So this idea was triggered by something I read in Peter King’s Tuesday edition of his Monday Morning Quarterback (usually a mailbag-type setup) on 5/19. King was describing the scene at a charity dinner for the great Paul Zimmerman.
“Yogi Berra and Dick Ebersol next to each other at the NBC table. When I introduced Yogi as the greatest living baseball player in the United States, everyone began clapping, and Ebersol stood, and then everyone stood.”
I’m sure PK got caught up in the emotion of the evening and that’s okay. He probably knows what we all know—that Yogi Berra would need a bunch of guys to board Oceanic 815 before he has a shot as the title of Greatest Living Ballplayer.
But two things intrigued me.
How many players are ahead of Yogi?
And does Yaz rank in the top 10?
(And this really isn’t a knock on King. I always get a kick out of his stuff (though we get it Peter—you like not having to drive as much now). And Memorial Day is the wrong time to give Berra any grief. This is a guy that fought in the D-Day invasion. Imagine an athlete today doing that? Think James Harrison gave Yogi’s service any thought before he turned down Obama?)
Here we go (and of course, feel free to let me know what went wrong at email@example.com)…
20. Eddie Murray
Am I crazy in thinking that Eddie Murray was a better offensive player than Cal Ripken? I understand that we are talking about a top five all-time SS vs. a top 15 1B, but the numbers are in Eddie’s favor.
Seasons slugging over .500: Murray eight, Ripken four
Seasons with an OBP over .375: Murray seven, Ripken zero
Seasons with at least 20 homers and 100 RBI: Murray six, Ripken four
Seasons hitting at least .300: Murray seven, Ripken four
Seasons with at least 70 walks: Murray 11, Ripken five
20-homer seasons: Murray 16, Ripken 12
Seasons with an OPS over .900: Murray five, Ripken two
I think Murray takes a hit historically for never being the best player in baseball. And it is true, at his peak he wasn’t as good as Schmidt at his, or Rickey, or Mattingly or even Boggs. But he was, from 1977-1986, one of the five or six best year-in and year-out.
Seems that Ripken is viewed (by far) as the better player. And yes, he does have two MVPs to Murray’s none. But let’s take a look at 1983. Ripken had a great season, 211 hits, 121 runs, a .318 average with 102 RBI. All this while playing shortstop. An MVP season by any measure. Of course, all Murray did in 1983 was hit six more homers than Ripken (33-27), walk 28 more times, hold a 111-102 RBI edge and win a Gold Glove at first base. Okay, you want to go with Ripken that’s fine. But Murray had about seven more seasons of that caliber, Ripken one (his other MVP season—1991). Ripken had three top 10 finishes in MVP voting, Murray had eight. I wonder where Murray would stand in an all-time context had HE broken Gehrig’s record. Truth be told, I’m not sure that Ripken is a first ballot Hall of Famer if he tweaks a hammy and goes on the DL for 15 days in 1988. Instead he gets in with the highest percentage of any everyday player in history (98.5 percent).
19. Albert Pujols
Maybe too early, but you can’t ignore the numbers. He’s played just eight full seasons and already ranks 11th in career MVP Shares. Here are the 10 ahead of him
I do like that this list hasn’t been totally hijacked by steroids (yet).The point is, any serious list of the 10 best players in baseball history would have to include eight or nine of those guys (I’d put Honus Wagner in there for Joe D and there has to be a place for Cobb but it’s a fair list. I don’t think there is another top 10 in any career category that gets as close to the 10 best in history.). So what do we say in another eight years when Pujols is second or third on this? Where would 600 homers, 3000+ hits and four of five MVPs put you historically?
18. Cal Ripken
At some point I think Ripken will be known as the Greatest Living Ballplayer. The public and media both worship the guy, and he was a terrific player (maybe the second best player in history at his position after Honus Wagner). He won’t actually be the best, of course, but does that matter? Joe D was known as TGLB forever and he wasn’t as good as Mays or Musial or Williams or Mantle or Aaron.
