All Time Greatest Baseball Team

Major Leagues All Time Greatest Team:

Let’s start with the conditions of the game we need to adjust for in our evaluations. The timeline first because it’s the most impactful. Baseball in the 1870s was very primitive, but it caught on in America rapidly and by the 1890s was clearly the National Pastime. Improvements in the game were very rapid for the first 30 years. The game we know today was pretty well intact by the late 1890s. From that point the game improved steadily until the 1940s. That’s when the majority of Major League Players went off to fight a war. Baseball during the war probably descended to the level of about the turn of the 20th century. 

Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson changed all that in 1947. With the introduction of black players the game had another rapid improvement in quality. By the 1960s, the game was fully integrated, and the quality of play was at an all time high.  

Football took over as the most popular sport in the 1970s, and baseball started losing America’s best athletes to the gridiron. Basketball exploded in the 1980s, causing baseball to lose even more quality athletes. The population continued to grow, and training methods improved dramatically, but young people playing baseball began to shrink. We think that has caused a long term drag on the quality of play in the Major Leagues. 

Here’s the problem with the timeline adjustment, where do you draw the lines? If we look at the best player in baseball as a sequence it could give us a hint. George Wright was the first “Best Player in Baseball”, followed in order by Cap Anson, Buck Ewing, Kid Nichols, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Mike Schmidt, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Mike Trout.

Starting with Wagner, the next four players made our AL or NL All Star teams, along with 7 of the next 14. All these players except Ewing made the All Time Team for their respective franchises. There’s only one line that is incontrovertible, and that’s 1947 and Jackie Robinson, the rest are very arbitrary. Allowing that this is not an exact science, this is how we did it. We discount substantially all players before the 1890s, and then adjust gradually upward until 1941, when players who dominated during World War II are heavily discounted. By the late 1950s the game reached levels never again attained and it lasted until the mid 1970s. The 1980s and 1990s were not up to the levels of the 1960s, but the technological and training advancement of the last 20 years has brought baseball back to their highest levels, despite the smaller core of young people who choose baseball. 

How about the leagues? They also cause us a problem when rating because they are not always equal. The biggest discrepancy is probably from 1910 to 1920, when the American League won 9 of the 11 World Series contests, and only lost in 1919 because their champion sold out to gamblers and threw the Series. The American League dominance in that decade has never again been matched, but certain leagues seem to be better throughout history. We’re not going to go into the methodology to determine this, just know that there are logical reasons. The National League was the better league from 1876 to 1909 when the American League took over. Their dominance lasted about 30 years until about 1940. That’s when the National League gained supremacy that lasted until about 1983, when the American League had the edge. Inter-league play began in 1997, so from then on it seems logical that the winner of inter-league play must have been better. They were pretty even through 2003 when the American League became dominant, winning the inter-league battle for the next 14 years.The National League have held the edge in 2018 and 2019. 

We also look at end of season awards. Specifically the Most Valuable Player Awards and Cy Young Awards for pitchers. The Cy Young Award was not awarded until 1956, but the MVP Awards have existed off and on since 1911. From 1911 to 1914 the Chalmers Award was presented to the player selected in each league to reward “the most important and useful player to the club and to the league”. The Chalmers was ended when the sponsor (Chalmers Car Company) withdrew their sponsorship in 1914. A new award was introduced in the American League in 1922 described as “the baseball player who is the greatest all-around service to his club.” It was voted on by a group of baseball writers representing each city in the American League. The only players ineligible for the award were previous winners. The National League followed suit in 1924. This award lasted until 1928 in the American League and 1929 in the National League. The Baseball Writers of America (BBWAA) took over in 1931 with the award that is still presented until this time. These awards give us the best information of how players were viewed by well informed scribes at the time the players were active.

