I love the Baseball Hall of Fame. Or, at the very least I want to love it. I love the idea of a record of the best players in history. But, the politics of the Hall tend to bog down the recognition of the greats. You have steroid debates and Pete Rose debates and Black Sox debates and Jack Morris debates. Now, while those can be fun, it’s more fun to remember dudes who were really good at baseball and learn about other dudes who were really good at baseball.
Thusly, I have decided to establish my own personal Hall of Fame. Over the next few months I plan to evaluate over 300 players, whether they are currently in the real Hall of Fame or not, and decide if they are worthy of enshrinement. I’ll get into the details for the first real evaluation, but I wanted to first get some sort of foundation for the Hall. There are some players who aren’t worth mentally debating because they are so obviously Hall of Famers that more time should be spent thinking about how good they were. So, before we get into real evaluations, I picked out the 20 players I felt were most clearly Hall of Famers. All of them are currently in the Hall of Fame and all of them played baseball really well. Here they are:
Hank Aaron was, and I mean this as a compliment, the ultimate compiler. He relentlessly put up fantastic season after fantastic season and produced the gaudiest of career stats. When you think of Hank Aaron, do you normally think of a great contact hitter? I mean, sure, he put up .300 batting averages quite often, but he was no Tony Gwynn or Rod Carew when it came to pure hitting. Yet, he ranks third all time in career hits trailing only Ty Cobb, who was known for pure hitting, among other things, and Pete Rose who played 250 more games than anyone else in baseball history.
Johnny Bench is the consensus choice for greatest catcher of all time, and I can’t disagree. Bench was a great defender, and possibly the best hitter on some of the best hitting teams of all time.
Ty Cobb is the record holder for, among other things, highest career batting average, at an eye popping .366. Only seven times in the past 20 years had that mark been eclipsed in a single season, and three of those were in late 90s Coors Field, which only half counts. This record doesn’t get talked about often, mostly because career rate stats aren’t the sexiest record, but can you honestly see anyone breaking that? I means, it’s not Fernando Tatis’ single-inning Grand Slam record, but .366 is still an outrageous total.
Lou Gehrig was the record holder for most consecutive games played, until Cal Ripken managed to surpass him. Unlike Ripken, Gehrig’s streak was cut short by ALS which prevented him from playing. The clear question is, if it wasn’t for his bad break, to put it in his own words, how many more games could Gehrig have played? While he was 36 at the time of his diagnosis in 1939, Gehrig had still been a terrific player up until that year. His ’38 was quite good and his ’37 was an MVP level season (as most of Gehrig’s seasons were). Ty Cobb played until he was 42, and considering Gehrig’s devotion to his conditioning, it’s not hard to imagine that in some other timeline he could have played until that age, which you have been until 1945.That’s six more years, plus the vast majority of the ’39 season (he only played the first 8 games). Assuming he played in all of them and that there were no rainouts or tiebreakers, that would be an additional 1,070 games, bringing his total to an even 3,200. Would he have gotten that far? I don’t know. Was what he had accomplished already fantastic? Absolutely.
Rickey Henderson possibly had the most perfect approach for his particular skill set. For most of his career he was never better than a very good hitter, but he was good enough that you didn’t want to pitch to him. But you couldn’t walk him because he was an absolute terror on the basepaths. But you couldn’t paint the corners because his strike zone was deliberately tiny. There was no good way to deal with him.
Rogers Hornsby was probably the closest thing that Babe Ruth had to an equal in the twenties. From 1921-1925, he batted .402/.474/.690, which is silly. Despite being one of the greatest hitters of all time, Hornsby was also apparently a pain to be around. In his first season with the New York Giants, he hit .361 and 26 dingers, but was traded to the Braves at the end of the season for being a jerk. Was basically just as good for the Braves, but got traded again for essentially the same reason, this time to the Cubs. Had another preposterous season, but managed to stick around for a little longer in Chicago
Walter Johnson was, most likely the fastest pitcher ever. Now, while Aroldis Chapman holds the official record Nolan Ryan, Bob Feller, and Steve Dalkowski may have all hit higher on the radar gun (had such a thing existed for the latter two), but Johnson had two qualities that make him the fastest. First of all, lesser pitchers of his era were not pitching at modern speeds. A batter wasn’t going to see a 92 fastball very often, so a 98 fastball would be comparatively ridiculous. Second, and more importantly, unlike those guys, Walter Johnson didn’t walk guys at a high rate. If there is one old-timey pitcher who I would have loved to have seen with the benefits of modern nutrition and medicine, it would be Walter Johnson.
