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March 17, 2011

Wezen-Ball

The History of the "Greatest Living Ballplayer"

by Larry Granillo

There was a fun little topic making its way around the web Wednesday afternoon. Sparked mostly by this post from Craig Calcaterra at Hardball Talk (who, in turn, was inspired by Baseball Think Factory), the topic asked "Who is the greatest living ballplayer for each of the 30 current ballclubs?"

Craig, and others, took the time to go through most of the candidates. For the most part, except for teams like the Angels or Rangers, most teams older than 20 years have a pretty obvious answer. I won't offer my list because, honestly, it wouldn't be all that much different than everyone else.

Instead, I'll ask a slightly different question. In any given year since, say, the dawn of the American League, who was the greatest living ballplayer? If you asked that question in 1925, what would people of the time say? 1947? 1969?

Before giving my list covering the last 110 years, we have to decide some ground rules. I chose to restrict myself to retired players (so that I'm really asking "who is the greatest living retired player?"). I do think including active players makes the list a bit more interesting, but it becomes way too subjective. When, for example, did Ty Cobb cross over into the "greatest living player"? 1915? 1912? Or Ruth? 1924? 1927?

Other than that, the rules are pretty straight forward. Beginning in 1901, here is the chain of players who would be my answer to the question "Who is the greatest living (retired) player?"

  • 1901 - 1917: Cap Anson. The greatest ballplayer of the 19th century. Others who might sneak in here: Kid Nichols (starting in 1906), Cy Young (1911), and Nap Lajoie & Christy Mathewson (both 1916)
  • 1917 - 1928: Honus Wagner. Still everyone's favorite overlooked all-time great. The only other contender in this time frame is Walter Johnson, who retired in 1927.
  • 1928 - 1935: Ty Cobb. "Ty Cobb wanted to play, but none of us could stand the son-of-a-bitch when we were alive, so we told him to stick it!" No one doubted his status as the top player in the game, though.
  • 1935 - 1948: Babe Ruth. This is the first reign ended by the player's death (Anson and Wagner each gave way to the greater player while living). Never, ever any doubt that Ruth was the greatest while he was alive, though.
  • 1948 - 1961: Ty Cobb. There are many players who had retired by Ruth's death who might be considered here: Rogers Hornsby, Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott, Arky Vaughan, Pete Alexander, Eddie Collins... None could supplant Cobb.
  • 1961 - 1968: Ted Williams. Cobb's death. And this is where things get dicey. Not only could we argue Joe DiMaggio (who retired in 1951 and who, late in life, had to be announced as "the greatest living ballplayer") and Williams here, we also have to deal with all the legends who retired in the 1960s: Stan Musial, Warren Spahn, Eddie Mathews. I think I'm sticking with Teddy Ballgame, though, until...
  • 1968 - 1973: Mickey Mantle. I almost had Teddy all the way through these years, but, in the end, Mantle has to take the top spot. Sometimes I think Mantle is so overrated he's underrated. Then again, I don't live in New York.
  • 1973 - today: Willie Mays. And then there's Willie, arguably the greatest player ever. As long as he's alive, the title is his. Only Barry Bonds has a case to take it away from him, but I'm not sure I'm ready to say that for sure. I like to have a bit of historical perspective.

So, where did I mess up? And how would you change this if you were to include active players? How many years earlier do Cobb or Ruth or Mantle or Mays take their crowns? Does Mantle even get the crown if we allow active players, since he and Mays were contemporaries? Am I slighting pitchers here?

I know, I know. Too many questions. But these are the things I think about when I make these lists. At least I'm happy with how this turned out, considering the restrictions. Your thoughts?