17. Tony Gwynn
Seemed that the race for best hitter of the 1980s was basically down to two men--- Gwynn and Wade Boggs. Still not sure 20 years later, I’m thinking it might be a wash. Sure, Gwynn has eight batting titles to five for Boggs, but Boggs has a .415-.388 edge in career OBP and seven 200-hit seasons to five for Gwynn. I would imagine that any list of the top 15 players in baseball from 1984-1992 would include both players, but somehow neither ever seriously challenged for an MVP award.
But Gwynn is a pretty clear choice as a better all-around player. He won five Gold Gloves (two for Boggs) in a National League loaded with top OF defensive guys in the 1980s (Dawson, Eric Davis, Skinny Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke). And don’t forget speed. Gwynn may look like Bookman now but the guy stole 70 bases in 1984. Boggs stole 24 bases in his career (Gwynn beat that five times in a single season).
(I should mention that gun to my head I’d pick Gwynn as the better hitter. Boggs has a significant home/road split in his career (.354 home/.302 road batting average, nearly 100 points difference in slugging) Gwynn? .342/.334 batting average and 15 points in slugging.)
16. Yogi Berra
Berra’s MVP finishes from 1950-1956:
There must have been more to Berra than the numbers would suggest (he never led the league in a single category). Look at 1947. He played in just 83 games, hit .280 with a .310 OPB. Didn’t even have 300 at-bats. But he finished 15th in MVP voting, ahead of guys like Johnny Pesky (206 hits, 107 runs, hit .324 in 638 at-bats) and Bobby Doerr (ranked in the league’s top 10 with 17 HRs and 95 RBI). And it wasn’t as if Yogi was getting reputation votes—1947 was his first full (half-full, I guess) season in the majors.
15. Reggie Jackson
There is something I call the Bernie Williams Syndrome. Sometimes someone plays in so many playoff games that a media member or two might make the mistake (alliteration, anyone?) of assuming this player is “clutch” without even looking at postseason history (and sometimes the person who says this is sitting to the right of Joe Buck). If I asked you, for instance, to guess Bernie’s career World Series batting average what would you come up with? .300, .290? How about .208 in 120 World Series at bats. David Eckstein is another member of the group. Great, he’s gritty and never gives up. And, yes, he does have a lot of playoff experience. So would have 500 other second baseman if they had played for the Angels from 2002-2005. And I’m guessing about 490 of them would have a slugging percentage higher than .335 if you gave them 176 playoff at bats.
Anyway, Reggie Jackson is the anti-Bernie Williams Syndrome. He played in five World Series (won four) and his least productive of the five was probably in 1973, where all he did was hit .310 with six RBI in seven games. In 27 career World Series games his slugging percentage was .755 and his OPS was 1.212. A nickname truly earned.
14. George Brett
Brett was a Hall of Famer by the time was 32, really. At that point (1985) he already had won two batting titles, led the league in hits, slugging and OPS three times each, won an MVP and was established as one of the great postseason players of all time (no exaggeration—in 43 playoff games Brett hit 10 homers, slugged .627 and had an OPS of 1.023. I’d put his playoff career among the top five in history).
If you had asked me following the 1985 season which 10 players had the best chance to be on this list in 2009 I would’ve gone with these guys:
2. Pete Rose
3. Reggie Jackson
4. Rickey Henderson
6. Jim Rice
7. Don Mattingly
8. Darryl Strawberry (had only played three seasons but I would have put his career over/under for homers at 550 at that point)
9. Ryne Sandberg
10. Dale Murphy (maybe should be higher—had two MVPs and could’ve won a third in 1985)
13. Carl Yastrzemski
Still the second best player in Red Sox history (any argument for Manny has lost some steam over the past month)…
So it has been 42 years now since Yaz won the Triple Crown. I’m amazed that no one has done it since. Look at the guys who have played over that span. But it hasn’t happened and it really hasn’t been seriously challenged (I’m talking down to the last weekend). 42 years. In the 42 years prior to 1967? Nine Triple Crowns (eight players—Ted Williams did it twice). Babe Ruth’s single-season and career home run records didn’t last 42 years. Hank Aaron’s? Nope. Roger Maris? Nyet.