The final clarification is what position to list players. Most of the time it’s very obvious. When doing our franchise teams we used the criteria that we were trying to create the best team. Therefore we put Craig Biggio at catcher for the Astros, Paul Waner in left field for the Pirates, and Paul Molitor at second base for the Brewers. In this rating Biggio is a second baseman, Waner is a right fielder and Molitor a third baseman. There’s only a few that are difficult to categorize. Pete Rose didn’t play 50% of his games at any one position ( 27% 1B, 19% LF, 18% 3B, 18% 2B, 17% RF), so we’ll compare him at all 5 positions. Alex Rodriguez, Robin Yount and Ernie Banks basically split their time between two positions: Rodriguez shortstop (52%) and third base (48%), Yount shortstop (55%) and center field (42%), Banks shortstop (45%) and first base (51%). Even though Banks played more games at first his overall value was higher at short (81%), as was Yount’s (71%) so we’ll list them as shortstops. Rodriguez’ overall value was split much tighter between his two positions (55% SS, 45% 3B). We’ll consider him at both. Stan Musial is another tough case. The position he played the most in the big leagues was first base (35%), followed by left field (32%), right field (27%), and center field (11%).  His total in the outfield is significantly higher than first base, as was his total value. We made him a left fielder, but he would have been the #1 first baseman in the National League if we had put him there, and perhaps the #1 choice at first base in major league history also. 

Catcher

This debate has been going on for many years of who was baseballs greatest catcher. Who was better Lawrence “Yogi” Berra (1946-1965) or Johnny Bench (1967-1983). Just about everybody who grades catchers chooses one of them. First let’s go to statistical analysis. Berra’s career WAR was 59.5, Win Shares 375 (most all-time for a catcher), and 15,941 (most all-time for a catcher) points in our system. Bench’s numbers are 75.2 WAR (most all-time for a catcher), 356 Win Shares, and 14,250 in our system. Berra leads in two of the three, but he is ahead in our system only because of the success of his team. Without the bonus our system uses to reward the performance of each of their teams, Bench would lead.

We believe in our system, and think that helping a team win a championship should be every player’s primary goal, but in the case of Yogi Berra his points nearly doubled because of the success of his team. That seems extreme, and only happened because Berra was on more championship teams than any other player (14). Call the rating systems a wash.

Who was the better hitter? Berra’s On Base Percentage/Slugging Average/On Base+Slugging was .348/.482/.830. Bench’s were .342/.476/.817. The era Berra played in was a little more hitter friendly than the era Bench played in. Johnny Bench’s home park was Riverfront Stadium, a neutral park for offense. Berra’s was Yankee Stadium, overall a pitchers park, but favoring left-handed hitters (which Berra was). As offensive players there is not much difference. In Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein’s book Baseball Dynasties they have a chapter comparing the overall offensive contributions of Berra, Bench, Mickey Cochrane (1925-1937) and Roy Campanella (1948-1957). Their formula is thorough and credible. Their order was 1. Bench 2. Black Mike 3. Yogi 4. Campy. Here is how they summed it up, “This slice of the data leaves Bench out in front and lifts Cochrane to number two.”

Since catcher is a defense first position let’s see how they stack up with the glove. Ivan Rodriguez (1991-2011) was the best defensive catcher I ever saw, followed by Yadier Molina (2004-Present), but Johnny Bench would be third. I never saw Berra as a catcher, since I didn’t start following baseball until the early 1960s when he was primarily an outfielder. Bench won 10 Gold Gloves on defense, but again that’s not definitive because Gold Gloves weren’t awarded until late in Yogi’s career (1957). Bill James grades both an “A”.  Comparing them at their peak years is another story. We’ll use Bill James’ Win Shares to illustrate. The best three seasons for Johnny Bench; 37 (1972), 34 (1970), 34 (1974), were better than Yogi Berra; 34 (1954), 32 (1950), 31 (1951). Despite the fact that Berra won three American League MVP Awards to Bench’s two in the National League, Bench’s best seasons were more valuable. This is long because this is a very difficult choice, Johnny Bench (1967-1983)

The Greatest Catchers of All Time

2. Yogi Berra (1946-1965)

3. Mickey Cochrane (1925-1937)

4. Gary Carter (1974-1992)

5. Ivan Rodriguez (1991-2011)

First Base

Lou Gehrig (1923-1939) is so shrouded in legend and lore that it is forgotten what a remarkable baseball player he was. Everybody knows that he was Ruth’s teammate and died way before his time due to a dreadful disease. But he drove in over 170 runs three times, with a peak of 185 in 1933. He won the triple crown in 1934, and was the American League Most Valuable Player twice, and finished in the top 5 of the voting another 6 times. His career Win Shares (489) is the most ever for a first baseman as is his 114.1 WAR. He exceeded 200 hits in a season 8 times. He played in 7 World Series, with his team winning six of them, three of those came without Babe Ruth on the team. That is what Albert Pujols (2001-Present) is chasing.

