If you were to ask a hundred different baseball fans who the greatest player of all time was you could end up with dozens of different answers and a whole lot of angry shouting. They would throw out numbers such as 714 Home Runs, 0.366 average, 0.690 slugging, 2297 RBI. They’d refer to The Dead Ball Era (a time where one ball would last a whole game and was softer than those used after 1921), the ever decreasing dimensions of ballparks and the advent of the five man rotation all in the defence of people held in the kind of regard reserved for family but who few of those fans have even seen play.
No other sport sees present greats constantly play alongside the ghosts of players long since retired as much as baseball. If a player goes on a hitting streak it’s length is monitored by Paul Molitor and Joe DiMaggio. 3,000 career hits (a landmark often used to denote an exceptional hitter) sees players move beyond Roberto Clemente and onto legends such as Stan Musial and Ty Cobb. The numbers and the players have almost become inseparable and many have tried to breakdown the numbers to determine which are most significant and, as a result, which players are the most significant in the storied history of baseball.
Honus Wagner (1897-1917)
.327, 101 Home Runs, 1732 RBI, 722 stolen bases, 3415 hits
His movements could be likened to the gambols of a caracoling elephant. He’s so ungainly and so bow legged that when he runs, his limbs seem be moving in a circle in the fashion of a propeller. But he can run like the wind. – New York American, 1907
A quiet man who left school aged 12 to work in a coal mine with ambitions to be a barber, Wagner was the first superstar of the ‘Modern Era’. Regarded by many as the best fielder of the day at several positions, he won eight batting titles in his career, a feat only bettered by two men in over a hundred years since.
When Major League Baseball opened its Hall of Fame in 1936, Wagner was inducted in the first class, tied for the second most votes cast with none other than Babe Ruth.
Ty Cobb (1905-1928)
.366, 2246 runs scored, 4189 hits, 117 Home Runs, 1937 RBI, 892 stolen bases
Best player – Not best man – Shirley Povich
At the time of Ty Cobb’s retirement he had amassed 90 separate records and his career batting average of .366 is still the benchmark. When baseball opened its Hall of Fame it was he who registered the most votes on the first ballot and not Babe Ruth. He also fought a black groundskeeper, choked the groundskeeper’s wife, pummelled a handicapped fan, arranged to settle a dispute with an umpire in a fight, stabbed a black night watchman and probably did a lot worse than that so it’s easy to see what Shirley Povich meant.
There has probably never been a more driven and determined man to have ever played professional sports than Ty Cobb. In the Dead Ball Era he was the best and when the live ball was introduced and his new rival Babe Ruth started stealing his limelight, he told a reporter he would start swinging for the fences to show how easy it was and proceeded to hit five Home Runs in two days. Feeling his point proven he reverted back to his usual scrappy style.
Babe Ruth (1914-1935)
Batting : .342, 2174 runs, 714 hr, 2217 rbi, 2062 walks
Pitching : 94-46, 488 strikeouts, 2.28 ERA
I get back to the dugout and they ask me what it was I hit and I tell them I don’t know except it looked good – Babe Ruth
It’s so hard to fully express all of the components that make up The Babe. In order to be signed the owner of the Orioles had to become his legal guardian to get him out of the orphanage. Soon after he was sent to Boston where he became one of the top pitchers in the game.
In 1918 the Red Sox started playing him in the field on the days he wasn’t pitching to keep his bat in the line-up and he helped his side win the World Series by pitching 29 2/3 scoreless innings, a record that stood for a long time.
In 1919 Babe Ruth broke the single season Home Run record (29) for the first of many times but more significantly a match fixing scandal in the World Series between Chicago and Cincinnati, threatened to destroy the game but then came the biggest move in baseball history and the creation of a legend.
Babe Ruth was sold to the New York Yankees so the owner of the Red Sox could finance a musical. The Red Sox, one of the most dominant franchises up to that point, would have to wait till 2004 for their next championship and the Yankees would go on to be the most successful team in baseball history and the great rivalry between the two was born. What’s more, with the new rules with regards to the ball, Babe Ruth would become a full time hitter and explode, shattering every record and lifting the game that adopted him, to its greatest heights.
