When you talk about the “Hall of Fame,” the term can be used to refer to two separate entities. First, it’s the actual historical museum that houses thousands of baseball’s most historically-significant artifacts and the plaques of all entrants into the Hall. But it’s also used as a term to discuss the highest pantheon of baseball players. Hall of Fame players are the athletes that excel above the competition during their time in the game, the players that define their generation of baseball.
Every year, another class of inductees is voted into the Hall, a tradition that began with the class of 1936. That original class consisted of Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, and Christy Mathewson. The actual museum would only open a few years later, but from that inaugural class on, a new baseball tradition was born.
While you’ve no doubt heard of the baseball Hall of Fame, you may not know the humble beginnings of the privately-owned shrine or how players are decided upon. To land in Cooperstown’s main attraction is the highest honor achievable for professional baseball players. After covering the history of the museum and how players find themselves there, we will then review some of the greatest players in baseball history and discuss whether or not they’ve been enshrined and why.
The Hall of Fame – Cooperstown, New York
The National Baseball Hall of Fame was founded in 1936 in Cooperstown, New York, a tiny town set between the Catskills and Adirondacks in central New York state. It was the idea of Stephen Carlton Clark, a local hotel owner hoping to bring tourists to his town, which was still suffering from both the Great Depression and prohibition, which crushed the nearby hops industry. Though classes began getting voted in the year it was founded, the actual museum would not officially open its doors until June 12, 1939.
The reason publicly given for why Cooperstown was chosen as the location for the Hall was a lie. It was believed that a Civil War hero named Abner Doubleday invented the game in the small New York town one hundred years prior, in 1839. The story was picked up by the Spalding Commission, a group attempting to trace the origins of baseball, and became part of Hall of Fame lore for decades.
Artifacts from almost all of the most critical moments in baseball history are preserved and displayed. In fact, there are over three million library items, forty thousand historical objects like bats, jerseys, gloves, etc., and 140,000 baseball cards.
The museum is housed in five connected buildings and organized into three floors with numerous unique sections. It can accommodate 3,000 visitors per day, with an average attendance of 300,000 each year. On the first floor, you’ll find the following areas:
- Bullpen Theater – an area where daily events are held for fans. This is decorated with pictures of various relief pitchers.
- Baseball at the Movies – a display containing memorabilia from baseball movies. There is also a screen that is perpetually playing clips from the films celebrated in the hall.
- Inductee Row – a celebration of the original Hall of Fame classes, from 1937-39, with images of each player displayed.
- The Plaque Gallery – where all of the plaques that are given to Hall of Fame inductees are observed.
- The Perez-Steele Art Gallery – this area showcases art of all types that is related to the game of baseball.
- Sandlot Kids’ Clubhouse – An interactive and fun children’s’ museum area.
- Scribes and Mikemen – this area celebrates the baseball media, specifically writers and broadcasters. Photos of media members that have won either the J.G. Taylor Spink Award or Ford C. Frick Award are displayed here.
The second floor of the Hall of Fame features several favorite exhibits and does a magnificent job of walking visitors through the history of the game in chronological order. Here are some of the main attractions on floor number two:
- The Game – this is the primary focus of the second floor. This exhibit is organized like a timeline, with information and artifacts placed along the path in chronological order. It begins at the earliest evolutions of the sport and travels all the way to the present-day game, while also leading to several off-shoots.
- Pride and Passion – dedicated to the history of the Negro Leagues.
- Diamond Dreams – all about women in baseball.
- Viva Baseball – an area celebrating Latin American contributions to the game.
- The Babe Ruth Room – an entire room dedicated to The Babe, the most famous player in the history of the sport.
- Taking the Field – a section all about baseball in the 19th century.
- Grandstand Theater – a 200-seat theater designed to look like Comiskey Park, down to the replica stadium seating. The theater plays a looping 12-minute-long film.
- Today’s Game – this section is designed to look like a player’s clubhouse, including an adjacent manager’s office and lockers for each franchise. This area is about recent history and features items, photos, and videos from the last few years.