Albert just passed Jimmie Foxx as the second best first baseman in history and is now chasing the great Gehrig. As of the end of the 2019 season, Albert has Win Shares of 487, and a WAR of 100.8. Gehrig is at 489 Win Shares and a WAR of 114.1. Pujols’ got a little ways to go. Judging by Albert’s recent production he’s going to have a tough time catching Gehrig, but even if he passes Lou in those two rating systems we’re still not sure he would eclipse him.  Pujols’ three MVP seasons were a long time ago (2005, 2008, 2009), and he’s only been an All Star once in the last 10 seasons, and he’s 40 years old. Gehrig had been dead for two years by the time he was Albert’s age. We’ll see how they rate in three years, but for now it’s still Lou Gehrig (1923-1939) as the greatest first baseman.

Just for fun let’s compare Gehrig to Stan Musial. Musial leads Gehrig in all three measures we use, WAR 128.3 to 114.1, Win Shares 604 to 489, and our system 39,368 to 29,978. Some of that advantage is offset because Musial gets extra defensive credit because he was primarily an outfielder. We also have to discount him some for his big seasons during World War II. On the other hand he did miss an entire season due to the war, and most of his career was after Jackie Robinson, while all of Gehrig’s was before. Their OBP/SA/OBPS were .417/.559/.976 for Stan and .447/.632/.1.080 for Lou. Gehrig played in an era that was about 11% more friendly to hitters. Gehrig led his league 5 times in OBP, twice in SA and 3 times in OBPS. Musial led the National League 6 times in On Base Percentage, 6 times in Slugging Average and 7 times in On Base Plus Slugging. This is a little unfair to Lou since he was competing with Babe Ruth for most of his career. Musial won three MVPs with a MVP Share of 6.96, while Gehrig won two with a MVP Share of 5.45. No MVP votes are available for three of Gehrig’s best seasons, (1927,1928,1929).  Both played in the dominant league for their time. It’s close between two legends, but forced to choose we would take Musial at first base, but unfortunately he is an outfielder. Stan Musial is left fielder because he over 60 percent of his time there. If he had been a first baseman Musial may have been our pick. But he wasn’t.

Rankings of the Top 5 First basemen of all time:

2. Albert Pujols (2001-Present)

3. Jimmie Foxx (1925-1945)

4. Cap Anson (1871-1897)

5. Eddie Murray (1977-1997)

Second Base

Rogers Hornsby (1915-1937) was the best hitter in the National League in the 1920s. He’s the only second baseman (in either league) you can say was the best offensive player in his league for more than a couple of years. He won two triple crowns (1922, 1925) and hit over .400 combined between 1921 and 1925. His On Base/Slugging/OB+Slugging was in the stratosphere .434/.577/1.010. He was simply an awesome offensive force. He won two Most Valuable Player Awards (1925, 1929), even though the award wasn’t started until 1924. He also had a 2nd and 3rd place finish. The Cardinals, in his early years, weren’t very good, but by 1926 won their first World Series Title. He was on two other pennant winning teams. What possible flaws in his game could make us consider somebody else as the greatest second baseman of all time?

Eddie Collins (1906-1930) came up with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics in 1906. He was nine years older than Hornsby. That really matters when comparing his offensive production with the “Rajah”. Collins didn’t become the regular second baseman until 1909. For the next 19 years he failed to hit .300 only twice, peaking at .365 in 1911, but also hitting .360 for the Chicago White Sox as a 36 year old 12 years later. His career OB/SA/OBPS was .424/.429/.853, which pales next to Hornsby. However, Collins’ best years were in the so called “Dead Ball” era, where runs were hard to come by. That changed dramatically from 1916 to 1921, going from 3.56 runs per game to 4.85 runs per game in 1921.The lively ball era began in 1920. It’s clear that Hornsby was a better hitter than Collins, but it is not nearly as one sided as the raw numbers suggest. How do they match up in the other skills for which we rate players.

