No, I’m not talking about the game of basketball, but rather the first five players inducted into the National Baseball Hall-of-Fame Museum located in Cooperstown, New York. Contrary to popular belief, the first election of players into the Baseball Hall of Fame occurred in 1936, not 1939. And yes, even though the famous picture of the inaugural class contains ten new members, there were only five original inductees. Two-hundred and twenty six voting members made up the original Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA). This game called baseball had been played professionally since 1869. So naturally a special Veterans Committee, made up of men who were more familiar with the players from the early years, was given the authority to also select new members. The overall intent was to have fifteen honorees by July 12, 1939, the year the Hall of Fame would actually open its doors to the public. These fifteen would be represented by ten players from the 20th century writers and five from the 19th century Veterans Committee.
Interestingly, players who had been thrown out of baseball like “Shoeless Joe” Jackson and Hal Chase were included on the original ballot, but few writers chose to vote for them. Each of the voting writers was instructed to vote for ten players and 75% of the those votes or 170 votes were needed to be enshrined. A total of 47 different players received votes on the very first ballot, but only five players received enough votes to reach the 75% mark. They were as follows, in order: Ty Cobb received 222 votes or 98.2% to lead all players; “Babe” Ruth and Honus Wagner were tied for second with 215 votes each or 95.1% of votes cast; the first pitcher, Christy Mathewson, collected 205 votes or 90.7%; and Walter Johnson was fifth with 189 votes or 87.6%. That’s a heck of a starting five.
The Veterans Committee was comprised of 78 voters, and 57 different players and managers received votes. As with the writers, 75% of the votes cast or 59 votes were needed to be inducted, but none received the 75% required.
Eight new members were elected for the class of 1937, three players by the writers and five by the Veterans Committee. “Nap” Lajoie 83.6%, “Tris” Speaker 82.1%, and “Cy” Young 76.7%, received the votes needed for enshrinement by the writers. The Veterans Committee elected John McGraw, Connie Mack, George Wright, Byron Johnson and Morgan Bulkeley.
The 1938 class consisted of just three new members. Pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander received 80.9% of the writers’ votes, while the Veterans Committee selected Henry Chadwick and Alexander Cartwright.
The induction class of 1939 would include ten more new members, three selected by the writers, six from the Veterans Committee and one by special vote. George Sisler led the way with 85.8%, followed by Eddie Collins with 77.7% and “Wee Willie” Keeler with 75.5%. Lou Gehrig would get the nod through a special ballot while still alive, due to his terminal illness that forced him to retire early. Lou Gehrig would die on June 2, 1941. The six new members chosen by the Veterans Committee are as follows: “Cap” Anson, “Buck” Ewing, “Candy” Cummings, Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn, Al Spalding and Charles Comisky. All in all, thirteen 20th century players and thirteen 19th century selections (26 total) made up the inaugural class for the first public opening of the Baseball Hall of Fame. The first induction weekend festivities began on July 12, 1939.
I do think it’s interesting that Ty Cobb received more votes than Babe Ruth. They competed against each other from 1914 to 1928, when Cobb retired. Cobb, a demon on the base paths, went to the plate with a bat in his hand 11,434 times in his 23-year career. He recorded 4,189 hits, far and away the most ever, until passed by Pete Rose. Cobb batted .366, still tops in all of professional baseball, while recording 724 doubles, 295 triples and 117 home runs. Ty had 897 career stolen bases, 54 of those coming at home plate, another record. Cobb also scored 2,246 runs while batting in 1,938 runs. In his day, the game was played base to base and home runs were frowned upon. Cobb always said he could hit home runs if he wanted to; so on May 5, 1925, Cobb hit three home runs in one game against the St. Louis Browns.
Ruth went to bat 8,399 times, or 3,034 times less than Cobb during his 21 seasons. “The Babe” recorded 2,873 hits while hitting at a .342 average. Ruth collected 506 doubles, 136 triples, and slammed an unbelievable 714 home runs. He also stole 123 bags, scored 2,174 runs, while driving in 2,214 RBI’s. Ruth’s big body, big personality, and his big booming bat changed the perception of the game for the fans. The long ball was invented. Ruth was a seven-time World Series Champ, where Cobb’s Tigers played in three World Series but never won. No matter how much better Cobb played than Ruth, the Babe always stole the spotlight in the eyes of the fans, but not the writers.
Andy Purvis is a local author. His books "In the Company of Greatness","Remembered Greatness" and “Greatness Continued” are on the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble, at Beamer's Sports Grill 5922 S Staples, and online at many different sites including Amazon, bn.com, booksamillion, Google Books, etc. They are also available in e-reader format. Contact him at www.purvisbooks.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org.