Hall debate: Has "first-ballot" been redefined by recent rush of inductees?

Photo courtesy of USA Today

Clark Judge

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.”

Follow on Twitter@ClarkJudgeTOF

Comments (24)
Plawren2
Plawren2

Glad to see you have pointed out same issue I have made numerous times on social media about this "theory" of a recent trend to elect more 1st ballot PFHOFers, that the trend is not recent as you pointed out you can see same numbers in multiple year blocks in 70s, 90s and early 2000s, I think the critiques of too many 1st ballot PFHOFers is really not about the number, but debate on some of those 1st ballot players elected, people often don't want to come out and be critical of the specific player or the voters without naming the players but it is what they are concerned about

No. 1-6
Plawren2
Plawren2

and as far as I am concerned 1st ballot or not, I don't care how many 1st ballot get in, the only issue is picking the best five, regardless of time on the ballot, and yes I know there is also a long tradition of finally electing those who have been on ballot longer, which I can appreciate and understand, but truth is that all voting is subjective and every voter can come to their own personal decision as to which 5 they support for election (on vote down from 10 to 5) and as been case for recent elections support all 5 on last vote. As you have mentioned many times, as have other voters, in any final 15 there are likely at least 10-12 or more candidates deserving of election and results show 85% are eventually elected, selecting 5 is hard as always deserving candidates left behind to wait, but if voters determine among the five elected are 1st ballot candidates then so be it

brian wolf
brian wolf

It is definitely subjective but you have to worry about the bar being lowered each time for 1st ballot players.

Yes, Randy Moss had 1st ballot potential and sometimes he played up to it and sometimes he didn't.
However, was he like a Jerry Rice or Marvin Harrison, who could run every pattern in the tree, and can be a total receiver ?
Our eyes and memory can tell but when I watched Moss jog around the field for the Titans and Vikings later in his career, I wasnt thinking he was a first ballot receiver but maybe my expectations were just too high.
They all had long careers but viewer perceptions and expectations can be different.

When I watched Ed Reed, I knew he could either make the tackle or take an interception to the house at any time but I didn't feel that way about Polamalu. I knew he would be swarming around the field, he is a great player but does his election lower the bar ?

Players stand out for all eyes, but do they stay in peoples memories as well ?

Only the best of the best can really do that.

SJannetta
SJannetta

I’m always more interested in how first ballot guys impact the queue. That seemed to be Ron’s concern during the post election recap you guys did.
One thing I’ve long be fascinated by is the amount of finalists inducted. If a player reaches the final 15 more than twice he’s almost guaranteed to get in. Only 12 who’ve reached that level haven’t (yet).

WMcCoy
WMcCoy

This is probably just me, but I've always felt if you have ever been suspended during your career, that should eliminate you from being a 1st ballot hofer...my reasoning is if your not on the field helping your team, your off the field hurting the team...

IrwinFletcher2
IrwinFletcher2

I was going to post them a few articles back but didn’t get around to it. I love this site and read it regularly (and great comments section), but this is my first post. Jay Jaffee at Fangraphs does an exercise every year where he tries to predict the next 5 baseball hall of fame ballots. It’s basically educated guesswork based on trends of voters. So I thought I would give it a shot for next 5 years of football hall of fame. I am assuming a few things. A) 5 modern candidates are voted in every year, B) No coaches are contributors are on the main modern ballot, C) They go to a system of 2 seniors each year and rotation of 1 coach one year then 1 contributor the next year (that is how I hope it continues), and D) all the senior/coach/contributor nominees are approved. Below is my best guess at the next five classes (which aren’t necessarily who I would want to get in). Love to hear you guys thoughts

2021
Payton Manning (first ballot)
Charles Woodson (first ballot)
John Lynch
Richard Seymour
Alan Fancea
Veterans: Drew Pearson, Randy Gradishar
Coach: Tom Flores
Jared Allen and Calvin Johnson make it to final 10, but not over the top. They pick Fancea over Boselli. They start with coaches (since there was only 2 in Centennial class) and go with Flores over Coryell. They start inducting the 10 Centennial nominees who weren’t picked (note I will break this rule in a bit)

2022
Demarcus Ware (first ballot)
Jared Allen
Calvin Johnson
Tony Boselli
Zach Thomas
Veterans: Ox Emerson, Al Wistert
Contributor: Ralph Hay
Megatron leaps over the other WR candidates (Holt, Wayne, and first ballot finalist Steve Smith); Bosselli finally gets in. Zach Thomas rides momentum of top 10 finish 2 years in a row. Sorely overlook veterans and contributors get in. Sam Mills heads off into Veterans abyss. I almost put him in here but don’t think the voters will include is USFL contributions which would put his really good, but borderline NFL hall of fame, case over the top.

