My dad and his friends were arguing about who is the best player in baseball history. Who would you pick?
[Bobby Reynolds, Paducah, KY]
I’ll give you my answer first; then I will name my top player at each position to start some more arguments and you can vote in the poll at the end of this column.
When someone names a position player and runs off all his stats in HRs, RBIs, BA, WAR etc., I ask them:
What was his pitching record?
This draws a blank face and “Huh? Pitching? The guy was an outfielder…”
There is only one player who was equally successful at hitting AND pitching.
Nope, not HOF Bob Gibson; although he was a great pitcher and a very good hitter.
The guy I am referring to won 20 games twice and had a career W-L of 94-46, ERA 2.28, W% .671 and he pitched for the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. His WAR averaged 2.0+ in 10 years.
Of course it is the same player who “saved baseball” by revolutionizing the offense with HRs after the Dead Ball Era and the 1919 White Sox scandal.
Babe Ruth is famous for his 60-HR season with the Invincible 1927 Yankee team, but his influence began in 1920, when he crushed 54 HRs, an unheard of number, and then followed it with 59 the next year.
Some can make a case for a player who was a better hitter than The Babe and another guy may prove that there was a better pitcher [not easy, though], but nobody can name a player who was a star at the bat AND on the mound.
And, as Casey Stengel said: “You could look it up.”
Now, here is my list of the best players in history by position:
Although I never saw them play, these three make my Top Ten list:
Philadelphia Athletics (1925-33), Detroit Tigers (1934-37)
· Bill Dickey
New York Yankees (1928-43, 1946)
Chicago Cubs (1922-40), New York Giants (1941)
Of the catchers I have seen play [mostly on TV], I have Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, and Johnny Bench as my Top Three.
Yogi was a great clutch hitter, as was Roy Campanella, but Bench was a great defensive catcher as well, so I would rank them: Bench, Berra, and Campanella.
But, I believe that, based on what I have read about Black players and the Negro Leagues, especially the comments and observations of ML players who saw him play, Josh Gibson, nicknamed–“The Black Babe Ruth”– was probably the best catcher in the history of the game.
“The true statistical achievements of Negro league players may be impossible to know as the Negro leagues did not compile complete statistics or game summaries. Based on research of historical accounts performed for the Special Committee on the Negro Leagues, Gibson hit 224 homers in 2,375 at-bats against top black teams, 2 in 56 at-bats against white major-league pitchers and 44 in 450 AB in the Mexican League. John Holway lists Gibson with the same home run totals and a .351 career average, plus 21 for 56 against white major-league pitchers.” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josh_Gibson#Baseball_career_and_statistics]
I saw Willie McCovey play and he was one of the greatest power hitters of his era and Albert Pujols may bounce back and make it to Cooperstown with his balance of great offense and defense, but two Old School players stand out from the pack: Lou Gehrig and Jimmy Fox.
New York Yankees (1923-39)
The “Iron Horse” played in a then-record 2,130 consecutive games (since eclipsed by Cal Ripken Jr.), but that’s only a small part of the greatness of Gehrig, who batted behind Babe Ruth through most of his career and hit .340 with 493 home runs. He had 13 consecutive seasons with 100 runs and 100 RBI, averaging 139 runs and 148 RBI. He hit 23 career grand slams and his teams won six World Series titles.
Philadelphia A’s (1925-35), Boston Red Sox (1936-42), Chicago Cubs (1942, 1944), Philadelphia Phillies (1945)
Foxx was overshadowed by Gehrig through most of his career, but only Babe Ruth hit more homers in the first half of the 20th century. He had more than 100 RBI for 13 consecutive seasons from 1929-1941 and had a career slugging percentage of .609 (fifth all-time). He won the Triple Crown in 1933 (.356, 48 HR, 163 RBI) and was a three-time MVP. His A’s teams also won two World Series.” 
I’ll take Gehrig in a photo-finish.
I have seen some very good Second basemen, Jackie Robinson, Joe Morgan, and, recently, Dustin Pedroia, but the great ones are from the early days and the Top Three are: Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins, and Napoleon Lajoie.
