How Joe DiMaggio Revolutionized Cooperstown Voting

Baseball’s highest honor, of course, is enshrinement into its Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. As many have noted over the years, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) which controls the “front door” to the Hall, has a reputation for tightly guarding its entry.

In particular, they’ve been known for having high standards for first-year nominees, especially in older times. The first Hall of Fame election I remember came when Willie McCovey got the call in 1986. He was only the 21st first-ballot enshrine (22 including Roberto Clemente‘s special election). That includes the Gang of Five who went in during the inaugural 1936 election.

They’ve loosened up quite a bit since then. They’ve actually elected about as many post-McCovey as in those first 51 years. But once upon a time, the BBWAA prided itself on delaying immortality’s call. Incredibly, in the quarter century after the 1936 batch, not a single first-timer ever went in. In 1962, Bob Feller and Jackie Robinson became the first ballot newbies since Babe Ruth‘n’Friends.

That defies reason. So many greats had to wait—Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, Lefty Grove, Mickey Cochrane—and that’s just the 1929-31 A’s!

The DiMaggio case

Perhaps the most shocking delayed gratification was Joe DiMaggio. The Yankee Clipper was widely regarded as one of the greatest baseball player of all time when he played, and his team kept winning titles. He won three MVPs and finished in the top 10 almost every year of his career.

So, if the BBWAA loved him so much when they voted on the hardware, how can anyone explain this oddity? As it is, he had to wait until eligibility in 1955 for his big moment. Sounds mighty screwy, don’t it?

It definitely sounds screwy—just not for the reason you think. The strangeness wasn’t his 1955 election; it’s that anyone voted for him at all that year. He played his last game in 1951. Normally, you have a five-year waiting period and then become eligible in the sixth season.

Not only did he get elected before one would expect him to be eligible, but that was his fourth year getting votes. The first time he received any ballot support came in 1945, a half-dozen years before retiring. In 1936, Cooperstown let the BBWAA vote in active players, but they immediately changed that the next year. Apparently, most of the BBWAA got that memo, because only one of the 246 ballots tabbed him that year. After that, no one voted for him until 1953, two years after his career ended.

It gets better. DiMaggio was not unique in earning election so early. He was one of a handful who gained entry before they would currently be eligible. Here they are, complete with how many times they appeared on the ballot:

Name             Elected   Last Year  Times Voted
Babe Ruth           1936       1935           1
Rogers Hornsby      1942       1937           4
Carl Hubbell        1947       1943           3
Mel Ott             1951       1947           3
Joe DiMaggio        1955       1951           4

Something weird went on. It turns out the seeming unwillingness to admit newbies was caused by some structural issues more than philosophical ones.

History of BBWAA voting: the early years

In 1936, the BBWAA got the vote to decide who could enter Cooperstown, and all sorts of guys got votes. Among other things, that vote ensured that aside from the Founding Five, no early player could say they got elected on the first ballot. The writers voted for 42 men, including almost every prominent player from Cy Young to contemporary times. As noted already, that included active players like Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby and Dizzy Dean.

The powers that be immediately began cleaning up the voting process. They banned voting on active players. In 1937 only one got a vote, Bill Cissell. Yeah, I never heard of him either and can’t imagine why anyone would think he merited induction. Even he, though, began the year in the minors. It looked like his career was over. Shortly afterwards, Cooperstown decided a player had to be retired for a full season, and then the BBWAA could vote on him the second year.

The only time “active” players ever got voted on after that came in bizarre situations. Dizzy Dean received votes for a few years, then pitched one game as a PR stunt for the St. Louis Browns. Aside from 1936, he never received votes during his real career though.

Joe DiMaggio’s sole 1945 vote shows how it normally happened. Technically he was eligible because WWII had prevented him from playing. He only got the sole vote because everyone recognized he’d come back. But that one stinking voter acting on his own was enough to ensure DiMaggio would never get elected into Cooperstown.

Despite the occasional quirks, by the late 1930s Cooperstown voting had fallen into a pattern. However, even with the quick cleanup, no one ever got elected on his first try. In his first year of eligibility, Mel Ott received 61.4 percent of the vote. That’s as good as anyone did during 1937-61.

