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Why hasn’t there been a unanimous Hall of Famer? (And 20 players who should have been)

Oct 2, 2013, 11:51 AM EDT

hall of fame

Every time an undeniably great baseball player retires — the latest being Mariano Rivera — there will be a handful of people who will wonder: Is he finally the one? Will he become the first unanimous Hall of Famer?

In a way, it’s a bizarre concept. How could there have never been a unanimous Hall of Famer? I don’t know a single person who does not consider Mariano Rivera a Hall of Famer. You could invent cockamamie arguments against Rivera if you want — he wasn’t effective as a start briefly at the start of his career, one inning closers are vastly overrated, whatever — but that’s just a like a thought exercise. Everybody willing to look at his career with even the slightest bit of objectivity thinks Mariano Rivera should get elected into the Hall of Fame.

But Rivera is not the greatest player in baseball history. There have been significantly better players than Rivera who have not gotten in unanimously. By my best guess, there should have been 20 unanimous Hall of Famers already. Actually, it’s more than 20 when you consider Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson and Honus Wagner and other players before World War II, but I the Hall of Fame was a different thing in their time. Well, it didn’t even exist in their time. So that’s a different thing.

The Baseball Writers of America have been voting more or less the same way since 1962. And I think, since 1962, there have been 20 players who should have been voted in unanimously.

This actually leaves out quite a few legendary players. They are players I personally would have voted for without hesitation, but there is a REASONABLE baseball argument against them. Take Brooks Robinson. I’m a huge Brooks Robinson fan — he was one of my father’s two favorite players (the other being Frank Howard). I grew up wanting to be Brooks Robinson. But if someone said: “Look, he was more or less a league average hitter for all those years, his great defense doesn’t quite make him a Hall of Famer for me” — I’d disagree but I’d respect the argument.

Same goes with Ozzie Smith. Same goes with Nolan Ryan. Of course I think Ryan is a Hall of Famer. But someone could legitimately argue that because he walked almost 1,000 more batters than anyone in baseball history, he gave up a lot of runs and falls short. Disagree. But see the point.

And there’s no point in rehashing Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds.

There are, however, 20 players who I think there is no legitimate argument against. Well, there are 19 plus 1 — you’ll see below. I list them by the number of people who did not vote for them:

* * *

Tom Seaver, 98.8% of vote, 5 people did not vote for him.

Seaver, you probably know, has the highest percentage in the history of Hall of Fame voting. Well, that might not be entirely right. Lou Gehrig and Roberto Clemente were both elected in secret special elections and it is possible — especially in Gehrig’s case — that those elections were unanimous. Seaver received all but five votes in an open election which has granted him a special place in Hall of Fame history. A lot of people have found it curious that it was Seaver — not Willie Mays or Hank Aaron or someone like that — who holds the record.

But to me the better question is this: Why would anybody NOT vote for Tom Seaver? He seemed to have everything Hall of Fame voters crave: Amazing peak, 300 career victories, more than 3,600 strikeouts, represented the game well and so on. He has a viable case as the best pitcher ever. Who the heck looked at Tom Seaver’s name on the ballot and thought, “Nah.”

Theory: Five people did not vote for Seaver because they wanted to prevent him from being a unanimous pick. There are people — sort of like the Brotherhood that protects the Holy Grail in the Indiana Jones movie — who think it is their duty to make sure no one gets in unblemished. This will be a recurring theme.

* * *

Cal Ripken, 98.5%, 8 people did not vote for him.

He seemed lined up for unanimous selection. Everybody knows he was a truly great player (the greatest shortstop, I think, since Honus Wagner). He won MVPs, Gold Gloves, he was a 19-time All-Star, he got 3,000 hits, he got 400 home runs. And, of course, he set the iron man record that exhilarated America in the aftermath of the 1994 World Series cancellation. He was everything anyone wants a baseball player to be.

Theory: Eight people did not vote for Ripken because they wanted to prevent him from being a unanimous pick and because he hit .276 for his career. Batting average, too, seems to be a good excuse to not vote for someone who is clearly a Hall of Famer.

* * *

Henry Aaron, 97.8%, 9 people did not vote for him.

What’s left to be said about the great Henry Aaron? Class. Consistency. Brilliance. Dignity. The essence of the game. He broke Babe Ruth’s home run record under the most intense racial pressure, and he collected 700 more total bases than any player in the history of the game. If I had to pick one player, above all others, who most certainly should have been selected unanimously, it would be Henry Aaron.

