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.