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The Myth of the “First Ballot Hall of Famer”

I do not like the term “First Ballot Hall of Famer.” I believe it is a distinction forced upon the baseball community by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) that empowers them to dictate the level of greatness of baseball’s greatest players. The myth is that somehow these players were better, decided so by the BBWAA, than all other Hall of Famers.

The Hall of Fame does not treat those elected in their first year of eligibility differently from all other electees. All players are in the same museum. There is no special wing for those who were elected in their first year of eligibility. History will ultimately be the judge of who the best of the best are.

My biggest objection is that there is no standard by which the BBWAA use to judge who qualifies as a “First Ballot Hall of Famer.” It is such a subjective thing that each individual voter decides for himself/herself. This is the reason I think if you believe a player to be worthy he’s worthy of your vote period. You should vote for him each and every time his name is on the ballot. However, if you fall in line with the BBWAA and think that “First Ballot Hall of Famer” matters let me present you with two groups of players and you decide which group is “first ballot” worthy and which is not.


Pretty difficult, right? Group A is the group that was voted in during their first year of eligibility while Group B was not. Some, including many BBWAA voters, would have you believe that those in Group A belong in a more exclusive group to be called out or separated by a trivial distinction that has no merit. Think about that. 26% of voters did not think Group B worthy of the Hall of Fame or they left them off the ballot because they didn’t believe them to be “First Ballot Hall of Famers”.

Sounds ridiculous that a writer would believe a player to be a Hall of Famer but not vote for him on the basis of “he’s not a first ballot Hall of Famer”, right? I think so too. But voters such as Bill Livingston who in 2009 admitted to withholding a vote for Roberto Alomar said this,

“I will vote for Alomar next year if he doesn’t make it. But not this time. First-ballot inductees are the cream of the crop, the ultra-elites. A player who hurt his team’s chances to win and gave less than his best in the decisive game of a playoff series doesn’t qualify as the very best.”

Another quote from late 2009, this time by Jay Mariotti,

“To me, the first ballot is sacred. I think Roberto Alomar is an eventual Hall of Famer, not the first time. Edgar Martinez, designated hitter, eventually, but not the first time. And same goes for maybe Fred McGriff.”

The last example is Mike Dodd’s rationale for withholding his vote in 2009,

“I’m passing on (Barry) Larkin. This year. I’m one of those voters who believes first-ballot election is a genuine distinction and a worthy one. And I think Larkin falls just short of it. I’ll vote for him next year.”

Alomar and Larkin have both since been elected and are treated exactly the same by the Hall as they would have been had they been elected in year one. These writers and others who subsequently voted for them must have gotten some sort of pleasure by delaying their enshrinement. Congratulations guys, you are incredibly petty. These two Hall of Famers (that’s weird it looks and sounds the same even though they weren’t elected in their first year) did not get any better after not making the Hall in year one. Their statistics and accomplishments read exactly the same.

Unless you are holding all players up to a specific set of criteria that their careers need to meet in order to be deemed first ballot worthy the term “First Ballot Hall of Famer” is simply a subjective term that we need to remove from our collective vocabulary.

Those of us who don’t cover the sport for a living do not need the BBWAA to help us understand that Sandy Koufax was a better pitcher than Bert Blyleven or that Hank Aaron was a better hitter than Jim Rice. Holding the right to vote for the Hall of Fame should be considered an honor. Not a power with which you wield at your discretion. If you think a player is worthy he should get your vote. You should partake in the meaningless exercise of determining if he lives up to this mythical “First Ballot Hall of Famer” status because such an honor is a matter of semantics that is ultimately meaningless.

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