Starting next season, the MLB Hall of Fame ballot is set to get very crowded.
Names like Bonds, Clemens, Sosa and Piazza are set to join the ballot in 2013 while Maddux, Thomas, Johnson, Martinez and Griffey are on tap in subsequent years. Add in holdovers like Bagwell, Raines, McGwire and Palmeiro, and it’s easy to see why there will be plenty of difficult choices on the Hall of Fame ballot in the near future.
Despite how crowded the ballot is going to get, no modern HOF class can ever be considered the greatest in MLB history. The modern rules and circumstances of the Hall of Fame practically ensure that the debut class of 1936 can never be topped.
The first group of Hall of Fame inductees reads like a who’s who of Major League Baseball players from the Dead Ball and Golden eras: Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Matthewson, Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner. Each of these players would have won multiple best player or best pitcher awards had they been established during their careers.
This is the exact reason why the inaugural class is impossible to top: Since the Hall had not been established prior to 1936, all of the best players in the 60+ years of MLB history up to that point were a part of the inaugural ballot. So naturally it was more loaded than a modern ballot, which typically draws from a 15-year window of players.
Heck, the list of players who did not make it in on the first ballot includes names like Cy Young, Tris Speaker, Nap Lajoie, Pete Alexander, Cap Anson and Eddie Collins.
It’s also fair to point out that the modern voting rules were not in effect when the Hall of Fame first began the induction process. Initially, every player (even those still playing) were eligible to receive Hall of Fame votes. Since 1954, however, every player on the ballot had to wait a full five years after retirement before their name was added to the ballot.
Which non-inductee was most deserving of being a part of the inaugural HOF Class?
Had that rule been in effect in 1936, Babe Ruth (who retired the year before) would not have been a part of the inaugural class. Instead, Ruth would have been a part of the 1941 class, a year that featured no other inductees.
Similarly, each of the other four first ballot inductees would have been a part of differing classes. Matthewson, who retired in 1916, would have been a part of the 1922 class.
Wagner, who retired in 1917, would have been inducted in 1923.
Johnson’s career ended in 1927, making him a 1933 inductee.
And Cobb retired after the 1928 season, making him a part of the class of 1934.
It is important to remember that while the inaugural Hall of Fame class did indeed set the standard for all future classes, it was as much the result of circumstance as anything else. That class only happened because it was the very first election, and there were no standardized rules for the ballot. The only way a modern class could match the first one is by going several decades without anybody being inducted.
In other words, it is impossible for a modern class to match the first one. And this is a good thing.