THE GREATEST BASEBALL PLAYER
By Larry Gallagher
March, 2009 Then and Now Column
Have you ever debated with a friend on who is the best baseball player ever? I know I have. Our conclusion is that we have our own idea on who it is and we cannot come to any agreement. In this month’s column of Then and Now, we are going to explore that idea.
The problem with this great and fun debate is to define what we are debating. First, most of us are really speaking about the greatest hitter that also plays defense. I doubt many of us are speaking of a player’s defensive ability that also bats.
So, criteria #1 is hitting. Now, criteria #2 could be defensive ability or base running ability or even power. All of these can be defined with the player’s statistics in these areas. Another criterion would be comparing him to other hitters in his era and how he stacks up against them because they played with almost all the same conditions present. Some might use the criterion of strikeout per at bat ratio. Strike outs definitely hurt a player’s productivity. Many power hitters have a higher strikeout ratio than hitters that do not hit for power.
It seems the definition of the greatest player will be very difficult to agree upon. On the offensive side, should how he interacts with teammates be part of the equation? Even the era he performed in and how he played compared to his peers is part of the definition in some people’s opinions. How about popularity with the media or fans? How about his off-field behaviors such as, carousing, use of drugs, alcohol and even performance-enhancing drugs (steroids) or gambling on horses or even betting on other sports or his own sport?
I am going to try to analyze a number of offensive qualities to arrive at my definition of the greatest baseball player.
The criteria that I will be using are Home Runs, RBI, Stolen Bases, Batting Average, On Base Average + Slugging Average (OPS).
I will exclude pitchers because some were good hitters too but their main concern and ability was defensive. I will limit this quest to mostly offensive statistics.
Some of the best players are scattered throughout different eras of the game. Each of you probably have your favorites, as I do but I am going to look at players mostly because of their statistics and not with any preconceived notions.
There is a new statistic that is quite revealing. It is called the On Base Average + Slugging Percentage. It does not mention the formula for arriving at it but from what I can tell it is their OBA + their SLP added together to arrive at their OPS.]
In this category Babe Ruth is tops with a 1.1638 OPS. The 9 hitters behind him are in order Ted Williams (1.1155), Lou Gehrig (1.0798), Barry Bonds (1.0512), Albert Pujols (1.0489), Jimmie Foxx (1.0376), Hank Greenberg (1.0169), Todd Helton (1.0138), Rogers Hornsby (1.0103) and Manny Ramirez (1.0044). All players on the list have at least 3,000 at bats.
Three of these players are still playing and may be able to add or subtract from their average. Barry Bonds may be able to get back into the game but I doubt it.
Another statistic is just total bases and here we find Hank Aaron with the most RBI at 6,856 and the next in order is Stan Musial (6,134), Willie Mays (6,066), Barry Bonds (6,066), Ty Cobb (5,854), Babe Ruth (5,793), Pete Rose (5,752), Carl Yaztremski (5,539), Eddie Murray (5,397) & Rafael Palmeiro (5,388).
In the home runs category alone we have Barry Bonds with 762, Hank Aaron with 755, Babe Ruth with 714, Willie Mays with 660, Ken Griffey Jr. with 611, Sammy Sosa with 609, Frank Robinson with 586, Mark McGwire with 583, Harmon Killebrew with 573 and Rafael Palmeiro with 569.
So far we haven’t covered the 3,000 hits and 500 home run players. There are only 4 of them on this list. Hank Aaron has 755 home runs with 3,771 hits. Willie Mays is second with 660 home runs and 3,283 hits. Eddie Murray is third with 504 home runs and 3,255 hits and Rafael Palmeiro is fourth and last with 569 home runs and 3,020 hits.
Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey, Jr. might be able to reach these totals because they may have some time left in their careers to reach it. Bonds has 762 home runs and 2, 935 base hits. So he only needs 65 hits to reach 3,000. So, if anyone gives him a chance he might do it. Griffey may not have enough of his career left to be able to do it. He has 611 home runs and 2,680 hits. He is a long shot to get the 320 hits he needs to do it. This would mean 2 more years where he averages 160 hits in both of the years. He is young enough to do it but he has been hurt a lot in the last few years for him to be able to get that many hits in any one season.
That brings us to other players that did not have a full career such as Ted Williams missing 5 years to the armed forces and Willie Mays losing 2 years to the military too. Babe Ruth spent most of his time from 1914 to 1920 with the Red Sox and pitched and didn’t bat very often in those years.
One more statistic that is quite revealing is the 300-300 Club. In the history of the game 114 players have hit 300+ home runs and 145 have stolen at least 300 bases. But only 6 players have done both. This rare combination of skills and longevity to join this club is really important to the game and to the fans. Of the 6 players in the club 5 of them have combined to earn 36 Gold Glove awards as outfielders.
Barry Bonds leads this list with 757 HRs and 514 SBs; Willie Mays is 2nd with 660 HRs and 338 SBs; Andre Dawson is next with
438 HRs and 461 SBs; Reggie Sanders has 305 HRs and 304 SBs; Steve Finley rounds out this group with 304 HRs and 320 SBs. The last 4 don’t really match in many ways the top 2 guys because they are not very high in the other categories listed previously. It is also important to note that Barry Bonds is all by himself in the 500-500 club and also by himself in the 400-400 club. So, he is truly the best in this category and all by himself.
Of these players only Willie Mays is in the 300-300-3000 club. This means he has 300+ HRs, 300+ SBs and 3000 hits. No one can match his totals here.
The last comparison is how much did these players compare to the players of their eras. I am going to take only 3 players and speak about them in the era they performed. Babe Ruth pitched and played in the dead-ball era and also in the beginning of the live-ball era. He dominated the game at the time of his playing days. No one even came close to him in # of hits, home runs, total bases and RBI in his era. Lou Gehrig was the closest. He also helped the game by being a great drawing card after the Black Sox Scandal in the 1919 World Series.
Willie Mays was a dominant player also in his era except many of his contemporaries put up some of the same numbers he did at times. Mickey Mantle did a lot of the same things Willie did.
Barry Bonds also has done a lot to bring back the fans after the players strike. However, many of his contemporaries have also tainted the game of baseball along with Barry himself in the use of Anabolic Steroids. This will forever prevent him from really being thought of as the greatest player in the history of the game. Which in my opinion, his statistics prove he was.
However, even though my favorite player other than the catchers when I grew up is Willie Mays, my vote is for Babe Ruth because he far exceeded any of his contemporaries of his era.
With this said, I know some of you will disagree with my conclusions. I point out the number of lost opportunities that he had when he pitched and did not play every day in his first 5-6 years with the Red Sox. I point out that he hit 59 home runs before he hit 60 home runs in 2 different years. I point out all the teams he was on that won World Series. None of the others that have hit as well or better than the Babe can say they were on that many World Champions.MY VOTE FOR THE BEST BASEBALL PLAYER IS BABE RUTH
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