While Hornsby was a second baseman, he wasn’t a very good one (Bill James grades him a “C”). Compare that to Eddie Collins who Bill James grades an “A-”. As we wrote in our American League All Time Team article, Collins was also very prominent in MVP voting, having a 1st, two 2nds, two 3rds, a 5th, and a 6th in the seven ballots he was involved with. Collins also was involved in six World Series, with his teams winning four out of six. He hit .328 in 147 plate appearances in the Fall Classic and stole 14 bases. He might be the greatest performer of all time in World Series play (him or Lou Brock). What do the ratings systems say about the two men? That they are very close. Win Shares favor Collins 574-502 (1st and 3rd of all time for second basemen). Hornsby leads in WAR, 127.1-123.9 (1st and 2nd all time for the position). In our system Collins leads, 35,522-29,237. Collins played in the better league. Hornsby’s peak was a little higher, but Collins had 11 outstanding years compared to Hornsby’s 9 (an outstanding season is any season over 30 Win Shares). One more note about Eddie Collins. He was a Chicago White Sox the year of the Black Sox scandal, but he was never implicated. The conspirators never even approached him due to his unimpeachable reputation. Ultimately we’ll go with the smarter, more respected, better fielding, Eddie Collins (1906-1930).  

Top 5 Greatest 2nd Basemen

2. Rogers Hornsby (1915-1937)

3. Joe Morgan (1963-1984)

4. Napoleon Lajoie (1896-1916)

5. Ryne Sandberg (1981-1994, 1996-1997)

Third Base

George Brett (1973-1993) and Mike Schmidt (1972-1989) have much in common. Both were third baseman in the Major Leagues in the 1970s and 1980s. Both were the best third baseman in their league for about 10 years. Both were All Stars annually. Both won the MVP Award and both earned Gold Gloves for their defensive prowess. Both led their teams to one World Series victory and one other league championship. They were each the best player on that team. Both led their teams to multiple division championships. Here’s the problem for Brett, in just about every attribute stated Mike Schmidt’s accomplishments are greater than George Brett’s. Schmidt leads every category exception All Star appearances 13-12. Brett won one MVP (1980), Schmidt won three (1980, 1981, 1986). Brett won one Gold Glove and three Silver Sluggers, Schmidt won 10 Gold Gloves and 6 Silver Sluggers. Brett won three batting titles, Schmidt won 8 home run titles. Brett’s On Base/Slugging Avg./On Base Plus Slugging was .369/.487/.857, which are excellent, Schmidt’s were .380/.527/.908 which are better. And finally the three grading systems we’ve been using. Brett’s career WAR was 88.6, Win Shares 432, and 15,763 points in our calculations. Schmidt’s same three values were; WAR 106.9, Win Shares 468, and our system 21,021. It is not a tough call, Mike Schmidt was better. 

The tough call comes if we decide to rate Alex Rodriguez (1994-2013, 2015-2016) as a third baseman or a shortstop. Comparing ARod to Schmidt in the same categories that we did with Brett: MVPs, they both won three; Gold Gloves, Schmidt 10, ARod  2 (as a shortstop); Silver Slugger, Rodriguez leads 10-6. Schmidt won 8 home run titles and 4 RBI titles, Alex won 5 home run titles and 2 RBI titles. Schmidt’s OB/SA/OBPS were .380/.527/.908, ARod’s .380/.550/.930. This is somewhat offset because Rodriguez played in a more run friendly environment than Schmidt. Rodriguez played in two more All Star games. Both played on one World Series Champion, but Schmidt leads in pennants 2 to 1. Rodriguez leads in WAR 117.5-106.9, Win Shares 491-468, and our ratings 21,824-21,021, but Schmidt’s peak seasons were higher and he was much better on defense (Bill James grades him an “A”, while ARod comes in with a “C+”). Rodriguez is another player who has a big asterisk next to his stats due to PED use (he was suspended for the entire 2014 season due to that fact). They are very close in all categories, but Rodriguez leads in more. Schmidt was one of the most respected players in the game, and to be blunt, Rodriguez was not. The timeline favors Rodriguez. Rodriguez had a reputation that he didn’t perform in the clutch, specifically in the postseason. His OB/SA/ON+SA in the postseason was .365/.457/.822, which isn’t great, but it’s not terrible either. Schmidt’s postseason numbers were .304/.386/.690, which is not very good. This is a gut wrenching decision, we really want to select Mike Schmidt (1972-1989), but is that justified by the information available? Yes it is. 

Since Alex Rodriguez would be our second pick at both third base and shortstop, we’re going to have to decide which position to rate him. He played 1,272 games at shortstop in his career and 1,194 games at third base (a 76 game difference), and his overall value was also higher at shortstop (63.7 to 53.4 WAR) than third base. We will list him as a shortstop.   

