Greatest Nine Players in Baseball History
The Best Baseball Players in History
17,000 men have played Major League Baseball since it began in 1876. Of those, 202 former players have been voted into the Hall of Fame as the best ever. Let's take a look at arguably the nine greatest of those—one at each position. This is not easy to discern as the game is always changing. We cannot rely on statistics alone, though any knowledgeable baseball fan knows that is a chief criteria, because players in different eras were not under the same circumstances. Also, in regard to hitters, defensive skills must be considered, which are more difficult to quantify. There have been many great players whose careers were cut short by injury. So, perhaps a better title might be "the best nine careers in major league baseball history."
Walter Johnson was 6'1'' 200 lbs. He was born in 1887 and grew up on a farm in Humboldt, Kansas. Walter Johnson pitched for the Washington Senators from 1907 to 1927. He is one of the few pitchers in baseball history with an overpowering fastball who threw sidearm. For his day, he had a fearsome fastball. One of the greatest hitters ever, Ty Cobb, once said, "The thing hissed with danger," and that Johnson had "The most powerful arm ever turned loose in a ballpark." Walter Johnson's career strikeout total stood as the Major League record for 55 years. Still today, he has the second most victories ever, and the most career shutouts: 110. In five seasons he posted the lowest Earned Run Average or ERA (earned runs surrendered per nine innings pitched) of all pitchers in the league; six times won the most games; twelve times struck out the most batters including nine straight seasons. Walter Johnson is remembered as kind, gentle, good-natured man, and a fine example of good sportsmanship and friendly competition. He died of a brain tumor at age 58 in 1946.
Babe Ruth was 6'2 215 lbs. His career spanned from 1914 to 1935. Babe Ruth was from Baltimore, where he was born in 1895. He died in 1948 from pneumonia at 53 years old, after battling cancer for two years. The Babe was the best hitter in Major League history, as judged by a statistic that wasn't around in his day, but is generally agreed to be the best measure today: his career OPS of 1.164 (a combination of On Base Percentage [he is 2nd all time] and Slugging Percentage[1st all time]). Babe Ruth led the American League in Slugging Average (SLG) 13 straight years; had the highest On Base Percentage (OBP) 10 times; scored the most runs 8 times; and hit the most Home Runs (HR) in 12 different seasons. Still today, Babe Ruth has, for his career, the 3rd most HR ever in Major League Baseball; ranks 2nd all-time in RBI (Runs Batted In); and 3rd for walks. His single season HR record stood 34 years and more remarkably, was nearly double the nearest player when he retired. Babe Ruth held the record for most HR lifetime for 39 years. As late as 1993, a poll had him tied with boxer Muhammad Ali as the most recognizable sports figure in America. Babe Ruth changed the game of baseball forever with his unprecedented Home Run hitting. Unfortunately, he didn't take care of himself. He was known for gluttony, excessive use of alcohol, and suffered many bouts of venereal disease. All his life he was made fun of for his unusual body and face. He had a very rough childhood as the son of saloon-keeper parents. When he was seven years old, they said he was "incorrigible and vicious" and sent him to live at a reform school. But it was there that a missionary took him under his wing and taught him to play baseball. One of the most unusual facts about Babe Ruth is that he started out as an outstanding pitcher for the Boston Red Sox (94 wins; 46 losses; 2.21 ERA). They "sold" him to the New York Yankees, and the Yankees made him into an outfielder in 1920. That year, Ruth produced more Home Runs than all but one other TEAM. Babe Ruth was the most prodigious of all Home Run hitters in history, as many of his traveled 450-500 feet. The longest HR ever, 575 feet, was hit by Ruth.
Willie Mays was born in 1931, near Birmingham, Alabama, where he starred in football and basketball as well. His father was an excellent baseball player.
Willie Mays was 5'11" 180 lbs. as a rookie. He played most of career (1951-1973) with Giants, first in New York (1951-1957) and then after the team relocated, in San Francisco.
Willie Mays is the best living baseball player of all time; a 24 time All Star (tied for most ever). Still today, he ranks 3rd in Total Bases among all players for a career.
Willie Mays was the dream for a baseball team, what they call a 5 tool player—meaning he had all the skills for baseball: He hit for a high average; hit for power (led the league in HR four times; hit 660 in his career); was a speedy runner on the base paths (led the league in Stolen Bases four times); possessed a great throwing arm; and was the best defensive outfielder to ever play the game. He is the only player in history to win 12 straight Gold Glove Awards (voted as the best fielder at his position). And he is renowned for making the single greatest catch in baseball history. His first manager Leo Durocher said, "He lit up a room when he walked in. He was always a joy to be around."