In 1920 Babe Ruth hit 54 Home Runs and only one team could match him as an individual. The next year (only his third season hitting consistently) he broke the career mark of 138 Home Runs and he would continue to be the all time leader for another 54 years.
Not only was he doing the unthinkable on baseball diamonds across the country but all this was done while Ruth was enjoying all the trappings of the roaring twenties, constantly turning up to games drunk or hung over and flying in the face of authority. He was larger than life.
Lou Gehrig (1923-1939)
.340, 1888 runs, 493 hr, 1995 rbi
You were quitting as a ballplayer because you felt yourself a hindrance to the team. My God, man, you were never that – Joe McCarthy
The career of Lou Gehrig was one of baseball’s great stories and also one of its’ great tragedies. When he entered the league, he was joining a New York Yankee team that had Babe Ruth in his prime and, while Ruth constantly dominated the headlines, in the ten years that they were together Gehrig’s production was every bit as impressive as The Babe. In fact, when the Yankees set a then record number of wins in a season in 1927, it was Gehrig and not Ruth who was voted the league MVP.
His whole career is one of disguised greatness. Everything you can achieve as a hitter Gehrig did. He won the Triple Crown (when a hitter leads the league in Home Runs, average and runs batted in) in 1934, won two MVP awards almost a decade apart (‘27 and ‘36) and three of the highest rbi totals set in a single season were set by Gehrig. He was so proficient at driving in runs that no one has ever had a three seasons in their entire career that amount to the same number he was able to achieve between ‘30 and ‘32 which included the American League record of 184.
So much of his career was overshadowed by his incredible streak of 2130 consecutive games played which earned him the nickname of The Iron Horse and the nature of how it came to end. In ‘38, two years removed from an MVP season, Gehrig started to feel fatigued from the middle of the year on and when it carried over to the next season he knew something was wrong.
In 1939 he was forced to pull himself from the line-up and soon after he was diagnosed with ALS, now known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. 16 years to the day after starting his 2130 game streak, Lou Gehrig passed away. One of the great men of the game had gone and left behind a legacy that begs the question of what he might have still achieved had he not had his career end prematurely?
Ted Williams (1939-1960)
.344, 1798 runs, 521 Home Runs, 1839 rbi, 2021 walks
A man has to have goals – for a day, for a lifetime – and that was mine, to have people say, there goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived – Ted Williams
Its hard to really quantify Ted Williams. This is a ballplayer who would never tip his hat to the fans, even after hitting a Home Run in his last career at bat, because he could never abide by how fans would occasionally boo their own players (not that they ever had a reason to boo Williams). He’s also a man who lost almost five years to military service as he signed up almost immediately as the US joined World War 2 and also served in the Korean War.
On the field he was arguably the best hitter since the end of the Dead Ball Era. That argument would be even more convincing if he hadn’t served in the military as his term in WW2 was book ended by two Triple Crowns and an MVP (one of his two). Its easy to envision that, if not for his military service, a few of the more prominent records in baseball would have fallen to The Splendid Splinter.
He was the last man to hit over .400 in a season and was so revered as a hitter that even in the years before his death in 2002, players would pick his brain for advice and his book The Science of Hitting is a ballplayers bible.
Jackie Robinson (1947-1956)
.311, 947 runs, 137 Home Runs, 734 rbi, 197 stolen bases
I’m not concerned with you liking or disliking me…all I ask is that you respect me as a man – Jackie Robinson
One of the ramifications of what was known as ‘The Gentleman’s Agreement’ in baseball was that since Fleetwood Walker in 1884, there were no black players allowed in the Major Leagues. Of course segregation was still a huge problem throughout US society during the 40’s but the Civil Rights Movement was well underway and forward thinking general managers such as Branch Rickey were looking to tap the wealth of talent that was playing in the so called ‘Negro Leagues’. Rickey didn’t just want to sign the best talent though, he wanted to sign someone who “had the guts not to fight back” and saw the ex-military man as the perfect fit.
It was never easy for Robinson who constantly faced a barrage of abuse from both fans and players, including his own team mates, but he rose above it all and answered them all on the field with his dynamic performances, bringing back the speed based play that had gone out of favour in prior years.