For anyone under the age of 35 or so it is hard to imagine Yastrzemski as a truly dominant player. It seemed that he put up something like .280-18-75 forever. But there is no doubt that he was exactly that from 1963-1970. Look at how many categories he led the league in during that stretch:
Three batting titles (1963, 1967, 1968)
Hits (1963, 1967)
Doubles (1963, 1965, 1966)
Runs (1967, 1970)
Home Runs (1967)
Walks (1963, 1968)
OBP (1963, 1965, 1967, 1968, 1970)
Slugging (1965, 1967, 1970)
Total Bases (1967, 1970)
Nothing bogus there, right? All the biggies. So just how impressive is leading the league in 24 major categories over an eight-year span? Well, Paul Molitor in his entire career led he league in seven hitting categories. Al Kaline has over 3,000 hits, played in 18 All-Star Games. No question about his greatness. Six categories for Kaline. Dave Winfield? Two. Those are three first-ballot Hall of Famers (and three guys that just missed this list) that, in 65 combined seasons, are nine categories short of what Yaz accomplished in eight.
12. Johnny Bench
If they remade The Baseball Bunch today how badly would A-Rod push to be the host?
There are two players in history with two MVPs and at least 10 Gold Gloves. One is Bench, the other is Willie Mays. I actually think Bench should have three MVP Awards, I’m still not sure how he didn’t win in 1974. Steve Garvey won it, and he had a nice season (200 hits, 21 homers and 111 RBI). The Dodgers won 102 games and the NL West, so maybe the voters felt obligated to award it to someone on the best team in the NL (and Garvey wasn’t even the best player on the Dodgers that season—Jimmy Wynn hit 32 homers and walked 108 times). And okay, Garvey did have 26 more hits and a .312-280 edge in batting average over Bench. All Bench did was score 13 more runs, hit 12 more homers, knock in 18 extra RBI (his 129 led the league), hold an 80-31 edge in walks and slug 38 points higher (though Garvey held an impressive 12-0 lead in Road Wives). And the Reds won 98 games. Maybe there was some Bench fatigue from the voters (he had won twice in the four years prior), but that doesn’t explain how he didn’t get a single first-place vote.
11. Ken Griffey
It’s strange that Griffey has been quasi-irrelevant over the last nine years. You almost forget he exists. His time in Cincinnati was by no measure embarrassing, but he just never seemed more than a pretty good leader singer of a Ken Griffey Jr. cover band.
40-homer seasons: Six with Seattle, one with Cincinnati
Top 10 in MVP voting: Six with Seattle (and a win), none with Cincinnati
Gold Gloves: 10 with Seattle, none with Cincinnati
.600-plus slugging seasons: Five with Seattle, none with Cincinnati
Still, he managed to tack on another 210 career homers with the Reds, and he’ll retire with 630 or so. The last nine seasons maybe moved him up a spot or two on this list, but his place in history was plenty much secured with his 11 years in Seattle.
10. Pete Rose
Looking at Rose’s IMDB page (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0741607/) I am stunned to see that he has never been on a reality show. How has that not happened? I have to give him a mark or two for dignity. Of course, he did dress as the San Diego Chicken at WrestleMania 15 and receive a tombstone from Kane, so let us not confuse Charlie Hustle with Charlie Rose.
