People talk about the Baseball Hall of Fame like it is one stable and uniform place. It is not. Oh, sure, you will hear people say all the time: "Oh, that guy's not a Hall of Famer," or "The Hall of Fame is incomplete without this guy."
But the truth is … the Hall of Fame is a total mystery. It has shifted and varied, adjusted and revised so many times through the years that you can back up pretty much any argument you want by simply using the people who are already there. Tom Yawkey is in the Hall of Fame. Candy Cummings is in the Hall of Fame. George Kelly is in the Hall of Fame. Al Lopez is in the Hall of Fame. Effa Manley is in the Hall of Fame. Jesse Haines is in the Hall of Fame. Bruce Sutter is in the Hall of Fame.
I'm pretty sure you could use those seven to make a compelling case for your favorite good player, whoever he is.
But there is a "Hall of Fame" standard that people reach for … the best of the very best. On my blog I broke down the Hall of Fame into several groups -- Contributors, Negro Leaguers, Old Timers, the Players Who Struggled to Get In and so on. And after all of that I was left with what I think you can call the Inner Circle of the Hall of Fame. These are the 32 players who were elected first ballot with at least 86 percent of the vote.*
*With the exception of Walter Johnson, who gets in because he was elected the first year of the Hall.
You will, of course, notice some great players missing from the inner circle. Bob Gibson. Jackie Robinson. Joe DiMaggio. Joe Morgan. They should be here. But this is how the voting has gone. And this is your Inner Circle:
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1936: Ty Cobb. Georgia Peach. "Mr. Cobb, what would you hit against today's pitching?" "About .300." "Why only .300?" "You've got to remember, I'm 73 years old."
1936: Babe Ruth. Bambino. In 1920, he hit more homers than any team in the AL. In 1921, he only out-homered five of them.
1936: Honus Wagner. "There ain't much to being a ballplayer. If you're a ballplayer."
1936: Christy Mathewson, Pitching in a Pinch. "The greatest pitcher who ever lived." -- Connie Mack.
1936: Walter Johnson. The Big Train. "You can't hit what you can't see."
1939: Lou Gehrig. Luckiest Man. By special vote.
1962: Bob Feller. "My Dad taught me how to play ball, which is the way everyone should learn the game."
1966: Ted Williams. Best Hall of Fame speech ever shamed Hall of Fame into considering Negro Leaguers.
1969: Stan Musial. Baseball's Perfect Knight.
1972: Sandy Koufax. Left Arm of God.
1973: Roberto Clemente. Hero. By special vote.
1974: Mickey Mantle. "I just hope God has a place for him where he can run again." -- Bob Costas.
1979: Willie Mays. "The only man who could have caught that ball just hit it."
1980: Al Kaline. "I couldn't wait to get to the ballpark."
1982: Henry Aaron. "There a new home run champion of all time."
1982: Frank Robinson. "He can step on your shoes, but he doesn't mess up your shine" -- Joe Morgan.
1983: Brooks Robinson. Human. Vacuum. Cleaner.
1989: Johnny Bench. "We got along all right. Doesn't matter. He was one hell of a player." -- Pete Rose.
1989: Carl Yastrzemski. "Don't let anybody monkey with your swing." -- Ted Williams.
1990: Jim Palmer. Never gave up a grand slam. "I never once saw Palmer give in." -- Jim Kaat.
1991: Rod Carew. The man of 1,000 batting stances.
1992: Tom Seaver. "Blind people come to the park just to listen to him pitch." -- Reggie Jackson
1993: Reggie Jackson. "When you unwrap a Reggie Bar it tells you how good it is."
1994: Steve Carlton. Lefty. Silent. Slider. "When Steve Carlton and I die, we are going to be buried in the same cemetery, 60 feet, 6 inches apart." -- Tim McCarver.
1995: Mike Schmidt. "It's like talking about religion" -- Mike Schmidt on hitting a baseball.
1999: Nolan Ryan. 100.9 mph: Still the Guinness Book World Record fastest pitch ever thrown.
1999: George Brett. "Every game I ever played, I was scared to death I would embarrass myself."
2002: Ozzie Smith. The Wizard. "I never asked 'Can I make the play?' I just made it."
2005: Wade Boggs. Chicken. From 1985-87, hit .397 at Fenway Park.
2007: Cal Ripken. Ironman. "I didn't always feel perfect. But every day was perfect."
2007: Tony Gwynn. Hitter. "Would I have hit .400 in 1994? Absolutely."
2009: Rickey Henderson. "Lou Brock was a great base stealer. But today, I am the greatest."