That first edition, however, left a lot of people puzzled, with not a single player — not even Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb — winning unanimous approval in the anonymous vote of baseball writers. Ruth, Cobb, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Washington Senators ace Walter Johnson hit the mark in that first tally, meeting the same 75 percent threshold for induction that is used today. Although Cobb wasn’t a unanimous choice, he came close, winning 222 of 226 votes, or 98.2 percent.
As the Associated Press reported Feb. 2, 1936: “The famous Georgian, who shattered virtually all records known to baseball during his glorious era, won the distinction as the immortal of immortals today by outscoring even such diamond greats as Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner and Christy Mathewson in the nationwide poll to determine which ten players of the modern age should be represented in the game’s memorial hall at Cooperstown, N.Y.”
The story recounted that after the first 100 votes of a baseball writers committee were tallied, both Ruth and Cobb were still unanimous choices.
“Ruth was the first to fall out, losing a vote from a writer who had watched him hang up some of his greatest records,” the AP reported. “The committee was amazed. Vote counting stopped momentarily for a discussion on how any one could leave the great Ruth off the list of immortals. The same happened when Cobb missed his first vote.”
The New York Times ran a column two days later with a headline that sounded like a modern political press release: “A Probe of the Baseball Balloting.”
“There were 226 registered voters who went to the polls in the recent baseball balloting to select candidates for inclusion in the modern sector of the proposed Baseball Hall of Fame,” wrote John Kieran, who had become the newspaper’s first bylined columnist in 1927. “A glance at the returns produces a swift shock.”
Indeed, it would be hard for a writer to justify excluding any of the five honorees. Ruth, the New York Yankees superstar who revolutionized the game with his prodigious home runs, retired the previous year with 714 homers — far and away the most of any player to that time — along with a .342 career batting average. (Unlike today, there was no requirement at the time for a player to be retired at least five years to be eligible for the Hall of Fame. That change was implemented in 1954, among other tweaks over the years.)
Cobb, competing with a ferocious intensity, mostly as a Detroit Tiger, finished with a record .366 batting average, a then-record 897 stolen bases and 4,191 hits. Playing primarily for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Wagner won eight National League batting titles and had a lifetime average of .328 along with 723 stolen bases. Legendary manager John McGraw called him “the nearest thing to a perfect player no matter where his manager chose to play him.”
Matthewson, who pitched all but one game of his career with the New York Giants, won 373 with a 2.13 ERA and was a 30-game winner four times, including a 37-11 record with a 1.43 ERA in 1908. Johnson won 417 games with a 2.17 ERA and finished with a record 110 shutouts that will certainly never be broken and 3,509 strikeouts, then a record. And yet somehow 37 writers found him not Hall-worthy.
“Ruth, Wagner or Cobb — any one of that trio coming out on top furnishes no surprise or sufficient ground for charging wicked work at the polls,” Kieran wrote. “If the ballot boxes were stuffed for these heroes, they were honestly stuffed with legal votes. The amazement in this corner is not the ballots that these leaders received but the gap where X failed to mark the spot.”
“It remains a mystery,” he added, “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 this amazing feat. Eleven voters wrote down the name of their top ten of modern times and ignored Babe Ruth completely. Eleven voters treated Hans [aka Honus] Wagner in the same cavalier fashion.”
Kieran granted that some writers might have left Cobb and Ruth off because of their “antics. … To them, Ruth and Cobb may have failed the character test.” But he wondered how anyone could have excluded Wagner on that basis.
“The flying Dutchman was a model of deportment,” he wrote. “ … He was as sturdy in character as he was in architecture.” Kiernan mockingly suggested that some writers might have misinterpreted their instructions “and thought it was a beauty contest.”
However, he had no problem with only five players making the cut when there was room for 10 on each ballot: “The fact that only five players received enough votes to qualify in the Baseball Hall of Fame is a good thing. A Hall of Fame for any field should not be filled too hastily.”
After Cobb’s 222 votes, Ruth and Wagner were next at 215 each (95.1 percent), followed by Mathewson’s 205 (90.7 percent) and Johnson’s 189 (83.6 percent). The next five closest, who didn’t make the cut in 1936, were Nap Lajoie, Tris Speaker, Cy Young, Rogers Hornsby and Mickey Cochrane.
A Hall of Fame spokesman said this month that neither the names of the original voters nor their ballots were made public.
“There is no explaining the predilections of baseball writers assured of anonymity,” Major League Baseball’s official historian, John Thorn, observed in an email. “But some old-timers blamed Ruth for the change in the game from deadball-era styles of play, or disapproved of his taste for booze and bimbos. Some writers hated Cobb, just as many players did, though like Ruth there was no denying his talents.”
The Sporting News, which was then known as the “Bible of Baseball,” reported at the time that there was a “wide variance of opinion” beyond the five players who won induction. In essence, the publication chalked that up to what we would call recency bias today: “The balloting has indeed proved in a most striking manner that great diamond figures of the past soon lose their luster as new generations come upon the scene.”
The Hall of Fame had not yet been built, and the five players were queued up to be inducted for the building’s opening in 1939. In the intervening years, several other players were voted in, such as Lajoie, Speaker, Young, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Willie Keeler and George Sisler, as well as a pair of managers, Connie Mack and McGraw.
This week, according to Hall of Fame ballot tracker Ryan Thibodaux, four players appear to have the requisite votes to win induction — Beltré, Helton, Mauer and Wagner. Sheffield is on the cusp, and if he falls short, the 1936 class will remain the only in which the writers elected five players.
The Baseball Writers’ Association of America didn’t vote in any player unanimously until 2019, when all 425 voters selected Mariano Rivera, the all-time saves leader. Shortstop Derek Jeter, his longtime Yankees teammate, came within one vote the next year, named on 396 of 397 ballots.
Cobb is seventh on the list of the highest vote getters by percentage. Ruth doesn’t even appear in the top 10.