Hall debate: Has "first-ballot" been redefined by recent rush of inductees?
How do you define a first-ballot Hall of Famer?
That’s a question currently under debate within the ranks of the Hall’s board of 48 selectors. It’s not a public discussion, nor is it a formal one. But it’s one that has voters divided.
Essentially, it comes down to this: Voters wonder if they somehow redefined the category in recent years and are rushing in first-ballot choices at an historical rate. One side says they have. The other side says they haven’t.
The truth is: They’re both right.
Once upon a time, a first-ballot election to Canton was reserved for the game’s aristocracy, and look no farther than the Hall’s first 20 years of elections. There were 30 first-ballot players, with only four (Gene Upshaw, Franco Harris, Roger Staubach and Paul Warfield) who didn’t belong on a first-team all-decade squad or the AFL’s all-time first-team.
All were second-team all-decade selections.
Fast forward to the last 20 years, and you’ll find that of the 34 first-ballot choices there are 11 who weren’t named to all-decade first-teams. Moreover, of those 11, seven (running backs Marshall Faulk and Marcus Allen, tackle Jackie Slater and quarterbacks Jim Kelly, Troy Aikman, Steve Young and Warren Moon) weren’t named to any all-decade team.
So how do we define a first-ballot Hall of Famer?
“Easy,” said Hall-of-Fame voter Ira Miller, on the board for 28 years. “It’s someone you don’t have to think about. As in: Can you write the history of the game without him?”
Miller is the voter who presented Joe Montana in 2000, and his introduction was short. It consisted of two words.
“Joe Montana,” he said.
Then he sat down.
Our Ron Borges believes that’s the definition of a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and I’d agree. It’s someone without a second sentence or paragraph; someone you don’t need to describe or discuss. You simply say something like, “Ladies and gentlemen, Jerry Rice.” Then you take a seat.
"It has to be a candidate you don't make a case for," said another longtime Hall-of-Fame selector, Vito Stellino. " Like (former selector and Chicago Tribune sportswriter) Cooper Rollow standing up and saying, 'I present you Walter Payton.' And then sitting back down again.
"If there is a debate, then in my mind he isn't a first-ballot Hall of Famer. It's for players like Jim Brown, Jerry Rice, Payton, etc. You know who they are."
That opinion, however, isn’t a majority one. Frankly, I have no idea how many embrace it, but I do know others disagree, launching the current debate. And that’s fine. Because there is no right or wrong answer. There are opinions, some personal and some passionate.
And all heard.
“You define a first-ballot Hall of Famer by how easy it is to sell his accomplishments to the 48 voters in the room,” said John Clayton, on the board for 30 years. “If a player was a game changer and one of the best at his position it shouldn’t be a problem having him go in on the first ballot.
“In the past two years we had two safeties (Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu) who fit that qualification. Peyton Manning and Charles Woodson come before us next year, and they define first-ballot Hall of Famers. The better the player, the better the chance he has of going in on the first ballot.”
No argument there.
But there is disagreement on the spate of recent first-ballot elections, with some voters saying it’s a disturbing trend that needs to be re-examined … and they’re partially right. It is a trend. But it’s one that’s been practiced for decades.
Again, let’s go to the videotape. The past five years we’ve had 10 first-ballot choices, or 40 percent of all inductees, including eight from 2017-19. That seems like a lot. But it isn’t. From 2011-15, there were eight first-ballot inductees. In 2006-10, there were 9. And in 2001-05, 10.
That’s 37 first-ballot choices the past two decades. The previous 20 years there were 32. So while the number is up, it’s not a big difference. Furthermore, over the past two decades the numbers have been steady, with an average of 9.25 first-ballot choices inducted in each of four five-year periods.
As I mentioned, there was a glut of first-ballot inductees in 2017-19, with eight of the 15 modern-era players chosen in their first years of eligibility. But there were eight in 1977-79, too; seven in 2011-13 and seven in 2004-06. And there were six in one two-year period, 1990-91.
So this is not the start of something new.
“I don’t believe voters have redefined anything with the most recent batch of first-ballot Hall of Famers,” Clayton said. “Nothing has changed. Great players get in five years after they retire. I don’t think we’re rushing anything. Our job is to get players into the Hall. If they make it as first ballots, great.”
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