Top 5 Greatest 3rd Basemen

2. Eddie Mathews (1952-1968)

3. George Brett (1973-1993)

4. Wade Boggs (1982-1999)

5. Chipper Jones (1993-2012)

Shortstop

While Alex Rodriguez (1994-2013, 2015-2016)  is very much in the conversation as the greatest third baseman of all time, he is not in it at shortstop. John “Honus” Wagner (1897-1917) leads Rodriguez in pretty much every category. WAR 130.8-117.5, Win Shares 655-491, and our ratings 45,434-21,824. Bill James grades Wagner an “A+” on defense, while Rodriguez earned a “C+”. Making Wagner one of the best defensive short stop of all time. As far as peak value goes, Alex Rodriguez’ two best years were 2001 and 2002, Wagner topped those every year between 1904 and 1909. In fact Bill James ranks Wagner’s 1908 season as the greatest individual season at any position of all time. So unless ARod gets a huge bonus for playing 100 years after “The Flying Dutchman” this is no contest. The easiest decision in the article, John “Honus” Wagner (1897-1917). (You can read more about his career here)

Top 5 Greatest Shortstops of All-Time

2. Alex Rodriguez (1994-2013, 2015-2016)

3. Cal Ripken, Jr. (1981-2001)

4. Robin Yount (1974-1993)

5. Ernie Banks (1953-1971)

Left Field

The greatest left fielder is another decision that is severely impacted by military service. Ted Williams (1939-1942, 1946-1960) twice interrupted his baseball career to fly fighter planes for the United States Military. In all, he missed nearly five seasons due to this service. It did not prevent him from still being called the greatest left fielder in the history of the American League, but in his comparison with Barry Bonds (1986-2007) it just may be the difference.  Bonds and Williams’ characteristics as ballplayers were very similar. Both Bonds and Williams were very controversial figures while active. Both offensive numbers are awesome. Besides Babe Ruth they were the two most productive hitters in baseball history. Bonds’ career on base percentage (OBP) is .444 (6th all time), Slugging (SA) is .607 (5th all time), and OBP + SA (OPS) is 1.051 (4th all time). Williams in those three categories is .482 OBP (the best of all time), .648 SA (2nd all time).and 1.147 OPS (2nd all time). So “Teddy Ballgame” leads in all three. Williams triple crown numbers are 521 Home Runs (20th all time), 1,839 RBI (15th all time) and .344 Batting Avg (7th all time). Bonds’ triple crown numbers are 762 Home Runs (1st all time), 1,996 RBI (5th all time), and a .298 Batting Avg. (not in the top 100). Bonds leads in two of the three categories.

On defense they’re also similar, both left fielders who Bill James grades a “C” for their defense. Bonds did win eight Gold Gloves in left, an award that wasn’t awarded during most of Williams’ career (he never won one). This seems to be a small advantage for Bonds. Contributions to winning teams is a wash. Both players took criticism their entire careers for not winning more championships. Both of them were on teams that won one league championship and then lost in the World Series in seven games. How do we sort through this information? This is where Williams’ military service comes into play. The years he missed were between the ages of 24 and 26, then 33 and 34. Combining the season before he entered the service (1942) and the first season he returned (1946) he averaged 37 home runs, 150.5 RBIs, and hit .349. The seasons before his second interruption (1951) and first year back (1954) he averaged 29.5 home runs, 107.5 RBIs, and a .329 Batting Avg. You just add on his average production for the seasons missed and his triple crown numbers are 691 Home Runs, 2,505 RBIs and a batting Average over .340. The 691 Home Runs would be 5th all time and the RBI total would be 1st (Aaron leads with 2,297) with a Batting Average over .340

 Those would be incredible numbers that make him an obvious choice in left field. But we can’t give him credit for seasons he didn’t have. A tough choice, but we will go with Barry Bonds (1986-2007).

5 Greatest Left Fielders

2. Ted Williams (1939-1942, 1946-1960) 

3. Stan Musial (1941-1944, 1945-1963)

4. Rickey Henderson (1979-2003)

5. Carl Yastrzemski (1961-1983)

Center Field

The debate between Ty Cobb (1905-1928) and Willie Mays (1951-1952, 1954-1973) has been going on for 60 years. It’s the debate that includes discussions of what wins baseball games, defense or offense and when was the game at its best. “The Georgia Peach” and “The Say Hey Kid” were both considered the best player in baseball for extended periods of time, However, they brought completely different skill sets to the table. Cobb played a game where power wasn’t a major factor. He had more singles than doubles, more doubles than triples and more triples than home runs. He stole bases, leading the league in that category six times, and was also a terror on the bases, constantly going for an extra base while putting fear and doubt in the minds of infielders attempting to tag him out. He led the American League in hitting 12 times, Hits 8 times, runs 5 times, and RBI 4 times.

