THE GREATEST BASEBALL PLAYERS OF ALL TIME: NATIONAL LEAGUE
I was watching Ken Burns' classic miniseries "Baseball" on the MLB Network the other day.
As film footage of various legends and teams flickered across my TV screen, a thought came to mind...
Wouldn't be interesting to compose a list of the greatest baseball players of all time, according to team? Not merely based on how many home runs they hit or how many strikeouts or wins they had, but - more importantly - for the impact they had on their fracnchises, their historical significance to their clubs.
So with the major league baseball season being well underway, I thought that I would go for it. If nothing else, it would provide fans with something to read, ponder, and comment on.
So I'll go ahead and start with the National League and the team that I've followed since I was ten years old, the...
DODGERS - This franchise has had legends such as Duke Snider and Roy campanella from their Brooklyn days, Steve Garvey from the 1970s, and even Mike Piazza from recent times.
Not to mention the great Sandy Koufax, who would be my choice for the greatest Dodger if I was picking from the Los Angeles version of the franchise only.
Since that's not the case, however, there can only be one choice here.
Anyone who disagrees with this has no soul or sense of historical significance: Jack Roosevelt (Jackie) Robinson.
He didn't do that much, only break the color barrier on April 15, 1947, change sports and this country forever, and get his number 42 retired by every team in the majors - the first time that's ever happened in sports.
Oh yeah, he was a .311 lifetime hitter and a terror on the basepaths, too.
GIANTS - There's only one obvious choice here as well from the Dodgers' longtime enemies: Willie Mays. The "Say Hey" Kid.
And the reason why unlike most Dodger fans, I do not hate those rivals from San Francisco.
If I had to pick one man for the greatest all-around baseball player who ever lived, Mays would be it.
He hit 660 home runs, still fourth all-time, with a lifetime average of .302. He was also an absolute speed demon on the base paths, a master of the basket catch, and the maker of perhaps the greatest defensive play in history with that running, wide receiver-like catch in the 1954 World Series in New York's Polo Grounds.
I could go on and on, but let's move on to the...
PADRES - Another clear-cut selection here: Tony Gwynn.
He batted .339 for his career, with eight batting titles and well over 3,000 hits. Elected to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown last year, he did more for that San Diego franchise than anyone, having been a Padre for twenty years and leading them to the 1984 and 1998 World Series.
Dave Winfield was pretty huge for them during their 1970s brown and mustard colored days, but he bailed for George Steinbrenner's Yankee empire at the height of his career.
That's why Gwynn is my choice.
ROCKIES - Only sixteen years in existence, this team won the pennant in 2007 and has a bunch of good young players, BUT...
As far as putting baseball on the map in Denver, I'll go with Andres Gallaraga - The "Big Cat". He hit .370 there one year during their early days.
Dante Bichette had good years in that mile-high city too, hitting the first homer at Coors Field in 1995. Larry Walker and Vinny Castilla were great as well, but Gallaraga just seemed like more of a leader, the one who led Colorado to respectability.
DIAMONDBACKS - This franchise is barely over ten years old, but has a world championship from 2001, and one real hitting standout that put big league ball in Arizona on the map: Luis Gonzalez.
He was in that big home run chase with Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa for a while in 1998, the first year of the team's existence, and hit 54 home runs in the Valley of the Sun a few years later.
He also delivered the hit that beat the Yankees in Game 7 of that '01 Series. That puts him on this list above all else.
CUBS - Despite the fact that these Northsiders from the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field have not even BEEN in a World Series since 1945 - let alone not having won a title since 1908 (101 years!), these Cubbies from Chicago have had some great players: Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Ryne Sandberg, even Sammy Sosa.
Not to mention a legendary fan base, an ivy-covered fence, and baseball's best seventh inning stretch.
But as far as I'm concerned, there really only one guy who belongs on this list: Ernie Banks - "Mr. Cub". The man who always said, "Let's Play Two!"
A great shortstop and first baseman, he had a love for the game that shined for everyone to see for 19 years. And he hit 512 home runs to boot.
Such a complete shame that he never saw post season play.
CARDINALS - This is not too easy a call.
Lots of wonderful St. Louis players abounded, dating back to Rogers Hornsby in the 1920s and Dizzy Dean and his Gas House Gang in the 1930s. The 60s saw perhaps the meanest pitcher ever, Bob Gibson, who would throw a 99 mile-an-hour fastball at his kid's head and think nothing of it.
Then there was Curt Flood, who took a stand against the owners' slave-like reserve clause and sacrificed his career so that ballplayers would be able to choose where they wanted to play.
The way I see things, though, I'm going with "The Man" - Stan Musial.
He played in a span of three different decades with 3,630 hits, a National League record. He also had seven batting titles, played in 20 consecutive all-star games, and hit 475 homers. he was the all-time Cardinal leader in pretty much everything.
And he plays a mean harmonica, too.
PIRATES - Like the Cubs and Cards, these black and gold Pittsburghers from steel town have also had their share of legends dating back over a century, from Honus Wagner to Willie Stargell, even Barry Bonds - before he allegedly juiced, of course.
And they will always have 1960 and that Bill Mazeroski shot.
One man stood out from all of them, however.
The greatest Latino player ever, he defined cool: a .317 career batting average, with 3,000 hits and a wicked throwing arm. A hero in his native Puerto Rico and of the 1971 World Series, he literally gave his life helping others less fortunate.
That's a fairly good description of Roberto Clemente, isn't it?
REDS - A tough call here; I could pick from three or four guys, all from the 1970s Big Red Machine.
