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The concept of "first ballot" Hall of Famer is meaningless

Dec 1, 2009, 9:30 AM EST

MLB.com’s Hal Bodley repeats a bit of nonsense you tend to hear at Hall of Fame voting time, and that’s that some players are “first ballot Hall of Famers” and some aren’t:

I’m wrestling with whether to check Roberto Alomar’s box.

Alomar’s the most likely of those being considered for the first time
to make it, but does he really deserve to be in the select company of
the 44 players chosen by the BBWAA in their first year of eligibility?  That’s the question I keep asking myself and so far cannot answer.

Probably because it’s a dumb question.  Players are either worthy of being voted into the Hall of Fame or they are not. There is nothing in the Hall of Fame voting rules which provides that those getting votes in their first year of eligibility must meet some heightened criteria. The concept of “first ballot Hall of Famer” is a retrospective thing that simply means that there weren’t as many people on the fence about a guy’s qualifications. It is not some pre-ordained honor against which voters should judge current candidates.

If a voter simply can’t decide whether Alomar is Hall of Fame worthy in an absolute sense, fine, he shouldn’t vote for him. The 15 year window of eligibility is to give people time to change their minds.

But Bodley isn’t doing that. He says “I feel certain he’ll be a Hall of Famer some day, but I’m not convinced it should happen from this ballot.”  In this, Bodley is basically acknowledging that Alomar is worthy, but that he simply doesn’t want to make him one of those magical “first timers.” By adding that extra hurdle, I believe he’s abusing his voting privileges.

  1. ditmars1929 - Dec 1, 2009 at 9:48 AM

    Craig, if you’re going to be doing this full time, I’d suggest you watch your back. It seems that most sports journalists are required to undergo a lobotomy.

  2. Chris W - Dec 1, 2009 at 9:48 AM

    Why is first ballot so inherently ridiculous?
    There are numerous scales of HOF gradation–Veterans Committee votes, BBWAA votes, and first ballot.
    There are people who constantly harp on how the HOF should be Willie Mays, Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth. Well it’s not. But first ballot is. Look at the list. Everyone on it is a no-doubt HOFer. Render unto 10th ballot HOFers the Jim Rices and Goose Gossages on the world. Render unto the Veterans Committee the Travis Jacksons and Bill Mazeroskis. First ballot is where the Ken Griffey, Jr.’s and Sandy Koufaxes go!
    That said, I can’t explain Dimaggio’s omission from the first ballot list.

  3. Bill@TDS - Dec 1, 2009 at 10:13 AM

    1. Because it doesn’t work that way. Willie Mays, Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth are “first ballot,” but so are Kirby Puckett, Dennis Eckersley, Dave Winfield, Paul Molitor, Willie Stargell and Robin Yount. If that’s your “no-doubt” list, your HOF must be HUGE. Meanwhile, DiMaggio, Foxx, Killebrew, Mathews, and Yogi Berra are missing. If those guys are NOT on your “no-doubt” list, your HOF must be TINY.
    2. Because it doesn’t make any sense. Why should *when* you get in be some sort of special honor, when the actual honor itself is exactly the same for everybody? Wouldn’t it make more sense to create some sort of extra honor, like an “inner circle” or something (which they’d still screw up almost immediately, but at least there’d be some sense to it)? And of course, as is often pointed out, eligible players’ stat lines and accomplishments don’t change. It’s incoherent to say that player X was not a Hall of Famer five years after he took his last swing or threw his last pitch, but suddenly became one six, seven or eight years after.
    3. Because it creates to problems. Say you’ve got a player who clearly deserves to be in the Hall of Fame — just as a hypothetical, we’ll call him Lew Schmitaker. Say the writers don’t quite understand how great Schmitaker was. If enough of them think “well, maybe someday, but not first-ballot,” and thus don’t vote for him on that first ballot, he won’t get enough votes to stay ON the ballot and poor Mr. Schmitaker will fall off it completely.

  4. Bill@TDS - Dec 1, 2009 at 10:15 AM

    “creates to problems”? Yikes.