Rose’s career hits record is one that I don’t see anyone beating in our lifetime. Here’s what makes it so tough—Rose didn’t slow down as he got older. At age 33 he already had 2,337 career hits (Derek Jeter had 2,356 hits at the same age, for an example). What did Rose do over the next did eight seasons? 210 hits, 215, 204, 198, 208, 185, 140 (in 107 games) and 172. Bill James once wrote that you could split Rickey Henderson in half and you’d have two Hall of Famers. I think the same could be written about Rose’s career. He was a Hall of Famer at age 33 (three batting titles, four 200-hit seasons, a Rookie of the Year and MVP) and his numbers over the last 12 years of his career are pretty close to Hall-worthy (four more 200-hit seasons, led the league in doubles four times, three top 10 MVP finishes and a World Series MVP).
9. Frank Robinson
We take a pretty good look at Robinson in Hank Aaron’s comments. So I guess this as good a place as any to list the 20 best living pitchers (why not—Robinson was on the 1971 Orioles team that had the four 20-game winners).
1. Greg Maddux
2. Tom Seaver
3. Mariano Rivera (all-time leader in adjusted ERA)
4. Steve Carlton
5. Randy Johnson
6. Bob Gibson
7. Roger Clemens (would’ve been No. 1 if we were still in the dark)
8. Bob Feller
9. Sandy Koufax
10. Juan Marichal
11. Pedro Martinez
12. Jim Palmer
13. Bert Blyleven
14. Nolan Ryan (sort of the Ripken of pitchers in terms of how the public views him vs. where he stands in statistical reality)
15. Whitey Ford
16. Tom Glavine
17. Phil Niekro
18. Johan Santana
19. Fergie Jenkins
20. Gaylord Perry (what happens next—a 300-game winner after Randy Johnson or a big leaguer with the first name “Gaylord”?)
8. Joe Morgan
I wonder if Morgan ever wanted to drop the act during the steroid era and just lay the hammer down. I mean, we are talking about five-seven, 160-pound two-time MVP (basically the size of Jeff Van Gundy). Did he ever look at the stats and think “You know, it’s really unusual that Brian Roberts had a 183-point jump in OPS from 2004 to 2005”? Probably not. Or “Hey, look, Rafael Palmeiro passed me in career runs scored last night. Boy, sure is strange that he got better in his early 30s. I was in the top 10 in runs nine times in my career, Palmeiro was in the top 10 twice. This guy wasn’t half the player I was, but he leads me in almost every career category. How did this happen?”
Oh, I forgot to add Little Joe to the Bernie Williams Syndrome Club (.182 batting average in 181 postseason at bats). A great irony, of course, is that while Morgan has tried his best to dismiss Moneyball (“Why would I want to read a book about a computer?”) he would have been the perfect Billy Beane player. He led the league in OBP four times (had an OBP of .400 or better eight times), led the league in walks four times (walked 100 times eight times, and in those eight seasons never struck out more than 74 times). Morgan would have been another deserving MVP winner over Garvey in 1974. He scored 12 more runs, stole 53 more bases. Garvey struck out 66 times, Morgan 69. Of course, Morgan walked 120 times to Garvey’s 31. I wonder if Morgan would have ever voted for Joe Morgan the player as MVP. Probably not, he would’ve been fixated on .300-30-100. If he had the only vote for MVP Jim Rice would have had about nine by the time he was done.
7. Alex Rodriguez
It is weird that A-Rod has become sort of like Octo-Mom or Jon and Kate or something. He just reeks of TMZ now, doesn’t he?
Other than that, I’ve really got nothing new on this guy. All the other stuff will always linger, but it is tough to ignore what is shaping up to be an 800-HR, 2600-RBI, 3500-hit career.
6. Rickey Henderson
Here’s what I wrote about Henderson in my Hall of Fame column from a few months back (at the time I speculated that he could break Tom Seaver’s record for highest percentage of vote total, or rather that he should)…
There is not a single reason not to vote for Henderson, who is one of the 15 or 20 best players in the history of the game (all-time leader in runs and steals, second in walks). Look, in 1982 Rickey stole 130 bases, scored 119 runs and walked 116 times. Great season? You bet. One of his five best? Not even close. That’s all you need to know.
