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This thoroughly revised edition of “Baseball’s Best 1,000” includes updated listings plus new players, rankings, and photographs, all in a handier format that makes it a terrific pocket reference.
A must-have book for baseball fans obsessed with stats, quick facts, and the age-old debates over who the best players are and why, “Baseball’s Best 1,000” showcases the lives, legends, and lore of the game’s top players, ranked in order. Sportswriter Derek Gentile has pared down the total list of players–tens of thousands of them–to an elite ranking of the thousand greatest, based on criteria including lifetime stats; player durability and consistency; All-Star participation; MVP, Gold Glove, and Cy Young awards; individual statistical championships; personal and professional contributions to the game; sportsmanship; and election to the Hall of Fame.
Each entry includes positions played, teams played for, years played, lifetime stats, and a biography of the player featuring his great moments and little-known facts.
*New players include Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina, and Manny Ramirez.
*Barry Bonds has moved up from Number 19 to Number 6.
*Roger Clemens has moved from Number 33 into the top 20.
*Dozens of Negro League players are here, as well as rankings of the best Japanese players, women players, and “prehistoric” players (from the time before stats were formally recorded).
For my father, Joseph Gentile, 1927-2012
This is an updated version of Baseball’s Best 1,000, which I wrote in 2004. It was an attempt to list, in some kind of order, the top 1,000 baseball players of all time. Many people liked it; some didn’t. But I had a good time writing it. This new edition gives me a chance to make a few changes and update the profiles that appear on these pages
I don’t want to beat the proverbial dead horse, so I won’t go into an extended explanation of how these rankings were put together. The way I compiled the list, as I explained in the previous introduction, was kind of backward. Instead of starting from Player Number One and moving on toward 1,000, I took every player in organized baseball and the Negro Leagues, and whittled the list down. There were about 20,000 players total with which to work, and after several weeks I got down to 2,800, then 1,500, then 1,000.
I tried to base the formula on a combination of real and comparative statistics. By that, I mean that Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs are factored in, as are his 2,213 RBI. But I also gave weight to the number of times he led the league in these categories, or finished second, or third, or whatever. This gave me a yardstick to, at least as I see it, measure players from different eras. In other words, if a guy won the home run crown five times between 1880 and 1900, as the Phillies’ Harry Stovey did, well, that had weight, regardless of how many he hit, which was about 10 a year.
In addition, I decided that players had to play at least 10 years. That enabled me to set some kind of guideline based on player durability.
The hardest things to factor in were awards. Yes, Don Mattingly won nine Gold Glove awards for his fine fielding at first base. Did he deserve all nine? Yankees fans will say yes. Non-Yankees fans may say no. I think he was a darn good defensive first baseman, and all those Gold Gloves meant other people did too.
In 1927, the MVP of the American League was Lou Gehrig. Not because he was better than Babe Ruth; he wasn’t. But at the time, the league’s sportswriters, who voted for MVP, had a silly rule that a ballplayer could win the award only once. That rule is no longer in force, but for my purposes, I had to give Gehrig’s MVP less weight than, say, Carl Yastrzemski’s award in 1967.
Similarly, selections to the midseason All Star teams have always been somewhat suspect. Major League Baseball specifies that every team in the league be represented at the All Star game. Certainly we all know of one or more players every year who are excluded from an All Star team because they are the third or fourth All Star on a team already sending two or three. That was a factor as well.
But these awards meant something. They meant that the individual had performed at a higher level than his peers, so they absolutely could not be ignored. And they were not. I have taken them all on a case-by-case basis.
The major exception in all this is the list of players from the Negro Leagues. In many cases, we are dealing with players with very incomplete stats. In a few cases, despite a lot of research, I sort of throw up my hands and indicate that the lifetime stats of a certain player just aren’t available. But I don’t want to give the impression that I based my ranking on guesswork in these cases. There are some great reference books out there on the Negro Leagues, and I have just about every one of them.