Theory: The nine people who did not vote for Henry Aaron should be ashamed of themselves. There can be no viable reason.

* * *

George Brett: 98.2%, 9 people did not vote for him.

Brett’s career is particularly notable for the lack of good arguments against it. What didn’t George Brett do well? He hit, hit for power, ran well and aggressively, developed into an outstanding third baseman and hit .373/.439/.529 in the World Series. He has as many memorable moments as any player of his time, and he was the heart of an expansion Kansas City baseball team that became a powerhouse. He also had the lifetime .300 batting average (.305) and 3,000 hits that bedazzle the Hall of Fame voters.

Theory: Nine people did not vote for George Brett because, great as he was, he wasn’t Ted Williams or Stan Musial, and they did not get voted unanimously. As you will see, this absurd cycle feeds on itself.

* * *

Bob Feller: 93.8%, 9 people did not vote for him.

Feller should have had a real shot at unanimity. Not only was he a legendary pitcher, he was also a very prominent person in the game who had relationships with lots of reporters. Heck, he was a syndicated writer himself. Feller missed three full seasons and most of a fourth while serving in the Navy during World War II — he volunteered the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed. Those four seasons were at the very height of his career.That prevented him from winning 300 games or getting 3,000 strikeouts, two Hall of Fame standards. With those four seasons he might have won 350 games and collected 3,500 strikeouts. He was the pitcher of his time, and everyone voting knew it.

Theory: Nine people did not vote for Bob Feller, I think, because there was a tremendous negative energy among the BBWAA at the time. Before that year, the writers voted every other year, but they had not voted in a single player in 1960 or 1958. So it had been six year since the BBWAA had voted anyone in. I think there was a growing “nobody is good enough for the Hall of Fame” vibe growing, and while Feller and some others would get a high percentage of the vote over the next 15 or so years, nobody had a real shot at getting in unanimously.

* * *

Johnny Bench: 96.4%, 16 people did not vote for him.

Bench was widely viewed as the greatest catcher in baseball history when his time for vote came up. He was a two-time MVP, a 10-time Gold Glove winner, a pioneer in catch-and-throw brilliance, the National League’s starting All-Star catcher every year from 1969 to 1977. He was the greatest collection of defensive skill and offensive power in Major League history — Josh Gibson is another category.

Theory: Sixteen people did not vote for Bench, I think, because of his relatively low career batting average (.267) and because, like just about all catchers, he wasn’t a great player after age 30. I can only guess that some of the voters still associated Bench with the guy he was at the end of his career. LIke I say, it’s a guess. I have no real idea why people would not vote for the greatest catcher in MLB history. Then again, Yogi Berra — who many others, including Bill James, considers the greatest catcher in MLB history — did not even get ELECTED on his first ballot.

* * *

Mike Schmidt: 96.5%, 16 people did not vote for him.

Schmidt, like Bench, was widely viewed as the best ever at his position when he came up for the Hall of Fame. The achievements are so obvious as to be blinding. Schmidt won three MVPs, eight home run titles and 10 Gold Gloves. He hit 500 career home runs. He stole 174 bases and was one stolen base short of a 30-30 season in 1975 — people forget just how good an athlete Schmidt was. I’ve long thought that Schmidt — as celebrated as he was — was still underrated because people never credited him for his high on-base percentages. Three times he led the league in OBP.

Theory: Sixteen people did not vote for Schmidt, I think because of his relatively low career batting average (.267) and because there was always this theory that there was some insubstantial about him, perhaps best symbolized by his .220 career World Series batting average. I’ve always thought the charge was spurious — there has never been a better third baseman.

* * *

Ted Williams: 93.4%, 19 people did not vote for him.

Neck and neck with Babe Ruth as the greatest hitter in the history of the game.

Theory: Nineteen people did not vote for Ted Williams because they did not like him. I think it’s that simple. Williams had many famous clashes with sportswriters, and he held grudges, and they held grudges. Through the years sportswriters charged him with being an indifferent fielder (at least partly true), a terrible teammate (at least mostly false), a selfish player (a ridiculous charge) and a failure in the clutch (absurd). The absurdity of 19 people leaving out Williams leads to the next bizarre injustice.

* * *

Stan Musial, 93.2%, 22 people did not vote for him.

