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?
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Care to say why you feel that way?
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).
I don't think I agree, though, that Williams could place above both Cobb and Mays during their retired years.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So, give me a coupla minutes and I'll see who would hold the title when Walter passed away in '46...
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...
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.
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."
So I'm not too sure about the great "character guy".
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.
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.