On This Day

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Associated Press
Ten Baseball Hall of Famers pose outside the museum in Cooperstown, June 12, 1939. Front row; Eddie Collins, Babe Ruth, Connie Mack, Cy Young. Back row: Honus Wagner, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Tris Speaker, Napoleon Lajoie, George Sisler and Walter Johnson.

On This Day: Baseball Hall of Fame Elects First Five

January 29, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Jan. 29, 1936, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson were named the inaugural class of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Cobb, Ruth, Wagner, Mathewson and Johnson Elected to Cooperstown

The roots of the Baseball Hall of Fame dates back to 1934, when Stephen C. Clark, a resident of Cooperstown, N.Y.—where Abner Doubleday purportedly invented baseball in 1839—purchased a baseball used by Doubleday and displayed it in Cooperstown’s Village Club. The display was popular and soon, with the support of baseball’s presidents and commissioner, Clark began receiving memorabilia from across the country.

National League President Ford Frick suggested that a Hall of Fame be created in Cooperstown to celebrated baseball’s centennial in 1939. He asked the Baseball Writers' Association of America to vote for the five greatest players in baseball history as the inaugural Hall of Fame class, though the Hall of Fame itself wasn’t scheduled to open for another three years.

Ty Cobb, who retired with the most hits and best batting average in baseball history, received the most votes, appearing on 222 of the 226 ballots. He was followed by slugger Babe Ruth and shortstop Honus Wagner with 95 percent of the vote, and pitchers Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson with 90 percent and 84 percent, respectively.

The Hall of Fame decided that 75 percent of the vote be the standard for induction. Three more classes, featuring 20 players, managers and “pioneers,” would join the “First Five” before the opening of the Hall of Fame in 1939.  All 11 surviving members, including Cobb, Ruth, Wagner and Johnson, attended the celebration.

“The ‘First Five’ hold a special place in Baseball history,” wrote Dan Holmes for the Hall of Fame. “In the Hall of Fame, the plaques of those five men stand separate facing visitors as they immediately enter the gallery. … In many ways, these five players serve as a standard bearer for future inductees.”

Biographies: Cobb, Ruth, Wagner, Mathewson and Johnson

Ty Cobb
“Many great players have surfaced on the diamond, but none out-hit, outplayed, or out-hustled the man they called ‘The Georgia Peach,’” writes the Official Web Site of Ty Cobb. In 24 seasons, Cobb had 4,189 hits—second only to Pete Rose—and a .367 batting average, which MLB recognizes as he highest career average of all-time.

Despite his on-field accomplishments, Cobb is better remembered for his violent and hateful off-field behavior. “The Georgia Peach was a southern Protestant who hated northerners, Catholics, blacks and apparently anybody else who was different from him,” writes ESPN’s Larry Schwartz. “And, in turn, opponents (and some teammates) despised him.”

Babe Ruth
George Herman “Babe” Ruth excelled as both a pitcher and hitter with the Boston Red Sox, pitching a then-record 29 consecutive scoreless innings in World Series games. Before the 1920 season, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth to the New York Yankees to fund his Broadway plays, a move that would haunt the Red Sox for decades to come.

Ruth’s prodigious slugging revolutionized the way baseball was played and in the wake of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, his larger-than-life fame may have saved the game. Ruth, according to biographer Robert Creamer, was “a unique figure in the social history of the United States. For more than any other man, Babe Ruth transcended sports, moved far beyond the artificial limits of baselines and outfield fences and sports pages.”

Honus Wagner
Honus Wagner, the son of Dutch immigrants living in Western Pennsylvania, joined the Major Leagues in 1897. Following a 21-year career, mostly with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Wagner retired with records for most games played, at-bats, hits, runs and total bases.

“Seeing Wagner at bat, standing straight up waiting for the pitch, was to witness raw power,” writes Jan Finkel in the SABR Baseball Biography Project. “He held his heavy bat (well over 40 ounces) with his hands several inches apart, a grip that allowed him to slap an outside pitch to right at the last moment or slide his hands together and pull an inside pitch down the left field line.”

Wagner is perhaps most famous for a rare trading card produced by the American Tobacco Company in 1910. The Honus Wagner T-206 card was pulled from circulation—legend say it’s because he did not want to influence children to buy tobacco products—and is now the most coveted and expensive baseball card.
Christy Mathewson
“In a time when baseball was known for hard-living, hard-drinking baseball players, there was Christy Mathewson to prove that there was another way for athletes to live,” writes the Official Site of Christy Mathewson. Mathewson was the king of the pitcher’s mound for the New York Giants for the first two decades of the 20th century.

“To Mathewson it is an eternal science,” wrote The Literary Digest in 1913. “It is his specialty, and he finds enough of interest to keep him studying and working without a break. Naturally, this holds his interest. In each game he looks forward to some unexpected turn, or to trying out a batting weakness which he believes that he has discovered.”

Walter Johnson
Walter Johnson threw a powerful sidearm fastball that made him one of the greatest pitchers of all time. Ty Cobb recalls the first time he went to bat against Johnson: “The first time I faced him, I watched him take that easy windup—and then something went past me that made me flinch. I hardly saw the pitch, but I heard it.”

Johnson played his entire career with the Washington Senators, leading the team through its only successful era. “For fans in Washington, he will be remembered as the man who delivered the city its first, and to this day only, World Series title,” writes MLB.com. “In 1924, the Senators defeated the New York Giants in seven games, with the seventh game going to 12 innings. Johnson came in as a reliever to pitch the game's final four innings after pitching a complete game just two days earlier.”

Reference: The Hall of Fame

The Web site of the National Baseball Hall of Fame features short biographies on each Hall of Famer, articles on baseball history, visiting information, and resources for students and baseball scholars.

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