In the voting that was announced on Monday, Henderson went in on his first try, being named on 94.8 percent of the 539 ballots cast. The first-ballot election is the mark of Hall of Fame greatness; Henderson is just the 44th player to be elected in his first year of eligibility.
For a player who leads baseball's all-time list in runs and stolen bases, there can be little argument regarding his credentials. Henderson defined the leadoff position for years, not only because of his speed, but because of his selectivity at the plate. His greatness remains beyond dispute.
Rice, on the other hand, was made to wait until the very end of his time on the writers' ballot, 15 years, before he received the 75 percent of the vote necessary for election. This election might have been all or nothing for Rice, since after 15 years on the ballot players who are not voted into the Hall of Fame but are still eligible are turned over to the veterans' committee for consideration. And the record clearly shows that, since that election was placed in the hands of the living Hall of Famers, nobody gets elected.
Rice's 11th-hour election is the kind of thing that baffles some observers because, over the period of his 15 electoral seasons, his career didn't change. But the voting members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America apparently changed their minds about the value of his career. How does this happen?
I have consistently voted for Jim Rice, so I wasn't directly part of this phenomenon. At the peak of his career, he was a dominant hitter, period. While his peak did not last long enough to give him the kind of career numbers that make for almost automatic induction, he met the eye examination, in which if you looked at Jim Rice while he was playing at his peak and thought: "Hall of Famer," then he passed the test.
This is not a totally quantifiable, empirical approach. In the absence of the career numbers that have traditionally defined entrance to the Hall of Fame, arguments will occur, subjective judgments will take place. In this case, it took Jim Rice's candidacy 15 years to win the argument.
The growth of Rice's support among the voters has been remarkable. Fifteen elections ago, in his first time on the ballot, he received just 29.8 percent of the vote. Five years later, he was up to 51.5 percent. Only in recent years did his level of support bring him close to the necessary 75 percent.
It was a fairly steady climb, though. In 2004 Rice had 54.5 percent; in 2005, 59.5 percent, in 2006, 64.8 percent, a slight drop to 63.5 percent in 2007, and a major step forward to 72.2 percent in 2008.
With that kind of trend in place, Rice's chances went from bleak at the beginning of this process to very good in the 2009 election. This year he was named on 76.4 percent of the ballots, qualifying for the Hall with just seven votes to spare.
Rice was probably helped also by the fact that, among the new candidates on the 2009 ballot, Henderson figured to be the only one with massive support. In fact, the other nine newcomers on the ballot all failed to receive the 5 percent of the votes that are necessary to remain on the ballot.
Why did Jim Rice's Hall of Fame chances keep getting better, while his career obviously remained over, done with and static? Some of us thought that this career was Hall-worthy in the first place so Rice always had a base of support. Some voters may have been moved by a kind of nostalgia for players whose careers took place before performance-enhancing substances both clouded and saddened the process. (Mark McGwire, whose candidacy has been derailed by these concerns, dropped from 23.6 percent of the votes in 2008 to 21.9 percent this year.)
And some voters may have had a 15-year second look at this candidacy, deciding that Jim Rice belonged in the Hall, after all, rather than in the limbo of veterans' committee consideration.
In any case, the right thing was done in this voting, both in electing Rickey Henderson to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year on the ballot, and in electing Jim Rice, finally, in his 15th.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.