As Derek Jeter heads toward retirement, baseball fans and historians are already considering his legacy. The records, World Series titles, and Yankee-best marks guarantee him first-ballot entry to the Hall of Fame. Still, there’s one feat no MLB player has ever managed: unanimous election into Cooperstown’s shrine. Tom Seaver, who holds the all-time highest vote rating, told MLB.com Jeter should be the one that enters with a unanimous vote. It opens a debate that has raged since the Hall had its first election in 1936 — when Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb did not receive unanimous support.
Never a unanimous Hall of Famer
To understand the maddening tradition of never voting a player unanimously into Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, a trip to the original election is in order. Two of the game’s all-time best players — Ruth and Cobb — did not win over every one of the 226 voters back in 1936. To say Cobb epitomized a Hall of Fame ballplayer (in statistics, determination, and pure greatness) is an understatement. Then again, he had a reputation for being…well, he wasn’t the best guy that ever lived, his contemporaries said. So four voters left Cobb off their ballot, possibly out of spite.
George Herman “Babe” Ruth, on the other hand, was synonymous with the game he played and someone who could be seen next to the word “fame” in the dictionary. Credited with transforming the game, Ruth revolutionized baseball while smacking 714 home runs as a position player. And he did that came after an accomplished career as a pitcher. But eleven of the 226 Hall of Fame voters didn’t include the Babe on their ballot.
That set a precedent few expect will be ever broken. If not Cobb or Ruth — or Willie Mays or Ted Williams or Hank Aaron — then how could anyone enter the Hall unanimously? Tom Seaver, who rocked the vote with 98.84 percent, believes Jeter should be the first.
“I can’t see how he won’t be,” Tom Terrific told MLB.com on July 23. “What can you say he hasn’t done? He has every credential imaginable — great player, good citizen. He plays the game properly, respects the game and his predecessors. He’s done it in the big city, for one team that wears a uniform of greatness. He has no marks against him. He has the numbers. And he wins.”
The case Seaver makes is impossible to dispute — he went on to call Jeter “a pro’s pro, a gentleman’s gentleman” — but it’s enough to wonder whether anyone will ever be so bold as to not carry on that Original Sin of Hall voters.
Why Jeter? Why now?
Tom Seaver is willing to step aside and let Jeter take top spot in Hall of Fame voting history, but it could make some people assume they are saying Jeter is better than DiMaggio (88.84 percent), than Rickey Henderson (94.81 percent), than Stan Musial (93.24 percent). Not holding back a vote for Jeter would be saying the stains of the past are forgotten and the moment has arrived to do the right thing. Okay, somehow that doesn’t sound like modern society.
Other odd reasons exist as well. Ken Gurnick of MLB.com told the AP in January he didn’t vote for Greg Maddux (of the 2014 Hall of Fame class) because he didn’t include anyone from the Steroid Era, though he insisted he “didn’t exclude Maddux.” (Even though he did.) On Gurnick’s ballot was a single player: Jack Morris.
Baseball traditions have irritated fans and players alike for over a century. It’s likely the sports writers did not know they were setting a damning precedent in 1936 by not voting for Ruth or Cobb. Maybe the five folks (out of 430) who didn’t allow Seaver unanimous entry did so for their love of the game and enduring respect for baseball’s all-time legends.
In any event, few people expect baseball writers to bury the hatchet and send Captain Clutch into the Hall unanimously. Maybe it’s a boyhood fan of Teddy Ballgame (93.38 percent) or a scribe who considers Cal Ripken (98.53 percent) the greatest shortstop in history. Whatever happens, someone is bound to be standing up for something when they leave Jeter off the ballot. More power to them?