In the center of a sun-filled atrium, at the far end of the plaque gallery at the Baseball Hall of Fame, you will meet the first class of inductees from 1936. Only five players made it then: Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner. Even Cy Young, with his 511 career victories, had to wait.
In the eight decades since, only 46 more players have been elected by the writers on the first try. Those inductees are mixed with all the rest, along the side walls. They are immortals in equal standing, because not every Hall of Famer is obvious at first. In a sometimes clunky election process, most candidates need years to build a case.
Jorge Posada’s might be over just as it starts. In his first appearance on the ballot, Posada, the stalwart catcher of the Yankees’ recent glory years, is in danger of falling off without future consideration. Posada has been named on just eight of the 188 ballots made public so far, as compiled by Ryan Thibodaux. That comes to 4.3 percent, just shy of the 5 percent needed to survive for another year. Results will be announced next Wednesday.
“I hope Jorge hangs in for a while,” said Mark Newman, a former Yankees senior vice president. “Maybe he’ll be an acquired taste.”
Posada made his first professional stop in Oneonta, N.Y., in the shadow of Cooperstown, in 1991. He was drafted as a middle infielder the previous summer, in the 24th round, from Calhoun Community College in Alabama. The Oneonta manager, Jack Gillis, thought he profiled better as a catcher.
“The first practice day, we were working in the bullpen on catching,” said Newman, then the Yankees’ coordinator of instruction. “Jorge had a great arm stroke and perfect spin on the baseball — that 12-6 rotation — and his hands were good because he was an infielder. He was a below-average runner, but he had a plus arm, his feet were pretty good, and he was a switch-hitter with potential for power.”
By the end of the decade, Posada had teamed with Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams as homegrown cornerstones of a championship lineup. At the same spots where the Yankees once had Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto and Mickey Mantle, they had Posada, Jeter and Williams. Both groups wound up with a dazzling collection of rings.
“When you look at those guys’ offensive production relative to their positions,” Newman said, “that was a huge, huge factor for us in building great offensive teams.”
Jeter was the captain, and Williams had seniority. But inside the clubhouse, Posada held major influence. The Yankees reached the postseason every year of his career except 2008, when he was down with a shoulder injury.
“The biggest thing for me was his leadership in the clubhouse and with the pitching staff,” said John Flaherty, who backed up Posada from 2003 to 2005. “There was a toughness about him. He wasn’t afraid to get in your face if he saw something he didn’t like. He kind of set the tone the years I was there. The other guys got a lot of the credit, but in that clubhouse, you knew who the leaders were.”
Another ballot newcomer, Jason Varitek, filled the same role in the same seasons for the Boston Red Sox. But Posada far outranks Varitek offensively, and Posada’s case rests mainly on the rarity of such thump from a longtime catcher.
Posada had a .374 career on-base percentage and a .474 slugging percentage, for an O.P.S. of .848. Among catchers with at least 1,000 career games, just five have a higher O.P.S.: Mike Piazza, Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, Roy Campanella and Gabby Hartnett. All are in the Hall of Fame.
This is not to say that Posada should be there, too. But it should make voters think hard about his worthiness. Players must be retired five years before appearing on a ballot, and maybe that is enough time to ponder a candidate. The problem is the process.
The Hall of Fame limits voters to a maximum of 10 selections, even if voters think more than 10 candidates are worthy. The writers have asked the Hall of Fame to raise or eliminate that arbitrary limit, with no success.
It is hard to consider Posada one of the 10 best candidates in the current, crowded field — and despite his high on-base percentage, advanced metrics do not work in his favor. He collected just 42.7 wins above replacement, by Baseball-Reference.com’s calculation, placing him below J. D. Drew, Mike Cameron and 15 others on this ballot.
The metrics dock Posada for his defense; he never won a Gold Glove and twice led the majors in passed balls. But he was the primary catcher for four World Series winners, which should count for something. Some starters preferred other catchers, but if Posada’s defense truly hurt the Yankees, it was hard to tell.
He honored the position and its legacy at Yankee Stadium, drawing inspiration from Thurman Munson. He inspired Munson’s widow, Diana, to follow baseball again, many long and painful years after her husband’s fatal plane crash in 1979.
“I started getting the fever back, and he’s the one that inspired that,” she said in 2015, after the Yankees retired Posada’s No. 20. “I think he and Thurman would have been great buds. They have that same kind of grittiness that I love, yet that gentle side that nobody knows about.”
Munson won a Most Valuable Player Award, made seven All-Star teams, excelled in the postseason and was captain of the Yankees, a powerful impact in just 11 seasons. Yet he reached just 15.5 percent of the vote in his first year on the ballot, which turned out to be his peak. Munson lingered for 15 years, then the maximum the Hall allowed, without ever again reaching 10 percent. A later Yankees captain, Don Mattingly, also lasted 15 years, but peaked at 28.2 percent.
Some fans and reporters cite bias in favor of New York stars, but those examples easily debunk that myth. Gil Hodges peaked below two-thirds of the vote, Roger Maris below one-third. And none of these New York stars ever reached even 12 percent: David Cone (peaked at 3.9), Ron Guidry (8.8), Keith Hernandez (10.8), Jerry Koosman (0.9), Graig Nettles (8.3) and Williams (9.6).
Hernandez and Guidry spent nine years on the ballot before dropping off, Nettles four, Williams two, Cone and Koosman one. Other stars with less time in New York also disappeared after just one appearance, including Kevin Brown, Kenny Lofton and the highly underrated John Olerud.
Perhaps Posada belongs in that group, the so-called Hall of Very Good. But just 17 catchers are enshrined, the fewest for any defensive position besides third base, which has 16 alumni in Cooperstown. Even if Ivan Rodriguez makes it this time, on his first try, catcher is still underrepresented.
The job description is to squat for nine innings, block errant pitches, absorb foul tips, prepare game plans, guide a pitching staff — and still find a way to hit. Yet voters award no extra points, it seems, for degree of difficulty.
For Posada, there was an added expectation: win every year. He handled the demands better than almost any other catcher ever has. He might not have done enough to pave a path to Cooperstown, but he deserves more time on the road.