On most lists of the greatest baseball players in history, Babe Ruth sits at the top. I can’t argue with that. As well as a superlative slugger, Ruth was a peerless pitcher. But I can argue that he’s not alone at the top. The Bambino shares the throne with two others.
Rating players from different eras is problematic at best. Improvements in equipment (especially balls and gloves and playing grounds) make it nearly impossible to compare, say, Ken Griffey Jr. with Tris Speaker. These two also bring to mind the great stain in baseball history. Black players—from the 19th century to the late 1940s—could not compete against big leaguers. So the lists are suspect from the start. But who doesn’t love lists?
Before I get to my top three, I need to clarify a couple things. I eliminate from consideration those players tainted by steroid use. It’s sad and unfortunate, but the likes of Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez, who may well have assumed the throne had they played it straight, do not qualify. Neither do pitchers. I have never understood including them on lists of the greatest players. Pitchers are different. They have their own lists.
I have three criteria that determine my triumvirate. First, I mostly rate players only within their era. Second, a player must dominate his era; and third, I include a player who’s the consensus choice as the greatest all-around player of any era. Here’s my Triple Crown:
Only one other player dominated an era as did Ruth. No player changed the game of baseball as did Ruth. Before him the game was played station-to-station: hit a single, steal second base, or wait for a hit-and-run or a sacrifice bunt. The ball was dead; home runs were scarce, even disparaged—until along came Ruth. In the 1920s/early 30s he had no peer, with the possible exception of Lou Gehrig, his teammate
Gehrig’s 162-games averages—37 HR, 149 RBI—roughly equaled Ruth’s,–46 and 143—but his totals lag behind due to the illness that cut short his career.
Certainly Rogers Hornsby came close. The Rajah batted .358 with 301 homers and 1,584 RBI. He hit over .400 three times. His 162-game averages for homers and RBI were 22 and 114. But Ruth also had a very high batting average (.342) and blasted 714 homers and drove in 2,214 runs. Hornsby won seven batting titles, but Ruth won 12 home run titles.
Moreover, neither Gehrig nor Hornsby took the mound and racked up a winning percentage of .671 (94-46) and an ERA of 2.28 over five years! (If Ruth had remained on the mound, he may have topped the pitcher’s list.)
THE GEORGIA PEACH
The only other player who dominated an era was Ty Cobb—the terror of the dead-ball era. If not for Cobb, Honus Wagner (162 game averages: .328, 37 doubles, 100 RBI) who won 8 batting titles and stole 723 bases would have dominated. Everyone ranks below him: Nap Lajoie (.338 BA (5 titles); Tris Speaker, who batted .346 with 436 stolen bases, and was considered a great center fielder; Sam Crawford, who hit .309, drove in 1,532 runs (3 titles), and stroked 309 triples, still the record; Shoeless Joe Jackson (.356—third highest BA lifetime); and Eddie Collins, who batted .333 and was thought to be the best second baseman of the dead-ball era.
Only Wagner can be mentioned in the same breath as Cobb. Those two, along with Ruth are among the five charter members of the Hall of Fame (Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson, both pitchers, are the other two). But even Wagner’s numbers pale when put next to Cobb’s. Cobb compiled 12 batting titles and hit .366 life time, both records unbroken. He stole 897 bases (6 titles) and hit over .400 three times. What’s more he drove in almost 2,000 runs. By the way, according to the rigorously researched biography by Charles Leershem (Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty), Cobb was no more a dirty player than any other of his era; nor was he particularly a racist.
THE SAY HEY KID
The greatest all-around player, according to a lot of experts, is Willie Mays, and I agree. He did not dominate his era—the fifties and sixties—probably the greatest period in history. Others rank with him—Henry Aaron, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Frank Robinson, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, Willie McCovey, Eddie Mathews. I include Musial and Williams in this era because both played into the early sixties and were productive. Joe DiMaggio played in the late thirties and early fifties, so he’s hard to fit in, but no matter; he was not great enough to be in the top three.
Because Mays played centerfield and had the five tools of all-around prowess—arm, speed, power, glove, and high BA—he stands slightly above Aaron, Williams, Musial, and Mantle (who played center, but was injured early in his career, cutting into his production.
No doubt the 1970s, 80s and 90s produced outstanding players (Bench, Morgan, Carew, Schmidt, Rose, Ripken, Sandburg, Henderson, Yount, Thomas, Piazza, Larkin), but none match Mays. Only one player—Ken Griffey Jr.—stands with Mays, but he like Mantle suffered injuries that keep him out of the triumvirate. Ricky Henderson is grossly underrated, by the way.
As for players of the 21st century, it’s too early to judge them. Attaining legendary status, like good whiskey, requires the passage of time.