When the First Five Were Chosen
The abstract concept had been around for a couple years by the winter of 1936, so the public was not surprised when the official announcement came.
But when the world learned on Feb. 2, 1936, that Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner had been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, a new classification arose for future players, managers, umpires and executives. And a new national dialogue – one that burns brightly today – was born.
On that day – three-and-a-half years before what was then called the National Baseball Museum opened in Cooperstown – the words “Hall of Famer” truly came to life.
The inaugural Hall of Fame election of 1936 considered players labeled as “moderns,” or candidates whose careers began after 1900. A total of 226 ballots were cast by members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, with 170 votes needed for election. Ballots needed to be postmarked by Jan. 25, 1936, and started trickling in via the U.S. mail. By Wednesday, Jan. 29, all of the votes had been received, and an official Baseball Writers’ Association of America tally sheet from the Hall of Fame Library Archive lists the final total from that day.
However, while the first five electees were technically decided on that day, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum recognizes Feb. 2, 1936 as the players’ official date of election when an Associated Press wire story was broadcast to the world via the Sunday newspapers.
“At the Hall of Fame, we go with the date of the public release as the official date of election, not the date on which the votes were counted,” said Museum Librarian Emeritus Jim Gates. “While today’s elections are pretty straightforward, looking back we don’t always know the days that the BBWAA counted their votes. So it’s easier to track and confirm the public release of the vote based on newspaper datelines.
“Most importantly, that’s the day when the player finds out – and you become a Hall of Famer the day that both you and the world learn that you have been elected.” The primary reaction was elation when the world did learn about the election of the first class, which seems appropriate given the high stature and accolades accumulated by each of the five players during their careers. But there was also a hint of bewilderment upon further examination of the vote totals, sparking a discussion that has been a hallmark of virtually every Hall of Fame election held over the next 80 years and counting. “The amazement in this corner is not the ballots that these leaders received but the gap where X failed to mark the spot,” wrote columnist John Kieran in the Feb. 4, 1936 edition of The New York Times. “It remains a mystery that any observer of modern diamond activities could list his version of the ten outstanding baseball figures and have Ty Cobb nowhere at all in the group. Four voters accomplished that amazing feat.”
Indeed Cobb, who held baseball’s all-time hits record for decades and still owns the highest career batting average, received 222 of the 226 votes. Meanwhile Babe Ruth, perhaps the most famous and beloved baseball player in history, fell 11 votes short of unanimity – a total that stunned those in the counting room.
“The committee was amazed,” the Associated Press reported. “Vote counting stopped momentarily for a discussion of how anyone could leave the great Ruth off the list of immortals. The same happened when Cobb missed his first vote.”
While the statistical merits of both Cobb and Ruth hold very little room for argument, some writers did make their case that the Great Bambino should have garnered the most votes. “Cobb could hit, he could run, he could do things which no other ball player had done before him or has achieved since,” wrote columnist Dan Daniel in the Feb. 4 edition of the New York World-Telegram. “But Ruth is the standout, nonetheless…Ruth made over baseball, lifted it into the big stadium era, raised the financial plane of the game attracted to baseball millions who never before had gone into ballparks. And Ruth never made a mistake on the field.”
Either way, the votes cast in 1936 – or perhaps the votes not cast – ignited a decades-long debate over whether certain candidates should be unanimous choices for the Hall of Fame – a distinction finally set by Mariano Rivera in 2019 after 75 writers' elections. But, as this look back through history shows, healthy argument and debate have made this one of the most relevant elections in America, ever since the very first ballots were cast.
Matt Kelly was the communications specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
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