For most major league baseball players the pinnacle individual achievement of their profession is to gain enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. Championships are more of a team achievement. Wealth and notoriety are very nice. But, players that are enshrined in the HOF are recognized as being among the best of the best that have ever played the game and are ensured of an enduring legacy. Through 2014, out of the tens of thousands who have played, managed, or been otherwise associated with the Major Leagues, the HOF consisted of only 306 members, including 211 former players, 28 executives, 35 former Negro League players, 22 managers, and ten umpires. Do the math. That is quite an exclusive group.
The HOF is located in Cooperstown, NY. Why Cooperstown, which is in the middle of nowhere in upstate NY? Why not in a major city like NY or Chicago? The answer is that in 1905 a special commission, called the Mills Commission that had been formed to investigate the origins of baseball, concluded that baseball had been “invented” by Abner Doubleday, a Civil War hero, in Cooperstown, NY. As a former president of the National League, Mills had some standing in the baseball community, so the fabrication was accepted as fact, although it has since been debunked beyond any doubt. Then, in the 1930s a local businessman, Stephen Clark, promoted the idea of a HOF in Cooperstown to boost the local economy, which had been devastated by the Great Depression. Thus, the HOF was built and dedicated in June, 1939.
The inaugural membership vote took place in 1935 and was announced in 1936. All current and former players were eligible. There was no five-year waiting period after retirement. Only five players, the very best of the best, received the requisite number of votes to gain election. The so-called “Five Immortals” included Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, and Christy Mathewson. The voters considered them the best ever up to that time, and it is hard to argue with that some 80 years later. I will profile each of them briefly.
Tyrus Raymond (Ty) Cobb was born in 1905 in Georgia. Tragically, when he was a youngster his mother shot and killed his father, mistaking him for a burglar. Although the shooting was somewhat suspicious, she was acquitted of murder. Nevertheless the incident undoubtedly left some scars on his psyche and influenced his playing style.
Cobb spent 22 years in the majors, all with the Detroit Tigers, 16 as a player and six as manager of the team. He was primarily a center fielder, but he was versatile enough to play the infield occasionally, and he even pitched a few games. In what would be a surprise to modern fans, Cobb actually received the most votes of any of the Immortals, 222 out of a possible 226.
Cobb was generally considered the best all-around ballplayer of his time, perhaps, of all-time. His career spanned the dead ball and the live ball eras. He set 90 Major League records, some of which still stand. For example, he still has the highest lifetime batting average – .367.
He was known for his surly temper, aggressive style of play and his racist attitude. He would do anything to win. He frequently got into fights with opposing players, fans and even teammates. He was known for sliding into bases with his spikes high, which would cause injury and fights, and once he went into the stands to attack a heckler only to find out that the fan was severely handicapped. In addition, one time he attacked a black groundskeeper for merely attempting to shake his hand, and, then, when the man’s wife attempted to defend her husband, he commenced to choke her. Not to excuse him, but I should denote that, to some extent, his racist attitude during his playing days was a product of the times. Overt racism was rampant throughout the US during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. In his later years, his attitude mellowed, and he became a proponent of integration in the Major Leagues and a supporter of Jackie Robinson’s.
Cobb was a shrewd businessman and investor. He was a spokesman for and a major stockholder in Coca Cola. Supposedly, when he checked into the hospital for the final time he brought $1 million in negotiable bonds in a paper bag (and a pistol) with him. Upon his death he left an estate worth $12 million ($93 million in today’s money).
George Herman (“Babe”) Ruth
Ruth was born in 1885 in Baltimore. Known as “The Bambino” or “The Sultan of Swat,” the Babe is generally recognized as the greatest baseball player of all time. In addition to being a tremendous hitter he was also an accomplished pitcher. He began his career as a pitcher with the Red Sox. In what was certainly the most one-sided transaction in baseball history, they sold him to the Yankees, who switched him to the outfield, because he was too good a hitter to keep on the bench on his off-days.
Quite simply, Ruth changed the way the game was played. Prior to his arrival in what became known as the “Dead Ball Era,” players hit few home runs. Ruth became the game’s first power hitter. His home runs made the game more exciting, and so, ushered in the “Live Ball Era.” There were years in which he personally hit more homers than some teams!
He became the most popular and influential figure in the game. He not only commanded the game’s highest salary, but also earned significantly more “barnstorming” after the season. One time, a sportswriter, noting that he earned more than President Herbert Hoover, asked him if that was appropriate. Ruth supposedly retorted: “Why not? I had a better year than him.”
He was largely responsible for the Yankees building “Yankee Stadium,” which appropriately, became known as “The House That Ruth Built.” His Yankees teams won seven pennants and four World Series.
He even had a candy bar named after him, “Baby Ruth,” which debuted in 1921. The Curtiss Candy Company insisted that it was named instead for former President Cleveland’s daughter, Ruth, but few believe that farfetched story.
In 1921 Ruth had what I consider to be the best season ever. He hit .378, with 59 homers, 171 RBI and scored 177 runs. If you can find a better one, let me know.
Ruth died in 1948 of throat cancer.
Johannes Peter (Honus) Wagner, aka ”The flying Dutchman,” was born in 1897. He played for 21 seasons, mostly for the Pittsburg Pirates. He is generally considered to be the best player of the “Dead Ball Era” and the best shortstop ever.
In addition, he is famous for having the most valuable baseball card, his 1906 model. In an era of mass-produced baseball cards, only 200 were ever printed, and it is estimated that only 50 or so exist today. The reason is very simple. The cards were distributed by a tobacco company, and Wagner, a non-smoker, objected to them marketing his likeness in connection with cigarettes. He made them halt production. A few years ago, one of them was sold for $2.8 million.
Wagner died in 1955.
Walter Johnson (“The Big Train”)
Johnson was born in 1887. He pitched for the Washington Senators for 21 years. He was known for three things: his gentle disposition (He was loath to pitch inside for fear of seriously injuring batters.), his sportsmanship, and his prodigious fastball. He was the premier power pitcher of his time and, possibly, of all-time. He won 417 games in his career despite having pitched mostly for losing teams.
In retirement, Johnson, who was a personal friend of President Calvin Coolidge, ran for Congress, albeit unsuccessfully.
Johnson died in 1946.
Christy Mathewson (“The Big Six”)
Mathewson was born in 1880. He attended Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., for which he played football as well as baseball. In his time, there were few college students in the majors. He pitched 17 seasons with the New York Giants. He won 373 games, third highest ever and most in the National League. He was devoutly religious and refused to pitch on Sundays. (The impact on his team was mitigated by the fact that in his time most states prohibited games on Sundays anyway.)
While training with the Army during WWI he was accidentally exposed to chemical weapons, which impaired his respiratory system. Ultimately, it caused his premature death in 1925 at age 45. He is buried in Lewisburg near his alma mater.
Well, there you have them, the “Five Immortals.” I encourage you to visit them, and the other 300 enshrinees in Cooperstown. Bring the whole family. It is well worth the trek.