With seven-time Most Valuable Player Award winner Barry Bonds and seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens among a half-dozen candidates with sterling credentials who were eligible for consideration for the first time, the electorate had its hands full.Particularly with the two most decorated newcomers, voters had to consider each candidate's place in an era played under the cloud of performance-enhancing drug use -- a conundrum in recent years that hit a crescendo this time around. Bonds and Clemens were joined on the ballot by one-team star Craig Biggio, catcher Mike Piazza, World Series hero Curt Schilling and slugger Sammy Sosa to form one of the deeper classes of first-time-eligible players in history. The ballot also included holdovers hoping to reach the 75-percent threshold for election. Among them were Jack Morris, Jeff Bagwell and Lee Smith, who finished second, third and fourth behind inductee Barry Larkin in last year's voting.
Morris, who received 66.7 percent of the vote last year, is in his 14th of 15 years of ballot eligibility. Jeff Bagwell reached 56 percent in his second year on the ballot, and Smith received 50.6 percent in his 10th year.With all that on the minds of voters, the tension has been thick heading toward the moment when Hall of Fame and Museum president Jeff Idelson reveals the results of the voting. Among the possibilities is that no one will be elected via the writers' ballot. That most recently occurred in 1996, when Phil Niekro led the vote with 68.3 percent.
"There's tremendous interest in this year's ballot with the number of superstar players who help to comprise it," Idelson said. "The debate about the ballot is intense every year, given the difficulty of earning election combined with the enormity of permanent recognition -- a plaque in Cooperstown, N.Y. Earning Hall of Fame election remains the game's highest honor, a process that is defined as a snapshot in time, with every candidate eligible for up to 15 years, as long as he earn votes on five percent of ballots annually."This year's ballot has provided its share of challenges that voters have had to consider." It always does. But this year is decidedly different. On the 2013 ballot, several milestones that used to be sure tickets to the Hall of Fame -- 500 home runs, 3,000 hits, 300 victories -- were represented among the first-timers. Bonds and Sosa brought careers with 600-plus homers to the ballot for the first time, Bonds holding the all-time record with 762. Biggio collected 3,000 hits, all in an Astros uniform. Clemens won 354 games in 24 seasons. Beyond those would-be-lock numbers, Piazza is the all-time leader for home runs by a catcher with 396, and Schilling was a 20-game winner for two World Series champions. The group's statistical credentials are impressive, to say the least. Clearly, the finest first-year class was the inaugural one, with Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson -- in order of voting -- the only electees, leaving such luminaries as Cy Young, Tris Speaker and Nap Lajoie waiting for next year. Once Hall of Fame voting caught up with those who played before 1936, there have been few ballots as rich in talent, decoration and accomplishment as this one. In recent memory, the 1982 ballot that included first-year electees Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson along with eventual electee Billy Williams, and the 1999 ballot that resulted in Nolan Ryan, George Brett and Robin Yount gaining election and Carlton Fisk having only to wait one more year both stand out as years thick with talent. But talent isn't all the BBWAA electorate had to consider this time. Both Bonds and Clemens faced federal charges of lying under oath during investigations of performance-enhancing drugs by the U.S. government. Bonds was convicted in 2011 on one charge of obstruction of justice for misleading a federal grand jury, a conviction currently under appeal. Clemens was acquitted in 2012 on all charges of lying before Congress during a deposition and a hearing. Previously, those associated with PEDs have paid a price with Hall of Fame voters. Rafael Palmeiro, only the fourth player to combine 500 homers with 3,000 hits -- and the only one on the ballot who served a drug suspension -- lagged in the 2012 results with 12.6 percent in his second time on the ballot. Mark McGwire, who admitted in 2010 to taking steroids while playing, last recorded 19.5 percent of the vote. This was his seventh year of eligibility. More than 600 ballots were expected to be counted this year, following last year's record 573, and 16 of them came from current MLB.com writers. Each ballot can include up to 10 names. Ballots were due to be returned Dec. 31, and players who receive at least 75 percent of the vote on the ballots cast by the electorate -- members of the BBWAA who have at least 10 consecutive years with the organization -- will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in July. Nineteenth-century player Deacon White, umpire Hank O'Day and former Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert, elected by a Pre-Integration Era committee, will be inducted posthumously, while late Blue Jays broadcaster Tom Cheek will be honored with the Ford C. Frick Award for "major contributions to baseball" and Paul Hagen of MLB.com will be presented the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for "meritorious contributions to baseball writing." This will be only the 70th election result since that 1936 inaugural class because rules changed over the years to hold elections every two and sometimes every three years before annual elections were established in 1966. The players and writers who participated in the hallowed groundbreaking in Cooperstown in 1936 couldn't possibly have imagined something like this year's ballot, with its amazing array of talent and jaw-dropping accomplishments and debate that could last for years to come. Whatever the results, this is a Baseball Hall of Fame election like none other before it, and the tension is mounting.
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.