Anyway, because of that, while these stats are incomplete, they are not barren. We have a better-than-decent idea of the abilities of the Negro League players I list. So I did what I could.
That, in a nutshell, is how the list was compiled. If this sounds like a ponderous, tedious, difficult thing to do, I admit that parts of it were. But it’s kind of like eating one of those big, chocolate Easter bunnies: Once you start, you have to finish, sooner or later.
The interesting thing about lists is that everybody has one. And in the case of baseball, everyone seems to have three or four or five. I received a lot of feedback on this book, more than from any other baseball book I’ve written. Most people gave me credit for even trying to do what I did. Some people had suggestions. What I decided to do was list the suggestions—the reasonable ones—and let you, the reader, know what I did about them.
1. There are two Kid Gleasons.
Not anymore. That was a mistake, which we fixed. And, frankly, a list that was 99.8-percent correct ain’t too bad.
2. Where is Hall of Famer Goose Goslin?
Right there, at Number 210. He was not, however, in the last index, which generated a call from a Tigers fan.
3. Why are some Hall of Famers so far down on the list? Doesn’t the Hall of Fame induct the greatest players in baseball?
This is my list, not the Hall of Fame’s. That’s the easiest way to explain it. The Hall of Fame is run by some of the nicest, most professional people I have encountered in book-writing land. That said, I don’t agree with all their selections. Nor do you, dear reader, if I’m not mistaken. So some of these guys aren’t in the upper echelon of this book because, while they may have fit the guidelines of the Hall of Fame, they didn’t fit mine. That’s about it.
4. I can’t believe Pete Rose is at Number 28. Is this because of his gambling problems?
No. Pete Rose is where he is for a lot of reasons, but his penchant for betting on baseball was not a factor. To the folks who sent me reasoned letters and e-mails as to why their guy should be in or higher, or why someone who’s not their guy should be out or lower, I’m sorry. It’s not that I can’t defend this list, it’s that, again, this is my list. If you want to come to town and buy me lunch and argue it, that’s fine. If lunch is good enough, I may concede you have a point. But I doubt I’ll change my decision much.
5. Why is Barry Bonds in here? He’s a cheater, a steroid-abusing fool that spits in the eye of baseball and its fans. Cheaters should not be honored.
Ah, Barry Bonds. This was something of a toughie. Bonds was recently indicted for allegedly lying to a grand jury about his use of steroids. We have a sense that certain steroids are performance-enhancing drugs. That is, science has told us that steroid users are stronger and their recovery time from injury is shorter. That is an advantage. And, as my father pointed out, Bonds’s added strength means that balls he hit that were long outs, say, 10 years ago, are now home runs.
That said, we don’t know how long Bonds was on these steroids. And without some documentation, we don’t know what he actually ingested. (We think we know, based on published reports, but conjecture and proof are two different things. Take it from an old court reporter.)
I had no choice but to go by the numbers, which, as we all know, are considerable. Barry Bonds is the greatest player of our generation, drugs or no drugs, and this fact is reflected in his positioning. I don’t see how I can do anything else.
We also have a very interesting point brought up by Jose Canseco, a steroid user and proud of it. Canseco says that, by his estimation, 90 to 95 percent of the guys in baseball in the 1990s were on some kind of performance-enhancing steroid. Thus, he posited, Bonds accomplished all that he accomplished on a relatively level playing field. I don’t necessarily agree with that position, but it’s something to consider.
So here we are. The list you will read reflects who I think are the top 1,000 ballplayers today, in 2012. It is not the same list as the one in 2004, or the same one I updated in 2008. Just remember one thing: I had fun writing this book (as opposed to researching it!), so please have fun reading it.
George Herman “Babe” Ruth
P-OF-1B, Red Sox, Yankees, Braves, 1914–35
Hall of Fame, 1936
It’s been almost 100 years since the world first heard of George Herman Ruth. In that time, there have been a lot of great players. But over that 100-year span, it’s hard to argue that the man his teammates called “Jidge” isn’t still the greatest.
