Here we go again, back into the Baseball Hall of Fame unanimity problem, this time with Ken Griffey. Honestly, who would not vote Ken Griffey into the hall of fame? The man hit 630 home runs, won 10 Gold Gloves and was a source of constant joy in baseball’s angst era. Who would not vote that guy into the hall of fame?
Well, as we all know, a handful of people won’t vote him in for reasons that undoubtedly sound better before they are verbalized. Griffey will get 97 percent or 98 percent of the vote and the few who do not vote for him will either hide or offer somewhat baffling justifications. When it’s done, many will point out again that it doesn’t matter anyway. Ken Griffey will get elected to the hall of fame by a landslide. Who cares if it isn’t unanimous? Does it make the Baseball Hall of Fame less meaningful because Griffey — or Willie Mays or Babe Ruth or Henry Aaron — were not elected unanimously?
Maybe not. But it is annoying. How in the world did someone not vote for Frank Robinson? For Mickey Mantle? For Cal Ripken? That question cuts to the bone of an organization I’m very much a part of, the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA). How can we claim to be the best arbiter for the Hall of Fame when 15 among us didn’t even vote for Greg Maddux?
Here’s the thing: The BBWAA came really close one year to ending this whole stupid “No player has ever been elected unanimously” nonsense more than 20 years ago. So, so close.
We’ll get to that in a bit. First, a quick history of the fruitless hall of fame chase of unanimity.
* * *
For trivia buffs, there actually has been one player elected unanimously into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1939, the BBWAA held a special election during the Winter Meetings and voted in Lou Gehrig. There was a lot of emotion surrounding Gehrig then, of course. He was dying of ALS. This was just months after he would give his “Luckiest Man” speech. The actor Joe E. Brown — who would gain most of his fame for being the guy in “Some Like it Hot” to say, ‘Well, nobody’s perfect” — made public and private pleas to honor Gehrig. The writers did.
Now, they said it was a unanimous vote, but I have my doubts. The numbers were never released. In 1973, there was a similarly emotional special election for Roberto Clemente, who died three months earlier in a plane crash. Those votes were announced, 393 voted for Clemente, 29 voted no, two abstained. I suspect (hope?) that the 29 who voted no on Clemente were not referring to his play or his character but instead voicing their belief that there shouldn’t be a special election. I imagine there were some writers in 1939 who did not want a special election in Gehrig’s case either, but the organization presented a united and unanimous front.
Other than the Gehrig anomaly, no player has ever been elected unanimously in the long history of the hall of fame. Ty Cobb was left off four ballots in the first election. Rogers Hornsby was left off 51 ballots. Lefty Grove was left off 38. Joe DiMaggio was not even elected the first two times his name was on the ballot, and in the year he was elected he was left off 28 ballots.
But, to be fair, Hall of Fame voting was confusing in those days. Nobody seemed entirely sure who was eligible, who was not eligible, who was on the ballot, who was not on the ballot. The reason people kept passing on DiMaggio, for instance, is because there was no official rule for how long a player had to wait after retirement to be enshrined. There was a guideline of five years, but it wasn’t written down. DiMaggio was only retired for two years the first time he was on the ballot (he got 44 percent), three years the second time (69 percent), four years the time he was elected (88.8 percent).
The official five-year waiting period was put in place just after DiMaggio.
* * *
Modern hall of fame voting — which is to say voting more or less like we know it today — began in 1962. That year, many thought that Bob Feller had a chance to be elected unanimously. Feller was more than just a great pitcher, he was a baseball archetype: Iowa farm boy; grew up playing catch with his Dad; signed for an autographed baseball; threw harder than anybody before him; pitched in the Majors before he graduated high school; volunteered for the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor and so on. In his day, Feller was as famous as DiMaggio or Ted Williams.
As it turned out, Feller was left off 10 ballots — there was some suspicion at the time that Feller’s sometimes unwelcome bluntness (the week of his election, he appeared in a story criticizing the hall of fame process) cost him the chance to be elected unanimously.
Then … Feller wasn’t the guy on that ballot who should have been elected unanimously. I love this paragraph from The Sporting News, previewing the hall of fame vote:
“Among the more prominent players eligible for the first time are Bob Feller, the strikeout artist of the Cleveland Indians; Jackie Robinson, who played second base for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Phil Rizzuto, former shortstop of the New York Yankees.”
