Why Joe D. had to wait

I need to take issue with a discussion on YES between Michael Kay and Ken Singleton on Sunday’s telecast of the Yankees-White Sox game. It is not a criticism but rather an explanation or, better put, an attempt at one.

Former White Sox first baseman Frank Thomas, a two-time American League Most Valuable Player, was honored Sunday at U.S. Cellular Field and had his uniform No. 35 retired. In reviewing Thomas’ career, Kay and Singleton fittingly talked about his credentials as a candidate for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. There was even a text-message question to viewers on the topic.

Thomas retired after the 2008 season and will be eligible for consideration by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America on the 2014 ballot. I have no dispute here about Thomas’ legitimacy as a candidate for first-ballot election. Interestingly, the result of the text poll was 71 percent yes and 29 percent no, which means that according to texters the “Big Hurt” is not first-ballot worthy, since 75 percent of ballots cast is required for election.

But in the discussion about the writers’ vote, Kay and Singleton save some examples of first-ballot electees and questioned why Joe DiMaggio isn’t among them. At one point, Singleton said, “What were the writers thinking?”

Well, here goes. First off, the rules were different when DiMaggio, an obvious choice for the Hall of Fame if there ever was one, first went on the ballot, which was 1953. He had retired after the 1951 season when he was only 37 years old (the 1952 ballot had already been formed by the time of the announcement, which is why he was not on it).

Unlike today, there was no five-year waiting period before a player become eligible for the ballot. DiMaggio went on the ballot one year after he retired. Remember, no one had been elected on the first ballot up to that time since the original class of 1936 (Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson). Lou Gehrig was elected by acclamation by the BBWAA in 1939.

According to veteran writers I talked to over the years, it was not uncommon for voters at that time to dismiss first-year candidates out of the thinking that the player might un-retire. There was no five-percent rule at the time, either, which came about in the mid 1980s requiring candidates to get at least five percent of the vote to stay on the ballot.

There was apparently some feeling at the time that DiMaggio, still in his 30s, might get himself back in shape and return to the Yankees. This was a period not too far removed from World War II when former players, most notably Jimmie Foxx, did precisely that.

In fact, that is one of the reasons the five-year rule came into being in 1954, which was DiMaggio’s second year on the ballot. Joe D. was actually the first test case. The writers allowed anyone who had received more than 100 votes on a previous ballot to be grand-fathered onto the ballot without having to wait five years. The only player to which that applied was DiMaggio, who came close to being elected in 1954 (69.4 percent) before making it in 1955 (88.8).

Another rule of thought in voting in those years was that players had to “wait their turn.” One writer once told me that he could not vote for DiMaggio while Joe Cronin and Hank Greenberg, who preceded Joe D. to the majors by quite a few years (10 for Cronin, six for Greenberg) were not yet in. They were elected in 1956, the year after the “Yankee Clipper.”

I am by no means saying that I agree with the thinking of that time, only that it was different. I am fairly confident that if DiMaggio did not go on the ballot until 1957 in satisfying the five-year waiting period he would have been elected on the first ballot. As it was, he got into the Hall two years earlier than that.

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