I think he’ll fall short of Seaver’s total, if only because certain media types will leave him off the first ballot to “make a statement” (Rickey was not a team player, selfish, etc.). Of course that is ludicrous, but for some of these media guys the moral high horse is all they have. I think Greg Maddux has a great chance of breaking the record in five years.
I think we’ll see someone hit 75 homers in a season before we see someone match Rickey’s 1985 season. 146 runs, 24 homers, 99 walks and 80 steals. And that was in just 143 games (Craig Biggio nearly matched it in 1997, but was 33 steals short and a few shy in homers and OBP).
Rickey is on that short list of guys that you’ll never see another like again. I would put Greg Maddux on there, Larry Bird (not Jordan—Kobe is about 90 percent MJ), Bobby Orr, Lawrence Taylor, Mariano Rivera, Marion Cobretti.
5. Mike Schmidt
Could be I’m wrong, but is the idea of Schmidt as one of the great players in history not given enough respect? You never hear him discussed as one of the 10 best players of all time, but I’d put him there. A guy that led the league in homers eight times (more than Sammy Sosa, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Gary Sheffield and Rafael Palmeiro combined), RBI’s four times, OPS four times and walked 100 times in seven seasons deserves at least a seat at the table, right? Throw in nine Gold Gloves at a key defensive position (again, more than Sosa, Thome, Ramirez, Sheffield and Palmeiro combined) and three MVPs (one more time—more than those fellas put together) and it’s an easy case. So what happened?
Well, you know the answer. Throw some flaxseed oil and female hormone pills together and watch 548 home runs fall from seventh to 13th on the career list. The guys I mentioned have either passed Schmidt on the chart (Sosa, Palmeiro) caught him (Thome is tied as of Monday night) or could do so (Manny is 15 behind and Sheffield has 501). So we fall back into the “what do numbers mean anymore” argument. Think of it like this, I guess: If Schmidt had started his career in 1990 or so you are looking at 650-700 HR career. Plus the defense and the speed (174 career stolen bases). Unless we are willing to forgive A-Rod there isn’t anyone even in the debate for best all-time third baseman.
4. Barry Bonds
So Barry Bonds slides into third base in the final game of the 1998 season, tears his knee to shreds and never plays another game again. Where does he rank?
(And yes, I’m well aware that he may have been juicing before 1998, but that seems to be the starting point from most accounts.)
I think he still might be an all-time top 15 player. Three MVP Awards (and should have been at least four), five 30-30 seasons, led the league in walks five times, eight Gold Gloves, seven 100-run seasons. Legacy secure. If he had just stayed at that level of production over the next eight years I think people would look at him as the one bright spot of the steroid era.
(But I have to admit that part of me understands why Bonds went Ferrigno after 1998. He was tremendous that season, hit 37 homers with 122 RBI, 120 runs scored, 28 steals and a .438 OBP. And that got him a nice eighth-place finish in MVP voting in what may be the biggest red-flag season in sports history. Still, the player that he was before he got BALCO’d up will barely be remembered thirty years from now and that is a shame.)
3. Stan Musial
I remember Bill James writing something about Musial in his first Historical Abstract that always seemed dead on to me. Hold on, I’m going down to the basement to find it.
Wow, anytime you find an old copy of the final issue of The National and a VHS of WrestleMania IV (Bad News Brown!) it is time well spent. Also I dug up the James. Here it is…
“The image of Musial seems to be fading quickly. Maybe I’m wrong, but it doesn’t seem to me that you hear much about him anymore, compared to such comparable stars as Mantle, Williams, Mays and DiMaggio, and to the extent that you do hear of him it doesn’t seem that the image is very sharp, that anybody really knows what it was that made him different.”
That was written 21 years ago, and it really rings true today. Books and poems and songs and documentaries have been produced about the four guys mentioned by James but Musial just stays under the radar. Maybe it’s because the other four were from the east coast (New York and Boston), because it has nothing to do with the quality of Musial as a ballplayer. 13 top-10 MVP finishes (and he had the most MVP votes in history before Bonds), a career .331 average, 3,630 hits. Remember Yaz and his 24 categories? Musial led the league in 52 of those categories in his career (and that’s not counting OPS (he led seven times and OPS+ (six).
