Roy Halladay and the Collision of Baseball Immortality and Human Mortality

From the time of its inaugural election in 1936, when the late Christy Mathewson (1880-1925) was chosen among the original class of five honorees, the Hall of Fame has often highlighted the stark contrast between baseball immortality and human mortality. In fact, more than one-third of the 329 members of the Hall were elected posthumously, an inevitability given that the major leagues had a 65-year head start on the institution that honors its greats. Yet Tuesday’s election of the late Roy Halladay — who died on November 7, 2017 while flying his Icon A5 light sport airplane — marked the first time since 1954 that the BBWAA elected a deceased player (Rabbit Maranville) and the first time since Mathewson that they did so in the player’s first year of eligibility.

A Denver native who spent 12 seasons with the Blue Jays (1998-2009) and four with the Phillies (2010-2013), Halladay was admired throughout the game for his tireless work ethic and his character as well as his impeccable control of his sinker. His devotion to the mental aspect of the game stood out; he rebounded from an historically dreadful 2000 season aided by the writings and counseling of sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman as much as the remaking of his mechanics and repertoire by Blue Jays pitching instructor Mel Queen. “Roy Halladay was your favorite player’s favorite player. A true ace and a wonderful person,” wrote pitcher Brandon McCarthy upon the news of his death.

Comparatively speaking, Halladay did not have the strongest case from among the starting pitchers on the ballot, either by traditional or advanced statistical reckonings. Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, and Curt Schilling all outrank him in wins, strikeouts, WAR, and JAWS, though Halladay does top the latter pair in seven-year peak WAR. Regardless, an appreciation for his decade of dominance (2002-2011) — which included eight All-Star selections, two Cy Young awards (and five other top-five finishes), a perfect game, and the second postseason no-hitter in history — enabled his candidacy to leapfrog Clemens and Schilling, two candidates who admittedly have their warts.

The extent to which Halladay’s demise lent an urgency to his election is unknowable. One can find examples of voters including and excluding him while explaining that their decisions weren’t guided merely by sympathy or sentiment, and there’s no reason not to take such statements at face value. But one way or another, he’s sadly hardly alone in the annals. In the years between Mathewson and Halladay, eight other players were elected by the writers and the various small committees at the first opportunity (more or less) following their deaths. Note that this count does not include managers, umpires, or executives, nor does it include two pitchers (Eppa Rixey and Negro Leagues star Leon Day) who had the misfortune of dying shortly after being elected but before being inducted later that year. Note also that the voting deadlines and the timing of the announcement of results varied from year to year; I’m indebted to the research of SABR member Peter Henrici in this area (with an assist from Jeff Katz). All WAR figures cited here refer to the Baseball-Reference version.

Jimmy Collins

Agile and cerebral, Collins — whose major league career spanned from 1895 to 1908 — was an exceptional defender who revolutionized third base play circa 1895 by moving closer to the plate, on the edge of the grass, to combat the rampant bunting of the day. His offense was inconsistent until he moved over to the nascent American League in 1901. As player-manager, he led the Boston Americans (now the Red Sox) to back to back pennants in 1903 (with a victory over the Pirates in the first World Series) and ’04 (when there was no World Series).

Though his successor with the Philadelphia A’s, Frank “Home Run” Baker, was the statistically superior ballplayer, Collins drew the stronger support when the Hall of Fame voting began in 1936. Amid the dozens of 20th century greats the BBWAA voters could choose, he received a healthy 25.7%; Baker garnered just 0.4%. In the four elections held from 1937 to 1942, Collins’ support ranged from 26.2% to 32.8%. In January 1943, The Sporting News took up his cause, with an un-bylined article stating, “There isn’t a single reason why Jimmy Collins should not be chosen.”

Alas, Collins died two months later, on March 6, 1943, at the age of 73. The BBWAA did not vote again until 1945, when he received 49.0%, the eighth-highest share on a ballot where nobody got to 75% — the first time in Hall history that happened. Frustrated by the impasse, in April of that year the Old Timers Committee elected a 10-candidate slate including Collins, who became the first third baseman inducted into the Hall of Fame, a topic I explored at great length in The Cooperstown Casebook, in a chapter centered around the final entry on this list.

Roger Bresnahan

Elected in the same group as Collins was Bresnahan, a catcher whose major league career began in 1897 (six games) and then spanned from 1900-1915. Most notably, he was the Giants’ regular backstop when they won their first World Series in 1905, and when they lost out on a tight race in 1908, the year of Merkle’s Boner. Like Collins, Bresnahan had begun receiving solid support in 1936 (20.8%) but was still only to 24.5% as of 1942; at this point, the writers were voting on a triennial basis. Bresnahan died on December 4, 1944 at the age of 65, received 53.8% on the aforementioned 1945 BBWAA balloting announced in January, and was elected by the Old Timers Committee that April.