- Whole New Ballgame – this is the Hall of Fame’s newest permanent addition. It deals with the last 45 years of the game with immersive video performances and interactive exhibits.
The third floor of the Hall is the final stop for visitors. It is separated into several individual areas celebrating things like the game’s awards, record holders, and stadiums. The top floor is organized like so:
- Sacred Ground – this exhibit is all about ballparks. There are virtual tours of classic parks as well as displays of all aspects of running or visiting a major league ballpark.
- One for the Books – this section utilizes two hundred artifacts to educate visitors about the most important records in the history of the sport. There are also numerous replica awards including the annual regular-season honors and World Series Championship rings.
- Autumn Glory – this stop on the tour is dedicated to the playoffs. It’s all about the best memories created during post-season play.
- Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream – An exhibit dedicated to Hammerin’ Hank, one of the greatest hitters of all time, and the home run leader before Barry Bonds controversially surpassed his record.
Players become eligible for Hall of Fame induction five years after their retirement. In order to qualify, a player must have played professionally for at least ten years, and then must clear a screening process to land on the ballot. They then enter their ten-year window of eligibility to be voted in, before being dropped from future ballots.
Hall of Fame inductions are decided via two elections, one by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, and the other by the Veterans Committee. The BBWAA votes on the newest candidates, while the Veterans Committee combs through the players from previous generations, enshrining players that would otherwise now be ineligible to be on the current ballots. The Committee is divided into four groups, each dedicated to a specific era. Each year, players from one division’s era are chosen, with the periods rotating annually.
The Baseball Writers’ Association of America voters must be members of the group for at least ten years and must have actively covered Major League Baseball within the ten years prior to the election. Their final ballot typically consists of 25 to 40 candidates, from which the writers get to cast ten selections. Players that are named on 75% or more of the ballots are inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Players that receive 5% or less are dropped from future ballots. They will, however, have additional opportunities when the Veterans Committee is reviewing their era. For a player that doesn’t receive the required 75% of the vote but gets more than 5%, they carry over to the next year’s election. They will have ten years to receive the percentage needed, at which point they are removed from future votes, besides the Veterans Committee picks.
Some athletes that would otherwise be shoe-ins for the Hall of Fame have been banned for life. Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson are the two influential talents that are barred from the Hall. Rose was caught betting on baseball, while Jackson was accused of throwing the World Series as a member of the infamous Chicago Black Sox squad. Currently, the steroid era is polarizing the voting writers and leading to some all-time talent facing the possibility of not getting in.
The Greatest Players in Baseball History
- Professional Career: 1914 – 1935
- Hall of Fame Class: 1936
- Position: Outfielder/Pitcher
Babe Ruth is easily one of the most famous baseball players and cultural icons of all time. The Baltimore native spent the first part of his career as an ace pitcher for the Red Sox and then transitioned to being the top slugger in the game later on as an outfielder for the Yankees.
The Babe’s move from Boston to New York in 1920 drastically changed the fortunes of both clubs. With their new star, the Yankees won seven American League pennants and four World Series titles. The “Curse of the Bambino” was born, and the Red Sox wouldn’t win another championship for 86 years.
When the Hall of Fame was established in 1936, Ruth was one of the five inaugural inductees. In his playing days, he set numerous batting records for career home runs, runs batted in, slugging percentage, and bases on balls. He still owns the records for slugging percentage and on-base plus slugging to this day, despite retiring 86 years ago.
- Professional Career: 1905 – 1928
- Hall of Fame Class: 1936
- Position: Center Fielder
Ty Cobb, in his prime, was universally appreciated as the best player in baseball. A member of the first Hall of Fame class in 1936, the Georgia Peach received 98.2% of the vote, making him the highest-voted inductee of his class and setting a record that wouldn’t be broken until 1992. He set ninety Major League Baseball records in his 23-year career, several of which still stand to this day.
His career .367 batting average in the MLB is the highest of all time. Additionally, Cobb won twelve American League batting championships, eight slugging titles, and a Triple Crown. His record for career hits stood until 1985, his 2,246 career runs were the best until 2001, and his stolen bases record lasted through 1977. He also took home 54 times, a record that still stands to this day.