Jackie Robinson, who played second base for the Brooklyn Dodgers …
Yes, that’s what made Jackie Robinson special. Also considered were Jonas Salk, a longtime medical researcher, Rosa Parks, a seamstress in an Alabama department store, and Dwight Eisenhower, a brevet Lieutenant Colonel during World War I.
Robinson did not come close to being a unanimous choice. In fact, he was barely was elected in that 1962 election, finishing just four votes about the 75 percent line.
In 1966, the unanimous candidate was Ted Williams, Teddy Ballgame, the Splendid Splinter, the greatest hitter who ever lived, the god who did not answer letters and so on. It is hard to imagine any hall of fame voter looking at the career of Ted Williams and saying, “Yeah, he was a good, but he falls a little short for me.”
But before the vote even happened, alert baseball fans already knew he would not be elected unanimously. The Sporting News polled 26 hall of fame voters before the announcement, and found that only 25 voted for Williams. The other, without reservation (and without revealing his identity), said that he would never vote for Williams because of a personal grudge he held. Well, OK then, as long it’s just a personal grudge. Williams fell 20 votes shy, each of those undoubtedly for similarly sound reasons.
Three years later, Stan Musial came on the ballot. Stan the Man. He, more than Feller or even Williams, seemed the perfect candidate to get every single vote. As a player, his career was beyond reproach. At his retirement, he had the most hits, total bases, doubles, RBIs and almost anything else in National League history. And as a person, unlike Williams, Stan the Man was universally beloved. It seemed unlikely that anyone had a personal grudge against him. Here was a chance, finally, for harmony.
But, no. There was a trend growing. When Ruth and Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson and Joe DiMaggio and the other Greek Gods of baseball did not get elected unanimously, it was more because of a quirk in the system. But after Feller and Williams, there were those in the BBWAA who started to believe that NO ONE should ever get elected unanimously. And so a group of voters — perhaps working alone or perhaps in concert — decided they would NEVER vote for a player on first ballot. Musial’s name was not checked on 23 ballots, even more than Williams.
Of course, Musial was very Musial about it.
“In this country, the majority rules,” Musial would say. “And that’s a great thing — I’ll go with that!”
Jim Murray’s line: “Oh, it wasn’t unanimous. I guess that guy in New York with all the hair caught him coming out of church one day. A thing like that can hurt you, this generation.”
The “no first-ballot vote” posse reigned for a decade. For the next nine years after Musial, no player got even 90% of the vote, and that included legends like Yogi Berra (not even elected first ballot), Sandy Koufax (52 no votes), Warren Spahn (65), Mickey Mantle (43) and Ernie Banks (62).
And then came Willie Mays.
* * *
Who in the world would not vote Willie Mays into the hall of fame? The very question boggles the mind. The man could do everything on a baseball diamond, absolutely everything, and he played the game with passion and he carried himself with dignity. He was a pioneer and a genius of the game and as thrilling a player to watch as has ever played.
Before the Willie Mays vote, there was some talk about him being elected unanimously. But there was absolutely no chance of it. The first-ballot posse was still running things and 23 people — probably the same 23 who didn’t vote for Musial — did not check Willie Mays name.
Even Jack Lang, the BBWAA secretary and a persistent apologist for the BBWAA’s tired ways, was shocked and somewhat disgusted.
“If Jesus Christ were a candidate for the hall of fame,” he said, “I don’t believe he’d get a unanimous vote from the 12 apostles.”
How about this: According to Lang, three of the four most prominent baseball writers of the 1950s — people who saw Mays in full flight — did not vote for him. I’ve long tried to figure out who he meant. Lang said: “One of them called me too late, after the votes already had been counted, and said, ‘Hey, I forgot to vote for Willie Mays.’”
Yeah, you know, forgetting your credit card in a restaurant, that I get. Forgetting your car keys in your pants pocket, sure. Forgetting to vote for Willie Mays? That one is harder to figure. Anyway, another bridge was crossed. How can you vote anyone in unanimously after 23 people passed on Willie Mays?
