That’s how many 20th-century players I believe should have been unanimous selections to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Thus far, the actual number is one (1), he being Yankees relief ace Mariano Rivera in 2019.
What’s my criterion? It’s very simple. I ask the self-professed baseball fan the following question: “Say you are a voter. Can you possibly look me in the eye, in all honesty, and say that Player X is not a Hall of Famer?” If the answer is “no,” then you must vote for him on the first ballot. Period. My own answer to that question would have resulted in 95 “nos.”
The nonsense began with the first Hall of Fame balloting in 1936, when eight members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, then and now the primary voting body, did not cast ballots for Ty Cobb. Eleven inaugural BBWAA voters did not say “yes” to either Babe Ruth or Honus Wagner. We were off and running.
Sheer ignorance is always a possible explanation for someone to reject an obvious candidate, but it became known from the outset that some voters had adopted a personal policy that no one was worthy of election on the first ballot. Who knows? That could be why one voter this year denied unanimous status to Derek Jeter. Hey, I’m just throwing it out there. Whoever that person is, he or she does not seem to have the requisite courage of conviction to explain that curious decision.
Thirty years down the road from that ominous beginning, 20 voters did not vote for Ted Williams, who was elected with 93.4 percent of the vote. But once you’re done smacking your palm to your forehead in amazement over that development, consider the peculiar voting that took place a little more than a decade earlier, when it took Joe DiMaggio three tries to become a certified Hall of Famer.
In his first year on the ballot, DiMaggio received a paltry 44.3 percent of the vote. Hard markers, Yankee haters, or simply laughable idiots? Not sure. His number increased to 69.4 percent the following year. Finally, in 1955, he was voted in with 88.8 percent of the vote. That still left 28 people with some serious ’splainin’ to do.
Some people think the Hall is too watered down already, and clearly there are Hall of Fame gradations. For a complete explanation as to how the Hall evolved, the required reading is Bill James’s 1994 book “The Politics of Glory,” which remains the definitive opus on the Baseball Hall of Fame.
As a longtime voter, I can tell you I have no rigid formula. I study numbers. I conjure up images if I have seen that person. I weigh this and that, and often I fall back on the Potter Stewart/pornography idea of knowing a Hall of Famer when I see or encounter one. And I am, as we all are, totally fallible.
There are open-and-shut Hall of Famers and there are borderline Hall of Famers, and I know we can’t always agree on either. But should there be a 1936 argument on Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth, a 1953 argument on Joe DiMaggio, a 1966 argument on Ted Williams, a 1979 argument on Willie Mays, a 2016 argument on Ken Griffey Jr., or a 2020 argument on Derek Jeter? I trust you know the proper answer to those candidacies.
And so I shall unveil my personal list of first-ballot guys. (Oh, and we’re just discussing players.) Here are the rules:
1. I’m not judging 19th-century players. A 19th-century player must have played at least 10 years in the 20th century. This enables me to include Cy Young and Honus Wagner, and thus leave out Cap Anson, Old Hoss Radbourn, and other 19th-century luminaries.
2. Would that I were better versed in the Negro Leagues. I’m sure I’ve bypassed a few worthy candidates, but I have accounted for some drop-dead candidates.
3. PED suspects are included. I’ll re-mount that soapbox some other day.
Starting with the first election in 1936, I shall list those I would have voted for the first time out in pretty good chronological order of election.
Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner, Cy Young, Tris Speaker, Nap Lajoie, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Lou Gehrig*, George Sisler, Eddie Collins, Rogers Hornsby, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Big Ed Walsh, Gettysburg Eddie Plank, Carl Hubbell, Lefty Grove, Mickey Cochrane, Pie Traynor, Charlie Gehringer, Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx, Paul Waner, Harry Heilmann, Al Simmons, Dizzy Dean, Bill Terry, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg, Jackie Robinson, Bob Feller, Ted Williams, Joe Medwick, Stan Musial, Satchel Paige, Sandy Koufax, Josh Gibson, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella.
Warren Spahn, Roberto Clemente*, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Ernie Banks, Eddie Mathews, Willie Mays, Al Kaline, Bob Gibson, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Juan Marichal, Sandy Koufax, Harmon Killebrew, Luis Aparicio, Lou Brock, Hoyt Wilhelm, Willie McCovey, Jim “Catfish” Hunter, Carl Yastrzemski, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Jim Palmer, Ferguson Jenkins, Rod Carew, Gaylord Perry, Tom Seaver.
Reggie Jackson, Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt, Phil Niekro, Nolan Ryan, George Brett, Carlton Fisk, Dave Winfield, Ozzie Smith, Gary Carter, Eddie Murray, Paul Molitor, Wade Boggs, Cal Ripken Jr., Tony Gwynn, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Alomar, Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, Mariano Rivera, and Derek Jeter.
(*voted by acclamation by special election.)
I repeat: You look me in the eye and tell me that any one of these players is not a Hall of Famer.
Oops. Holy Mookie, I almost forgot. Add Pete Rose to the list!
Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.