Ted Williams was 6'3" 205 lbs. He played for the Boston Red Sox. He was despised around the league and not popular even in Boston. Ted Williams was not good with the press; possessed a violent temper; was moody and insecure; he could be hateful; lacked respect for authority; and maybe worse: lacked hustle—the one thing baseball fans don't readily forgive. He said he had a miserable childhood. Ted played from 1939 to 1960. He was from San Diego, where he was born in 1918. He died of cardiac arrest in 2002. Any analysis of his career statistics must take into account that he missed nearly all of five seasons in his prime while serving his country as a marine combat pilot, in World War Two, and later in the Korean war. Ted Williams was a 6 time batting champion; posted the best career OBP of all time; held the record for 61 years for the best single season OBP ever (.551). For his career, he ranks 2nd in history in SLG (led the league 9 years); and 2nd in OPS (led league 12 years). There were eight seasons when Ted Williams led the league for most walks; six seasons where he scored the most runs; four with most HRs; and four where he had the most RBIs. He averaged .344 for his career with 521 HRs. Ted Williams was also the last man to hit .400 (.406 1941). His records still stand of reaching base in 84 straight games; and in 16 straight plate appearances. He wrote a book, "The Science of Hitting" in 1986, which is still widely read by baseball players.
Honus Wagner was born in 1874, in Pittsburg, where he went on to play baseball for the Pittsburg Pirates from 1897 to 1917. He died in 1955 at 81 years old. Honus Wagner stood 5'11" and weighed in at about 200 lbs. He also served for 20 years as the Pirates hitting coach, and even was their manager for six seasons. He is considered by most to have been the greatest fielding shortstop in baseball history. And they used a tiny glove in those days. Besides that, he reigned as batting champion eight seasons; six seasons led the league in SLG and Total Bases; five years stole the most bases; and five years drove in the most runs. He is remembered as a quiet, modest man; and a clean living, fitness fanatic.
Mike Schmidt played for the Philadelphia Phillies from 1972 until 1989. He was born in 1949, in Dayton, Ohio. Mike Schmidt is one of only 13 Third Basemen in the Hall of Fame—the least of any position. He also has the distinction of being the player who suffered through the worst rookie season in history who still made into the Hall. He was known for his powerful throwing arm and won 10 Gold Glove Awards. He also holds the all time single season record for a Third Baseman of 404 assists (throwing out a base runner). Mike Schmidt was a feared hitter. Five times he led his league in SLG; eight seasons he was the Home Run champ. He stood 6'2" and weighed 203 lbs.
Joe Morgan is today a popular baseball commentator on ESPN. He played the majority of his major League career (1963-1984) for the Cincinnati Reds. He was born in Oakland, California, in 1943. Joe is the smallest player in our survey at 5'7" and 160 lbs. Joe Morgan was also the ultimate 5 tool player. Middle Infielders are generally not great hitters as theirs are primary defensive positions. The same could be said for Catchers; and usually Center Fielders. It is your corner players who most often supply the offensive fireworks for a baseball team. Joe was the exception. His 80% success rate stealing bases (689 career steals) is among the best in history. He is 2nd all time for career HR at his position (the record when he retired); one of the best all around players ever; and was an extremely intelligent player. Joe Morgan was a peerless defender, too, winning five Gold Gloves.
Lou Gehrig played from 1923 to 1939 for the New York Yankees. He was 6'0'' 200 lbs. Lou Gehrig was born in 1903, in Manhattan, weighing in at 14 pounds! He died a cruel death of the disease later named after him, in 1941, at only 37 years old. Lou Gehrig holds the all time record for most career grand slams with 23; his 2,130 consecutive games played stood as the most in history for 56 years; He posted a lifetime Batting Average of .340; he owns 3 of the best 6 RBI seasons in history. Many baseball aficionados claim that his season in 1927 is the greatest single season by any batter in the history of the game: hitting .373 with 175 RBIs; and with 3rd most Total Bases in any season ever (447). Lou Gehrig holds the all-time record for the most RBIs in a 3 year period; his 184 RBI in 1931 is the 2nd best for a season in history. He posted over 100 RBI 13 years—something only one other player has ever done; and is the only player to record 5 seasons with over 400 Total Bases. Lou Gehrig has the 3rd highest OPS for his career of any player; 3rd highest SLG; and 5th highest OBP. He stands today with the 5th most RBI in history. He was also a fine gentleman. The movie made about him, "The Pride of the Yankees" in 1942 was nominated for 11 Academy Awards.
Johnny Bench was born in Oklahoma (1947). He stood 6'1" and weighed 208 pounds; He played for the Cincinnati Reds. We can't expect long careers for Catchers, as playing the position is terribly hard on the knees. Johnny Bench revolutionized catching with far more athleticism than his predecessors. He also had huge hands; and a powerful and accurate arm, with which to throw out would be base stealers. Johnny Bench was the best defensive Catcher ever, winning 10 straight gold gloves. He was a 14 time All Star; and finished his career with the most Home Runs of any Catcher in history (2nd now).
I take note of the size similarities of these men. They were all between 5' 11" to 6'3" and between 180 to 215 pounds; except Joe Morgan. Oddly, each of them also grew up where they were born.
I wish to extend my apologies to fans of Yogi Berra; Hank Aaron; Ivan Rodriguez; Stan Musial; Ty Cobb; Mickey Mantle; Lefty Grove; Cy Young and Tom Seaver. Close but no banana. And to the great Negro League stars: Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleson, and Satchel Paige.