  5. EvilEmpireE2009 - Dec 1, 2009 at 11:35 AM

    Steve Spurrier just called, the South Carolina Football team manager will be making the selections for the Baseball Hall of Fame, on behalf of the ball coach.
    I think it is ridiculous the writers also chooses which team a player can represent as if they were responsible for the players career, Roger Clemens has already stated ” they better send me in as a Yankee or I won’t attend the ceromonies”, his family will have theie own in Texas.

  6. CasEjonz - Dec 1, 2009 at 11:48 AM

    To analyze this even further, is the “unanimous” first ballot Hall of Famer. To which we have yet to see. I recall the outrage when Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn were omitted on 8 ballots and 11 ballots respectively. I too was outraged that a voter could be so obtuse to not vote for these men, and that the voters were abusing their privilege and wielding it in some sort of ego sating “god like” power to mete out a player’s “fate.” To this point, Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan are the closest to 100% at 98.8% The fact that some voters can not see an obviously worthy player, makes the notion of even “first ballot” distinction moot. If they cant get the obvious, then how much merit can we put behind their selections whether it is a first timer or a fifteenth timer. I can’t wait for those same writers to argue why Ken Griffey Jr and Derek Jeter aren’t worthy of an automatic vote, but will argue for some fringe guy that they got a Christmas card from.

  7. peteinfla - Dec 1, 2009 at 11:59 AM

    Hey Craig, I agree with you completely. If a player is deservng for entrance for the HOF, and a writer does not vote for him based on an imaginary decision that he does not deserve 1st ballot consideration, then there IS an abuse of the writer’s power here. But how do you police against it? These are the same writers who put their personal feelings for a player ahead of the player’s career. Clearly a power that is not included in the writer’s resonsibility. And yet they get away with it, for reasons no one understands. I don’t like certain players- McGuire, Sosa, …, but if you look at the body of their careers, clearly they are HOF worthy. Unless I am mistaken, no where does it say that the writer is supposed to make a determination of HOF worthiness based on anything but the career, but they do. These are the same guys who elected Don Sutton, but have ignored Blyleven for years, a better pitcher who had the misfortune of playing on lousy teams. Seems to me that unless the system is changed dramatically, we will continue to see these type of decisions from the writers.

  8. Spice - Dec 1, 2009 at 12:34 PM

    I have never understood the “first ballot” thing. Either the guy is HOF or is not HOF. The only time I can see it making sense is when you need the passage of time to determine where a player really fit in his era. Maybe under those circumstances it is understandable to not vote the first few times around. The problem is that if ALL voters, or even a large majority of voters were to operate under the “only the greatest of the greats” gets a first ballot vote many very deserving candidats would never get to the second year.
    This much is certain: the players BA didn’t go up, he didn’t get more home runs or become a better fielder in the second year or third year or 15th year. Again, I can only see it where your need the perspective of time to see how a players career really compared to his contemporaries.

  9. Spice - Dec 1, 2009 at 12:52 PM

    All good points but you missed one of the most absurd non-first ballot votes: Hank Aaron received only 97.8% of the votes. Yes he went in on the first ballot but was not unanimous.
    When he retired he had a .305 batting average, most career home runs 755, most career RBI 2291, had 3771 hits and 6856 total bases. Can someone tell me what about Hank Aaron was not first ballot? What were slightly more tha 2% of the voteres thinking?

  10. Craig Calcaterra - Dec 1, 2009 at 12:55 PM

    Great point, Spice. Aaron is maybe the silliest. I mean, Mays and Mantle are bad enough, but if you wanted to you could construct an argument that some of their skills were less obvious to voters in the 70s (their walks; their defense; their base running). Aaron had two thirds of the career triple crown and was a a career .300 hitter. WTF?!