I’ve written again and again about Stan the Man — a legendary player, a wonderful teammate, a symbol of excellence and a profoundly decent man. Everybody loved him. Everybody admired him. You can talk about all the hits (3,630 — 1,815 at home and on the road), all the batting titles (six), all the doubles and triples (more combined than any man ever — no one ever turned at first base with as much speed and ambition as Stan the Man). You can talk about the remarkable consistency, the 52 times he led the league in a major offensive category, the countless people who were inspired, directly or indirectly, by his play. Stan Musial lifted the game. I really didn’t believe you could find 22 people in AMERICA who did not see Stan Musial as a Hall of Famer.

Theory: Twenty-two people did not vote for Stan Musial, I believe, because 19 did not vote for Ted Williams. Musial, great as he was, was not quite as good a hitter as Ted Williams. So the 19 who did not vote for Williams certainly did not vote for Musial. This is what I mean by this kind of voting foolishness rolling downhill. You do something stupid like not vote for Ted Williams, then you use that as a REASON to do something stupid like not vote for Stan Musial. Or our next player.

* * *

Willie Mays: 94.7%, 22 people did not vote for him.

I imagine none of the people who did not vote for Willie Mays would ever admit it.

Theory: What theory could possibly explain how 22 people who allegedly have watched a baseball game in their lives did not vote for Willie Mays?

* * *

Carl Yastrzemski, 94.6%, 23 people did not vote for him.

Let’s see here. Three thousand hits. A triple crown. An MVP award (and should have won a second the next year — I mistakenly wrote back-to-back in first edition). Three batting titles. Seven gold gloves. One of the greatest one-man shows in the history of baseball in 1967. Beloved figure. Represented everything good about the game. Yep, not sure there are many good arguments against Yaz.

Theory: Like Bench — and they went in the same year — Yaz was not the same great player the last five or so years of his career that he had been before. Also he was at his best when pitching utterly dominated the game so his excellence from 1965 to 1970 — he hit .299/.404/.530 — doesn’t look as excellent as it really was.

* * *

Rickey Henderson, 94.8%, 27 people did not vote for him.

Hmm. Scored more runs than any player in baseball history? Check. Stole more bases than any player in baseball history? Check. Posted a career .401 on-base percentage, walked more than any man other than Barry Bonds, managed 3,000 hits on top of that, was just three shy of 300 career home runs? Check, check, check, check on the sanity of the 27 people who did not vote for him.

Theory: Some people have not appreciated the baseball genius of Rickey Henderson partly because some of the things he did (walk a lot, score runs) are generally under appreciated, and partly because he has been a bit of a space cadet who refers to himself in the third person. Nobody has to explain their Hall of Fame vote if they don’t want to, which is kind of a shame. I’d love to hear someone give a viable reason why they did not vote for Rickey Henderson.

 

* * *

Jackie Robinson, 77.5%, 28 people did not vote for him.

Did you SEE Jackie Robinson hit that ball?

Theory: It’s easy to suggest that Robinson only got 77.5% of the vote because of some, er, let’s call them outdated racial views of some voters. And I suspect that was part of it. But there was also the relative shortness of Robinson’s Major League career (he had 1,518 career hits), which — when viewed without any context at all — might give someone an excuse to not vote for the most important baseball player in the game’s history.

Then again, if you look at it with some context — such as the fact that he was not ALLOWED to play Major League Baseball until he was 28 and then played under the most intense pressure the game has ever known — then you wonder how anyone who used that “short career” excuse could look themselves in the mirror.

* * *

Mickey Mantle, 88.2%, 38 people did not vote for him.

Mantle — like a few others in the game’s history — was both blessed and cursed with the power of unlimited potential. It is what made him the hero of millions. It is why people who met him later in life would sometimes break down in tears. It is what made Bob Costas carry a Mantle baseball card with him wherever he went.

That power of unlimited potential also led people to believe that, somehow, his career was disappointing or, at the very least, less than it might have been. Mickey Mantle hit 536 home runs, won a triple crown, won three MVP awards, led the league in runs five times and homers four, had a career .300 batting average going into his final season and hit 18 World Series home runs, with his team winning six World Series titles. He’s one of the 15 best everyday players in the history of the game, and unquestionably a Hall of Famer. But, alas, peole could not help but believe it wasn’t as fantastic as it might have been without the knee injuries and late nights.

Theory: I think Mantle is at the end of the Ted Williams-Stan Musial chain. Musial wasn’t quite as good as Williams. Mantle wasn’t quite as accomplished as Musial. And the dominoes fell.

