Readers of the Chicago Tribune were given a poll question this week:
"Greg Maddux should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. What about Frank Thomas?"
Those of us who follow the the annual debates over the Baseball Hall of Fame know that question all too well: "Is so-and-so a first-ballot Hall of Famer?" It's a question with a very specific subtext. A "first-ballot Hall of Famer" isn't just another baseball star who made it to Cooperstown. He's a baseball legend. Other Hall of Famers look up to him.
Take a look at the names of some first-ballot Hall of Famers. In the last 30 years, the 26 first-ballot Hall of Famers have ranged from Brooks Robinson to Rickey Henderson, including Mike Schmidt, Tom Seaver, Reggie Jackson, Nolan Ryan, and Cal Ripken. (Only Kirby Puckett and Dennis Eckersley seem to be outliers, and each has his own special set of circumstances.)
Meanwhile, the 22 Hall of Famers who have been elected after their first try in the same period include Juan Marichal, Carlton Fisk, Fergie Jenkins, Ryne Sandberg, Roberto Alomar, and Barry Larkin.
Both lists are filled with legitimate Hall of Famers, but there's a clear line between the legends of the former -- many like to call it baseball's "inner circle" -- and the merely "great" of the latter. With such a noticeable division between the first-ballot guys and everyone else, the "first-ballot" distinction has become a real thing in the public's mind, a topic for debate as each new crop of candidates is announced every winter. When the Chicago Tribune asks "What about Frank Thomas?", we know exactly what they mean.
Not that we have to like it. For many people -- including your humble author -- it's a bothersome question because it implies that a player elected in his first year of eligibility gets something more. That being elected into the Hall of Fame isn't enough; that making the cut the first time is a special bonus.
When Roberto Alomar went from 73 percent in his first year of eligibility to 90 percent in his second, the suspicion was that the voters were actively pushing the second baseman out of the hallowed "first-ballot" club. To these voters, being elected on the first ballot was a special thing, so they made sure that Alomar, who they felt didn't fit that "inner circle" distinction, never qualified for it. Here's one Hall of Fame voter admitting exactly that:
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.
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."
Barry Larkin also suffered from anti-first-ballot bias that same year:
I'm passing on 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.
The problem with the "first-ballot" conversation isn't in asking the question or in sorting players by their first-ballot status. The problem is when people -- voters, analysts, casual fans -- grant something special to the act of making a player a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
When a voter goes to cast his vote for these first-time candidates, there is no special spot to mark them as a "super Hall of Famer". You don't even get to put a star by the players' names! First-ballot Hall of Famers get elected the same way every other Hall of Famer gets elected. All that's different is the timing.
As we all know, the Hall of Fame has a very, very strict threshold for induction. A player must appear on 75% of submitted ballots to make the Hall. This is hard enough for some players to achieve over 15 years (just ask Bert Blyleven), so to make that cutoff in a player's first year on the ballot is remarkable. It means that there was no doubt about how great his career was.
This is a rare and impressive feat. It makes sense, then, that we might distinguish these first-ballot Hall of Famers from their fellow members in everyday discussions. I mean, Willie Mays really was on a different level than Jim Rice or Bruce Sutter. It's okay to recognize that.
But we can only do this after the fact. Trying to force the distinction by taking action against it -- by, say, withholding a vote until a player's second year on the ballot -- invalidates the whole thing. When that happens, it is no longer an organic honor and becomes, instead, a list of players who voters think deserve the title. By trying to shoehorn players into/away from first-ballot status, voters are stripping away what made it special to begin with.
So let's stop asking the question, why don't we. At least until we know the answer.