Jackie Robinson made Major League Baseball the true national pastime, with Branch Rickey as orchestrator, in 1947. Fifteen years later, Robinson integrated the Hall of Fame as its first African-American selection.
Joined by Bob Feller, Edd Roush and Bill McKechnie, Robinson's arrival in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1962 gives that Hall of Fame class a special distinction. History demands its inclusion in any discussion of the greatest classes in the museum's history.
For our purposes here, it is unfair to compare the first Hall of Fame class of 1936 with any that would follow. Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson covered the modern era's first three decades in their illustrious careers, creating an enormous field of candidates.
The second class, featuring Napoleon Lajoie, Tris Speaker, Cy Young, Connie Mack and John McGraw, drew from the same fertile ground. Lou Gehrig headlined a 10-member class with his enshrinement in a special election of baseball writers in 1939. Two other classes -- 10 new members in 1945, 11 in '46 -- also are too huge to be included.
Even after that, filling out a greatest Hall of Fame roster of elite classes gets tricky. It is not unlike trying to choose the five best actors or singers in history. A whole lot of amazingly talented performers are going to be excluded.
As a concession, we'll give the 1962 quartet its own category as the Groundbreaking Class and identify the five premier classes that came in its pioneering footsteps.
5. 1973: Roberto Clemente, Billy Evans, Monte Irvin, George Kelly, Warren Spahn and Mickey Welch.
In a departure from the normal procedure requiring a five-year wait for eligibility after retirement, Clemente was awarded candidacy after his tragic death while attempting to fly relief goods into earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua on New Year's Eve 1972.
Arguably the greatest right fielder in history, the standard by which all who followed would be judged, Clemente reached the 3,000-hit plateau in his final game with the Pirates. He remains, in many minds, Latin America's Jackie Robinson.
"Roberto was to us what Jackie Robinson was to black players," Manny Mota, Clemente's teammate and friend, said. "Roberto was a great man, and he had the same impact for Latin players." Clemente was chosen on 92.7 percent of Baseball Writers' Association of America ballots.
Spahn, who won a southpaw record 363 games, was an amazingly durable ace for the Braves from 1946-64 before spending his final season, 1965, with the Mets and Giants. He was named on 83.2 percent of the ballots, an indication of how tough it had become to gain the BBWAA's endorsement.
Irvin, following Robinson by two years in the National League, starred as a Giants outfielder and slugger for seven seasons. He became the fourth selection by the Special Committee on Negro Leagues, on the heels of Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard.
Evans, an umpire, first baseman Kelly and pitcher Welch were Committee on Veterans selections.
4. 1989: Al Barlick, Johnny Bench, Red Schoendienst and Carl Yastrzemski
Rarely have two superstars on the level of Bench and Yaz entered the Hall of Fame arm in arm.
Bench, linchpin of the Big Red Machine of the 1970s, is widely regarded as one of the all-time greats behind the plate -- and there are those who maintain that he was unsurpassed as a defender and slugger at the most important position on the field apart from the mound. Bench drew 96.4 percent of the vote.
Yastrzemski's 1967 Triple Crown season for the Red Sox was among the best ever put together. He endured remarkably well until 1983 in a 23-year career filled with hits (3,419), home runs (452) and a succession of brilliant plays in left field. Yaz received 94.6 percent of the vote.
Schoendienst may have been overshadowed by the great Stan Musial during his Cardinals prime, but the redhead was one of the game's elite second basemen from 1945-60 and later distinguished himself as a manager. He was a selection by the Veterans Committee along with Barlick, an umpire for 31 seasons.
3. 1982: Hank Aaron, Happy Chandler, Travis Jackson, Frank Robinson
It was under the leadership of Chandler -- the sport's second Commissioner in the wake of Kenesaw Mountain Landis -- that the game's integration unfolded. Chandler assumed the position following Landis' death and his immediate election to the Hall of Fame as the lone inductee of 1944.
Chandler, a former U.S. Senator from Kentucky, is a figure of significant historical relevance for his role in expanding the game's horizons and making it all-inclusive. His stewardship lasted only five years, after which he twice was elected governor of Kentucky.
It is fitting that two of the greatest African-American players to follow the '47 breakthrough of Robinson and Larry Doby would be inducted alongside Chandler. Aaron and Robinson were contemporaries, different personalities producing similar results as dynamic sluggers playing the total game at an incredibly high level.