In that 1988 edition James named Musial as the best left fielder in history. Ten years later in his New Historical Abstract he had Williams ranked first, though both men hadn’t played in nearly 40 years. And the image fades…
2. Hank Aaron
I’m thinking Bud Selig should walk out to the mound before the start of the All-Star Game with Aaron at his side, grab a bullhorn and paraphrase Mickey from the hospital hallway scene at the beginning of Rocky II: “I don’t care what any record book says, this man is the real home run champion”. To match the scene perfectly, I’d like Bonds in a wheelchair (Greg Anderson as Mrs. Creed, perhaps?) and 20 random reporters firing questions from about three feet away.
No 50 home run seasons from Aaron, no Triple Crowns, no run at .400. But here’s what defined Aaron—consistency. If you take the 10th-best season from Aaron in each of the major categories you get a season that is MVP-worthy.
.318, 39 homers, 109 RBI, 106 runs, 184 hits, .573 slugging (a total that he led the league with in 1967) and a .385 OBP.
Now you’d agree that Frank Robinson is a top 30 all-time player, right? His 1966 season is one of the twenty or so best in history. Won the Triple Crown and did it rather easily, winning the batting title by nine points, homers by 10 and RBI by 12 (his .637 slugging percentage was 100 points higher than runner-up Harmon Killebrew). Part of a long and distinguished career (from 1956-73 he placed in the MVP balloting in all but three seasons, including nine top 10 finishes) and he is another guy noted for his consistency. Take a look at his 10th best line (remember, the two were pretty much contemporaries—Aaron started two years earlier (1954) and the two both retired in 1976.)
.297, 30 homers, 94 RBI, 90 runs, 149 hits, .540 slugging and an OBP of .390.
A pretty sizeable edge to Hank, yes? And Robbie has great numbers here. But he’s still well behind in six of seven categories.This might demonstrate my point a little better. Here’s a composite of Yogi Berra’s best season in each category.
.322, 30 homers, 125 RBI, 116 runs, 192 hits, .534 slugging (Aaron had 16 seasons with a better slugging percentage) and a .383 OBP.
Pretty much a push. And that would put an end to any talk about Yogi Berra being the best living ballplayer.
1. Willie Mays
Boring I know, but he’s the only real pick as TGLB. He’s the best defensive player on the list (I’d put Schmidt second), and probably the third or fourth best hitter here (Musial was a touch better, and I’d give Aaron a slight edge).
One more MVP voting knock: The top three guys on this list could’ve finished one-two-three in the 1957 voting but Mays placed fourth. Aaron won it, Musial second, and both had great seasons. But let us take a look at the third-place finisher, Red Schoendienst vs. Mays.
Hits: Schoendienst 200, Mays 195
Runs: Schoendienst 91, Mays 112
Homers: Schoendienst 15, Mays 35
RBI: Schoendienst 65, Mays 97
Stolen Bases: Schoendienst 4, Mays 38
Walks: Schoendienst 33, Mays 76
Batting Average: Schoendienst .309, Mays .333
Doubles: Schoendienst 31, Mays 26
Triples: Schoendienst 8, Mays 20
Slugging: Schoendienst .451, Mays .626
First-Place Votes: Schoendienst 8, Mays 1
Maybe the voters were bored already with Mays at that point (he wouldn’t win another MVP until 1965). Would that happen today? Is there a player with “intangibles” that could sneak ahead of someone that slugged 175 points higher?
From 1957-1966 Mays won 10 straight Gold Gloves, scored at least 99 runs in each season, led the league in homers and steals three times each and knocked in 100 runs eight times. I don’t know what is the greatest 10-year stretch of all-around play in baseball history but that has to be in the top two or three.