He started his baseball career as a left-handed catcher for the St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys. He was, in the words of one of his later teammates, Harry Hooper, a “green pea,” fresh off the streets of Baltimore. At St. Mary’s, Ruth was introduced to baseball, which gave him focus and structure. Since he was a big kid, he was a catcher at first and, on occasion, he pitched. Eventually, his coach at St. Mary’s decided the big fellow was better on the mound than behind the plate.
Ruth was eventually signed by the Baltimore Orioles at the time a successful minor league club. On one of his first days with the team, one of the veterans asked another who the new kid was. Oh, said the other vet, that’s [manager] Jack Dunn’s “baby.” A nickname was born.
He was a great pitcher for the Orioles. Signed by the Red Sox in 1914, he became a star in his second season. By 1915, he was arguably the best left-handed pitcher in the American League. His duels with the Senators’ Walter Johnson are considered classics.
That 1915 season was the first time he ever hit a home run, a mighty blast off New York pitcher Jack Warhop on May 5. He found he enjoyed it.
In 1920, the Red Sox sold Ruth to the New York Yankees. That trade may have been the most significant in baseball history. It marked the end of the Boston dynasty (four World Series wins in the decade) and the beginning of Yankee greatness.
The Yankees converted one of the best pitchers in baseball to an outfielder, a ridiculous concept even now. But of course, it worked. In 1921, he hit 59 home runs, more than every other team in the league. In 1927, he hit 60, still one of the top seasons in baseball history.
He was stylish, he was colorful. In 1930, Ruth signed for $80,000 per year, a figure that brought his annual salary to $5,000 more than President Herbert Hoover. A reporter asked Ruth how he could justify making more than the president of the United States of America.
“Well,” said Ruth, “I had a better year than he did.”
His pitching and hitting records have, for the most part, been broken over the last few decades. But his legacy as baseball’s star of stars endures.
LIFETIME STATS: BA: .342, HR: 714, RBI: 2,213, H: 2,873, SB: 123. W: 95, L: 46, SV: 4, ERA: 2.28, SO: 488, CG: 107
Willie Howard “Say Hey Kid” Mays
OF-1B, Giants, Mets, 1951–73
Hall of Fame, 1979
Speed (led the NL in stolen bases four consecutive years). Power (second player in baseball history to hit 600 home runs, ending up with 660). Durability (20 consecutive All-Star Game appearances).
In Willie Mays’ case the numbers shout for themselves: This is an all-time great.
Mays was a star in the Negro Leagues for a few years, before being signed by the New York Giants. His first year in the Big Apple was 1951, the year the Giants edged the Dodgers for the National League crown. Mays, in fact, was in the on-deck circle when the Giants’ Bobby Thomson hit his historic home run.
Mays won 11 Gold Glove Awards. His most famous defensive play came in the 1954 World Series, off Cleveland’s Vic Wertz. Wertz ripped a deep fly ball to center field. Mays turned and ran full speed to the center field wall, and caught the ball over his shoulder, a feat that is still seen on replays.
When appraised of the play, Mays was always quick to point out that the reason the catch was so vital was that he also had to make a throw afterwards, as there were less than two outs, with men on base.
Mays won MVP awards in 1954 and 1965. There are at least three other years in which his statistics are comparable to or better than those years, but the fact is, baseball writers were always uneasy awarding to many MVP awards to one player.
LIFETIME STATS: BA: .302, HR: 660, RBI: 1,903, H: 3,283, SB: 338
Johannes Peter “Honus” Wagner
SS-OF-1B-3B, Louisville, Pirates, 1897–1917
Hall of Fame, 1936
The story goes that one day in Pittsburgh, Wagner was manning his shortstop position when he reached around with his glove hand to pull out a chaw of tobacco from his back pocket. (In the early days of baseball, players wore gloves that more closely resembled golf gloves.) The batter hit a sharp grounder his way. Wagner calmly bare-handed the ball and gunned it over to first, thus throwing out a man with one hand behind his back.
