Ballot history reveals even worthy must wait

Ballot history reveals even worthy must wait

First, there were five. Cy Young, whose name graces the highest pitching award in baseball, didn't make the cut. He didn't even get 50 percent of the vote.

That was in 1936, when -- in order of voting percentage -- Ty Cobb (98.2), Babe Ruth (95.1), Honus Wagner (95.1), Christy Mathewson (90.7) and Walter Johnson (83.6) comprised the first class of National Baseball Hall of Fame inductees, the very first players on Cooperstown's hallowed roster.

As the Hall of Fame ballot marks its 75th birthday this week with the announcement of the Class of 2011, the field obviously isn't as thick, but the anticipation remains very much so.

Hall of Fame inductees will be announced for what's actually the 68th time, due to some years being skipped, at 2 p.m. ET Wednesday, broadcast live on MLB Network and streamed live on MLB.com. So far, 109 players have earned the requisite 75 percent of the votes among Baseball Writers' Association of America members.

In this year's election, it's likely two new members will be anointed as Hall of Famers, with pitcher Bert Blyleven and second baseman Roberto Alomar having just missed out in 2010. The first-timer creating the most buzz is Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell, with the annual question: Is he a first-ballot Hall of Famer? (And the followup question: Should that even matter?)

Whatever this election brings, it will be part of that ongoing saga about the best of baseball's best, as told by the Hall of Fame ballot.

For a player like Barry Larkin, who is on the ballot for a second year after a solid first showing of 51.6 percent of the vote, being up for election at all is the first step. He said he learned that most poignantly from Jim Rice, who made the Class of 2009 in his 15th and final year of eligibility.

"He said there isn't anything you can do," Larkin recalled when his first-year election results were announced. "You're just happy to be considered. The numbers are the numbers and you did what you did. There's no going back to do anything different.

"If they decide to put me in, they'll decide. It's gratifying to be considered and an honor to be on the ballot. To be inducted would be even greater."

Larkin's fate and the answers to many other questions will be revealed Wednesday as the next chapter in a history book 75 years in the making is written.

Indeed, the Hall of Fame ballot continues deep into the 21st century with new challenges awaiting, as an era marred by performance-enhancing drugs becomes a deciding factor for some players' candidacies.

The first significant test of that issue shows up on the 2011 ballot, where Rafael Palmeiro -- who in 2005 tested positive for a steroid, but denies knowingly using it -- enters election eligibility with 500 homers and 3,000 hits, heretofore a guaranteed entry into the Hall. Before him, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray all gained entrance on their first ballot, but no one is predicting that for Palmeiro.

And it only gets more intriguing after that.

First, a possible drought: If Bagwell either gets in or doesn't get very close this year and holdovers such as Jack Morris (52.3 percent in 2010), Larkin (51.6) and Lee Smith (47.3) don't make headway on the 75-percent threshold a year from now, 2012 has potential to be the first year with zero inductees since 1996 and only the eighth ever. Bernie Williams, Terry Mulholland, Vinny Castilla, Tim Salmon and Ruben Sierra lead the list of newcomers, so it's not exactly a ripe year for first-ballot chances.

Then, a possible downpour: The following year, things get really interesting, and the debate may be more intense than it will be then.

Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Curt Schilling, Mike Piazza and Craig Biggio all make their debuts. The list of 2013 first-time eligibles continues with names like Kenny Lofton, David Wells and a few others that would have highlighted the previous year's first-timers list.

That 2013 ballot discussion will have its time. Let's just say it's never too early to think ahead about what history will be made on the Hall of Fame ballot.

As Blyleven is hoping to find out this week, it's never too late to earn that magical key to Cooperstown. The right-handed pitcher is in his 14th year on the ballot, one year short of the 15th and final year of eligibility on the BBWAA ballot -- although players can be considered by a recently restructured Veterans' Committee, which now evaluates players, managers and executives each year, rotating three different eras annually.

Blyleven, who was just five votes shy of election in 2010, would become one of only six players to wait 14 years or longer to gain entrance, the most recent example being Rice waiting the long 15 for his election in 2009. Players stay on the ballot for those 15 years as long as they receive at least 5 percent of the vote each year.

"If you're a Hall of Famer, you're eventually going to get in," said Andre Dawson, who was elected last year in his ninth try. "It was well worth the wait."

On the flip side, if Bagwell were to make a spectacular debut on the ballot, he could become the 45th first-ballot Hall of Famer, the last one being Rickey Henderson in 2009. In nine of the past 13 elections, at least one player has been elected in his first year of eligibility -- starting with the trifecta of Nolan Ryan, George Brett and Robin Yount in 1999.

Morris, meanwhile, is getting into nerve-racking territory in his 12th year on the ballot, and Dave Parker's taking his last mammoth swing for a 15th year, although with 15.2 percent a year ago, it doesn't look good.

If Alomar gains election this year after missing by just eight votes a year ago, the second baseman would become the eighth to make it in his second year of eligibility. That list includes Yogi Berra, Rollie Fingers (most recently, in 1992), and in 1937 a certain pitcher who happened to rack up 511 wins.

Yes, Mr. Award Namesake got his due the very next year after the inaugural class. Young was just good enough in the 1937 election, gaining 76.1 percent -- 1.1 percent more than the threshold. With so much catching up to do with the first 35 years of the game's official history in the books, it's no wonder Young, Nap Lajoie and Tris Speaker had to wait a year.

And now here we are, 75 years after the first one, with another Hall of Fame election leaving some big questions waiting to be answered.

Will Blyleven's wait finally end with just one more year to spare? Will this be the ninth time three players have been elected in one year? Or will it be the 25th time with two? Maybe even the 26th time with just one?

What we do know is that what emerges from the results announced Wednesday will create another chapter in an ongoing history lesson about the best of baseball's best. It's called the Hall of Fame ballot.

John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.