MLB Hall of Fame: The 12 Closest Calls in Cooperstown Voting History
The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is very much like a gated community, and in order to gain residence, a player must be exceptionally good at politicking with the gate-keepers. Bert Blyleven needed over a decade to gain entry; Ron Santo never did, though he unequivocally ought to have. Finding a way to woo 75 percent of those baseball writers who have votes can be a tricky needle to thread.
Fascinatingly enough, no one has ever gotten 100 percent of the vote, nor even 99 percent. Many, many players have scraped by with between 75 and 80 percent. A round dozen have come within two percentage points of the margin, garnering 77 percent or fewer of the votes. Those men are the subject of this article, which will break down what kept their numbers so low, who should never have made it in at all, and who deserved more votes than they got. Read on.
12. Bruce Sutter, Class of 2006
Inventor of the forkball, savior of an even 300 games and (until Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera get there, anyway) the only Hall of Fame hurler never to start in the big leagues, Sutter went in on his 13th try in 2006, but scraped by with 400 votes, just 10 more than the minimum for induction that year.
It was a down year for Hall candidates, with Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken still a year away from eligibility and Ryne Sandberg already in. The voters should have let in Bert Blyleven or Jim Rice that year instead; as good as Sutter was while he lasted, he pitched only 1,042 innings in the big leagues. To merit induction for that little work, he would have needed to be Mariano Rivera good. He wasn't.
11. Pie Traynor, Class of 1948
Back in 1948, a guy needed only 91 votes to gain entry to the Hall of Fame, and it was luck for Harold Joseph Traynor that was all he needed, because he garnered only 93 votes. Traynor played third base, still the Hall's most under-represented position, and by all accounts played it very well. He also batted .320 for his career, which is likely what got him elected.
Of course, Traynor played from 1920-1937, when hitting for average was not especially difficult. In fact, he never finished within the top four in the league in batting average, nor in OPS. He was just seven percent better than the average hitter of his day, overall. Combined with a stellar glove at third base, he may still have deserved induction, but it is not hard to see why he seemed to sneak in, even on his eighth try.
10. Jim Rice, Class of 2009
For a guy never known for coming up big in the clutch, Jim Rice showed a flair for the dramatic when it came to the Hall of Fame. On his 15th and final chance at election by the writers, he snuck in with seven more than the minimum number of necessary votes.
Rice was a good guy, a good hitter with a great prime and a good fielder throughout his career, which is more than to justify election. He hit 382 home runs for his career, three times led the league in long balls, twice led in RBI and had a spectacular season in 1978, when he won the AL MVP.
9. Lefty Grove, Class of 1947
It's hard to imagine a 300-game winner needing four tries to achieve induction, and then doing it by a margin of two votes, but that plateau was not considered as lofty or unreachable in the time of Lefty Grove as it is today.
Still, Grove did plenty to have earned a much earlier and more decisive election. He led the league in strikeouts his first seven seasons in MLB. He also collected nine ERA titles and retired with a .680 career winning percentage. By any measure, he was a first-ballot Hall of Fame pitcher, and it's a good thing he got those two votes in 1947.
8. Catfish Hunter, Class of 1987
Pitching for five championship teams and six total pennant winners in 15 seasons gave Hunter ample opportunity to shine, and (along with Reggie Jackson) he became the face of the short-lived Yankee revival of the late 1970s.
Hunter was good in postseason play, had excellent control and gave up very few hits, whether by mechanism of deception or defense or luck. In the end, though, I think we will remember Hunter more as a slightly above-average pitcher who had an exceptional prime (he won 20 or more games in five straight seasons from ages 25-29), but was far too vulnerable to the home run and could not miss bats even when he needed to. Hunter was good, but likely not Hall material.
7. Ryne Sandberg, Class of 2005
Known perhaps most of all for his defensive smoothness, Sandberg was the best offensive second baseman of his generation, and hit the most home runs as a second baseman in history up to his retirement. He added 344 career steals to his 282 homers, hit 14 percent better than the average hitter and had all manner of intangible things going for him.
His performance on June 23, 1984 is still known as the "Sandberg Game" to Cubs fans everywhere, and while explaining all his exploits sufficiently is a task for a less busy day, suffice it to say that his WPA (Win Probability Added, a statistic that measures a player's offensive contributions to his team's chances of winning a given game) was 1.06 that day. He won the game all by himself, plus six percent. He ran away with the MVP that year.