* * *
Henry Aaron had a different story from Willie Mays. Aaron, unlike Mays, had been in the eye of America’s racial hurricane. He had received countless angry, hateful, racist letters as he chased Babe Ruth’s home run record. He had received death threats. Aaron had overcome, broken the record, shined a light on an ugly side of the American story. He did not forget. He kept those letters in boxes.
And so, when it was his turn for hall of fame election, the unanimity question took on a very different tint. When Mays fell 23 votes short of perfection there was little-to-no talk about racism. After all, that was the a similar shortfall to Ted Williams and Musial and Koufax and DiMaggio. But Henry Aaron was the Home Run King, the all-time leader in RBIs and total bases and extra bases (he’s still the leader in those three categories) and anybody who did not vote for him was opening up a serious question of “Why?”
Nine people, as it turned out, did not vote for him.
“I don’t know what the yardstick is for voting,” Aaron said. “It’s not a disappointment that I was not unanimous, but I’d be lying if I said I did not want to be a unanimous choice. … If a player deserves to be in the hall of fame by a unanimous vote, he should be rewarded with it.”
For years, the BBWAA always had danced around these shortfalls. The voters have always been anonymous, purportedly because anonymity frees them to vote with their hearts without public pressure, but after the Aaron vote the organization had to do some public relations. The BBWAA came out with a statement that the nine-vote deficiency had NOT been because of anything racial. And then they offered a small peek inside the voting process that once again confirms that incompetence is often at the heart of the matter.
For one, the organization pointed out that at least one of the people who left Aaron off the ballot did vote for Frank Robinson. In other words, at least one voter was not racist. Illogical, yes. Confused, yes. Ridiculous, yes. But not racist (forty-five voters left Frank Robinson off their ballots, which is a whole other travesty).
The organization said that one “Latin American voter” had only Luis Aparicio on the ballot.
They said another voter — undoubtedly one of the no-first-ballot voters — had just Juan Marichal.
And one non-Aaron voter — my favorite of the bunch — apparently voted for Aparacio and Richie Ashburn, the two names following Aaron on the ballot. The suspicion is that this was a Florida butterfly ballot blunder, with the voters simply showing the inability to line up the player’s name with the box needing to be checked.
So, you can see the unique challenges of getting a unanimous vote from the Baseball Writers or any other large group. Yes, some voters are belligerent. But others are just plain stupid.
* * *
In 1989, Johnny Bench fell 16 shy of unanimous and Carl Yastrzemski fell 24 votes short. Both of those players are obvious hall of famers with no reasonable argument against them, but at the same time neither of them is Willie Mays or Henry Aaron. So the “no player has ever been voted in unanimously” rubbish kept feeding on itself.
“I ask myself, ‘How could anyone not vote for him?’” Pete Rose said of Bench. “But, I guess there’s always somebody who won’t vote for you. They’ll say, ‘Well, even Babe Ruth wasn’t unanimous.’ But that don’t make it right.’”
No, it don’t, but once that boulder starting rolling downhill, players were going to get squashed. In 1995, Mike Schmidt — almost certainly the greatest third baseman in baseball history — fell 16 votes short of unanimous. That was the first year for Jack O’Connell as BBWAA secretary, and he says that when he called to give Schmidt the news that he’d been elected, Schmidt’s response was, “Who were the 16 that didn’t vote for me?”
“I would prefer to tell you who were the 444 who did,” O’Connell said. “But I’m not allowed.”
One of the 16, it should be said, did not hide from his decision to leave Schmidt off the ballot. That was Philadelphia-based writer Bill Brown. He was battling the cancer that would kill him within the year, and he was determined to vote his conscience. Brown said because he had consistently seen Schmidt refuse to sign autographs for kids or help his young teammates, Schmidt was unworthy of his vote. He wrote: “Seldom, if ever, has anyone taken so much from a sport and given so little back and to the community. It was for these reasons that I chose to withhold my vote for Mike Schmidt. I would do it again.”
Agree or disagree, at least this was a thought-out and passionately held view.
“It was an opinion that brought criticism,” read Brown’s obit just months later, “but Mr. Brown stuck by his decision.”