* * *

Al Kaline, 88.3%, 40 people did not vote for him.

Three thousand hits. Ten Gold Gloves. A gentleman. An icon.

Theory: With Kaline, you can see a few cracks in the career if you want to see them. He was injured a lot and so played fewer than 140 games in half of his seasons. And his brilliance was in his consistency — and consistency is almost always undervalued. He never hit 30 home runs in a season, but hit between 25 and 29 seven times. He hit .340 as a 20 year old, and never again matched that but hit .300 or better either other times in a pitch-dominated era. His career did not scream out to the voters the way, say, Roberto Clemente’s career might have. But Kaline was almost exactly as valuable a player as Clemente over the whole career.

* * *

Frank Robinson, 89.2%, 40 people did not vote for him.

I’m actually stunned that 40 people did not vote for Frank Robinson. He had 586 home runs, won a triple crown, won MVP awards in each league, He was also the first African American manager in the game. Forty people thought he wasn’t a Hall of Famer? What? Baffling.

Theory: I admit that I don’t really want to try and get into the minds of 40 people who did not vote for Frank Robinson.

* * *

Sandy Koufax, 86.9%, 45 people did not vote for him.

The left arm of God.

Theory: Well, here’s the “plus one” i mentioned earlier. There is a reasonable argument to be made against Koufax. His career was very short. He was a dominant pitcher for five or six seasons at most — you could argue that he was truly dominant only from 1963-66. He retired at 30. He won “just” 165 games — and wins have long swayed Hall of Fame voters. But I put him on this list anyway because, despite all of this just justification, I simply cannot imagine that any of the 45 people really and truly believed that Sandy Koufax does not belong in the Hall of Fame. What would happen if you said to this to the 45 people: “Look, we’ll leave it up to you, should Koufax be in the Hall of Fame? If you say no, he will not go in.” I think all 45 would have said yes. I would hope so, anyway. But the 45 wanted to make some sort of statement or something. And Koufax’s shooting-star-across-the-sky career gave them an opportunity to make that statement.

* * *

Warren Spahn, 83.2%, 53 people did not vote for him.

I don’t care about wins, but Hall of Fame voters historically have cared A LOT and Spahn led the league in wins eight times, he won 363 career games, and all this despite not pitching his first full season until he was 26 (he served in the military during World War II).

Theory: I’ve always been a bit baffled by the relative lack of support for Spahn. My only guess it that the Hall of Fame voters were particularly judgmental and hypercritical and exacting for about a 10-year period from 1966 to 1976. During that time, they did not vote Yogi Berra on first ballot. Whitey Ford did not get in on first ballot. Early Wynn, a 300-game winner, got 27.9% of the vote his first year. Duke Snider could not even get 20% his first year. Eddie Mathews with his 500 home runs could not even garner one-third of the vote. Robin Roberts had to wait until his fourth year. I think Spahn just got locked up in all the crazy negativity.

* * *

Bob Gibson, 84%, 54 people did not vote for him.

As I’ve written before, 54 people did not vote for Gibby, and I’d bet all 54 would be afraid to admit it in public. They SHOULD be afraid to admit it in public.

* * *

Joe Morgan, 81.8%, 66 people did not vote for him.

The ultimate sabermetric player, even if he was not exactly the ultimate sabermetric analyst.

Theory: This one is perfectly easy to explain. Morgan was a .271 career hitter, and he did not come particularly close to any of the benchmark Hall of Fame numbers (3,000 hits, 500 homers, etc). I suspect had it been even 10 years earlier, Morgan would not have made it at all first ballot. Looking back now at Morgan’s remarkable career — his career .392 on-base percentage, his astounding seven-season peak from 1971 to 1977, his unappreciated ability for getting on base, for stealing bases at a spectacularly high rate, his surprising power — it seems obvious that there no legitimate argument against his Hall of Fame worthiness.

* * *

So there are 20 players who I think absolutely should have been voted in unanimously. I think there are good arguments too for others, but those 20 seem to me an absolutely lock. Coming up this year, I feel the same way about Greg Maddux. There’s no argument against Maddux. None. And yet, someone will almost certainly not vote for Greg Maddux. I have no idea what reasoning they will use. I suspect they will say that if Bob Feller, Ted Williams, WIllie Mays and Hank Aaron weren’t unanimous, then Greg Maddux should not be either. And that argument is every bit as bad as it sounds.

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