In The Politics of Glory, Bill James cited that year’s OTC selections — and particularly those of Bresnahan and shortstop Hughie Jennings — as “the Hall of Fame’s first clear, unmistakable errors,” citing in Bresnahan’s case a combination of his unjustified credit for inventing (instead of merely popularizing) shin guards, his high-profile coaching tenure with the Giants under John McGraw (1925-1928), and his recent death as factors that elevated him on the basis of popularity rather than merit. As true as all of that may be, Bresnahan does have a claim as the best catcher of the dead-ball era, at least by WAR (40.9) and OPS+ (127).

Herb Pennock

These days, Pennock is remembered less for his playing days than for his attempt to thwart Jackie Robinson while serving as Phillies general manager. As depicted in the 2013 movie 42, and previously reported in longtime Dodgers
traveling secretary Harold Parrott’s 1976 book, The Lords of Baseball, Pennock threatened to have the Phillies boycott if the Dodgers brought Robinson to Philadelphia. The Dodgers, who refused to capitulate, were denied access to their usual Philadelphia hotel, and once the two teams played, Phillies manager Ben Chapman led his squad in racist taunts.

Prior to that, Pennock spent 22 years (1912-1917, 1919-1934) as a reliable but rarely spectacular southpaw with the A’s, Red Sox, and Yankees. He broke in with Connie Mack’s A’s as an 18-year-old in 1912 but was waived in 1915 (“the biggest blunder of my managing career,” Mack later said) and landed in Boston. He pitched sparingly for the Red Sox’s 1916 championship team, and missed all of 1918 due to a stint in the Navy; when he returned at age 25, he finally secured a full-time rotation spot, but over the next four seasons was more or less league average on a team that fell upon hard times. In January 1923, he was dealt to the Yankees, the last of nine power-shifting deals — one famously involved a fellow named Ruth — that attempted to keep Boston owner Harry Frazee solvent. In the Bronx, with markedly better run support, Pennock helped the Yankees to four pennants and three championships; he went a stellar 5-0 with a 2.06 ERA in four World Series for the pinstripes.

Pennock began receiving votes on the 1937 BBWAA ballot (7.5%), and had climbed to 53.4% as of 1947. On January 30, 1948, less than two weeks before his 54th birthday, he collapsed in the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel — where he was attending “a routine National League meeting and the baseball writers dinner” — and died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Hailed by The Sporting News as a gentleman and “an eminently fair and square shooter” in the immediate aftermath, he was elected to the Hall four weeks after his death with 77.7% of the vote. Nearly half a century later, though, the controversy surrounding his actions towards Robinson quashed an effort to honor him with a statue in his hometown of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.

Mordecai Brown

The ace of four pennant-winning Cubs teams from 1906-1910, Brown was best known for his gnarled right hand, which thanks to a pair of grisly childhood accidents — an index finger reduced to a stump by a feed cutter, and then a fall that broke his remaining fingers, paralyzing his pinky and permanently bending his middle finger — left him with the unenviable nickname “Three-Finger.” Thankfully, it also enabled him to throw one hell of an overhand curve, a pitch that Ty Cobb called “the most deceiving, the most devastating pitch I ever faced.” Armed with that pitch, a good fastball, and the ability to throw sidearm, Brown set a still-standing record with a 1.04 ERA in 1906, and his 2.06 career mark is the lowest among pitchers with 3,000 innings (he’s fifth by ERA+). Often matched up against Mathewson, the Giants’ ace, he won 13 of their 24 head-to-head battles, including nine straight at one point.

Though Brown began receiving support as early as 1936 (2.75%), he topped out at 27.7% in the nominating phase of the two-step 1946 ballot; the writers were back to voting annually. As in 1945, the Old Timers Committee went overboard its response, electing 10 players — including Brown’s famous teammates Frank Chance, Johnny Evers, and Joe Tinker — and one executive, but not Brown. He died on February 14, 1948, at age 71, due to complications related to diabetes. A rule change enacted in 1946, limiting the BBWAA ballot to players who had retired within the last 25 years, placed his candidacy under the jurisdiction of the OTC, which elected him in May 1949 alongside turn-of-the-century pitching star Kid Nichols.

Harry Heilmann

Prone to getting lost in the shadows of predecessor Sam Crawford and Cobb — his mentor, sometime rival, and later manager — Heilmann was an elite hitter (148 career OPS+) who spent 14 years (1916-1929) as the Tigers’ regular right fielder. He won four batting titles in the 1920s with averages of .393 or higher, edging out fellow future Hall of Famers: Cobb in 1921 (.394 to .389), Babe Ruth in ’23 (.403 to .393), Tris Speaker in ’25 (.393 to .389), and Al Simmons in ’27 (.398 to .392); in the last two, he came from behind on the season’s final day. He was a terror with the lumber; his 148 OPS+ is 29th all-time among players with at least 7,000 PA, one point lower than Albert Pujols and Jeff Bagwell, and one point higher than Edgar Martinez, Willie McCovey, Mike Schmidt, Willie Stargell, and Jim Thome.