Wagner was stocky, barrel-chested and had shovels for hands. Legend has it that when he dug balls out of the infield dirt and zipped them over to first base, a small load of stones and dirt would travel with the ball.
He played virtually every position except catcher. He was a tremendous hitter, winning eight batting titles and six slugging average titles. He hit over .300 16 times, led the league in doubles seven times and triples three times. He stole 722 bases, and led the league in that category five times.
In 1902, Wagner played 61 games in the outfield, 44 at shortstop, 32 games at first base, one at second base and pitched once. He didn’t make an error at any of those positions. From 1913 to 1916, he led the league’s shortstops in fielding position.
Wagner was a terrific athlete: He may well have been the first baseball player to lift weights, and he was a fanatic about a new game that had recently been invented in Springfield called basketball. He played baseball until he was 43 and was perhaps the best 40-year-old player in baseball history.
LIFETIME STATS: BA: .327, HR: 101, RBI: 1,732, H: 3,415, SB: 722
Tyrus Raymond “Ty” Cobb
OF-1B, Tigers, A’s, 1905–28
Hall of Fame, 1936
Seventy-five years after he retired from baseball, Ty Cobb still owns the best career batting average of all time: .366. And he still holds the distinction of being the nastiest SOB of all time. There are no stats for that; Cobb has retired the trait.
Be that as it may, the man could hit: a total of 12 batting championships, including five in a row from 1911 to 1915. He had back-to-back .400 seasons in 1911 and 1912, with another .400 season in 1922, and more than 4,100 career hits, a record that stood for 50 years.
Cobb wasn’t a slugger in the present sense of the word, but he still had a career slugging percentage of .512, and led the league in that category eight times.
And he could run: 892 stolen bases, leading the league six times. He was the all-time leader until Lou Brock passed him in 1978.
Was he mean? Yeah, he was mean. He used to sharpen his spikes in the dugout as opposing teams took batting practice, and he wasn’t afraid to jab a slow-footed infielder when sliding into second or third base. He had more than his share of fights, and in 1912, went into the stands after a heckling fan.
He’s known to have cheated. According to pitcher Dutch Leonard, he paid off Cleveland’s Tris Speaker and Joe Wood to throw a game to the Tigers so Detroit could finish third. He may have tried to fix other games, but it was impossible to determine.
Cobb, were he alive today, would probably say that he played to win, at any cost. He did. And it paid off. In 1936, he was the top vote-getter for the first class of the Baseball Hall of Fame, topping Babe Ruth, Cy Young and Honus Wagner.
LIFETIME STATS: BA: .366, HR: 117, RBI: 1,937, H: 4,189, SB: 892
Walter “The Big Train,” “Barney” Johnson
RHP, Senators, 1907–27
Hall of Fame, 1936
Johnson was a 6′1″ strikeout machine, an affable soul who could buzz a baseball from the mound to home plate as fast as anyone in history.
It was, at least partly, the arms. Johnson had long, limber arms, and he threw the ball with an easy sidearm motion that arrived in his catcher’s mitt with a sound like a rifle shot.
Johnson played his entire career with the Washington Senators, an organization not particularly known for its acumen. With Johnson leading the way, the Senators did manage a pair of World Series appearances, and in 1924, he was a world champion.
The story of that final game is one of the fine yarns of World Series play. Johnson pitched four innings of scoreless relief in Game Seven after pitching a complete game two days earlier. Teammate Early McNeely’s 12th-inning seeing-eye single scored the winning run.
Johnson was the Sultan of Strikeouts, to borrow a nickname from his contemporary, Babe Ruth. The Big Train (so named for the locomotive-like velocity of his pitches) led the league in strikeouts 12 times, in shutouts seven times, in wins and complete games six times and in ERA five times.
Johnson won 417 games and saved 34 more for the Senators.