2023
Joe Thomas (first ballot)
Darrell Revis (first ballot)
Dwight Freeney (first ballot)
LeRoy Butler
Kevin Williams
Veterans: Maxie Baughan, Chuck Howley
Coach: Don Coryell
I don’t think Joe Thomas or Dwight Freeney are that controversial of first ballot, but I know Revis might be (especially with this article!). I think he will could make all-decade and has similar stats to Polamalu. But I would understand if he waits a few years. I hope Butler continues momentum to election for the 90s all decade player. Williams was sneaky good and beats out a bevy of WRs, This is where I break the rule of electing the next 10 veterans. I thought Baughan and Howley were 2 of the most disappointing oversights of the Centennial nominees, so I put them here, while they are still alive to enjoy it. Don Coryell finally gets in. Albert Lewis goes to Veterans committee.

2024
Julius Peppers (first ballot)
Rob Gronkowski (first ballot)
Patrick Willis
Ronde Barber
Reggie Wayne
Veterans: Tommy Nobis, LaVern Dilweg
Contributor: Art McNally
Tight ends don’t usually get in first ballot, but Gronk was special even in a short career. Antonio Gates has a chance of first ballot but I think they will make him wait a year. Willis’s career was spectacular, but also short which was why he didn’t make final 15 this year. I think he will get in soon. Reggie Wayne breaks a bit of the WR log jam (Steve Smith, Torry Holt, Andre Johnson, Anquan Boldin, Hines Ward all finalist or semifinalist by now). Leslie O’Neal moves to the veterans category

2025
Luke Keuchly (first ballot)
Antonio Gates
Torry Holt
James Harrison
Bryant Young
(I assume Larry Fitzgerald, Adrian Peterson, Ben Rothlisberger, Jason Witten, and Frank Gore all play another year)
Veterans: Ed Budde, Walt Sweeney
Coach: Buddy Parker
Keuchly as the only first ballot. Torry Holt breaks the WR jam further (similar to how Reed, Carter, Brown all went in sequence) most likely as the longest waiting one (Steve Smith could hop him). Harrison gets in 3rd year. On Veterans, I pull another change and hope they celebrate the 65th year of the AFL with 2 AFL veterans (I hope they do a 5-person or more class for 75th). A bunch to choose from, but these were my 2. Buddy Parker gets in as the one of only 4 eligible coaches remaining with 2 titles (Coughlin, Shanahan, and Seifert are others). Neil Smith goes to Veteran

10 other finalist in 2025: Logan Mankins, Steve Smith, Nick Mangold, Adam Vinateri (first year and might make final 10), Darren Woodson, John Abraham, Tiki Barber, Navarro Bowman, Shane Lechler (2 special teamers!), and yes, Eli Manning

10 other semifinalist in 2025: Hines Ward, Neil Smith (last year), Anquan Boldin, Simeon Rice, Steve Wisniewski (last year '26), Robert Mathis, Vince Wilfork, Eric Allen (last year '26), Andre Johnson, La’Roi Glover

For the next 5 years (2026-2030) my:
10 veteran picks: Bruno Banducci, Cliff Branch, Cecil Isbell, Roger Craig, Vern Lewelen, Joe Jacoby, Billy Howton, Louis Wright, Dick Barwagen, Joe Klecko
3 contributors: Bucko Kilroy, Bud Adams, Art Model
2 coaches: Bill Belichick (he has to retire sometime right)?, Clark Shaughnessy

This means all finalist in 2020 except Sam Mills are in within the next 5 years and all first team offense and defense all decade players from 90s and 00s are would be in (except FB Lorenzo Neal). All the Centennial Players player finalist will get in by 2030 although a few of the coach and contributors would still be waiting.

I actually have another 10 years of veterans and coaches/contributors mapped out but I have already taken up way too much space. Love any of your thoughts on this. Thanks for reading and keep up the great work


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