In retirement, Heilmann spent 17 years (1934-1950) working to great acclaim for Detroit’s WXYZ as the first ex-player-turned-play-by-play broadcaster. He began receiving Hall of Fame votes as early as 1937 (5.0%), and was pushing towards election near the end of his life; his share rose to 51.8% in 1950 and then 67.7% in 1951. He died of lung cancer on July 9, 1951, at age 56, the day before that year’s All-Star Game in Detroit. While Cobb spearheaded an effort to call a special election on his behalf, it didn’t happen. Heilmann was elected posthumously in 1952, receiving 86.8%.

Rabbit Maranville

The popular, pint-sized (he stood 5-foot-5) Maranville made a larger-than-life impression with his glove, as he placed third in the NL MVP voting despite hitting for just an 83 OPS+ and then second the following year — during which his “Miracle” Braves won the NL pennant — with an 85 OPS+. Indeed, his fielding was strong enough that he ranked among the NL’s top 10 in WAR five times and MVP votes in seven seasons despite hitting just .258/.318/.340 in a career that spanned from 1912-1935; his 82 OPS+ is tied with Luis Aparicio for the lowest in the Hall.

Maranville started receiving votes in 1937 (12.4%) and topped 50% as early as 1947 (56.5%), but he didn’t exceed that substantially until 1953 (62.1%). He died of a heart attack on January 6, 1954 at age 62, and his election, with 82.9%, was announced two weeks later. Wrote the Chicago Daily News‘ John P. Carmichael, “The flowers arrived too late for Rabbit Maranville to smell ’em. The boys didn’t put in the order quite soon enough, but even if the Rab doesn’t know it, he’s in baseball’s Hall of Fame. He got a lot of votes, many of them as the result of his death a fortnight ago.”

Roberto Clemente

The generalities of Clemente’s case — that he was elected almost immediately after his death — are well known, even if the specifics aren’t. On December 31, 1972, less than three months after the Pirates’ iconic Puerto Rico-born right fielder collected his 3,000th and final hit, he was killed in a plane crash while delivering humanitarian aid to earthquake-stricken Nicaragua. On January 3, 1973, the Hall of Fame’s board of directors agreed to waive the mandatory five-year waiting period to consider his candidacy, and in late January, just after that year’s BBWAA annual voting results were announced, the writers sent out ballots for a special election to consider Clemente, just the second such election in Hall history. (The first was the December 1939 special election of Lou Gehrig, who had been forced into retirement by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, though he was still alive at the time.)

On March 20, the Hall announced that Clemente had been elected; he received 92.6% of the 424 ballots cast. According to the United Press International’s syndicated report, “Some voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, resenting the unseemly haste with which Clemente was pushed, objected. But the protests were mild and most overlooked them in the face of Clemente’s overwhelming credentials.” In the wake of that, the BBWAA and the Hall established a rule allowing for the acceleration of a deceased candidate’s eligibility “in the next regular election held at least six (6) months after the date of death.”

The clause has since been applied a few times, albeit to candidates who did not come close to election: Yankees catcher Thurman Munson (who died in August 1979 and debuted on the 1981 ballot), Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile (who died in June 2002, and debuted on the 2003 ballot), and retired reliever Rod Beck (who died in June 2007, and debuted on 2008 ballot). The same clause prevented Halladay from being hastily included on last year’s ballot.

Ron Santo

Few players have ever taken a rockier or more heartbreaking road to Cooperstown than Santo, a nine-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winner who spent all but the final year of his 15-year career (1960-1974) with the Cubs. Playing through type 1 diabetes — which he had to conceal even from the Cubs at the outset of his career — he combined power (342 homers), patience (four times leading the NL in walks, and twice in on-base percentage), good glovework, and durability for a team that simply couldn’t get over the hump despite a core that included fellow Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and Fergie Jenkins. Santo received just 3.9% in his ballot debut in 1980, and thus became one of the first victims of the Five Percent Rule, which had been introduced the year before, then revised such that a player had to receive 5% in one of the previous two elections.

A challenge to the rule led to 11 players — including Santo, Ken Boyer (his only rival for NL third base supremacy in the early 1960s), and Dick Allen — being restored to the ballot in 1985. Santo kept himself above the minimum but maxed out at 43.1% in 1998, his final year of eligibility. When the Veterans Committee was expanded to include all living Hall of Famers (and, for a time, the Frick and Spink Award winners), Santo was at or near the top of the voting in 2003, ’05, ’07, and ’09, with a high of 69.5% in 2007, but that still wasn’t enough.

