It’s pretty obvious that there was a lot of talent at the top of the 2013 Hall of Fame ballot.  With Kenny Lofton, and to a lesser extent, David Wells, failing to garner the five percent needed to see another ballot, it was one of the deeper ballots in recent memory as well.  The 2014 ballot drops those two, but adds Greg Maddux, Frank Thomas, Tom Glavine, and a handful of viable candidates for whom voters may struggle to find room in a year with so much talent on the bill.

The first Hall of Fame ballot, in 1936, was obviously top-heavy and deep as well, naming not only inductees Ruth, Cobb, Wagner, Johnson, and Mathewson, but snubs like Cy Young, Tris Speaker, Nap Lajoie, and the still-active Lou Gehrig.  The interceding years cycled through ballots with several obvious Hall of Famers and those on which Bruce Sutter looked like the best choice, as various Veterans Committees were tasked with clearing out ballot backlogs and did so to various degrees.

Ignoring the Hall’s first decade, when nothing resembling a standard for induction had been established and elections weren’t even held every year, two ballots stand out as having great depth of solid candidates.  In 1953, the writers had become so stingy that newcomer Joe DiMaggio had missed election the prior year and Hank Greenberg was stuck around 30 percent support.  Three of the great infielders of the era- Arky Vaughan, Luke Appling, and Bobby Doerr- joined the ballot for the first time in ’53, and due in part to the ten-player cap on writers’ ballots, none even managed one percent of the vote.  Forty-two men on the 1953 ballot are now in the Hall of Fame- 37 as players and five as managers.

By 1982, that backlog had been cleared and many other strong candidates had languished on interim ballots, either getting the eventual call from the writers, waiting for a Veterans Committee, or being dropped from consideration.  Future inductees Richie Ashburn and Nellie Fox were sticking around near the end of their fifteen years of eligibility. Sure things Juan Marichal and Harmon Killebrew had missed the call the year before, and probably felt a little nervous with surer things Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson up for discussion in ’82.

Was one or both of these ballots as strong as next year’s will be?  Let’s take a look at the 1953, 1982, and 2014 ballots player-by-player and try to answer that question.  Each grouping will include one player from each ballot, with his Hall Rating from Adam’s Hall of Stats in parenthesis.  This exercise will be far from scientific, but I find it interesting how naturally players on the three ballots match up.  Hat tip to Graham Womack for pointing out the strength of the ’53 and ’82 ballots in a Twitter conversation.

1953: Joe DiMaggio (167); 1982: Hank Aaron (298); 2014: Barry Bonds (366)

We’ll start with one of the best baseball players of all time on each ballot.  Military service kept DiMaggio’s career numbers in check, and creative chemistry inflated Bonds’s, but each of these guys was the probably the best player in the world in his prime.  Amazingly, only Aaron went into the Hall on his first ballot.  DiMaggio went in on his fourth try in ’55.  Bonds can only hope for a similar fate.

Edge: 2014

1953: Dizzy Dean (94); 1982: Juan Marichal (114); 2014: Roger Clemens (293)

Dean was all peak, only excelling for six years and change, but it was one of the greatest peaks the game had seen as of 1953.  Like the Hall of Stats, the BBWAA wanted more longevity than Dean achieved, not electing him until his ninth ballot, in ’53.  Marichal and Clemens both show up for a second try here despite unquestionable credentials, and Clemens, like Marichal, is likely to fall short again.

Edge: 2014

1953: Dazzy Vance (128); 1982: Jim Bunning (119); 2014: Greg Maddux (220)

Vance never won a Major League Baseball game until he was 31, but he enjoyed one of the great old-player careers of all time.  That didn’t impress many of the writers, who didn’t elect him until his 16th ballot, in 1955.  Bunning took a more traditional route, pitching from 23 to 39 and dominating from 25 to 35.  Bunning was on his sixth ballot in ’82, would peak at 74.2% of the vote in 1988, and would have to wait for the Veterans Committee to elect him in 1996.  Neither, of course, was Maddux, who put up dead ball ERAs in the dawn of the steroid era and is all but guaranteed first-ballot induction.

Edge: 2014

1953: Ted Lyons (123); 1982: Don Drysdale (114); 2014: Curt Schilling (172)

If you haven’t noticed yet, I’m listing these players in descending order of the 2014 candidate’s Hall Rating, with matchups to ’53 and ’82 guys based on position and other similarities.  Here we have Lyons, who pitched into his forties and threw over 4,000 innings; Drysdale, who was done by 32 but won a Cy Young Award and three World Series games, and Schilling, who peaked in his mid thirties and may be the best postseason pitcher ever.  Lyons and Drysdale are in their eighth years on the ballot and stuck between 50 and 60 percent support, while Schilling would be lucky to get that many votes in his second year despite a better Hall case than either of his competitors here.