They were a part of my childhood: Tony Perez, Joe Morgan (who's outstanding on ESPN now), Johnny Bench with his ten Gold Gloves and his "Baseball Bunch" TV show...but my pick for the greatest Cincinnatian is a bit controversial: Pete Rose.
Yes, I know he was a compulsive gambler who bet on the Reds while serving as their manager and yes, I fully acknowledge that it was an awful thing to do. But come on, now...
He had more base hits, more at-bats, and played in more games than anyone who ever played the sport. Over a 24-year span he led the league in hits seven times.
Most of all, "Charlie Hustle" was one tough mother who used any means necessary to win a ball game, even if it involved running over a catcher in an all-star game, which he did in 1970. He was the type of dude you loved if was your teammate, and hated if he wasn't.
Regardless of is faults, the Cincinnati Reds would NOT have been the Reds without this man.
And he would DEFINITELY get my vote for the Hall of Fame.
ASTROS - Like the Reds, this is a tough call.
Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio have the best numbers and led Texas' first franchise to the pennant in 2005, and they'd be the conventional choice here. However...
I sort of prefer the Astro guys from the 1970s, who wore those Trix rainbow-style uniforms and played in the "Eighth Wonder of the World", the Houston Astrodome, bad as that Astroturf was.
The guy who stood out to me from those years was a 6'7" pitcher who threw pure heat named James Rodney (J.R.) Richard.
I used to love watching him on TV as a kid, with him doing that big leg kick and mowing down hitters the way he did; he even set a league record in strikeouts one year.
It was terrible the way his career ended, having a stroke in the middle of the 1980 season. I heard he was even homeless for a while. I hope he's doing OK now.
BREWERS - This is between two men for this club's American League days.
One of them, Paul Molitor, was the definition of steady play.
To me, however, the greatest Brewer of all time was without a doubt Robin Yount.
While Molitor left Milwaukee for Toronto and Minnesota, Yount stayed a member of the Brew Crew for 20 full seasons! He remains their all-time leader in almost everything.
Although Molitor also helped to build those Brewers, Yount was the main architect, foreman, AND the heart and soul of that franchise.
Having over 3,100 hits and leading that Brew Crew to their only World Series in 1982 supports my argument, I think.
BRAVES - Like the Dodgers, Giants and Padres, there is only one painfully obvious choice here: Henry Aaron - "Hammerin' Hank".
He cemented his place as the classiest player in the game's history as he was in the process of breaking Babe Ruth's all-time home run record and enduring all that nasty racist hate mail and death threats, going through pure hell during late 1973 and early 1974.
His 755 dingers was the standard for 33 years until Barry Bonds broke it in 2007.
On top of all that, he had over 3,700 hits, is still the all-time leader in runs batted in with 2,297, and batted a solid .305 for his career.
Not a bad way to put baseball in Atlanta on the map.
PHILLIES - This is another clear choice: Mike Schmidt, the greatest third baseman in history. Period.
He was an eight-time home run champ and a 10-time Gold Glove winner. The all-time Philly leader in nearly everything, he led those Philadelphians to their first world championship in 1980.
And he did this while playing in front of fans consdiered by many as among the roughest and meanest in sports, in a stadium that by the end of his career was a crud-infested dump with horrible artificial turf.
Talk about the "City of Brotherly Love", huh?
Anyone who did what Schmidt did in those conditions should be put on this list.
METS - If Darryl Strawberry had not gotten into so much trouble with drugs, alcohol, and jail, I may have well have chosen him as the greatest Met; he had that much promise.
As such, it was clearly Tom Seaver who put New York City's Dodger and Giant replacement on the map.
"Tom Terrific" was a 300-game winner with a lifetime earned run average of 2.86 and over 3,600 strikeouts. His 25 win for those Miracle Mets of 1969, after the team's first seven years as a pathetic laughing stock on the level of Charlie Brown's baseball team, gave those Metropolitans from the borough of Queens the credibility they so badly needed.
NATIONALS / EXPOS - Since the Nationals are only in their fifth year in our nation's capitol, I'll pick this franchise's greatest player from their former home - Montreal, Quebec Province, Canada.
They were called the Expos then, and though they had their share of good players, notably Gary Carter, they guy that stands out to me, because of his leadership, is Andre Dawson - "The Hawk".
Along with Carter, he put Les Expos on the map and led them to their best days in the early 1980s.
It was a real pity that he had to play in that awful-turfed monstrosity that was Le Stade Olympique, which proved once and for all that places built for Olympic track and field events and baseball did - and do not - mix.
MARLINS - Like the Rockies, this club only 16 years old, and except for 1997 and 2003, when they won the World Series, they have been on wobbly legs in South Florida, particularly financially.
It's most fortunate that they have a new stadium opening in a few years.
Gary Sheffield could easily be considered for the greatest Marlin, as he had big numbers and led those fish to their '97 triumph over the Indians during his days in Miami. BUT...
I'm going to go with a guy who, while a solid but unspectacular ballplayer, was in Miami longer than anyone else and helped to set the cornerstones of that franchise.
When he signed a one-day contract last year to officially retire as a Marlin, that clinched his spot on this list: Jeff Conine.
There it is, my list of the National League's greatest players by team, according to me.
I'm sure that some of these choices will not be agreed upon, but that's perfectly OK. I welcome the debate.
Now that the Senior circuit has been covered, I'll soon commence with their Junior Circuit counterparts, the home of the designated hitter and the team that's won more championship that any other in this sport: the American League.
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