Related Content:  Ballplayer,  The Who,  Ty Cobb

37 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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BarryR

You messed up by asking one question in paragraph 3: who would people of 1925 have picked? then answering who you would have picked. I can't differ with your choices, as they're personal. Whether Williams was better than Dimaggio is tricky, the same with Williams vs. Musial.
As for the first question, what people at the time would have said, I can only go back to the 1960s with personal knowledge. I can tell you that there was a debate in their own time whether Cobb was better than Speaker, who had a big edge defensively.
In 1961, Musial was considered better than Williams - and it wasn't really close. I am guessing that if there was a vote in 1961, it would have broken down by whether you saw DiMaggio at his peak or not. I don't think that would have changed in 1968, since Mantle finished his career in a terrible hitting era and his numbers were superficially weak. You have to understand sabermetrics to know that he was still good in his 30s. The minute Mays retires it's him.
Doing it without regard to retirement (my opinion) - it's an early battle between Wagner and Matty, Wagner takes over, Cobb takes it in the teens, Ruth after 1921. On Ruth's death, I think you have to go to DiMaggio (or maybe Feller), who has established his greatness far more than Musial or Williams. Before they can take it away, Mantle probably grabs it in 1958 and hangs on until 1962, when Willie establishes his reign.
Now if you're talking a public vote, I think Cobb holds it for a long time, into the 30s, when it was obvious the game was different. As late as 1928, there are magazines arguing that Ruth ruined the game. The rest is probably the same.

Mar 16, 2011 23:34 PM
rating: 1
 
Michael
(736)

I'd vote for Mantle over Mays until Mantle's death. I probably favor peak production over career value and actual production over gut impressions in that debate. It's certainly a close call anyway.

Assuming we can safely call Barry Bonds retired, it seems to me he is the greatest living ballplayer now. He's arguably the second (to Ruth) best player in history, depending on one's view of steroid use and relatively few team accomplishments compared to the other elite players on this list.

Mar 17, 2011 06:35 AM
rating: 1
 
dianagram

I think Hank Aaron deserves a mention ....

Mar 17, 2011 07:43 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Larry Granillo
BP staff

Aaron certainly deserves a mention, as well as Frank Robinson. If Mays were to pass today - god forbid - Aaron, Robinson and Musial would all be in the running for the title. They'd probably have a hard time beating out Bonds, though...

Mar 18, 2011 06:46 AM
 
Richie

Thanks for the historical perspective, BarryR.

Mar 17, 2011 08:21 AM
rating: 0
 
jamin67038

Pujols is about to take the title from Mays.

Mar 17, 2011 08:59 AM
rating: 0
 
Sky Kalkman

Pujols is an all-time great, but no Willie Mays, at least in my book. Pujols has ten seasons and a 172 career OPS+. Willie Mays' ten year stretch from '54 through '63 holds a 165 OPS+. Both were elite defenders at their position, but 1B vs. CF is a huge swing in Mays' favor. (Imagine Pujols playing an outstanding CF...)

After that, Mays added about 8 full seasons worth of playing time at a 148 OPS+. 8 more seasons of Pujols being Pujols would keep him even, but I don't think that's a good bet.

Mar 17, 2011 11:26 AM
rating: 0
 
BarryR

Those seven points of OPS+ are more than made up for on the basepaths - so Albert isn't better offensively, either.

Mar 17, 2011 12:29 PM
rating: 4
 
BP staff member Larry Granillo
BP staff

Absolutely right. I love Pujols the player, but it's still much too early in his career to call him the Greatest Living Player. His first 10 years have been outstanding, but, really, they aren't any better than pretty much any 10-yr stretch of Barry Bonds' time in San Francisco. Considering Bonds also has another 5 years in SF and seven more in Pittsburgh (where he won two MVPs), Albert's got a long way to go to even supplant Bonds (though he definitely could).

Mar 18, 2011 06:50 AM
 
Richard Bergstrom

Not that I disagree in the Pujols vs Mays debate, but I have a silly question.

Do we really know that Willie Mays was an elite defender? Or are we mostly relying on anecdotal evidence, box scores and a few highlight reels?

Mar 18, 2011 14:10 PM
rating: 0
 
BarryR

You're right. It's a silly question. :)
Of course, once you eliminate box scores, and visual evidence, there isn't much proof of anything. I didn't get to see Willie play every day, I was robbed of that privilege by Horace Stoneham, but I can tell you that what I saw was good. There is a unanimity about his defensive ability which seems to go beyond "anecdotal evidence". He played in an era and league of great CF - Ashburn, Pinson, Virdon, and Flood -- and no one questioned who the best was.
According to Willie (and to my knowledge,no one has denied the truth of this), in his San Francisco years, he positioned not only himself, but the rest of the fielders. That's probably worth something.