  11. CasEjonz - Dec 1, 2009 at 1:07 PM

    He was not the only one, here is a list of HOFs with their percentages, it is ludicrous.
    Name Year …………………Pct.
    Bob Feller 1962…………. 93.8
    Jackie Robinson 1962….. 77.5
    Ted Williams 1966 ………93.4
    Stan Musial 1969……….. 93.2
    Sandy Koufax 1972……. 86.9
    Warren Spahn 1973…… 83.2
    Mickey Mantle 1974….. 88.2
    Ernie Banks 1977 ………83.8
    Willie Mays 1979……… 94.7
    Bob Gibson 1981…….. 84.0
    Hank Aaron 1982 ……..97.8
    Frank Robinson 1982… 89.2
    Brooks Robinson 83…. 92.0
    Johnny Bench 1989….. 96.4
    Carl Yastrzemski 89…. 94.6
    Joe Morgan 1990…….. 81.8
    Jim Palmer 1990………. 92.6
    Rod Carew 1991………. 90.5
    Tom Seaver 1992……… 98.8
    Reggie Jackson 1993… 93.6
    Steve Carlton 1994….. 95.6
    Mike Schmidt 1995….. 96.5
    George Brett 1999…… 98.2
    Nolan Ryan 1999…….. 98.8
    Robin Yount 1999…… 77.5
    Kirby Puckett 2001….. 82.1
    Dave Winfield 2001….. 84.5
    Ozzie Smith 2002……. 91.7
    Eddie Murray 2003….. 85.3
    Dennis Eckersley 04…. 83.2
    Paul Molitor 2004……. 85.2
    Wade Boggs 2005……. 91.9
    Tony Gwynn 2007……. 97.6
    Cal Ripken, Jr. 2007…. 98.5

  12. Church of the Perpetually Outraged - Dec 1, 2009 at 1:18 PM

    Reggie Jackson had a higher % than Ted Williams, wtf? Oh and Babe Ruth was left off 11 ballots.
    http://www.usatoday.com/sports/baseball/hallfame/00hall7.htm

  13. Joey B - Dec 1, 2009 at 1:32 PM

    It reminds me of my first job review. It involved the normal disagreements, but there was one category in which I simply blew everyone away, and I didn’t get a 10. When I asked about it, they said they don’t give out 10s. I then asked why they have a category that is impossible to use? And if you can’t get a 10, then the baseline for the overall grade is a 90.
    It either is or it isn’t. If someone deserves the vote, they should get it. To say someone should get a 1st ballot nomination cheapens the process. The way to makes amends for cheating Mantle, Mays, Aaron, etc., is not to cheat Ripken, Alomar, etc.

  14. alyce Iavarone - Dec 1, 2009 at 3:04 PM

    BRAVO!!! DON’T YOU KNOW IT’S NOT THE HALL OF FAME; IT’S THE HALL OF POPULARITY, HENCE PETE ROSE. LET THE NUMBERS SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES. YOU DO NOT HAVE THIS PROBLEM IN ANY OTHER SPORT. THANK YOU FOR THE REFRESHING PERSPECTIVE. HOPEFULLY, THE NEXT GENERATION OF WRITER’S WILL BE A LITTLE LESS JUDGMENTAL AND A LOT MORE ACCURATE.

  15. Chris W - Dec 3, 2009 at 11:20 AM

    You make some good points but I’d respond by saying
    1.) Just because the system has failed (in this case the “first ballot” system by electing the likes of Eckersley and Puckett–only the latter of whom I think is anything but a no-doubt HOFer but I acknowledge your point–and omitting Joe Dimaggio) doesn’t mean the system is inherently flawed. If that were the case, why have the HOF at all?
    2.) Yes, the honor is the honor, but everyone knows that Rizutto, Fox, and Travis Jackson backdoored it in. No one is going to pretend they’re the “same level” of HOFer as, say, a Tom Seaver, even if in the most technical sense of it, they are. At the end of the day, since the HOF has no inherent meaning, it’s always going to be about perception. We value those actually voted in by the writers more highly than those voted in by the Veterans’ committee. So why is it inherently ridiculous that voters would acknowledge that and work to keep the first-ballot crowd “elite”?
    Bear in mind, I’m not saying the concept of withholding votes until the second ballot is inherently good either. I just can see the logic behind it. The HOF is all about perception. Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is. At the end of the day, the first ballot process makes sense in the context of the situation.
    Hell, even considering Puckett, Eckersley, and, say, Dave Winfield, just look at the first ballot list and try to tell me there’s not a wide divide between those folks and the Goose Gossages and Jim Rices of the world–to say nothing of the Mazeroskis and Travis Jacksons

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