Willie Mays was the most complete player to ever compete. He could throw, he could catch, he hit for average, he hit for power, and he was extremely fast. He’s in the conversation with the DiMaggio Brothers and Tris Speaker as the best defensive center fielder in history. He led the league in home runs 4 times, triples 3 times and stolen bases 4 times. He had as many as 23 outfield assists (1955) and won 12 Gold Gloves.

Both players have a clear argument for greatest center fielder, lets get into the weeds and compare the two legends in the sport. By the three metrics we use it’s a mixed bag. Mays leads in WAR 156.2 to 151.0. Cobb leads in Win Shares 722-642. Our metrics also show Cobb ahead by 52,831 to 46,593. Cobb’s On Base/Slugging/On Base+Slugging was .433/.512/.944, astonishing numbers since ⅔ of his career was during the “Dead Ball Era”. Mays was close to those numbers, but not quite there, .384/.557/.941. Both players spent the bulk of their careers in run scarce environments. Runs Per Game (R/G) fluctuated between 3.38 (1908) and 4.53 (1912) for Cobb’s first 16 years and then shot up to 4.64 (1926) to as many as 5.13 (1925) in his last eight. Mays’ were a little more stable fluctuating between 3.42 (1968) and 4.55 (1951, his rookie year). Runs scored were about 6% less in Mays’ time than in Cobb’s. Mays was the most respected player in baseball in his time, Cobb was hounded by unsavory stories throughout his career. Cobb had more impact in his time than Mays was in his time, but the game Mays dominated was the game at its historical best. This is very close, but we’ll yield to writer’s discretion;  Willie Mays (1951-1952, 1954-1973) was the best player this writer ever saw.   

Top 5 Greatest Center Fielders

2. Ty Cobb (1905-1928)

3. Tris Speaker (1907-1928)

4. Mickey Mantle (1951-1968)

5. Ken Griffey, Jr. (1989-2010)

Right Field

Henry Aaron came to the major leagues as a second baseman. Too bad he didn’t stay there because he would be the #1 player at that position. He would also be the best at first base and third base (he played all three at some time during his career). Unfortunately, he was a right fielder, and that’s the place George Herman “Babe” Ruth (1914-1934) occupied. To illustrate how good the Babe was, let’s compare him to the great Aaron. Aaron’s career OB/SA/OPS were .374/.555/.928, those are excellent. Ruth’s were .474/..690/.1.164, which are off the charts. Aaron’s WAR of 143.1 (7th all time), Ruth’s is 185.5, which is 22% higher. Win Shares favor Ruth 756 (highest of all time at any position) to 643, which is 15% higher. This is not a knock on Aaron, who is an all time great, but nobody looks good next to the “Sultan of Swat”. George Herman “Babe” Ruth (1914-1934) 

The Greatest Right Fielder of All Time

2. Henry Aaron (1954-1976)

3. Frank Robinson (1956-1976)

4. Mel Ott (1926-1947)

5. Al Kaline (1953-1974)

Pitchers

Let’s deal with the three hurlers who excelled in multiple leagues first and so may not have made our greatest National League team or American League team. We will start with Nolan Ryan (NL 1966-1971, 1980-1988) (AL 1972-1979, 1989-1993) first because he’s the easiest one to dismiss. He was a remarkable pitcher, throwing a record 7 no-hitters (nobody else has more than 4) and striking out an incredible 5,714 (nobody else has more than 4,875). He certainly makes it into hardest baseball records to break. Besides those he has little to offer. His career record was 324-296 (.526) which is not even on the same planet as Steve Carlton (319-226 .574), Tom Seaver (311-205 .615), or Roger Clemens (354-184 .658) who are the others from his generation we’re considering, It is closer to Gaylord Perry (314-265 .542), Phil Niekro (318-274 .537), or Don Sutton (324-256 .559), who nobody would consider for this list. All six of these pitchers were contemporaries of Nolan. He was the most overrated players of this writer’s lifetime. 

