After a hastily gathered history of baseball was published incorrectly saying that the sport was invented in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1839 by future Civil War general Abner Doubleday, the leaders of baseball decided to celebrate the fictional centennial of the non-event by opening a museum in Cooperstown dedicated to the best players in the history of the game. It would be called the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the organizers decided to elect five players per year, starting in 1936, plus five players from the 1800s, so that there would be 20 players to enter the Hall when it officially opened in 1939.
So the Hall of Fame ballots were sent out in December of 1935 to 226 baseball writers, and the first Hall of Fame class was announced on February 2, 1936: Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson. Nobody was surprised at the five players who got in first - all were deserving, and all considered, at one point in their careers, to be the best player of all time. The only truly surprising snub was Cy Young, which happened because voters weren't sure whether to put him in with the players from the 1800s or the 1900s (that oversight was fixed the next year, and Young earned his rightful place in the Hall).
Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, was the final count of votes. When the ballots were tallied, it was Cobb, not Ruth, who received the most votes. Eleven voters had left Ruth off the ballot, which seemed impossible, even when you consider Ruth's less-than-glorious final season in 1935. Even Cobb was left off of four ballots.
Final numbers aside, the five chosen were seen as perfect candidates to inagurate the Hall of Fame. By the time the museum opened in 1939, they had been joined by Young, Nap Lajoie, and Tris Speaker (1937); Pete Alexander (1938); George Sisler, Eddie Collins, and Willie Keeler (1939), plus managers Connie Mack and John McGraw.
Though the reasons for starting it are now seen as flawed, the Baseball Hall of Fame has become the Mecca for baseball fans around America. Every major and minor sport in America now has a Hall of Fame - there's even a Dog Hall of Fame - and they can all trace their existence to baseball's museum.
The first Hall of Famers: Top row (l to r): Wagner, Alexander, Speaker, Lajoie, Sisler, Johnson. Bottom row: Collins, Ruth, Mack, Young. Not picture: John McGraw had died before being inducted, and Ty Cobb was running late and missed the picture.