* * *
Let’s talk for a minute about Nolan Ryan. In 1999, Ryan finished just six votes shy of unanimous. He got 98.8 percent of the vote, the same percentage as Tom Seaver (yes, we’re getting to him) as the highest in Hall of Fame history.
Ryan is a fascinating case, and looking at him might get us closer to the heart of this question about why there has never been a unanimous hall of famer. One of the six non-Ryan voters, Bill Conlin, wrote a belligerent column bragging about it. He cited Ryan’s rather pedestrian .526 winning percentage, as if that should have disqualified him from the hall of fame. He also cited the fact that Ryan blew a 5-2 lead in Game 5 of the 1980 National League Championship Series, which was probably the most important game he ever started.
That Game 5 is illustrative of Ryan’s turbulent career. Nolan Ryan was a man of extremes. He probably threw a baseball harder than anyone in baseball history. He was the most unhittable pitcher in baseball history (6.6 hits per nine innings). He is, of course, the all-time leader in strikeouts with more than 5,700 and he threw seven no-hitters, and he was a force of nature for two decades. You simply cannot tell the story of baseball without him.
But despite these extraordinary talents, it is true that he was not the “greatest” pitcher in baseball history. That’s because he also had big ol’ Texas-sized flaws. These came out in Game 5 of the 1980 NLCS.
1. His team was indeed up 5-2 in the eighth inning, but the two runs allowed were pure Ryan runs. Early in the game, he allowed runners to reach second and third with two outs. The Phillies’ No. 8 hitter, Bob Boone, came to the plate. It was a situation where just about anyone would have walked Boone to face Phillies rookie pitcher Marty Bystrom. I’m no fan of the intentional walk, but that’s basically a 100 percent call. Bystrom had one hit all year.
Ryan, though, insisted on pitching to Boone because, well, Nolan Ryan never backed down from a man in his life, and he certainly wasn’t going to back down to Bob Boone, a .229 hitter that year. Well, Boone hit a two-run single. Bystrom, of course, followed with a harmless groundout to second.
2. Then came the eighth inning. Larry Bowa blooped a single to center. Boone came up again and this time grounded the ball back to the pitcher. It was a double-play ground ball but this led to the second of Ryan’s great weaknesses: He was a dreadful fielder. His 90 errors are by far the most of any pitcher in the last 75 years, and he led all pitchers in errors four times in the 1970s. Ryan was unable to field the Boone ground ball and there were runners on first and second.
3. Greg Gross came up. Gross would beat out two bunts in his entire career. This was one of them, a sweet bunt down the third base line. Again this goes back to Ryan’s inability to field. Ryan pitched with such force he simply wasn’t in position to get to the ball. Gross’ bunt loaded the bases.
4. Ryan walked Pete Rose to score a run. Of course, no pitcher in baseball history walked more batters than Nolan Ryan — his 2,795 walks is as unbreakable a record as there is on sports. At that point he was pulled from the game, and the bullpen couldn’t end the threat.
All of this leads to the point: There are no perfect baseball players. Willie Mays came close, but even he made outs almost two-thirds of the time. Williams came close, but he was an often poor and disinterested fielder. Nolan Ryan was the most unhittable pitcher of his time or any time, but he had his flaws. They all have flaws. Those flaws were on display in Game 5, and at least one voter used that as an excuse to not vote Nolan Ryan into the hall of fame.
If you are so inclined, you can always find a reason to not vote somebody into the hall of fame.
A few people in the BBWAA have been so inclined. Cal Ripken fell eight votes shorts. Rickey Henderson fell 28 votes short. Greg Maddux fell 16 votes short. Randy Johnson fell 14 votes short. This year Ken Griffey will fall short, and soon Derek Jeter will fall short, and Mariano Rivera will fall short, and the longer this goes the less likely it is that we will ever see a player go in unanimously.
Thing is … this whole thing could have ended in 1992.
