First Hall class had notable omission
Despite 511 career wins, Young had to wait a year to be selected
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Fans have often wondered why Cy Young, the pitcher with the most wins in history, wasn't inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame with the inaugural Class of 1936.
Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner and Walter Johnson were the first inductees, and they are front and center in the plaque gallery of the red-brick museum on Main Street. On Thursday, many in the baseball world will gather for the 75th birthday of its opening and the day the first four Classes of 1936-39 were inducted.
There's a good reason why Johnson, who ranks second on the all-time list with 417 wins, got in, and Young at 511 wins, didn't.
"The 1936 vote was something of a fiasco," said Major League Baseball's official historian John Thorn. "The instructions weren't clear and the criteria for interpreting the vote weren't clear."
A group of pre-1900 players were voted upon by a Veterans Committee, and the post-1900 players were inducted by 226 members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, the organization that maintains the honor today.
Denton True "Cyclone" Young's career spanned 1890-1911, and aside from the staggering win total, he also holds the records for losses, starts, complete games and innings pitched, among others. Without any direction from Hall officials, the committees split the vote. The 78 veterans, mostly made up of former players gave Young 41 percent, and the BBWAA, 49 percent. As it remains today, a candidate had to total 75 percent on one ballot or the other to be inducted.
Under the rules, the votes of both committees weren't combined and Young had to wait until 1937 when he was elected by the BBWAA with 76.1 percent of the vote along with only two other players, Nap Lajoie and Tris Speaker.
That same year, the Veterans Committee added managers Connie Mack and John McGraw and executives Morgan Bulkeley, Byron Johnson and pioneer George Wright. Mack, who managed the Philadelphia A's until 1950, would never have been elected today until he retired.
"I guess they weren't so fussy about the rules back then," Thorn said.
By the time the Hall opened on Jan. 12, 1939, 26 players, managers and executives had been elected by the dueling committees, and they were all inducted in one massive class. At the time, the electees arrived by train and the inductions were conducted on the steps to the entrance of the museum. These days, the ceremony is staged about a mile away behind the Clark Sports Center, where thousands of fans congregate on a meadow for the occasion. Admission has always been free.
This year, on July 27, in excess of 50,000 are expected for the induction of pitchers Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, slugger Frank Thomas and managers Joe Torre, Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox.
Like Mack, La Russa, who retired after 33 years of managing when his Cardinals defeated the Rangers in the 2011 World Series, is active again, having just taken the newly created job of chief baseball officer for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Torre is Major League Baseball's executive vice president of baseball operations.
"La Russa is back in business," Thorn said. But he's not managing, and that's the accepted practice.
The Hall, founded by local landowner and magnate Stephen C. Clark, went into business as soon as the Hall of Fame charter was awarded. It would be three years before the actual edifice would be complete, but there was no reason to wait, and the voting to honor MLB greats began in earnest in 1936. Clark's granddaughter, Jane Forbes Clark, is still chair of the Hall's board.
Of the 26 players, managers and executives elected, 13 of those players were picked by the BBWAA. Aside from the eight greats in the first two classes, the writers anointed Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1938 and Eddie Collins, George Sisler and Willie Keeler in '39. Lou Gehrig was also added by special election in '39 after he had to retire because of a debilitating illness earlier that year.
Gehrig was too sick to attend the mass 1939 induction and was officially inducted last summer when Cal Ripken Jr. read the inscription off his plaque. The symmetry was neat and sentimentally moving, considering that the Iron Man had broken the Iron Horse's record consecutive game playing streak of 2,131 games. Ripken and fellow Hall of Famer Joe Morgan will be in attendance Thursday for the birthday commemoration.
"[The fact] that the voting began long before the doors of the actual museum opened was well-intended," Thorn said. "It was like the Hollywood ramp up theory of publicity. You build up enthusiasm by peppering the press with news rather than saving everything for one shot."
Before the museum opened, there was one matter to attend to: how to make amends with the revered Young. In trying to do so, Hall officials interviewed and had correspondence with Young, asking him to be a docent or tour guide for the Hall.
"Can you imagine that he would be there every day, greeting everybody who came to the Hall?" Thorn said.
Alas, like the 1936 vote for Young, it didn't happen. By the time the museum opened, he was already 72 years old.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.