- Professional Career: 1936 – 1951
- Hall of Fame Class: 1955
- Position: Center Fielder
Joe DiMaggio played his entire career for the New York Yankees, though his greatest claim to fame may be his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. A poll taken in 1969 called him the game’s greatest living player, a title consistent with his statistics. Joltin’ Joe was a thirteen-time all-star, a nine-time World Series champion, and three-time American League MVP.
Beyond the accolades, DiMaggio’s most significant achievement was his 56-game hitting streak. To this day, that record and his streak of seasons with more home runs than strikeouts still stand. The Yankee Clipper was voted for enshrinement into the Hall of Fame in 1955, three years after the Yankees retired his number 5 jersey.
- Professional Career: 1923 – 1939
- Hall of Fame Class: 1939
- Position: First Baseman
Before Lou Gehrig was known for the disease that bears his name and his emotional farewell speech at Yankee Stadium, he was celebrated as one of the greatest hitters in MLB history. Known as “The Iron Horse,” the New York native was known for his incredible durability, setting the record for consecutive games played at 2,130, which held until Cal Ripken Jr. beat it in 1995.
Gehrig was a two-time American League MVP, seven-time All-Star, Triple Crown winner, and six-time World Series Champion. In 1969, he was voted the greatest first baseman of all time. At the age of 36, Lou ended his consecutive game streak when he took himself out of the lineup due to ALS, a neuromuscular disease. He gave his “Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth” speech in ‘39 and subsequently retired. He would succumb to the disease just two years later.
- Professional Career: 1947 – 1956
- Hall of Fame Class: 1962
- Position: Second Baseman
Jackie Robinson is one of the most important figures in the history of baseball. In 1947, he broke the color barrier, becoming the first African-American athlete to sign with a Major League Baseball franchise when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. The second baseman’s number 42 jersey has been retired by every club in the MLB.
Robinson won the National League MVP in 1949, making him the first black player to win such an honor. The career .311 hitter became a six-time All-Star, 1947 Rookie of the Year, two-time stolen base leader, and one-time batting champion. In 1962, Jackie was inducted into the Hall of Fame for both his talents on the field and his social contributions to the game. Every April 15th, this remarkable player is honored by every player in the MLB donning his number 42 for the day.
- Professional Career: 1939 – 1960
- Hall of Fame Class: 1966
- Position: Left Fielder
Ted Williams is a beloved figure who spent his entire nineteen-year career with the Boston Red Sox. He was a member of the team from 1939 to 1960, but his playing career was interrupted twice in order to serve in World War II and the Korean War. Williams is the last player in the game’s history to bat over .400 for a season when he averaged .406 in 1941.
He followed the monumental season with the 1942 Triple Crown, with a batting average of .356, 36 home runs, and 137 runs batted in. Over his entire career, the Major League Baseball All-Time Team member was an All-Star nineteen times, won two American League MVP awards, won the Triple Crown twice, and recorded a .482 career on-base percentage. These honors, along with his six AL batting titles and four times leading the American League in both home runs and RBIs, have cemented his legacy as one of the greatest hitters the sport has seen.
- Professional Career: 1954 – 1976
- Hall of Fame Class: 1982
- Position: Right Fielder
Affectionately known as Hammerin’ Hank, Aaron is a Hall of Fame player, member of the MLB All-Century team, and fifth on The Sporting News’ “100 Greatest Baseball Players” list. His most celebrated achievement is breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record, hitting 755 career home runs. His record stood from 1969 until 2007 when it was broken by Barry Bonds. However, many still consider Aaron the record holder due to Bonds’ steroid allegations.
Hank was a top talent both at the plate and in the field. The twenty-five-time All-Star was not only a prolific home run hitter, but he also won three Gold Glove Awards. In 1957, Aaron won his only World Series title with the Milwaukee Braves, the same year he won National League MVP. He still holds records for runs batted in, total bases, and extra-base hits. With a career .305 batting average and 3,771 hits, it’s no wonder why Hank Aaron was a first ballot Hall of Famer, earning 97.83% of the vote.