Greg Maddux was defined by dominant efficiency. Has a stat named after him (complete game shut outs on less than 100 pitches), of which he is the all time record holder. Pretty good for a guy who threw 88.
Mickey Mantle, while certainly well deserving of has spot in the upper echelon of the Hall, possibly had the most unachieved potential of any players on this list. While he certainly had many godlike seasons, equal to his cross town rival Willie Mays, Mantle battled significant health issues and personal demons which significantly curtailed the end of his career. Even still, he hit some of the most majestic home runs in history and all in all put up an enchanting career.
Christy Mathewson was first great pitcher of the twentieth century. His most notable accomplishment on the field was throwing three shut outs in five games in the 1905 World Series. Unlike most other players of the time, Matty was well-educated and intelligent, garnering him much respect both within the league and the general public. After his playing career, Matty strived to eliminate thrown games from baseball, both by outing notorious fixer Hal Chase and investigating the fixing of the 1919 World Series.
Willie Mays was the greatest all around player in history. All five traditional tools, good batting eye, gap power, generally awesome as a person. If you wanted to create the perfect baseball player, Willie Mays would be the starting point.
Joe Morgan might seem a little out of place among these players, as he lacks a single defining aspect that most of baseball’s greats have. He was a good defender in his prime, good batter with decent power. Stole a lot of bases but not an extraordinary amount. He did get on base about as well as anyone of his era. But two things push Morgan from clear Hall of Famer to the top tier of players. First of all, his raw stats aren’t initially eye-popping since he was playing in one of the most offensively challenged eras of all time. Compared to his peers, he was hitting at Rogers Hornsby levels. He was good at literally everything there is to be good at, at least for a baseball player. Sort of like Willie Mays, except not as good. All in all, Morgan is certainly deserving of this spot.
Stan Musial was the king of the extra base hit. Didn’t have the astonishing dinger power of Ruth or Bonds, but produced doubles, triples, and home runs all like no one else could, all while being an exemplary citizen. He was the man.
Jackie Robinson first broke into the majors in 1947, eight years before Brown v. Board of Education. Martin Luther King Jr. was still a teenager. Robinson didn’t just break barriers in baseball, but for all of American society. And he was a fantastic second baseman as well.
Babe Ruth was silly good at hitting baseballs really far. I’m not sure what else is necessary to mention.
Mike Schmidt was a player 30 years ahead of his time. While he was certainly well regarded in his era and would eventually become regarded as the best third baseman in history, his low average, high strikeout, high OBP approach would not become accepted as commonplace until recently. Even so, he was better at it than anybody, and combined with his superlative glove, certainly earned much recognition.
Tris Speaker was not quite as good as Ty Cobb, but then again, who was. Still, he hit almost as well as his contemporary in Detroit, and was certainly regarded as a better fielder. Known for playing extremely shallow in center field to avoid bloop singles. Less well known, but more impressive was his 1912 season in which he had an OBP of .464 to go with 52 stolen bases.
Honus Wagner by all accounts did not have the look of a baseball player, gangly and bowlegged, but still managed to be the supreme player of his day. In 1908 he put up a wonderful .354/.415/.542 line while the rest of the league put up a less wonderful .239/.297/.305. Wagner was also, by all accounts, a superb shortstop, noted for his enormous hands which were not much smaller than the gloves of his day. One of the few players who can claim to be without a doubt the best player of their era.
Ted Williams did not have 3,000 hits. Not even 2,700. When I first saw this I was shocked. But then I realized he missed all of three seasons to World War II and most of another two to the Korean War. If you give him 150 hits for each season lost (a very, very conservative estimate), he would have ended up at about 3,400. Probably would have hit 600+ home runs as well. Regardless, he was likely the greatest pure hitter ever.
Cy Young holds the second most unbreakable record in baseball (only after Fernando Tatis’ two grand slams in one inning, which is almost certainly impossible to be broken). Yes, sadly, his 316 losses will never be broken and he will forever be known as the losing pitcher of all time.
So that’s the first twenty. I’m not going to say this list accurately portrays the best twenty players in baseball history for certain. There are only four pitchers, which seems short, and there are quite a few guys who were basically as good, but missed the list because twenty is a nice round number. From now on, though, we’ll be looking at players, both current Hall of Famers as well as guys who haven’t been enshrined, seven at a time, to see who makes the cut.