* * *
Tom Seaver has an argument as the greatest pitcher in baseball history. The way I see it, there are six pitchers who, by the numbers, have a good argument for that No. 1 spot:
— Walter Johnson
— Lefty Grove
— Tom Seaver
— Roger Clemens
— Greg Maddux
— Randy Johnson
True, I’m excluding many legendary pitchers like Pete Alexander and Warren Spahn and Pedro Martinez and Christy Mathewson and the guys who pitched in the 19th Century like Cy Young and Kid Nichols. I’m also excluding some of Seaver’s great contemporaries like Steve Carlton and Gaylord Perry. All great pitchers. For various reasons, I don’t think they have compelling arguments for No. 1. That’s another column.
Walter Johnson is widely viewed as No. 1 and his numbers are untouchable — but he pitched during the Deadball Era, so it’s hard to judge.
Lefty Grove led the league in ERA nine times, this in a big-hitting era, and finished his career a staggering 300-141.
Clemens, well, if you take PEDs out of the picture, I’m not sure there’s a viable argument that Clemens WAS NOT the greatest pitcher ever. But PEDs are in the picture.
Maddux is almost as good as Clemens, without the PED suspicions.
Randy Johnson, I think, is almost as good as Maddux.
All have their case, and Seaver does too. He was breathtaking. The prime was long and spectacular; for a decade, 1967 to 1977, he went 203-113 with a 2.48 ERA, led the league in wins twice, in ERA three times, in strikeouts five times, in WHIP three times, in FIP four times, and he finished Top 5 in WAR every year but one. He led the 1969 Mets to a championship, lugged the no-hit 1973 Mets to the pennant. Even now, he’s sixth in career strikeouts, seventh in shutouts, seventh in WAR and fifth in that interesting statistic Situational Wins Saved. Look it up, you’ll like it.
In other words, Seaver was an excellent candidate to finally be the unanimous hall of fame choice. There was no argument against him. He retired before Clemens, Maddux and Unit really got going, so at the time of his retirement he was certainly one of the top five pitchers ever. Add in that he pitched so much of his career in New York, and he was famous on and off the field, and he had the Tom Terrific nickname — this was our best shot.
In the end, as you might already know, he finished five votes short. So close.
BUT … that’s not where the story ends. Seaver’s election year was 1992, which just so happened to be the year that Pete Rose’s name was also supposed to first appear on the ballot. That would have been some election with Rose and Seaver on the ballot, but it wasn’t meant to be. After Rose was banned from baseball, the Baseball Hall of Fame decided that no permanently banned player should appear on the Hall of Fame ballot. The Hall thought it was making official what had long been an unwritten rule — it seemed obvious to them that any player banned from baseball would also be banned from the hall of fame.
Some members of the BBWAA were outraged. An unwritten rule is not the same as a written rule. Also, before his death, former commissioner Bart Giamatti had made clear his views about Rose and the hall of fame:
“When Pete Rose is eligible,” Giamatti had said after banning Rose, “Mr. Lang will count the ballots, and you will decide whether he belongs in the hall of fame.” And with the word “you” he pointed at all the writers in the room. He intended for the BBWAA to decide.
So, yes, there was some anger about the hall of fame’s decision. There was a strong feeling that the Hall was infringing upon the independence of the BBWAA.
Because of all this, there was a protest vote — 41 writers (9.5 percent) wrote in Pete Rose. These votes didn’t count, but they were announced. But for some voters, just writing in Pete Rose was not a strong enough message. Three writers sent in blank ballots as their own kind of weird protest.
In other words, three of the five people who did not vote for Seaver were those who sent in blank ballots to protest Pete Rose.
That leaves only two people who actually did not vote for Seaver. Well, get this: One of those people had open heart surgery just before he filled out the ballot. He was still woozy — apparently still in the hospital — but he wanted to fill the thing out. He left off Tom Seaver by mistake.
That leaves only ONE PERSON who did not vote for Tom Seaver. And you know why? Right: He was one of those kooky leftovers from the 1970s who still did not vote for first-ballot players.
In other words, it could have happened. Tom Seaver could have been voted in unanimously. And if that had happened, I feel certain that others would have gone in unanimously because the meme would have been destroyed. Maddux probably would have gone in unanimously. Ripken probably would have gone in unanimously. The Big Unit probably would have gone in unanimously.
And this year, Ken Griffey probably would have gone in unanimously. Alas, it didn’t happen for Seaver. It could have been a giant leap for mankind. Sigh. You wonder if it will ever been that close again.