6. Cy Young, Class of 1937
You are not mis-reading that: Cy Young gained induction to the Hall of Fame by only two votes, and then not even on his first ballot. Preposterous, right? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Consider the information voters had up to that point in time: Yes, Young had the most wins ever, but he also had the most losses. Many writers then considered the early days of baseball to have been something of a joke, an era in which any pitcher could do the kinds of things Young had done, if not quite as well.
In the end, of course, we all see that Young was something special: He led the league in shutouts seven times and in WHIP seven times, which is perhaps enough reason to induct him all by itself. Still, it is interesting to note the relative ambivalence with which he was treated in his day.
5. Early Wynn, Class of 1972
More non-love for the 300-game winners, as Wynn got 301 votes in a year when he needed at minimum 297, and that was his fourth year on the ballot. By this time, the plateau had gained something like its current level of panache, which is probably why Wynn eventually found his way in.
He pitched 23 seasons in the majors, won exactly 300 times and lost 244 times. He led the league in ERA once and in strikeouts in two other years, and he won a Cy Young Award at 39 for the 1959 White Sox. All told, though, he was just seven percent better by ERA than the average pitcher of his day, and the fact that he clearly clung to his career far beyond his utility in pursuit of 300 wins cheapens the feat somewhat. He probably did not deserve induction, but what is done is done.
4. Willie Keeler, Class of 1939
This looks like another case of the writers needing to feel out the Hall election process: How selective did they really want to be? By the fourth year of balloting in 1939, they had decided that too much exclusivity would make the Hall no fun, and they embraced Keeler, although hardly in overwhelming fashion: He needed 206 votes, and got 207.
It was an overdue honor. Keeler hit for average (.341 lifetime) and for power (he had 12 or more triples for seven out of eight seasons at one stretch, and led the league in OPS in 1897). He played the game exactly the way people wanted to see the game played before and at the turn of the century: with speed and grace. He also may be the best hitter ever, pound for pound: Wee Willie tipped the scales at 140 soaking wet.
3. Ralph Kiner, Class of 1975
If you can find a more fascinating player, show him to me. Kiner led the league in home runs his first seven seasons in the big leagues, but would play only three more. He ranks eighth all time in at-bats per home run, so if he had played (say) six more seasons, he would probably have cruised well past 500 home runs. He drew a ton of walks, played a strong left field (though he often loafed out there) and finished with a career OPS that was 49 percent better than the average hitter of his time, even after adjusting for park effects.
The writers, though, grew to loathe Kiner. They hated him for his brash way, for his defensive indifference and for leaving the game at the age of 32. He had to wait 13 long years to reach the Hall of Fame, but he made it. He seemed better off for having retired early, too: He is now going on 89 years of age, and by all accounts remains in good health.
2. Ferguson Jenkins, Class of 1991
Before steroids, perhaps the greatest moral and/or ethical issue that faced Hall of Fame voters was drug use. It became a league-wide epidemic in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and guys like Dave Parker, Tim Raines and Keith Hernandez have watched their Hall of Fame cases struggle to gain traction with (among other things) that cloud over their heads.
One guys whom the voters deigned to forgive was Fergie Jenkins, who makes a far more compelling case than any of the aforementioned players, anyway. Jenkins had to wait until his third year of eligibility, and then still got just one more than the minimum number of votes, but he finally earned election on the strength of 284 wins, six straight seasons of at least 20 wins and 20 complete games, and five separate titles for the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in baseball.
1. Al Simmons, Class of 1953
A .334 career hitter with 307 home runs, Al Simmons had to get into the Hall sometime. He did nearly everything well but nothing exceptionally well. Still, he could hit the cover off the ball, and should probably have been elected sooner. He was on the ballot for the ninth time in 1953, although to be fair, players went on the ballot as soon as they retired in those days, and hardly anyone got voted in for the first five years. Simmons eventually got 199 votes in 1953, needing 198 for induction.
Lest you wonder whether he deserved to be inducted, consider his 1929-1931 run: Over those three seasons, he hit .378/.421/.664. He averaged 31 homers and 150 RBI per year. He led the league in RBI (165) in 1929 and in batting average (.381, .390) in the next two seasons. Incidentally, or not, his Philadelphia Athletics went to the World Series all three of those years, winning twice, and Simmons hit two home runs in the Fall Classic each year. In total, he hit .333/.382/.826 in those three Series. I'm not sure anyone has had a three-year prime quite like that in MLB history.