I’ll take Hornsby:
“…a great combination of power and average. He led the National League in doubles four times, in home runs twice, and his 289 career homers are second among second basemen all-time behind Jeff Kent. His 1922 season was incredible. He had a 33-game hitting streak and batted .401 with 42 homers and 152 RBI at age 26. He hit .424 two years later. Playing most of his career with the St. Louis Cardinals, Hornsby’s career slugging percentage was .577 and his batting average was .358. He was a decent second baseman – he had some trouble with pop flies – but he had a .957 fielding percentage.” 
This Top Ten list has all modern era players, such as: George Brett, Chipper Jones, Eddie Matthews, Brooks Robinson, and Wade Boggs.
While Robinson was the best defensive man at the Hot Corner in baseball history, Mike Schmidt was nearly as good with a glove and a better hitter for power and average.
I saw all of these guys 3b play and I take Schmidt.
No slight intended, but this one is a no-brainer: Honus Wagner and the Seven Dwarfs.
…his career was better than any other shortstop in big-league history, too. In 21 seasons, he hit .329 and stole 722 bases, and in a career entirely in the dead-ball era, he hit 101 home runs. He was in the original five-man class in the Hall of Fame in 1936. He hit better than .300 in 17 consecutive seasons and won eight NL batting titles. Wagner broke in with the Louisville Colonels and played his final 18 seasons for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Wasn’t the greatest fielder (.940 career percentage), but that was among the best of his era, which was before there was such a thing as Gold Gloves or smoothed-out infields.
Since I named him the Best Player of All-Time, I should take him as the greatest RF, but he was a below average fielder.
Hank Aaron is the still the All-Time Career HR leader [“Baddy” Bonds and Mark “The Liar” McGwire be damned] and he was very good with a glove and had an excellent arm.
And, yes Frank Robinson and Mel Ott make my Top Five, but the player who had the best arm and who hit for power and average and who could win a game single-handedly with his speed and “extra gear” was Roberto Clemente.
Yes, we can argue about Ruth and Aaron, but I’ll take Clemente.
I have Ted Williams, Stan Musial, and Rickey Henderson as my Top Three.
This one is going to annoy Red Sox fans. While Williams was perhaps the best technical hitter in the history of the game, he was no speed demon and LF in Fenway gave Ted less grass to cover and the chance to master the idiosyncrasies of The Green Monster.
Stan Musial was a great hitter, coming out of his unique “corkscrew” stance, and hit for power and average; his speed was about average and he was a good fielder.
As the best combination of defense, hitting, baserunning and “game-changing” skills, I’ll take Rickey Henderson, who was the greatest leadoff hitter in the game.
“Teddy Ballgame” and “Stan The Man” could beat you with a hit or a HR, but Henderson could do that and beat you with his speed on defense and he could turn singles into “on Second in scoring position” and score from First on a Single.
How many times did Ted or Stan drive a pitcher to distraction?
How many times did Ted or Stan score from First base on a Single?
How many times did Ted or Stan win a game with their speed in the OF?
Nobody is a bigger fan of Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle and I had the privilege of growing up in the NYC area during their tenure in CF. [I also saw Mays play in the Polo Grounds, Candlestick Park, and Shea Stadium and I got to spend 15 private minutes with Mantle.]
I never saw DiMaggio play in person, but I have seen the films of his graceful glides across the OF grass and the power he generated from his spread out batting stance.
As Casey Stengel said, referring to Mantle’s battered knees and legs; Mantle was
“the best one-legged player in the history of the game.”
We will never know how great Mantle could have been had he not caught his foot on a drain plug in RF in Yankee Stadium in Game Two of the 1951 World Series.
He and CF DiMaggio, who was playing in his last WS, were both after the ball that Willie Mays had hit into the gap, when Mantle’s foot got caught and it severely, and permanently, damage his knee.
With apologies to the Yankee Clipper, I’ll take Willie Mays.
STARTING PITCHER: RHP
Modern Era: Greg Maddux or Tom Seaver.
STARTING PITCHER: LHP
Since Babe Ruth shortened his pitching career to become a pretty good hitter, I will take Lefty Grove.
Modern Era: Sandy Koufax [nasty 12-6] curve or Steve Carlton [nasty slider].
Of all the hitters that ever went to the plate in the history of the game, if I had to pick one to get that winning hit in the 9th inning of the 7th game of the World Series, I’ll tell Ted to grab a bat.
No contest: Mariano Rivera
WHO DO YOU LIKE AS
THE BEST PLAYER IN BASEBALL HISTORY?
Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life, RICHARD BEN CRAMER, 2000