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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.

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