A few things gummed up the works. First, while there was a deadline saying when a person would become eligible, the ballot was in every other way a complete mess. Several factors converged to cause problems, including:

- The BBWAA voted every third year for a while in the 1940s, causing a backlog to build up. And what a backlog it was because . . .

- While they may have set standards to determine when a player became eligible, there were no apparent sunset guidelines. In 1953, when DiMaggio debuted on the ballot, former third baseman Bill Lange received a vote. He last played in 1899. Essentially the only things limiting writers were their memories and the fact the VC inducted so many old timers.

- The first edition of the MacMillan ‘cyclopedia was still a long way off. Statistical records, when they existed, were shaky.

- Nowadays, men are sent a list of names from which they can choose. Back then, that was rather clearly not the case. Men who wouldn’t meet any reasonable standards got voted on. Men who didn’t even play a decade, and shouldn’t have been eligible, got support. And last but not least, managers got votes. Most notably Joe McCarthy, who never played a single game in the majors, got support.

- Finally, the one-year waiting period was too brief. Everyone voting then was old enough to remember the Black Sox. They knew how quickly a person’s reputation could turn for better or for worse. And when even the players kept getting denied induction on the first try, that gave many voters pause. It encouraged them to raise their standards higher, ensuring the next great player wouldn’t get in right away either. Or it could make someone who had supported an Ott or Hubbell reevaluate.

The upshot was an extremely crowded ballot in the 1940s. Frequently over 100 men received support in one election. For comparison, it’s been over 40 years since as many as 50 men got at least one vote.

When Mel Ott debuted on the ballot in 1949, he was one of 18 men who would eventually be voted in by the BBWAA, almost all of whom would now be considered no-brainer selections. Only one of them, Charlie Gehringer, went in that year—and that took a run-off vote.

Enter DiMaggio

Then came DiMaggio. Ignoring 1945, here is his support from the writers year-by-year:

    Year      %
    1953  44.3%
    1954  69.4%
    1955  88.8%

Riddle me this: was there some sort of massive re-evaluation of DiMaggio in those years? Did some group take up his cause? Of course not. He was always considered to be an inner-circle immortal for virtually his entire career. Ted Williams was the better hitter, but DiMaggio was the iconic baseball player of his generation.

This demonstrated to Cooperstown as starkly as anything could that there was some kind of structural flaw in the balloting process. They immediately set to work on rectifying it.

Looking at the voting results, it’s clear the Cooperstown gang decided to move to the current five-year waiting stretch right after DiMaggio showed up. Previous years showed that four to five years was the earliest date a player could reasonably hope to get 75 percent of the vote.

They grandfathered in anyone who had already received support. In ’53 DiMaggio appeared on the ballot with fellow 1951 retiree Bobby Doerr. Also arriving that year was Charlie Keller, who technically wasn’t eligible because he played in 1952, but since he only had one at-bat, the authorities winked at the rule for him.

Aside from Keller, no 1952 retirees appeared on the ballot until 1958, when Lou Boudreau, Johnny Vander Meer, and three others appeared. The five-year rule has only been in effect since the 1952 exiters. In other words, everyone since DiMaggio.

I can’t prove any of this happened because of DiMaggio, but it’s the most sensible reason. The Lords of Cooperstown had a man that everyone believed belonged, who still couldn’t get elected. And then they changed eligibility right after that.

The taming of the ballot

Once they started reforming the ballot, it became a habit. An era of taming the BBWAA ballot was underway.

In 1958, 119 men got at least one vote from the BBWAA. That set a new record. That record didn’t last long, as in the ensuing election (in 1960, because they voted alternating years at the time) 133 men got a vote. Then suddenly, in 1962, only 77 got support, followed by only 58 in 1964. It’s been under 50 ever since.

After 1960, the Hall had decided to clean up its ballot mess. In 1958 and 1960, managers like Joe McCarthy still received support, as did players like Addie Joss, who had been retired for a half-century. Chaos still reigned.

Cooperstown made two changes. First, they established a sunset clause. In 1962, you had to have played as recently as 1932—30 years prior—to get a vote. Then in 1964, they shaved it to 20 years.

Why 20? Simple—the only men who had been retired for more than 20 years before election were Cy Young and Nap Lajoie. And that was only because they retired so dang long before the Hall began. However, in the 1950s you did have two men—Dazzy Vance and Harry Heilmann—who took 20 years to go in. Since that was already the BBWAA’s practical limit, Cooperstown codified it.