Edge: 2014

1953: Hank Greenberg (118); 1982: Frank Robinson (210); 2014: Jeff Bagwell (165)

If I took the fifth best player on each ballot, Bagwell would probably continue the clean sweep for 2014, but instead I’m looking at the second best hitter in each year, so Bagwell meets his match.  Greenberg (158 OPS+) was a better hitter than Robinson (154) or Bagwell (149), but lacked either’s speed, Bagwell’s defense, and Robinson’s longevity, as he missed more than four years to World War II. Robinson may not have been the best among this group at any one thing, but he was a superstar for 20 years, accumulating over 100 WAR, according to baseball-reference, and was the only first ballot Hall of Famer among the three.

Edge: 1982

1953: Red Faber (115); 1982: Lew Burdette (41); 2014: Mike Mussina (163)

Ok, we’re out of great pitchers on the 1982 ballot.  Faber only earned 3.4% of the votes in ’53 and was a Veterans Committee selection.  Burdette was on his tenth of fifteen ballots and never earned more than 25%.  Mussina is about to join the Circle of Greats, but will probably wait a few years for his Hall call.  Still, he’s head and shoulders above this group.

Edge: 2014

1953: Al Simmons (1930); 1982: Harmon Killebrew (111); 2014: Larry Walker (151)

Like Walker in Coors Field, Simmons put up some video game numbers courtesy of the Baker Bowl.  Killebrew was a classic power-and-patience guy, retiring with more homers (573) than anyone except Aaron, Ruth, and Mays.  Walker (141 OPS+) was Killebrew’s (143) equal with the bat, and could run (230 stolen bases) and play defense.  Simmons made the Hall in ’53, his ninth try, while Killebrew had to wait two more years for his fourth ballot in ’84.  After two years of very little support, Walker faces an uphill battle with the writers, which is a shame because:

Edge: 2014

1953: Eppa Rixey (99); 1982: Dave McNally (34); 2014: Tom Glavine (148)

I’m sur I’m not alone in having laughed at Rixey’s Hall plaque, which boasts of his 265-251 record, but he was a very good pitcher for a long time.  McNally, like Glavine, is famous for being part of one of the great rotations of all time (the early ’70s Orioles, in McNally’s case).  Neither was Tom Glavine.

Edge: 2014

1953: Bill Dickey (127): 1982: Thurman Munson (101); 2014: Mike Piazza (147)

If we didn’t have WAR and Hall Rating, I might take a deep dive into these three guys’ numbers, as they represent three of the great catchers in New York baseball history.  Dickey and Munson were both solid on both sides of the ball and won nine World Series between them, with Munson building Dickey-esque credentials at the time of his death at age 32.  Piazza’s defense was questionable, but he was quite simply the greatest hitting catcher in Major League history and WAR doesn’t knock him enough for his defense to make an argument out of this one.

Edge: 2014

1953: Arky Vaughan (151); 1982: Luis Aparicio (93); 2014: Alan Trammell (143)

Vaughan’s one vote placed him in a tie for 64th among candidates on the ’53 ballot.  His 151 Hall Rating places him second behind Joltin’ Joe.  Coincidentally, that’s also his rating among shortstops according to Bill James’s 1998 Historical Abstract.  Whether or not he was actually the second best shortstop ever, it’s criminal that Arky’s family had to wait until 1985 to see him inducted (he died in 1952).  Aparicio comes with much more acclaim than Vaughan, and sailed into this Hall on his sixth try in 1984, but he lacks the numbers to back up his case.  Trammell’s solid bat and great glove nearly made him Vaughan’s equal, but like Vaughan, it looks like he’ll waste away on the writers’ ballot for the full fifteen years.

Edge: 1953

1953: Bill Terry (107); 1982: Billy Williams (110); 2014: Frank Thomas (139)

Three great hitters, but the only one who’s an obvious Hall of Famer is the one who may get rejected due to the depth on next year’s ballot.

Edge: 2014

1953: Luke Appling (145); 1982: Tony Oliva (82); 2014: Edgar Martinez (134)

These guys get no respect.  Appling got two votes in 1953 and only got elected in 1964 because of a change in the rules.  No candidate on the ’64 ballot earned 75% of the vote, but the writers were voting every other year at the time and were required to induct someone, so a runoff election was held with the top 30 vote-getters up for consideration.  Appling was named on 94% of the second ballots and miraculously earned the writers’ approval despite having been a shortstop.  Oliva was up for the first time in ’82 and earned just 15.2%.  He’d peak at 47% and drop off the ballot after 15 years.  Edgar is stuck under 40% after four tries.