By this time, Santo had undergone amputations of both legs due to complications related to diabetes, though he continued to work in the Cubs’ radio booth. The Veterans Committee process was rejiggered yet again in the summer of 2010 to create the three era committees; on December 1 of that year, Santo, who was battling bladder cancer, lapsed into a coma. He died the next day at the age of 70. Just over a year later, the Golden Era Committee finally elected him. His cause was one I took up in the early days of JAWS, circa 2005; currently, he’s seventh at a position that has fewer honorees (14) than any other besides reliever. His his sorry saga was one centerpiece within The Cooperstown Casebook.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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5 years ago

I want to preface this comment by saying a couple of things:

1.) I think Roy Halladay is a Hall-of-Famer, through and through. He represents the gold standard for starting pitching in a post-Maddux/Johnson/Schilling/Martinez/Glavine world. Guys like Verlander, CC Sabathia, and Clayton Kershaw will be thankful he’s in.

2.) I don’t doubt that he was a good, kind man.

3.) His death was tragic, full-stop.

But I feel like the fact that he was high – on multiple substances – when he crashed his plane is conspicuously absent from *any* discussion. I’m fine with it being omitted from his official Hall announcement – no need to really drudge that up during a time that’s meant to honor him and his achievements.

I do feel, however, that it’s important to interrogate that aspect for no other reason than to find out and address what pushed a man to mix things like amphetamines, sleep meds, and Prozac and then get in an airplane. He put his own life and potentially the lives of many others at risk. Would this conversation be different if he lost focus and crashed into a house instead of the Gulf of Mexico? I think so.

Maybe it’s just tasteless in general to discuss so if I’m criticized for that I’ll own up to it. But I feel like this aspect to his death is being sanitized in a way that I don’t think is consistent with other celebrities or athletes writ large.

Adam C
5 years ago
Reply to  jonvanderlugt

I suspect that had Halladay killed other people in his accident the narrative would be very different. H e would have received far less HoF votes IMO.

5 years ago
Reply to  jonvanderlugt

Although I respect your opinion to disagree, I think this is an aspect of modern society that needs to be abandoned as quickly as it arrived.

There is no doubt that the man made mistakes and one of those unfortunately led to his death (and put others at risk), but anyone who claims to have never made a mistake that could have led to a similar outcome is either a liar or one of the very few actual saints living among us. The only reason those mistakes are not publicized is that the individual was either not caught or did not suffer the potential consequences due to sheer dumb luck.

How about we give his fans, his friends, and his family an opportunity to reflect on the overwhelmingly good that was Roy Halladay? Is that too much to ask?

5 years ago
Reply to  thecodygriffin

This is totally fair, and a good counterpoint. Part of the reason I brought it up was to garner responses like yours

5 years ago
Reply to  jonvanderlugt

Those drugs were in his system, but it’s unknown how “high” he was at the time of the accident. Prozac is not something that makes anyone high; in fact, people I know who take it say it hinders their ability to “feel drunk.” Many sleep meds are available over-the-counter, and the “amphetamines” could have been prescribed by a doctor for all we know.

I guess what I’m saying is that a lot of people take these very pharmaceuticals with prescriptions. Lots of people I know who take anti-depressants, for example, don’t realize you’re not supposed to drink if you’re taking them, and we don’t know that anything Halladay took was illegal — it wasn’t cocaine or heroin.

5 years ago
Reply to  Alby

It’s ‘unknown’ in the sense that we don’t understand his motivations for taking the drugs, but there’s pretty much consensus agreement that he was impaired at the time of his flight:

5 years ago
Reply to  jonvanderlugt

The fact that he died is tragic but how he died wasn’t at all, more just a sign of either
semi-intentional self destruction or stupidity. Of course coming down from being a prominent professional athlete to just being an irrelevant speck like the rest of us probably has a dramatic effect on the psyche for most players.

Pepper Martin
5 years ago
Reply to  jonvanderlugt

I legitimately did not expect him to get in on the first ballot because I expected there to be more backlash surrounding the circumstances of his death.

5 years ago
Reply to  jonvanderlugt

Someone using pain medication while suffering from chronic back pain isn’t really much of a suprise.

5 years ago
Reply to  jonvanderlugt

One thing I have pondered is whether Roy was potentially dealing with undisclosed mental health issues in retirement (depression, anxiety, etc.). Its not unimaginable that the rigorous mental preparation he conditioned himself too while playing didn’t transfer over easily to everyday life afterwards. Prescription medication cocktails are often used as a coping mechanism for those dealing with mental health problems. If that is the case, it is even more important to bring this aspect of his death to light in hope that it will help identify others dealing with similar issues and perhaps prevent further tragedies.