I have a confession. I suppose it’s not a very juicy confession. But all the same, I feel like I need to confess that I love All-Time teams. Or, at least, I used to love them. I used to make them when I was bored in school in the backs of my notebooks. All-Time Twins. All-Time Yankees. All-Time Guys Named Mike. And I was a sucker for other people’s All-Time teams too. Babe Ruth made a team of what he thought were the greatest players in baseball history back in the 1930s and named Hal Chase and Ray Schalk to it. Walter Johnson, and Rogers Hornsby and Ty Cobb published their dream teams too. Cobb put Buck Weaver at third base, while The Big Train honored both Chase and Johnny Kling. One of my first baseball books I owned as a kid was an old library book from 1963 that listed Pie Traynor as the greatest 3B in history. I’d read any of that stuff.
Which is why I was excited to hear about Graham Womack’s All-Time Dream Project, which asked fans to vote on the greatest players in baseball history and got heavy-hitting writers like Craig Calcaterra, Josh Wilker, and Dan Szymborski to write about them. Graham’s project, which is also raising money to run journalism workshops for kids, is great. And I don’t want to take anything away from it. But in the afterglow, Craig wrote about how the results illustrated that we may be overvaluing the past, saying “We get locked into older things first, and it’s that much harder for us to appreciate more recent greatness…. I think [voters] pick Rogers Hornsby over Joe Morgan because their father said he was the best and because the pictures of him are in black and white and, boy, if that ain’t history, I don’t know what is.”
Adam Darowski, of Beyond the Boxscore, agreed and noted that Womack’s team exactly matches the one you get if you go by Baseball-Reference’s EloRater, and wondered “Why in general do we seem to love nostalgia so much when taking part in projects like these? I keep hearing people say ‘the players are better now than ever’, but we never seem to vote that way.”
Moreover, the lists are virtually identical to the one published by the Baseball Writers Association of America in 1997 (although the BBWAA also chose a DH, a left-handed starting pitcher, and a reliever for its team). And it would be the same if you chose the highest-listed player at each position on Sporting News’ 100 Greatest Players of All Time list. And if you look at the WAR leaders at each position from 1900-2012 (WARP only goes back to 1950 and therefore doesn’t account for the careers of Ruth, Gehrig, Wagner, Hornsby, Johnson), it turns out these lists are all just WAR lists, except that enough people want to pretend that Barry Bonds’ career didn’t happen that he gets stuck in behind Teddy Ballgame.
The list of baseball’s best seems to have become calcified in the public consciousness, supported by stats, and is unbudgable. That takes a hell of a lot of the fun out of it, if you ask me. We have the answers, or at least a set that are generally agreed upon, so why bother asking the question when the only debate we get left with is about Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and where the rest of the Negro Leaguers would stack up. And even that question is largely unknowable.
Which is why we need to look at the history of the game with a fresh eye and stop comparing so much across eras. If we’re going to keep having this discussion (and I think we should, given the interest it tends to generate in fans of all stripes), I’ve long believed that it doesn’t make sense to consider pitchers like Walter Johnson or Cy Young in the same categories as Greg Maddux and Tom Seaver. Nor do I think it’s particularly instructive to compare Ty Cobb with Ken Griffey, Jr. The games they played, in my mind, are far too different. Fielding percentages are far higher and balls travel further in the modern game, reducing the advantage of simply making contact. The expectations of pitchers for both a game-to-game and a full-season basis have radically changed with the invention and implementation of the modern bullpen and safeguards to at least try to keep pitchers on the field for as many years as possible.
Finally, it’s ludicrous to rank players like Hornsby and Wagner relative to Morgan and Ripken by comparing them to their peers when Hornsby and Wagner were indisputably not facing the best baseball talent available. And I’m not just talking about the shameful ban against black and Latino players, but also a strong minor league system where teams often found it in their best interest to hold onto their local stars for as long as possible, or to sell them to the Pacific Coast League, instead of passing them up the food chain at the whim of the major-league clubs. Today’s amateur ranks and minor leagues are set up so that prospects don’t fall through the cracks, and the cream rises, but that has not been the case for much of baseball’s history.
All of which makes me think: maybe it’s time to stop wondering so much about who the best players of “all time” are and start wondering about the best players of our time. Let’s focus on the history of the game after World War II, when we are more confident in the talent-development system, when all players were welcomed into the majors regardless of race, and when the game more closely resembled what we are watching now. At least then we’ll know what we’re talking about. And if we can all agree to do that, here are my nominations for the modern dream team:
There. I’m sure we can all disagree with somebody on that list.