He was as affable as Ty Cobb was rambunctious. Old-timers swore that when Johnson was far ahead in a game, he would ease up on a rookie or former teammate and let them get a hit. It’s probably true.
LIFETIME STATS: W: 417, L: 279, SV: 34, ERA: 2.17, SO: 3,509, CG: 531
Barry Lamar Bonds
OF, Pirates, Giants, 1986–2007
The new home run king, Bonds is one of the greatest offensive performers in baseball history. The 14-time All Star has been the Most Valuable Player of the National League seven times, in 1990, 1992, 1993, 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004. In three of those years, he was voted the Player of the Year in the Major Leagues.
Throughout most of his career, Bonds has never been far from the top. He was the runner-up to the National League MVP award twice, in 1991 and 2000. In 1994, he was fourth in the voting, and in 1996 and 1997, he was fifth.
Bonds is the all-time leader in walks, with 2,515; second in career extra-base hits, with 1,425; third in career runs scored, with 2,198; fourth in career total bases, with 5,906; and third in RBI, with 1,996. Heck, he’s even 32nd on the stolen-base list, with 514. In the field, Bonds has won eight Gold Gloves.
If there is a knock on Bonds, statistically, it’s that his postseason work has not been as stellar. His teams, the Pirates and the Giants, have made it to the postseason nine times, winning only two series, in 2002, when San Francisco defeated Atlanta and St. Louis before falling to the Angels in the World Series.
Bonds has batted .245 in postseason play, with nine homers and 24 RBI. His best three series were in 2002, when he hit .294 with three home runs against the Braves in the Divisional Series, .273 with six RBI against the Cardinals in the Championship Series and a stellar .471 in his only trip to the World Series.
On Nov. 15, 2007, Bonds was indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly lying to another grand jury in 2003 about his use of performance-enhancing steroids. Bonds pled not guilty to four counts of perjury and one count of obstruction of justice. His trial is expected to start sometime in late 2008. His adherents will say, this is a player who stands above all others of his generation. His detractors will say the numbers are artificial. But Bonds is clearly the greatest player of his time, steroids or no steroids.
LIFETIME STATS: BA: .298, HR: 762, RBI: 1,996, H: 2,935, SB: 514
Mickey “The Commerce Comet” Mantle
OF-1B-SS, Yankees, 1951–68
Hall of Fame, 1974
Mantle was a man blessed with thunderous home run power and blazing speed. He was named after Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane, and he was even better than Cochrane.
Where to start? He was a switch-hitter who hit 536 home runs: 373 from the left side of the plate, 163 from the right. With his great upper body strength, some of those home runs were monster shots, like the one on May 22, 1963, which almost carried out of Yankee Stadium.
But he was also a tremendous bunter and base stealer. Mantle stole 153 bases, including 21 in 1959. He was only caught stealing three times that year. With his speed, he also hit 72 career triples, leading the league with 11 in 1955.
Mantle, a 16-time All Star, won the Triple Crown in 1956, with 52 home runs, 130 RBI and a .353 batting average. He won the MVP award that year, as well as in 1957 and 1962. He also won a Gold Glove in 1962. He was as fast afield as he was on the base paths, and had a rocket arm.
He was a clutch player, who regularly played in pain. He was also a great teammate who befriended rookies and marginal players throughout his career. He was a leader on the Yankees and a huge fan favorite throughout his career.
He may have hung in with the Yankees a few years too long, at least by some folks’ standards. But let’s face it: The Mick loved the game, and it was hard to let go.
LIFETIME STATS: BA: .298, HR: 536, RBI: 1,509, H: 2,415, SB: 153
Theodore Samuel “Ted,” “Teddy Ballgame,” “The Kid,” “The Splendid Splinter,” “The Thumper” Williams
OF, Red Sox, 1939–42, 1946–60
Hall of Fame, 1966
It is hard to believe that Ted Williams, a man who was so much larger than life, is no longer with us. We want him to be like those actors on the silver screen: undaunted, immortal, unconquerable.
