clearly victimized by the general disorganization of the process of that time, but one has to wonder what a hall of fame pitcher looks like if not Lefty. It’s extremely jarring to look at the Cooperstown roster and see both Grove and Cy Young ranked behind both Rollie Fingers (81.16%) and Bruce Sutter (76.92%) in terms of voting percentage. Yes, different times and conditions. And closers are another debate for another day.

Rogers Hornsby | Class of 1942 (5th Year) | 78.11%

Make no mistake, Rogers Hornsby may be the greatest right-handed hitter in baseball history.

Retiring in 1937 with a .358 batting average that is still second only to Ty Cobb on the all-time list, Hornsby won two triple crowns and reeled off an amazing run from 1921-1925 in which he batted .402 for a five-year stretch. There’s never been a better slugging second baseman in the history of the game.

Of course, that whole bit about possibly being the greatest righty hitter has a lot to do with that. He may not have always been well-liked amongst contemporaries and teammates, but Hornsby has few peers when it comes to his batting exploits.

To look at his numbers is to thumb through countless accomplishments that will never be duplicated. Like the other players on this list, it just boggles the mind to see him wait several years for election, only then to squeak by just above the necessary cut-off.

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