Randy Johnson (1988-2009) took a while to get started, but once he did he was something else. His overall record was 58-61 entering the 1993 season. He was 29 years old. His record from that moment until he retired was 245-105 (.700), with five Cy Young Awards while leading the league in 14 triple crown categories. There are no “buts” in his record, he was the most dominating pitcher of his time, leading the league in strikeouts nine times. He’s definitely in the conversation as the greatest pitcher of all time. 

Denton “Cy” Young (1890-1911) won 511 games in his illustrious career. That’s 290 in the National League and 221 in the American. He’s almost 100 wins more than the next closest on the list (Walter Johnson-417) and almost 140 over the two tied for 3rd (Alexander & Mathewson-373). He pitched forever at an extremely high level. Here’s the problem, the only league he ever truly dominated was a marginal major league in its infancy. His last three years in the National League, when he was 31, 32, and 33 years old, he went, 25-13, 26-16, and 20-18 with a 3.00 ERA. The next year, in the American League, he went 33-10 and won the pitching triple crown for the only time in his career. He followed that with a 32-11 season, and then 28-9. His ERA those three seasons was 1.62, 2.15, and 2.08. Statistically these are his best seasons. He did win 36, 35, and 33 games in the National League (1892, 1895, 1893), but he still wasn’t the best pitcher in that league for the decade, Kid Nichols (1890-1906) was. He was a quality pitcher for a long time, similar to an 1890-1911 Warren Spahn, not a Walter Johnson. 

Unless we issue him a huge penalty for the era he played, Walter Johnson (1907-1927) is going to be an easy choice for #1. But should we? After all, his rookie year was only 5 years after Cy Young dominated the American League, and we’ve already indicated that we discounted Young’s record significantly because of that. The answer to that question comes from the relative strengths of the two Major Leagues. During the first decade of the American League the National League was clearly the better league. The Junior Circuit caught and surpassed the National about 1910. From 1910 until about 1933 the American League was dominant. Walter Johnson began his reign as the best pitcher in baseball in 1910, going 25-17, 25-13, 33-12, 36-7, 28-18, 27-13, 25-20, 23-16, 23-13, 20-14 over the next 10 years. He was putting up these records with a team that was below .500 when he wasn’t pitching. That was the most impressive run of domination in baseball history. He won two pitching triple crowns during that streak and led the league in 18 different triple crown categories in those 10 seasons. For good measure he won a 3rd pitching triple crown in 1924, when he was 36 years old. That’s the year he won his second MVP Award (1913 was the other) and led the Washington Senators to their only World Series Title. In his time he regularly confronted Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Eddie Collins, and Babe Ruth. Let’s look at how Johnson did against “The Babe”. They faced each other 107 times, Ruth hit .280 with 8 doubles , 2 triples, and 7 home runs. Johnson walked him 19 times and struck him out 25 times. That’s an On Base Percentage of .389, Slugging Percentage of .589 and an On Base Plus Slugging of .978. Considering Ruth’s career numbers were .474/.690/1.164, Johnson handled him pretty well. The competition Johnson faced was much tougher than what Young was facing. 

The next three picks are also rather easy, but their order is not. Roger Clemens (1984-2007) is one of our least favorite ballplayers, a PED user who was not very congenial. That doesn’t stop us from ranking him #2. After spending his first 13 years in Boston, winning three Cy Young Awards (1986, 1987, 1991) and an American League MVP (1986) he signed with Toronto. There he won two more Cy Young Awards (1997, 1998) and a pitching triple crown (1997). The Yankees got him next, and in his six seasons in New York he went 77-36 and won two more Cy Young Awards. That’s 7 Cy Young Awards in total, two more than anyone else (Randy Johnson-5). He won 354 games in his career, more than anyone else since Warren Spahn (363) who did it right after World War II. He’s third in career strikeouts and threw just under 5,000 innings. Now, his late in life resurgence is a bit suspect (PEDs), but we’ve always maintained we’re evaluating performance on the field. He’s #2.

If it wasn’t for World War I, Grover Cleveland “Pete” Alexander (1911-1930) might be challenging Walter Johnson for the top spot. The “Great Alex” career record was 190-91 when he was drafted into the United States Army in 1918. Shipped to Europe, he was gassed in a training exercise while over there. He was 32 years old when he returned and not the same person, or pitcher. Always a drinker, he became an alcoholic after the war. He did have one more monster year in him (1920, when he won the pitching triple crown), but he only won 20 games a season two more times and was generally a problem to every team he was on. He’s best remembered today for his heroic performance in the 1926 World Series, but died a lonely drunk in 1950 at age 63. 