I’ve given the edge to the player with the highest Hall Rating in each case so far.  I’m tempted to change that here on the grounds that Martinez would likely have accumulated more value had he not played in an age in which the DH position was a viable option.  He was an average defensive third baseman in the early ’90s and would have stuck there had the pitcher batted in the AL at that time.  Alas, even as his offensive numbers shot through the roof in the mid-to-late ’90s (seven straight years of an OPS+ above 150), his WAR numbers stagnated (never topping 6.7 during that stretch) due to the positional adjustment.  In contrast, Appling was half the hitter (113 OPS+) and a decent defensive shortstop and third baseman who rode the positional adjustment to similar WAR (peaking at 7.0), accumulating more over his career because  he was in the league at 23, while Edgar never batted 200 times until age 27.  Reluctantly:

Edge: 1953

1953: Max Carey (95); 1982: Richie Ashburn (118); 2014: Tim Raines (129)

Speedy Hall of Famer, speedy Hall of Famer, speedy future Hall of Famer.

Edge: 2014

1953: Joe Cronin (125); 1982: Nellie Fox (89); 2014: Craig Biggio (128)

Biggio (68.2%) earned far more support in his second year on the ballot than future Hall of Famers Cronin (26.1%) and Fox (30.6%) received on their seventh and twelfth ballots, respectively.  This may be a case where the modern player is given extra credit for reaching a milestone (3,000 hits), but Biggio edges out Cronin and beats Fox handily in career value and in respect from the writers.

Edge: 2014

1953: Hack Wilson (76); 1982: Gil Hodges (74); 2014: Mark McGwire (124)

Three guys who probably get more credit than they’re due because of home runs and runs batted in.  Only Wilson is in the Hall of Fame.  Only McGwire should be.

Edge: 2014

1953: Zack Wheat (107); 1982: Vada Pinson (90); 2014: Rafael Palmeiro (123)

Say what you will about how Palmeiro put up his numbers.  They outpace those of a Hall of Famer and a guy who might get in through the Veterans Committee before Raffy will.

Edge: 2014

1953: Kiki Cuyler (87); 1982: Orlando Cepeda (82); 2014: Sammy Sosa (116)

In his sixth year on the ballot in ’53, Cuyler got 6.8% of the vote.  In his third year, Cepeda got 10.1%.  In his first year, Sosa got 12.5%.  Cuyler and Cepeda are both in the Hall of Fame.  What does that mean for Sosa’s future?  I have no idea.

Edge: 2014

1953: Bobby Doerr (97); 1982: Red Schoendienst (65); 2014: Jeff Kent (106)

Two second basemen who fall short of Hall of Stats standards and never got much respect from the writers meet the guy with the most home runs ever by a second baseman.  Doerr and Schoendienst are in.  I’m interested to see if Kent gets enough support to see a second year on the ballot in this field.

Edge: 2014

1953: Jim Bottomley (60); 1982: Elston Howard (60); 2014: Fred McGriff (92)

I’m skipping Kenny Rogers here because 1982 is out of pitchers who got one percent of the vote and Hall of Famer Burleigh Grimes has the exact same Hall Rating (93) as Rogers.  No edge awarded.  I’m not high on McGriff’s case, but he’s getting more support at this point in his post-career than an eventual Hall of Famer in Bottomley and a pretty good player in Howard.

Edge: 2014

1953: Ross Youngs (61); 1982: Rico Petrocelli (71); 2014: Luis Gonzalez (88)

Youngs had two good years in a ten-year career and is in the Hall of Fame.  Petrocelli had one great year, earned more career value than Youngs, and never got a second look from the writers (0.7% in his only year on the ballot).  Gonzalez had one great year and the best career of the three, and might not even get 0.7% in ’14.

Edge: 2014

1953: Tony Lazzeri (86); 1982: Roger Maris (73); 2014: Don Mattingly (77)

Three popular Yankees with short careers.  Lazzeri hit a little bit into his thirties and is in the Hall.  Maris fell off so fast that he couldn’t ride two MVPs and a 61-homer season to Cooperstown.  Mattingly will fall off the ballot in 2015 without ever coming close to induction.