Mar 18, 2011 15:20 PM
rating: 1
 
smallflowers

Anecdotal evidence and highlight reels are really all that's needed to confirm the greatness of someone that is/was universally regarded as an elite defender, no? No one doubts Brooks Robinson, right? And that's largely based on a couple televised World Series and a mountain of awards. In my mind, for pre-1980, they are maybe the two most revered non-middle-infielder defensive players.

Mar 20, 2011 12:34 PM
rating: -1
 
CalWhite

I would put George Wright of the old Cincinnati Red Stockings on the list replacing everyone until he died in 1937...

Mar 17, 2011 09:21 AM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

You're saying that George Wright was better than Cap Anson, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, etc?
Care to say why you feel that way?

Mar 17, 2011 10:28 AM
rating: 1
 
Al Skorupa

I'm having a very hard time buying Mantle over Williams, Larry.

I know it would make for a much less interesting article, but I'd be tempted to go Ruth until his death, then Williams until his death, then Mays since (also with strong consideration to Bonds).

Mar 17, 2011 10:58 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Larry Granillo
BP staff

You're right, it's a tough call and one I would probably make differently every time. Like I said in the article, I was all set to give Ted the title all the way until Mays' retirement, but I changed my mind. Mantle is an equally great choice, I feel. I think I made the decision because I usually tend to be too high on Williams and too low on Mantle and I was trying to balance that out. I don't think either call is wrong.

I don't think I agree, though, that Williams could place above both Cobb and Mays during their retired years.

Mar 18, 2011 06:54 AM
 
bgerdsen
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

"Only Barry Bonds has a case to take it away from him, but I'm not sure I'm ready to say that for sure. I like to have a bit of historical perspective."

As an admitted steroid user, Barry Bonds has NO case to take it away from Mays. This was a silly statement in an otherwise solid article.

Mar 17, 2011 11:11 AM
rating: -12
 
heyblue

Did you consider Negro Leaguers? When Babe Ruth died in 1948, I think there is a debate to be made for Oscar Charleston over Ty Cobb. And there is certainly a case that Satchel Paige was the greatest living (retired) ballplayer once he hung up the spikes in 1965, until his death in 1982. Undoubtedly, he was the greatest living pitcher in that era.

Mar 17, 2011 11:52 AM
rating: 1
 
mariotti

Personally, if I was considering Negro Leaguers, Josh Gibson would be my first choice.

He'd never be considered for this exercise, however, because he never retired before he (tragically) died.

If you didn't have to be retired, it would be fun to debate whether he was better than Ruth. I think he probably was.

Mar 17, 2011 12:40 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Larry Granillo
BP staff

I did not consider Negro Leaguers. Good point. Mostly because it didn't cross my mind to, but also because I don't think I know enough about them to make a good judgment.

You're right, though, that Charleston probably had a good case over Cobb. Those that saw him play have nothing but superlatives for him. Paige is interesting. I sincerely don't know enough about his actual talent when he was young to say. Lefty Grove (died in 1975), Warren Spahn (2003) and Bob Feller (2010) all had a case as the greatest living pitcher at the time too.

Mar 18, 2011 07:01 AM
 
R.A.Wagman

As your post had only position players, I think a great follow-up would be to run the exercise looking at greatest living retired pitcher (non-Babe Ruth divison). Cheers.

Mar 18, 2011 07:34 AM
rating: 1
 
BurrRutledge

That would be an interesting analog to this. However, I don't think Ruth would even enter into that conversation, since he was never the best pitcher in a season, much less over his short career...

Mar 18, 2011 14:45 PM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

I meant non-Ruth in terms of he did pitch, and he added more value to his team, etc.

