The National Baseball Hall of Fame formally opened in 1939 in Cooperstown, New York. However, the concept was established in 1936, and that year the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) was tasked with voting for the inaugural class to be formally inducted three years later. At the time, the BBWAA was only voting on 20th century players, as a special Veterans Committee reviewed candidates from the 19th century. For all the debate the Hall of Fame ballot causes today, it’s clear that’s a tradition rooted all the way back with what occurred on the whacky 1936 version.
226 ballots with 2,231 individual votes were cast in the 1936 election. 170 votes were needed for election, and with no voting restrictions and an average of nearly 10 votes per ballot, it’s truly surprising that more players didn’t make it in that first time.
47 players received votes on the 1936 Hall of Fame ballot but only five received enough votes for induction the first time around. The inaugural class was comprised of Ty Cobb (98.2%), Babe Ruth (95.1%), Honus Wagner (95.1), Christy Mathewson (90.7%) and Walter Johnson (83.6%). It’s shocking that given this group of titans of the game that there were no unanimous selections, and a guy like Johnson and his 417 career victories received the vote totals of a fringe candidate.
For the surprise generated at the lack of unanimity on those who did get in, the group who fell short may be even more jaw dropping. Because some writers likely didn’t vote for active players (who were eligible) because their body of work was not yet completed, I’ll only focus on the big name retired players who fell short. Nap Lajoie (64.6%), Tris Speaker (58.8%) and Cy Young (49.1%) were all well under the 75 percent of the votes needed. They all eventually made it in but the fact they had to wait even a year seems odd now.
At the time, there were no restrictions on active or retired status, so players who were still playing received votes. It’s important to note that many writers did not consider active players on their ballot; figuring that they would get their shot later on after hanging it up. Although he was at the point of his career where he was a manager who only occasionally put himself in games, future Hall-of-Famer Rogers Hornsby was the active player who received the most votes with 105 (46.5%).
The most inexplicable former player to receive votes was catcher Lou Criger (seven votes or 3.1%). During a 16-year career between 1896-1912 with six teams (known primarily for his time with the Boston Red Sox), he hit just .221 with 11 home runs and 342 RBIs. Best known for being the defensive-minded personal catcher of Cy Young on multiple teams, he was still considered one of the best at what he did during the Dead Ball Era. That being said, it’s a bit of a stretch that he received as many votes as future Hall-of-Famers John McGraw, Sam Crawford and Chief Bender combined on the 1936 ballot.
Another surprise was first baseman Hal Chase. While he was a fine player who was considered to have had the best glove of any player at his position up until that time, he also had a long and sordid reputation as a gambler and fixer of games, who was ultimately blacklisted from baseball following the infamous 1919 Black Sox World Series (of which he was involved through gambling but not as a player). He has the distinction of receiving the most votes (11) on this ballot without eventually gaining induction.
At the time of the 1936 vote, banned players were not excluded. Shoeless Joe Jackson, himself an alumnus of the 1919 Series, received two votes, a paltry tribute to his .356 career batting average. He would never appear on the ballot again.
Pitcher Dazzy Vance (one vote) and catcher Gabby Hartnett (zero votes) were the two players on the 1936 ballot who had to wait the longest to ultimately get in via the BBWAA, as they were finally both elected in 1955.
In total, only seven players/managers who received at least one vote on the initial BBWAA ballot did not gain eventual admission to the Hall of Fame. They include Bill Bradley, Kid Elberfield, Nap Rucker, Johnny Kling, Jackson, Chase, and Criger.
Despite the oddities of the 1936 ballot, it is also fair to surmise that writers didn’t have a blueprint from which to work when casting their ballot. They were setting the bar with their first vote and determining the criteria which would be generally use to measure all future classes. Additionally, access to players was much different. Some writers likely never saw many of the players on the ballot.
That all being said, there may not be prescribed results for any Baseball Hall of Fame election but there are certainly anticipated outcomes. Clearly, the tradition of annual debate and head scratching began with the very first ballot and will likely continue into the future as long as candidates continue to be picked in the current manner. Although some may express frustration over the process, there’s no denying the amount of debate and interest it infuses into baseball, which is never a bad thing.
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