Second, circumstantial evidence rather clearly indicates Cooperstown began sending out a ballot with names pre-vetted already printed on it for the writers. Of the 133 men receiving votes in 1960, only five had retired more than 30 years ago. Then sunset clause doesn’t explain why players supported went down and stayed down. The sheer cacophony of names given up to 1960 indicates a completely wide-open voting process. Christ, Jewel Ens once got a vote. Beginning with 1962, it looks like Cooperstown began telling the writers what their choices are.

That year was historic for more than just a tamed ballot. That year, after a quarter-century, two newbies earned election into Cooperstown. The reason you had none for 25 years and then a pair at the same time was entirely due to structural reasons. Obviously Feller and Robinson were great, but so were DiMaggio and Ott.

There could have been a first-timer elected in 1958 or 1960. If another Hornsby or Hubbell had arrived that year, they would have. However, the best debuting players were Boudreau, Allie Reynolds and Ralph Kiner.

(Actually, Kiner shouldn’t have even been eligible, having played in 1955. I assume some were unclear if five years meant you could vote him in the fifth year. That they voted every other year likely added to the confusion. His support in 1960 is further support that there was no formal ballot with names on it until 1962. Either way, Kiner only got three votes in 1960).

The brave new world

The pre-DiMaggio Reforms era has left a lingering impact on the BBWAA, particularly how it receives new men. People noted how so many greats had to wait multiple elections for their plaque. If DiMaggio waited, who the hell was Robin Roberts to get in right away? He, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra and Eddie Mathews all had to wait their turn.

From 1963-76, only five men—Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Sandy Koufax, Mickey Mantle and Warren Spahn—were deemed worthy of this honor. Even they had to bow their heads. Mantle got less than 90 percent of the vote; 88.2 percent to be exact. Spahn was under 85 percent.

Finally, a turning point came in the late 1970s. First Ernie Banks sneaked in with 83.8 percent in his first try. Then two years later came the key moment, as Willie Mays became the first man since Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth to break 95 percent. From 1980-3, five more joined him as first-time entrants.

Name                Year       %
Al Kaline           1980  88.30%
Bob Gibson          1981  84.00%
Hank Aaron          1982  97.80%
Frank Robinson      1982  89.20%
Brooks Robinson     1983  92.00%

Tellingly, most of these men achieved some sort of major milestone—either 500 homers like Banks, or 3,000 hits, like Kaline. Admittedly, a few years earlier Eddie Mathews had to wait to get in despite his 500 homers, but his rapid ascension, from 32.3 percent of the vote in 1974 to induction four years later, indicates an unusually strong push had been made.

Also revealing a shift was the support these men received. With the possible exception of his mother, no one ever said Al Kaline was better than Mantle, yet he received more votes a mere six years later. Brooks Robinson, did nearly as good as Ted Williams (93.4 percent) or Musial (93.2 percent).

A final major turn came in 1985 when Lou Brock debuted. He wasn’t nearly the player the other first-timers were. He’d only finished in the top five in MVP voting once. However, he had 3,000 hits, all those steals, and spectacular World Series performances. He got that first year.

Once you let him in, then any future versions of Whitey Ford need not worry about waiting. More first-timers have gone in since him than before, averaging about one per year in the next two decades.

And that has a further spillover. If you decry men like Willie Stargell, Ozzie Smith, Kirby Puckett, and Dennis Eckersley to be first-ballotters, then what do you do with the uberstars? Simple – give them more support than any previous player has ever had.

The four highest voting percentages of all time and eight of the top 10 have come since Brock. Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Cal Ripken, and George Brett are the only ones to better Cobb. Tony Gwynn, Mike Schmidt, Johnny Bench and Steve Carlton have topped Ruth.

Only one barrier still remains—no one has ever gotten 100 percent of the vote. However, the history of BBWAA voting can be easily broken into two phases: pre- and post-DiMaggio.

References & Resources
The original inspiration for this research was a thread on the late, great, Rob Neyer Message Board at espn.com. Someone there noticed DiMaggio’s odd induction.

I went to the Baseball Hall of Fame website, where they have all election results. I put them in an excel file & raided baseball-reference.com for final year played for everyone.

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