Mar 18, 2011 15:54 PM
rating: 0
 
BurrRutledge

Yeah, I understood... just bustin' on ya.

As a way of apologizing, I did a little research. The list is potentially very short, because if we look at JAWS, for instance, Walter Johnson has the highest peak and highest career scores, and he retired in '27.

There are only a handful who retired before him and have a claim. Grover "Pete" Alexander retired in '30 and holds the #2 spot, so he's out.

Johnson would still hold the title today.

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=12611

Going in reverse chronological order, Cy Young is #3 on the list, retiring in 1911. [Roger Clemens is #4, and far short of Walter.] Matthewson is #5, retiring in '16, so he might give Young a run at the title from '16-'27, but I'd stick with Cy.

Nobody who retired before Cy even makes this list. Addie Joss retired in '10, so he might claim the spot for a year. Before that, I dunno... I'll leave it for the next poster to opine.

Mar 18, 2011 18:02 PM
rating: 0
 
BurrRutledge

"Johnson would still hold the title today." ... um... if he were still alive.

So, give me a coupla minutes and I'll see who would hold the title when Walter passed away in '46...

Mar 18, 2011 18:29 PM
rating: 0
 
BurrRutledge

So this is the actual and complete list, with credit to Jay and JAWS

1894-1909 John Clarkson (my own estimate... baseball-reference has him at 82 WAR) Not sure who would take over at his death in 1909, because I'm not as much of a baseball historian as I might be, but then I suggest...

1910 - Addie Joss (this is my own speculative selection, not based on published JAWS scores ... a short career, but excellent! 40 WAR in 9 seasons).

1911 - Cy Young, til he is supplanted in...

1927 - Walter Johnson, who passed away in...

1946 - Grover "Pete" Alexander, who passed away in...

1950 - Ed Walsh, who passed away in...

1959 - Lefty Grove, who holds the spot til superceded by...

1966 - Warren Spahn, who holds it til the retirement of...

1986 - Tom Seaver, though this is certainly debatable, as Tom Terrific holds nearly identical scores in Career & Peak as Spahn, with just 1.1 JAWS more, so one could argue that Spanh maintains the title til he passed away in '03 when Seaver would have inherited it and held it til the retirement of...

2007 - Roger Clemens. Greg Maddux retired in 2008 is the only other player above Seaver on the JAWS list, but he doesn't quite reach Clemens' total. But I'm sure that Clemens' claim to this title is similar to Bonds' to the 'best player' list...



Mar 18, 2011 19:23 PM
rating: 0
 
BarryR

Let me try this without using JAWS
Since Burr started at 1894, so will I.

1894-1897: Hoss Radbourne - A legend, the first 19th century pitcher in the Hall of Fame.

1897-98: Held open, baseball in mourning for the untimely passing of Old Hoss.

1898-1910: Amos Rusie - Winner of the pitching triple crown in 1894, one of the few pitchers who had no trouble adapting to the new pitching distance. Had to "retire" after 1898 season due to a loss of hearing from being hit in the head with a line drive. John McGraw traded him to the Reds after the 1900 season and Rusie tried a brief (three game) comeback in '01 - bad trade for the Reds.

1911-1916: Cy Young
1917-1925: Christy Mathewson - he was in the first class of Hall of Famers, not Young. He was the guy the Reds traded for Amos Rusie - really bad trade. (They had taken him from a Giant farm team in the Rule 5 draft, so I assume McGraw was threatening to kill someone if they didn't give him back).
1926-1927: Cy Young - making him the Grover Cleveland of this list
1928-1946: Walter Johnson
1947-1975: Lefty Grove - nobody was that big a fan of Walsh, and the game had changed so old Cy wasn't getting it back. This isn't the kind of thing that changes hands unless it's obvious, like Matty or Johnson. I'm confident that Bob Feller would have pointed out that he was better. Sabermetrics made Grove's numbers look even more impressive, but in recent years, some of us have downgraded him a little.
1976-???: Feller or Spahn - Feller wouldn't have complained about Spahnie, since he fought and was wounded in WWII. But this is where we hit the problem with this particular question.
What does it mean to be the best living pitcher? The most career accomplishments? The pitcher with the highest sustained peak? Or is it the guy you would give the ball to for game seven, if you could? I am confident that if there was no definition given that a vote in 1976 would have been won by Sandy Koufax. He was the best pitcher I ever saw - and God knows I love Tom Seaver. One of them is currently the best living pitcher. My guess is Tom would vote for Sandy.

