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June 14, 2011


Arguing Baseball's Best Players

by Larry Granillo

There was a little bit of a fervor raised over the weekend when Stan McNeal of the Sporting News called Derek Jeter the "greatest shortstop in MLB history." I don't agree with McNeal's article in the slightest (and I imagine I'll elaborate on that sometime in the near future), but it reminded me of an article from an old issue of Baseball Digest.

In the article, Hall of Fame outfielder Max Carey - one of the greatest basestealers in history, a good fielder, and a deadball alumnus - does his best to determine the greatest ballplayer of all time - as of 1957 (or even 1955, as the article seems to be a reprint from Esquire). Carey tries to be objective in his rankings, rating players on a 0-100 scale for batting and "intangibles" and on a 0-75 scale for defense and baserunning. The players with the best overall totals in the three categories (each broken up into subcategories like "power", "hit for club", "run scoring", and "sliding", though my favorites are from the intangibles section: "intelligence", "team play", "fitness", "unselfishness", and "hustle") were called the best in baseball history.

As you read Carey's explanations for his rankings, you learn that he is a bit biased towards his brand of baseball. He cites, for example, an "overemphasis on power" and relays facts as "base running was an art" on the old Pittsburgh Pirates teams.

Honus Wagner comes in as Carey's greatest player of all time, scoring perfectly in all categories. This is a fair conclusion (and let's not forget that Wagner was a shortstop). Most everything else is hard to justify, though. Eddie Collins, a man known for a high average, good speed, and a lot of hustle, takes second. George Sisler, known today only for his high batting average, takes third, ahead of Ty Cobb, who Carey knocks down solely because "he was so egocentric he never became a team player." Tris Speaker rounds out the top five. Stan Musial doesn't show up until seventh, with Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, and Lou Gehrig going tenth through twelfth. Babe Ruth falls all the way to 18th on Carey's list, just slightly ahead of Ted Williams (19th) and Roger Bresnahan (20th).

The Babe "could not bunt like Collins, hit to all fields like Cobb, or engineer the hit-and-run like Wagner. On the bases his talents were only adequate. In the field, though not a Speaker, he never took a ball off stride or threw to the wrong base. But he was not fast, did not keep in top condition, and at times he did not hustle as might have been expected of so great a star." Carey's convinced me: clearly, Babe Ruth just wasn't a great ballplayer.

Obviously, this list was only one (biased) man's opinion and not representative of the era at large. I have a hard time believing more than a handful of men in the 1950s viewed anyone other Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb as the greatest player of all time. But it's fun to look at nearly sixty years later, if only for a glimpse into that forgotten perspective. It also helps show us that people have been incorrectly judging players' places in history for a long time. I guess Stan McNeal is in good company.

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

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What was meant by the category of "Hit for Club"?

Jun 14, 2011 04:20 AM
rating: 0
BP staff member Larry Granillo
BP staff

He mentions playing "for the team, not his personal record" and then later talks about hitting behind the runner and such. Pretty sure that falls into the "Hit for Club" category.

I love how Babe Ruth and (e.g.) Joe DiMaggio are credited with the same power, but Ruth gets knocked down below most everyone for his bunting skills. As if his inability to bunt really hurt his game.

Jun 14, 2011 06:20 AM

Sadly the SAporting News now is to baseball what Rolling Stone is to music, i.e., lifestyle and target marketing rather than mundane information. There was a time, of course, when it was called the Bible. I recall scanning their weekly class C & D league batting and pitching stats when no one else was there to publish them. Not to mention AAA box scores.

Jun 14, 2011 07:37 AM
rating: 0

I'm just happy the Sporting News tries to be a daily online sports presence. And yes, it is just a shadow of its former self. But fortunately, all that information is contained in other places we can all fortunately find quickly, if at a potential cost.

Ruth? Who?

Jun 14, 2011 08:37 AM
rating: 0

I *love* this! I love the list!

So ... Ruth was a better bunter than Hornsby and Gerhig ... how cool is that!!!

I assume the issue is not with the individual scorings, but rather the weightings ... how would you adjust the weightings to get the results you think are right?

I wonder why Jackie Robinson and Splendid Splinter get ding'd for "Hit and Run"?

I wonder who 21-100 were?

I wonder who'd be the Top 20 today?

Jun 14, 2011 09:29 AM
rating: 1

"How would you adjust the weightings...?" This is what linear weights approaches attempt to answer.

Everybody, including Ruth, got 100 points for "Hit for Club", so it can't really be bat handling given the accompanying comments. Also, it is completely irrelevant to separating these players, apparently.

Jun 14, 2011 10:02 AM
rating: 0

I should have added: thanks for this, it's really cool to see. Whatever it's quirks, it is an early example of performance analysis.

Jun 14, 2011 10:06 AM
rating: 0

Nappy Lajoie: well-known bad slider.

Jun 14, 2011 12:10 PM
rating: 2

(Though, now that I think about it, sliding has become a lost art. I love those fadeaway-toe-to-the-bag slides you see in old footage.)

Jun 14, 2011 12:15 PM
rating: 0
Patrick M

Babe Ruth at #18 is just plain silly, but Honus Wagner at #1 had some plausibility. He was a devastating offensive force for the time, and was reputed to be a superlative defender.

I just love the whole notion of putting a number against "intangibles", of course: I do not deny that intangible qualities exist, nor that they can have an impact, but there is a reason why we call them "intangibles" :)

Jun 15, 2011 03:24 AM
rating: 0

Any idea why Musial gets dinged a few points for "Hustle"? Or why DiMaggio and Jackie Robinson get points off for "Fitness"? Are these just crank opinions, or do they reflect some kind of feeling at the time?

Jun 15, 2011 07:51 AM
rating: 0
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