He wanted to be known as the greatest hitter who ever lived. He might have been. He didn’t hit for as much power as Babe Ruth (although he lost four years to two wars, and still hit 521 homers). He didn’t make as many hits as Ty Cobb (although his career on-base percentage is almost 50 points higher: .482 to .433).
Five times in his career, in fact, Williams had an on-base percentage of .500 or better. The year he hit .406, it was .553, a record at the time. That meant that 55 percent of the time, when Williams came to bat, he at least made it to first base. He was as nearly unstoppable as a player could be.
He played hard every game. He played on great Red Sox teams in the late 1940s, and he played on awful Red Sox teams in the 1950s. He hit .406 in 1941, two numbers every baseball fan worth his salt knows. He hit .400 two other times, albeit in shortened seasons: In 1952 he hit .400 in the first six games of the season and went back into the service to fight in the Korean War. He came back from that war late in 1953 and hit .407.
He was an authentic American hero who fought in World War II and the Korean conflict. His plane was shot down in the Korean War and he almost died. But Williams didn’t want to sit on an Army base and play on a club team: He wanted to be where the action was.
He won six batting titles, two MVP awards, four home run crowns, a Triple Crown in 1942 and was a 17-time All Star. He was a great player. When he was elected to the Hall of Fame, he used his acceptance speech to lobby for the great players of the Negro Leagues to be inducted. And soon, of course, they were.
LIFETIME STATS: BA: .344, HR: 521, RBI: 1,839, H: 2,654, SB: 24
Joshua “Josh” Gibson
C, Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords (Negro Leagues), 1929–46
Hall of Fame, 1972
He was a stellar player in a legendary league. He was Josh Gibson, “the Black Babe Ruth,” the greatest catcher of all time, the best position player in Negro League history.
His numbers are stratospheric. He is credited with 962 home runs over his long career, although there were several years in which he played a Negro League season and then headed south and played in either the Dominican League or the Mexican League. Still, 962 home runs are 962 home runs. Author John Holway’s statistical analysis of the Negro Leagues credits Gibson with 224 in Negro League play.
He is credited with 84 homers in 170 games in 1936, which includes non–Negro League contests. He hit 75 homers in 1931 and 69 in 1934. He is credited with hitting a ball nearly out of Yankee Stadium when the Grays played an exhibition game there one year.
His .351 batting average in Negro League play is the third-highest of all time. Gibson would routinely hit .400 or better in winter league play. In 1937, Gibson hit .479 in the Puerto Rican League. He was elected to nine Negro League All Star teams, where he hit an amazing .483 in All Star contests.
Defensively, Gibson was extremely quick, with a rifle arm. He was also a good base runner, and exceptionally fast for a catcher.
Gibson was a big man, at 6′1″, 210 pounds. His easygoing nature was often interpreted as ignorance or low intelligence by writers and even fellow Negro League players. But it’s hard to believe a dumb guy could be such a great player.
In 1943, Gibson suffered a nervous breakdown, and his skills eroded quickly after that. He had begun to drink and probably also took drugs. He was still a good player for the next few years, but he was no longer the greatest. Early in 1947, he suffered a fatal stroke.
LIFETIME STATS: BA: .351, HR: 224, H: 1,010
Stanley Frank “Stan the Man” Musial
OF-1B, Cardinals, 1941–63
Hall of Fame, 1969
Consistency, durability and affability were the hallmarks of this man, the greatest player in a storied St. Louis Cardinal history.
In fact, the consistency of Stan the Man was taken to an amazing extreme: Musial had 1,815 hits at home and 1,815 on the road. He scored 1,949 runs and drove in 1,951.
His nickname, “Stan the Man” was a token of respect, bestowed on him by awed Dodger fans in the 1940s, as Musial led the Cardinals to four pennants in five years from 1942 to 1946. Musial, like the vast majority of his fellow ballplayers, didn’t play in 1945, as he was in the Navy.
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