Last Tuesday marked the 80th anniversary of the announcement of the first Hall of Fame class. In 1936, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson were the first five baseball players to be elected to the Hall of Fame. In 1939, Stephen Carlton Clark, a Cooperstown, New York hotel manager, founded the Baseball Hall of Fame in hopes that it would lure tourists to a town ruined by the Great Depression and Prohibition. Clark invented the fictitious story that Abner Doubleday, a Civil War hero, invented the game of baseball in order to lure more tourists to Cooperstown. In July of that year, Ruth, Cobb, Wagner, Mathewson, and Johnson were enshrined at Clark’s National Baseball Hall of Fame, along with twenty others.
On January 6th, 2016, Ken Griffey, Jr. and Mike Piazza were announced as the two newest players voted into the Hall. Over the last 80 years, the Hall has seen 310 players from the Major and Negro Leagues, managers, umpires, executives, and organizers elected. The Baseball Writers’ Association of America and the Veterans Committee are tasked with voting inductees into the Hall—the latter forms three subcommittees that elect players from different eras of baseball: Pre-Integration Era (1871-1946), Golden Era (1947-1972), and Expansion Era (1973-present).
In recent years, the Hall of Fame has also given way to much controversy and debate as to who should be elected. The controversies range from Hall of Fame “snubs,” those who are not believed to be worthy of enshrinement, permanently banned would-be Hall of Famers like Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose, and the exemption of those who used performance-enhancing drugs—even though they are clearly some of the greatest to ever play the game of baseball.
Perhaps the greatest Hall of Fame “snub” is Pete Rose. Rose is baseball’s all time hits leader (4,256), and is also the leader for career games played. Rose batted .303 for his career, won the Rookie of the Year and the MVP Awards, and made 17 All-Star games. Banned for betting on the Cincinnati Reds as manager in the 1980’s, it remains to be seen whether MLB’s new commissioner, Rob Manfred, will reinstate Rose and place him in the Hall. Barry Bonds, the all-time Home Run leader (762) and walks leader (2,558), is kept out of the Hall due to his steroid use. Mark McGwire (583 HR), Rafael Palmeiro (569 HR), Sammy Sosa (609 HR), and Roger Clemens (4670 career strikeouts, third most all-time) find themselves in similar predicaments.
The controversy regarding gambling and steroid use centers on the fact that the players mentioned above are some of the most exciting baseball players of all time. Isn’t the Hall of Fame a place where the game’s all time greats are enshrined? Regardless of his personal actions, Pete Rose was perhaps the greatest hitter of all time. Players who used steroids in the 1990’s did so at a time when players were not tested for steroid use, so it is likely that the majority of the league was doing so as well. Furthermore, even with the advantage that performance-enhancing drugs provided, it still took tremendous talent for Barry Bonds to hit over 700 home runs, and for Roger Clemens to win seven Cy-Young Awards. Steroids are almost certainly the contributor to the 70-plus homer seasons in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, but they could not truly account for the consistent dominance that characterized players such as Bonds, Palmeiro, and Clemens. And if the Hall of Fame is a place only for the most upstanding players, Ty Cobb, a violent racist, should not be a member.
There are also those in the Hall who are popularly deemed undeserving of the honor. George “High Pockets” Kelly led the league once in Home Runs, and twice in runs batted in, in an otherwise mediocre career. Bill Mazeroski, although famous for his World Series-winning walk-off home run, had a career OBP of only .299. Chick Hafey surpassed 100 games played in only seven seasons, and Tommy McCarthy, who only played more than 53 games in a season 10 times, hit just 44 home runs and batted .292. With the higher expectations today regarding Hall of Fame inductees, players like Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and Alan Trammel have not been elected, even though they clearly are all much more deserving than Kelly, Mazeroski, Hafey, and McCarthy, among others.
The history of the Hall of Fame is fascinating because there are controversies and idiosyncrasies that do not exist in the Halls of other major sports. The path for baseball’s great figures to the Hall has changed dramatically over the last 80 years. It will be interesting to see how the Hall of Fame continues to grow and change in the coming years.