A Rookie of the Year in ‘47 and an MVP in ‘49, Jackie Robinson displayed tremendous ability under unbelievable stress and the way he handled himself made it easy for other African-American ballplayers to break through and his style of play changed the way teams played for a generation.
Hank Aaron (1954-1976)
.305, 2174 runs, 755 Home Runs, 2297 rbi, 3771 hits
Trying to throw a fastball by Henry Aaron is like trying to sneak a sunrise past a rooster – Curt Simmons
America wasn’t ready for Hank Aaron. The country was still not far removed from the days of segregation when he came around and they were not ready to accept just how good a player he was going to be.
During his career Aaron won an MVP (‘57), two batting titles (‘56, ‘59), had a 30/30 season (30 hr/30 stolen bases), was the first man to have 3000 hits and 500 hr in a career, is the career leader in rbi and extra base hits, has the third most hits and the fourth most runs scored. Few players can boast a resume like that.
Of course his most notorious claim to fame was as the man who passed Babe Ruth as the all time leader in Home Runs, a record no one wanted broken and no one thought could be broken. Hate mail and death threats rained on Aaron throughout the off season before he eclipsed Ruth‘s mark, most of which were from racists not wanting a black man passing an iconic white man. It got so bad that he wasn’t even sure if he would survive to see that season.
To this day people don’t seem to want to give Hank Aaron the credit he deserves as a player. He was never the most extravagant or flashy guy like Mays or Ruth, all he did was perform to as high a level as anyone in baseball history, every day of every year of his career without anyone taking the time to recognise what that meant.
Willie Mays (1951-1973)
.302, 2062 runs, 660 hr, 1903 rbi, 338 sb, 3283 hits
If he could cook, I’d marry him – Leo Durocher
The Say Hey Kid was one of the greatest all around players and one of the great characters. The greatest defensive outfielder of all time, they used to say he would wear a hat that was a couple sizes too big so it would fly off his head as he ran to make him look that much more dynamic.
Offensively, what made him special was the combination of speed and power as he lead the league in steals and homeruns four times each. Add to that a batting title in ‘54 and you have the complete ball player.
He missed time serving in Korea so who knows if he would have passed Ruth’s Home Run total but to sum up the man, he was asked who the greatest player of all time was to which he responded, “I don’t mean to be boastful, I was.” A lot of people agree.
Barry Bonds (1986-present day)
.298, 2227 runs, 762 Home Runs, 1996 rbi, 514 stolen bases, 2558 walks
He’s always been the best player in the game. Is he the best ever? What do I know? I only know what happened in the nineties. He’s always been a complete player. He didn’t have to hit thirty extra Home Runs to convince me of that. – Greg Maddux
The son of Bobby Bonds, the cousin of Reggie Jackson and the godson of Willie Mays, you could have expected Barry Bonds to be destined for great things but few could have expected the furore and hyperbole that would surround it.
He was only the second player to have 40 Home Runs and 40 stolen bases in the same year and is the only player with 500 hr and 500 stolen bases for a career (no one else even has 400 in both categories) He has won a record number of MVP awards (seven), has won two batting titles and is the career leader in walks and Home Runs and holds the single season mark for Home Runs (73) too but it’s those Home Run records that have brought him his recent notoriety. At a time in his career where most players start losing power, Bonds had resurgence and even started hitting the ball harder than he had ever done before, leading many to question how he was able to do it.
Much controversy had arisen as players from the 90’s have announced that during their careers they had used stimulants to boost their performances and the league hadn’t had a drug testing policy until 2002 which has lead to many of the great sluggers of that era having their accomplishments questioned, including Bonds. It also doesn’t help that he was linked to the BALCO scandal and has had alleged grand jury testimony leaked through the press suggesting that he had used steroids.
As the most prominent member of a generation of players whose integrity has been called into question and also as one of the most aloof and surly personalities, Bonds has been made the main target, and has allowed himself to be the target, of all the consternation aimed at his generation of ballplayer. If he weathers the storm and comes out clean the other side, people will be forced to acknowledge that he has been as good as anyone of any generation.