Mar 18, 2011 21:42 PM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

Nice - and no need to apologize. But I think Addie Joss doesn't really qualify. I'm pretty sure he never really retired, just got sick and passed within a short period of time. He died around 9 months after his last game.

Mar 18, 2011 22:31 PM
rating: 0
 
AZLarry49

It's hard to argue with the players chosen. As to choosing between Willie Mays and Barry Bonds now that Bonds is retired, Mays is the easy choice for anybody who saw both players at their peak. Bonds has superior career numbers in every category besides batting average, however, the numbers don't tell the story. Mays, due to his style and the era in which he played, actually played better than his stats would suggest. Bonds, in my opinion, played at a level lower than his numbers indicate. Mays had the flair for the dramatic and played with enthusiasm and hustle that Bonds rarely showed. It is interesting that perhaps the two greatest players of the last half century played for the Giants and had only one World Series title between them....

Mar 17, 2011 14:49 PM
rating: 0
 
BrownianNotion

I'll start by saying I definitely did not have the opportunity to see Willie Mays in his prime. I think it's fairly obvious that everybody also WANTS Willie Mays to be better than Barry Bonds. Willie Mays played far superior defensively, is known for his love of the game, and is generally known as a great "character guy". I also want to say I'm not necessarily arguing in favor of Bonds over Mays.

With all that said, I think everyone needs to take a break and realize just HOW GOOD Bonds was from 2001-2004. Steroids or not, I think people need to step back and realize just how amazing how amazing that four year stretch was. I'll be telling my grandkids one day "That Barry Bonds.. He was an ass, a clubhouse cancer, and a cheater.. But holy hell could he hit."

Mar 18, 2011 07:28 AM
rating: 2
 
dianagram

I don't have the link readily available, but I read a few articles that pointed out that Mays, in his time, was quite distant around the media, and molded godson Bonds' way of thinking about society.

So I'm not too sure about the great "character guy".

Mar 18, 2011 09:54 AM
rating: 2
 
npullano

I would love to see this done objectively using JAWS on a yearly basis.

Mar 18, 2011 06:33 AM
rating: 1
 
TheGreenMiles

I think you have to give some consideration to this era's pitchers, specifically Greg Maddux & Roger Clemens.

Mar 18, 2011 08:37 AM
rating: 0
 
Richie

What dianagram says. If Bonds behaves himself from here on in, 30 years from now folks will be talking about what an underrated clubhouse presence he was.

Mar 18, 2011 12:58 PM
rating: 0
 
Richie

Or perhaps not, I suppose. I guess Cobb retained his bad rep all the way through retirement.

Mar 18, 2011 13:10 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Just depends on the person. DiMaggio and Mantle retained their reps though their off-field activities during and after their baseball career were hardly great.

Funny thing is I've read a few pieces over the years on what a good clubhouse presence Bonds was, helping players with their swings, admiring David Eckstein etc. It seems many people equate "bad with the media" as "bad in the clubhouse".

Heck, Sammy Sosa was supposed to be a great clubhouse presence during his Cubs career until his corked bat incident.

Mar 18, 2011 14:35 PM
rating: 4
 
ferret

Interesting article. My 2 cents; Stan Musial was held in higher regard than Williams during their careers - especially significant in awarding this type of honor. Musial was a well rounded player who excelled in all facets of the game - especially public relations. Williams was a great hitter, period. Other areas of his game were not outstanding and his public relation skills (spitting, bat throwing) were an embarrassment to the game.

I would vote the greatest living pitcher for most of the 20th century was Satchel Paige who pitched in all conditions and eras and still had success at age 60.

Mar 20, 2011 19:01 PM
rating: 0
 
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