This week (Jan. 29) in 1936, five charter members were elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, located in Cooperstown, N.Y, a middling town halfway between Syracuse and Albany that would seem an unlikely place to build a shrine to America’s Pastime. But business and community leaders in the town, hoping to generate tourist dollars in the midst of the Great Depression, claimed that Abner Doubleday, a decorated Civil War soldier and Cooperstown resident, had invented baseball in 1839, so locating the game’s Hall of Fame in his hometown was a fitting tribute.
As it happened, the claim that Doubleday invented baseball was false. Doubleday was a West Point cadet in 1839; he would have had no time or inclination to invent any game, and during his lifetime he rarely discussed baseball and never in any of his voluminous correspondence did he even mention the game, let alone claim credit for it. Also, all legitimate investigations into the matter, including one by baseball historian George Kirsch, have proved conclusively that Doubleday had nothing to do with the game’s origins.
Even so, Cooperstown became the site of the Baseball Hall of Fame, remains so today, and — as those prescient town leaders had hoped — derives significant income from the millions of baseball-loving tourists who flock to this hallowed monument.
The five charter Hall of Fame members, all elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) were Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson. Each player received at least 75 percent of the BBWAA ballots cast, a requirement for Hall admission that still exists today, and even though Babe Ruth is considered the greatest baseball player ever, Ty Cobb, the Detroit Tigers’ magnificent outfielder and winner of 12 American League batting titles — including nine in a row — received the most votes, 222 of the 226 cast. Ruth, the great New York Yankee (and Red Sox), garnered 215 votes, tying him for second with Honus Wagner, the peerless Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop, who now shares the record for the most batting titles in the National League (eight) with the San Diego Padres’ Tony Gwynn. New York Giants (today San Francisco) pitcher Christy Mathewson, who shares with Grover Cleveland Alexander the most wins in NL history (373), received 205 votes, while Walter Johnson, the Washington Senators premier pitcher for 20 years — and second only to Cy Young in career wins (417) — garnered 189 votes.
Present at their induction ceremony in June of 1939 were Cobb, Ruth, Johnson and Wagner. Technically speaking, Mathewson had died in 1925, but in reality, he, the other four, and the 298 other members of the Baseball Hall of Fame are — and always will be — immortal.