You know, I thought this was a fun idea. Pick the 10 greatest players of all time. What a cool midsummer project, I thought — until I actually had to come up with the 10. Then I realized the word for this was not “fun.”
How about “impossible?” I’m going with that word. Impossible. Can’t be done.
Like my friend, Dave Schoenfield, I didn’t like the idea of compiling a list comprised mostly of guys who were active in, like, 1923. I’ve covered baseball for more than 30 years. I’ve seen greatness with my own eyeballs. I wanted to honor that greatness.
But if you just try this for yourself at home, you’ll get why even that sentiment turned into such a nightmare. If you include Rickey Henderson or Randy Johnson or Alex Rodriguez or Greg Maddux, then who the heck are you expelling from the top 10? Ted Williams? Stan Musial? Cy Young? Honus Wagner? Lou Gehrig? You’re kidding, right?
So humor me as you read these names, OK? One of the basic rules of top-10 lists is that you can’t cram 30 names in there, with evil tricks like, “… and in a 20-way tie for 10th … .” But trust me. It’s tempting. That’s how many names I played around with — for more than a week.
I settled on this list. But I have a notebook full of crossed-out names, arrows pointing upward and downward, other names scrawled in margins. So you know what I’ll say when you start screaming about the two dozen legends you think have to be in the top 10? You’re right! Now you try it.
10. Mike Schmidt
I covered this man for a decade in Philly. So I’m going to make an informed guess that he got booed more than all the other players on this list put together. But a funny thing happened while Philadelphia was taking his talents totally for granted: Schmidt was building a case as one of our planet’s greatest living players. He won more home run titles, eight, than anyone except Babe Ruth. He won more Gold Gloves, 10, than any third baseman except Brooks Robinson. He cranked out annual 35-homer, 100-walk, .900-OPS, Gold Glove seasons like an assembly line. He collected three MVP trophies and a World Series MVP award along the way. The best player I ever covered. So why is he here? Because it’s my list. That’s why.
9. Rogers Hornsby
You can tell it isn’t easy to crack this list if a guy who once batted .402 over a five-year span (1921-25) only shows up at No. 9. And I’ll admit, I actually thought about leaving Hornsby off this top 10 entirely — until it hit me: That would be insane. I don’t care how different the game was in this man’s heyday, roughly 1916-31. I’ll even allow you to look past his .358 career batting average — the best in modern NL history — if you’re not a fan of stuff like batting averages. If we can’t find room in our top 10 for a fellow with a .434 career OBP, a guy who led his league in slugging nine times (second only to Ruth), a guy who led the National League in OPS in all but one season of the ’20s, then we’re trying way too hard to make some other point. And I guess I’m just not going to be that guy.
8. Stan Musial
Here’s another man I wasn’t capable of leaving off this list. Musial spent his whole life being way too underrated and far too overlooked. So you’ll never, ever catch me overlooking him. Got it? Back in 2003, after Williams died, Sports Illustrated polled 550 active players and asked them who should succeed Williams as baseball’s greatest living player. Musial not only finished eighth, he barely got more votes than Babe Ruth, who had stopped qualifying as, well, “living” a mere 55 years earlier. So let’s correct this injustice one more time. Musial won seven batting titles. He walked more than twice as many times as he struck out. His career slash line of .331/.417/.559 is topped by just four men since 1900 (Hornsby, Williams, Ruth and Gehrig). And he was so good for so long, he actually had a higher OPS at 41 (.924) than he had at 21 (.888). I love this man. He’s the most criminally underappreciated great player of modern times.
7. Ted Williams
When you’re trying to figure out, in your own feeble way, who belongs on these lists and who doesn’t, in the end, it can’t be just about numbers. I know there are people in this land who believe that only the numbers matter. I’m just not one of those people. You want numbers? Williams owns the highest career on-base percentage (.482) in the history of baseball. We could stop the numbers portion of this competition right there. But Williams also had something else. Namely, an aura about him that, later in his life, could bring grown All-Stars to tears (see: 1999 All-Star Game). I’ll confess right here: I’m fascinated by this guy and everything about him. By how he talked. By how he thought. By how he prepared. And by every awesome Williams story I’ve ever heard. One of my favorites comes from Leigh Montville’s incredible book, “Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero.” The story is about a blind man who used to go to Fenway just to “hear” Williams hit, because the sound was so different from when anyone else hit that even a blind man could tell the difference. Wow. It’s worth including him in this top 10 just for that story.
6. Walter Johnson
There aren’t enough pitchers on this list. I plead guilty to that charge. I’m not even sure why. Could have included Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Cy Young, Tom Seaver, Grover Cleveland Alexander or even Kid Nichols, and I’d have felt fine about it. Instead, the only pitcher who made my top 10 was the Greatest Pitcher Who Ever Lived. And that’ll have to work. Have you ever taken a good look at Walter Johnson’s career? These were his year-by-year ERAs from 1910-16: 1.36, 1.90, 1.39, 1.14, 1.72, 1.55, 1.90. In real life. More than 300 innings in every one of those years. After his first 13 seasons, his career ERA was 1.65. And his Adjusted ERA-plus was 172. That’s how much better he was than everybody else. I have no idea how the Big Train would have fared if he had to pitch in this century instead of his own. But his strikeout rate was 55 percent higher than the average pitcher of his generation, which makes him the equivalent of what, say, Jose Fernandez is in 2016. So I’m guessing Johnson wouldn’t have been any team’s No. 4 starter.