- Professional Career: 1926 – 1965
- Hall of Fame Class: 1971
- Position: Pitcher
Satchel Paige was a legendary pitcher who played twenty-two seasons in the Negro League before joining the MLB in 1948 as a 42-year-old rookie. He is perhaps best known for his seven years with the Kansas City Monarchs, although with a career as long as Paige’s, that only encompasses a small portion of his legacy. He won a championship in his first year in the Majors, becoming the first player to both play in the Negro Leagues and pitch in a World Series.
The right-hander’s impeccable control on the mound and infectious enthusiasm made him a star. When playing in exhibition games, the charismatic Paige would instruct his infielders to take a seat, providing him no defensive assistance. He would then go on to strike out the side, proving he didn’t need any help. Satchel Paige was a Negro League All-Star five times and an MLB All-Star twice. He also won championships in both leagues, in 1942 and 1948, respectively.
- Professional Career: 1955 – 1972
- Hall of Fame Class: 1973
- Position: Right Fielder
Roberto Clemente is one of the all-time most beloved players in the history of the game. Considered the “Jackie Robinson” of Latino players, he was the first Latin American and Caribbean player inducted into the Hall of Fame. After a plane crash in 1972 tragically ended his life, the Hall changed their requirements to waive the five-year retirement criteria for deceased players, allowing his enshrinement only a year later.
During Clemente’s playing career, he amassed 3,000 hits, a .317 batting average, and two World Series rings. The all-around baseball dynamo also won twelve Gold Glove Awards to go with his fifteen All-Star appearances and four batting titles. His number 21 jersey is retired by the Pittsburgh Pirates, and he remains an inspiration to Latino players to this day.
- Professional Career: 1955 – 1966
- Hall of Fame Class: 1972
- Position: Pitcher
Sandy Koufax is recognized as one of the ten best pitchers ever to take the mound. He first broke into the majors in 1955 at only 19 years old and had his best years between 1961 and 1966. During this stretch, he was a seven-time All-Star and three-time Cy Young winner. He was the first three-time Cy Young winner in MLB history, a feat made more impressive by the fact that only one award was given out per year then, rather than giving one in each league, like today.
Koufax played his entire career with the Dodgers, which began in Brooklyn and ended in Los Angeles after the team relocated. During his prime, he recorded four no-hitters, making him the first player to do so. The lifelong Dodger is also one of only four pitchers in the Hall of Fame to have recorded more strikeouts than innings pitched. Despite his career ending prematurely at the age of 30 due to arthritis in his throwing elbow, he still amassed the stats to enter the Hall on his first try in 1972.
- Professional Career: 1951 – 1968
- Hall of Fame Class: 1974
- Position: Center Fielder
Mickey Mantle, a career-long New York Yankee, is one of the most revered players in MLB history. He was renowned for his absurd combination of power and speed, as well as his proficiency from either side of the plate as a switch hitter. As an example of his ludicrous exploits, in 1953, he hit a homer that was estimated to have traveled 565 feet.
The twenty-time All-Star could do it all. He could hit for power while keeping a high average, was an excellent fielder, rarely grounded into double plays, and elevated his performance when it mattered most. He’s still tied for the record for walk-off home runs and had some of the highest World Series on-base percentages and slugging percentages recorded. Furthermore, Mantle won seven World Series titles, three AL MVP honors, a Triple Crown, a Gold Glove, and a spot on the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.
- Professional Career: 1966 – 1993
- Hall of Fame Class: 1999
- Position: Pitcher
Nolan Ryan was a vicious strikeout artist during his 27-year big league career. The Texas legend’s 5,714 strikeouts are good for first on the all-time list, surpassing second place by almost 1,000 strikeouts. To add to the ridiculousness, Ryan also threw a record-setting seven no-hitters in his career.
