The Baseball Hall of Fame officially opened in 1939 to coincide with the centennial of Abner Doubleday’s mythical invention of baseball in Cooperstown, N.Y. Both the 1839 date and Doubleday’s involvement have since been debunked.
Prior to its opening, however, the Hall’s board of directors authorized the Baseball Writers’ Association of America to hold elections in 1936 through 1938 to produce the inaugural classes. This made sense since the newspaper beatwriters were probably the people who had witnessed and chronicled the most baseball history at the time.
In the first election writers were supposed to select exactly 10 20th-century players who played for at least 10 seasons, according to baseball-reference.com. A separate vote among a veterans committee was supposed to consider players and managers from the 19th century.
With the game’s entire history from which to choose it’s not surprising that the writers, even then, couldn’t come up a unanimous selection. Forty-seven players, including some who were currently active, received votes on the 226 ballots cast among the writers, who picked the inaugural class of Ty Cobb (98.2 percent of the vote), Honus Wagner (95.1), Babe Ruth (95.1), Christy Mathewson (90.7) and Kansas’ Walter Johnson (83.6). Like today, a 75-percent threshold was the dividing line for election.
Some players, like Cy Young, whose career spanned the centuries received votes from both committees but didn’t get voted in by either.
The reasons why someone wouldn’t have voted for Cobb or Ruth are mostly speculative at this point, since no individual ballots were made public. Cobb’s famously abrasive personality might have kept him off the four ballots he missed, despite the thought held by many in baseball at the time that he was the greatest player who ever lived.
Ruth, who holds that unofficial title for many now, had played the season before for the Braves. It’s possible writers didn’t feel he was completely retired in 1936 and wanted to wait on him. Or voters could have just spread out their ballots so much that any consensus was impossible.
Some have speculated that some writers thought they should select only one player per position, like an All-Star team.
Nap Lajoie, Tris Speaker and Cy Young received the requisite votes in 1937 while Grover Cleveland Alexander got the nod in 1938, with George Sisler, Eddie Collins and Willie Keeler joining in 1939.
The voters then switched to an election once every three years until 1945, with a player’s retirement a condition of ballot eligibility. The format flipped between voting annually to every second year from 1946 until the current format which began in 1967. Now players must be retired for five years, although that has been waived in certain cases such as the death of Roberto Clemente.
In later years the tradition of zero unanimous selections has been upheld by voters either deliberately, in the case of those who feel no candidate should get in on the first ballot, or accidentally, as has been claimed in some elections. Tom Seaver holds the record with 98.84 percent of the vote in 1992. Greg Maddux, elected Wednesday with 97.2 percent, was left off 16 ballots, partly because of the old precedent as well as protest votes against any player from the Steroids Era.
More than 75 years later, the BBWAA has not enlarged its membership base very much, although it has allowed members who cover the game for Internet sites since 2007. Broadcasters and writers for MLB.com are still ineligible for membership.