5. Hank Aaron
Is it possible Aaron is underrated? OK, I guess not. If you’re the answer to the question, “Who played in more All-Star Games than any player in history?” it might be impossible to describe you as underrated. But now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, do we truly recognize Aaron’s astonishing year-in and year-out greatness? This man got MVP votes in 19 consecutive seasons. In the 16 seasons from 1956-71, there was only one in which he didn’t end the year in the top four in wins above replacement among all NL position players. He finished in the top three in his league in slugging 13 times, in the top five in the batting race 10 years in a row, in the top five in OPS eight years in a row and in the top four in total bases 14 times in 15 years. He won three Gold Gloves, once stole 31 bases and was still thumping 40 homers and slugging .643 at age 39. And you’ll notice it took this long before I even mentioned that he broke a certain exalted home run record, amid a racial hailstorm, while exuding a sense of dignity that has never faded to this day. Hank Aaron. American icon.
4. Ty Cobb
When you see where Cobb lands on our final #MLBRank top 100, it’s possible you’ll be shocked. I know I was. And it wouldn’t surprise me if one of the reasons people voted the way they did had nothing to do with how good this man was at baseball. There’s an excellent chance it was actually because Cobb is so widely believed to have been a vicious, spike-sharpening racist that he showed up in a 2004 book entitled “American Monsters,” in which he was lumped with a cast of characters that included Charles Manson, John Wilkes Booth and (yep) O.J. But if you believe that too, I’m guessing you haven’t read Charles Leerhsen’s amazing book, “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty.” It convinced me that there’s as much myth attached to Cobb’s reviled image as there is reality. So if this is just about baseball, there’s pretty much no way to argue Cobb isn’t one of the four greatest players who ever lived. He has the best career batting average of all time (.366). He won 12 batting titles in 13 years. And he’s the only man who could ever say he once led his league in homers, steals, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage in the same year. Hard to do, folks!
Yeah, I’ve read “Game of Shadows.” Yeah, I have a pretty good idea how Bonds turned into the all-time Home Run King. Hey, I’ll tell you what. I’ll have a grand jury sort that out some day. All I know is, in my time covering baseball, this was the best player I ever saw, so I wasn’t going to find a reason to leave him off my list. How feared a hitter was Barry at his most terrifying? How about this: He was handed more intentional walks in one year (120, in 2004) than Alex Rodriguez has accumulated in 22 years (97). I’ll give you a moment to digest that. Now let’s finish this thought: Maybe if Bonds hadn’t been on a Hall of Fame track before his Game of Shadows phase, I’d reconsider this ranking. But from the day he set foot in the big leagues in 1986 until he got jealous of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa after 1998, guess who led all players in baseball in wins above replacement? Right. It was Barry Lamar Bonds, of course, with 99.6. And it wasn’t even close. Ken Griffey Jr. was second — with 65.6. So does Barry belong on this list? Heck yeah, he does.
2. Willie Mays
Does this even need explaining? The only debate is whether Mays should be the first, second or third name in this distinguished group. He’s our greatest living player. He’s the only member of the 600 Home Run, 300 Steal, 3,200 Hit Club. He was very possibly the best offensive and defensive outfielder of his time. He’s definitely the only man ever to rip off 10 straight seasons that included a Gold Glove and at least 29 home runs. And Brian Kenny’s fun new book, “Ahead of the Curve,” makes an excellent case that he should have, or at least could have, won 10 MVP awards, not two. Willie Mays. Awesome. I’d have been happy to rank him at No. 1. Except for this guy …
1. Babe Ruth
My buddy Schoenfield ranked the Bambino fourth, based on the supposition that Ruth wouldn’t have been the same player in our time that he was in his time. Fun argument. But I’m not here to even attempt to rank Ruth in any alternative universe. So let’s just ask what he was in the universe he existed in. Answer: Oh, only the most important and transformative hitter/pitcher/larger-than-life character ever. That’s all. In that brief period when he was pitching for a living, he was the most unhittable left-handed pitcher in baseball. (Look it up sometime.) Then he found other stuff to keep him busy. And once he grabbed a bat full time, he was so much better than anyone else at hitting a baseball over a fence that he had a season in 1920 in which there was only one team in the entire sport that hit more home runs than he hit. So has there ever been anyone like that in any sport? Best pitcher. Best hitter. Best personality. Best gate attraction. Best headline generator. Best nickname. Best reason for his team to build a ballpark tailored pretty much for him. All I know is, if he were alive today, he’d definitely host the ESPYS. So I’ll be happy to listen to any and all arguments for other guys as the No. 1 player of all time. But here’s how I’d describe those arguments: Wrong!