Aaron was ice, as cool as Papa Bell. While he is best known for eclipsing Ruth's career home run record with No. 715, eventually getting to 755, Aaron was a complete player, as great under pressure as anyone who has played the game. He produced 2,297 RBIs and 3,771 hits -- meaning he'd have surpassed 3,000 without a home run.
Frank Robinson was fire, as intensely competitive as the Robinson who paved the way. Feared at the plate and on the basepaths, Frank played with a chip on his shoulder and, among other distinctions, was a Most Valuable Player in both leagues, a Triple Crown champion and the first black manager in the game's history. Robinson retired with 586 homers and 1,812 RBIs.
Travis Jackson, completing the remarkable class, was a superior all-around shortstop for the Giants from 1922-36, elected by the Committee on Veterans. Aaron drew 97.8 percent of the BBWAA vote, Robinson, 89.2 percent.
2. 1999: George Brett, Orlando Cepeda, Nestor Chylak, Nolan Ryan, Frank Selee, Smokey Joe Williams, Robin Yount
Here it is, the class that has everything. Ryan (98.8 percent) and Brett (98.2) were about as close to a unanimous vote as it gets. Both were dominant players for years, Ryan as the king of strikeouts (5,714) and no-hitters (seven), a 324-game winner who threw in the mid-90s at 45. Brett was simply Royalty, with his 3,154 hits, .305 average, 1,595 RBIs, 317 home runs and acrobatic defense -- a leader with few peers.
Yount managed to master two positions (shortstop and center field) while cranking out hits (3,142), home runs (251) and RBIs (1,406) for two decades with the Brewers. Drawing 77.5 percent of the vote is more of an achievement than it might appear given that he was in the same class as two slam-dunk choices.
Cepeda was a tremendous force for great Giants and Cardinals teams and played for four other clubs, finishing with 379 home runs and 1,365 RBIs while batting .297. Williams was one of the all-time greats in the Negro Leagues, as versatile as anyone in history. Towering Smokey Joe excelled as a pitcher, also playing the outfield and first base, and managed capably as well.
Chylak, an umpire for 25 years and teacher of umps, and Selee, a manager for 16 years at the turn of the 20th century, were Veterans Committee choices.
1. 1972: Yogi Berra, Josh Gibson, Lefty Gomez, Will Harridge, Sandy Koufax, Buck Leonard, Early Wynn, Ross Youngs
Arguably, this incredibly deep class gives us an all-time battery of Koufax and Berra -- or Gibson. It gives us two other superb pitchers in Gomez and Wynn, an outfielder (Youngs) who starred from 1917-26 and an American League president (Harridge) who presided from 1931-58.
Koufax, forced to retire early with an arm that was pure gold before it gave out, became the youngest inductee at 37, receiving 86.9 percent of the vote. For six years, ending with his retirement after the 1966 season, he was very possibly the greatest pitcher in history -- and at his supreme best in the postseason, driving the Dodgers to World Series titles in 1963 and '65 with amazing feats alongside fellow Hall of Famer Don Drysdale.
Berra was a pure-bred champion for the dynastic Yankees, a three-time AL MVP Award winner who generated offense (.285, 358 homers, 1,430 RBIs) while handling an elite pitching staff in his 18 years in pinstripes. Berra was Mr. October before Reggie Jackson, a 10-time World Series champion who was at his most dangerous when the Bronx Bombers needed him most. Yogi was named on 85.6 percent of ballots.
Gibson and Leonard were selections of the Special Committee on Negro Leagues, following Paige's election in 1971.
Gibson was a player of epic dimensions, a slugger comparable to Ruth and a brilliant defensive receiver. There are those who saw him in his prime who claimed Josh was not only the greatest catcher who ever lived, but the greatest player. The sad part is we don't have any accurate way to gauge his performance level against other MLB greats. Leonard was a superb first baseman, compactly built but an all-around star comparable to any who played his position, according to historians.
Wynn was a 300-game winner, an imposing figure for the Senators, Indians and White Sox over a career that began in 1939 and ended in '62. He claimed 76 percent of the vote, just enough to gain entrance into the Hall. Gomez, who won 189 games for the Yanks and Sens, Harridge and Youngs were selections by the Veterans Committee.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less