The dominant right-hander routinely threw fastballs that were recorded at 100 MPH or faster. Paired with his brilliant curveball, Nolan was a maestro on the mound. He was an eight-time All-Star, eleven-time strikeout leader, and one-time World Series champion. Nolan Ryan’s number has been retired with three different franchises: the Angels, the Astros, and the Rangers. He’s also a member of the Major League Baseball All-Century Team and first-ballot Hall of Famer.
- Professional Career: 1946 – 1965
- Hall of Fame Class: 1972
- Position: Catcher
Lawrence Peter Berra, better known as “Yogi,” is as well known for his exploits on the field as he is for his personality. During his nineteen-year playing career, Yogi won ten World Series titles, giving him more championship seasons than not. Berra followed his remarkable playing career with continued success as a manager as well, winning another three World Series titles in that role.
Widely considered the greatest catcher in history, Yogi owns the record for numerous World Series records, including for most games, at-bats, hits, games caught, singles, and doubles. Additionally, in 1947, he also hit the first pinch-hit home run ever. In 1956, he added to his legacy by catching Don Larsen’s perfect game, one of only two no-hitters accomplished in postseason history.
Beyond his play on the field, Yogi Berra became a beloved public figure. The Hall of Famer was revered for his unique observations and statements and is credited with coining the term “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” He was also the inspiration for the famous cartoon Yogi Bear.
- Professional Career: 1963 – 1986
- Hall of Fame Class: N/A – Banned for Life
- Positions: Second Baseman, Third Baseman, First Baseman, Left Fielder, Right Fielder
The next two players covered in this article are Hall of Fame talents who have yet to find themselves enshrined at Cooperstown. In Rose’s case, this is because he was banned for betting on baseball games during his time as the Cincinnati Reds’ manager. While the all-time hits leader admits to having bet on the game, he contends he never placed a wager against his team.
Rose was a seventeen-time All-Star who excelled at five different positions on the field. He still owns the MLB records for games played (3,562), hits (4,256), and singles (3,215), and he consistently batted for over .300 average. Rose won three World Series titles, an NL MVP, two Gold Gloves, and three National League batting titles. His deservedness as a Hall of Fame inductee is debated each year, although he’s had no success getting in at this point in time.
- Professional Career: 1986 – 2007
- Hall of Fame Class: N/A – Only eligible for 4 more years
- Position: Left Fielder
Barry Bonds is without a doubt worthy of the Hall of Fame if you just consider his numbers. Over twenty-two seasons, he set several MLB hitting records, won seven MVP awards, and played in fourteen All-Star games. The only thing keeping him out is his role in baseball’s “Steroid Era,” and more specifically his place in the BALCO doping scandal.
While he never failed a drug test or was caught with performance-enhancing drugs, the evidence suggests he was definitely on them. After growing immensely in size in the latter part of his career, Bonds developed more power than ever, becoming the most feared slugger in the game. In 2001, he set the single-season home run record with an insane 73 homers. He also went on to break Hank Aaron’s long-held career home run record, an accomplishment that has not sat well with the baseball writers.
Barry Bonds has failed to receive the required Hall of Fame votes for his first six years on the ballot. Known to be prickly with reporters during his playing days, his relationship with the media and steroid accusations seem to be hurting his chances of ever getting in.
As the oldest of all major professional sports leagues in North America, Major League Baseball has the most vibrant history to study and appreciate. The game has seen hundreds of incredible athletes come and go, setting new records and raising the ceiling of what’s possible during their time in the league. There have been historically significant figures like Jackie Robinson that mean more to society than merely the game itself, and controversial figures like Pete Rose that have polarized fans and baseball writers alike.
The Hall of Fame is here to document and celebrate it all. As the keepers of the game, the shrine in Cooperstown works tirelessly to collect vital artifacts and share baseball’s most magnificent stories so that they will not be forgotten. Each year, a new ballot emerges, and a new crop of players are voted in to receive the ultimate honor in baseball, a plaque in the Hall of Fame.
Following the steroid era of the late-1990s and early-2000s, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America have their toughest decisions to date. With an entire generation tainted by the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs, many voters are torn on whether or not to induct players suspected of using. How the keepers of the game will record this portion of baseball history is yet to be seen.