Edge: 1953

1953: Red Ruffing (100); 1982: Don Larsen (26); 2013: Jack Morris (74)

Here are two players whose Hall cases are often compared to Morris’s.  Ruffing has the highest ERA (3.80) of any Hall of Fame pitcher, at least until Morris (3.90) gets in.  Larsen hangs his hat on one postseason moment, his perfect game, much like the case Morris built around his 10-inning Game Seven shutout in 1991.  Ruffing, who was also a postseason hero (7-2, 2.63 ERA in World Series games), is in the Hall of Fame thanks to a runoff election in ’67, and is clinging to a spot in the Hall of Stats.  Larsen is the answer to a once-simple trivia question that will stump more and more baseball fans in coming generations.  Whose path will Morris follow?

Edge: 1953

1953: Waite Hoyt (92); 1982: Hoyt Wilhelm (106); 2014: Lee Smith (62)

A starter who pitched more in relief than most great pitchers in his era, a reliever who threw more innings than any reliever does today, and the guy who owned the all-time saves record for over a decade.  The former two are in the Hall of Fame, while Smith looked like he was headed there until the ballot glut stalled his progress.  By the way, I skipped Edd Roush/Tommy Davis/Moises Alou because these are getting boring.  1953 would have won that round.

Edge: 1982

1953: Earle Combs (74); 1982: Bill Mazeroski (49); 2014: Ray Durham (54)

This seems like an appropriate place to stop, as it’s the last round with Hall of Famers on both the ’53 and ’82 ballots (though on the ’53 ballot, we haven’t talked about Hall of Famers Chief Bender, Rube Marquard, Jesse Haines, Lefty Gomez, Sam Rice, Rabbit Maranville, Dave Bancroft, Travis Jackson, or Ray Schalk, nor about Babe Adams, who’s in the Hall of Stats with a 110 Hall Rating).  Would you have guessed that Durham has a better Hall Rating than Mazeroski?  I wouldn’t advocate for Durham as a better candidate, since he has neither a strong case as the best defensive second baseman ever nor the happiest home run in World Series history, but there’s a lot of talent on next year’s ballot (and a lot of weak players in the Hall of Fame).

Edge: 1953

If I kept going, I would give fifteen more edges to the 1953 ballot (including Gabby Hartnett over Bill Freehan and Paul Lo Duca), as ’53 certainly the deepest in terms of having the most players who wouldn’t be utter embarrassments to the Hall of Fame.

So which is the strongest ballot?  At the top, it’s clearly 2014, with six players at or above a 163 Hall Rating and those six averaging a score of 230.  1982′s top six average 162 and all score 114 or higher, while 1953′s top six average just 141, but all score 127 or higher, and this group lost a lot of WAR to war.

As much as the voting rules have changed over time, the ten-player cap has remained in place (for better or worse). If a voter filled his ballot with the ten eligible players with the highest Hall Ratings, he would grab everyone through Alan Trammell (147) in 2014, leaving Thomas, Martinez, Raines, and Biggio off.  The same tactic in 1982 would tab everyone through Thurman Munson (101), with Aparicio and Freehan just outside.  1953′s cutoff would be Hank Greenberg at 118, with Faber, Adams, Terry, and Wheat on the outside.

The only real argument for the 1953 ballot is depth beyond the top ten candidates.  The 11th through 30th best Hall Ratings on the ’53 ballot average a 93 Hall Rating, including everyone through Earle Combs or Lefty Gomez (74).  2014′s 11th through 30th average a solid 89, but include one-and-dones like Armando Benitez and Esteban Loaiza (40).

The only argument for 1982 is that the voters made a reasonable choice, electing Aaron and Robinson, with Marichal getting in the next year and Killebrew, Aparicio, and Drysdale tabbed by the BBWAA in ’84. The writers in ’53 picked only Dean and Simmons, leaving the Veterans Committee to clear the backlog that would remain even after nine players from the ’53 ballot got in over the next three years.  As for 2014, we know Maddux will get in, but even Glavine and Thomas may have to wait a year, as at least one objective measure (Hall Rating) sees Glavine as the fifth best pitcher and Thomas as the eleventh best player up for election.

Despite all the eventual Hall of Famers on the 1953 ballot, it’s clear that the current glut is the most severe in the institution’s history.  Voters have disagreed for as long as there have been voters, but the steroid issue seems more polarizing, and more potentially damaging to the plaque room, than any past disagreement.  In time, Major League Baseball and the Hall of Fame will find a way to clear the backlog, as they always have.  Let’s just hope the next Arky Vaughan or Ron Santo doesn’t die waiting for the call.

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