Robert “Lefty” Grove (1925-1941) 1931 season might have been the greatest single pitching season of all time. He went 31-4, with an ERA of 2.06 in the middle of the best hitting era in baseball history. He won the pitching triple crown that year, and was the American League Most Valuable Player. He only threw 3,941 innings in his career, which is far less than the three rated above him, and less than all but one ranked below (Bob Gibson). Bill James makes the valid point that Grove was a great pitcher for five years before he got an opportunity to pitch in the majors because Jack Dunn (who owned the minor league Baltimore Orioles) had him under contract and wouldn’t let him go. Dunn finally relented and sold Grove’s contract to Connie Mack in 1925, but Grove was 25 years old by that time. He had already had five monster seasons in the International League. This definitely hurts his rating here, but what can be done about it. It’s like Bob Feller’s service in World War II, you can’t give him credit for Major League seasons he didn’t have.  

Robert Moses (Lefty) Grove.

Top 10 Greatest Pitchers of All Time

  1. Walter Johnson

2. Roger Clemens

3. Pete Alexander

4. Lefty Grove

5. Warren Spahn (1942, 1946-1965)

6. Randy Johnson (1988-2009)

7. Tom Seaver (1967-1986)

8. Greg Maddux (1986-2008)

9. Bob Gibson (1959-1975)

10. Christy Mathewson (1900-1916) 

Manager

Harry Wright (1871-1893) was professional baseball’s first manager also, by far, the most successful over the first decade of organized play. The explanation for that is simple, he had the best players. When you have the best pitcher (Albert Spalding) in baseball and the best position player (Harry’s brother, George) in the game, and then you add stars like Ross Barnes and Jim O’Rourke, it’s not hard to explain those .800 winning percentages. On the other hand what needs to be remembered is that Harry Wright was responsible for signing and developing those players. Plus, baseball was changing rapidly at that time. There were new rules and strategies every season. Wright adjusted to the rapidly evolving game and continued to win. In Bill James Baseball Managers book, he lists Wright as the 7th (tied with Earl Weaver) most successful manager of all time. We really like James’ method and think it is the best formula so far put out, but it’s one flaw is it shortchanges 19th century managers. One thing it gives is credit for 100 win seasons. How can Harry Wright’s teams win 100 games if they don’t even play 100 games, which they didn’t until 1884, his 14th year. In fact, 137 is the most games Wright ever managed in a single season. That would have required a .730 winning percentage to get to 100 wins. Only two teams in history have done that (1902 Pirates, 1906 Cubs). Credit is also given for winning the World Series, or the World Championship Series from 1884-1890. Those series were only available in 7 of Wright’s 23 years as a manager.

The National League went to a 154 game schedule in 1904, John McGraw’s (1899-1932) 6th season managing in the Major Leagues. He is 1st in James’ list of managers. McGraw’s Giants won ten pennants, but only three World Series. It might have been four, but he chose not to participate in the 1904 World Series when his Giants would have been heavy favorites. His reason? He thought the crosstown New York Highlanders (now the Yankees) were going to oppose him in what would have been the second World Series, and he refused to be a part of such an event. He had already made it clear he wouldn’t compete when the Highlanders blew it and surrendered the American League crown to the Boston Americans. McGraw’s Giants won the National League the next year and did play in the World Series, crushing Connie Macks’s Philadelphia Athletics 4 games to 1. Despite his authoritarian ways, McGraw is clearly the greatest manager in National League history. 

The Connie Mack, Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel debate we already had in our American League article, but since all three of these men spent time managing in the National League we’re going to have to take in account their record in the Senior Circuit. Casey Stengel (1934-1936, 1938-1943, 1949-1960, 1962-1965) spent the most time there, but by far was the least successful. In his 13 seasons in the National League his team’s best record was 77-75, the only year one of his teams finished above .500. Since the only team Stengel could win with was the mighty Yankees that seems to eliminate him. Joe McCarthy (1926-1946, 1948-1950) was very successful in the National League, composing an impressive .579 winning percentage while piloting the Chicago Cubs. Winning more than 90 games twice, including 98 in 1929 when the Cubs won the pennant. He managed three clubs for a total of 24 years and never had a losing record, the worst being 82-72 his first season in Chicago. 

Connie Mack (1894-1896, 1901-1950) can’t say that, since he only had three more seasons over .500 than under it (25 under, 28 over). He only spent two full seasons in the National League. He managed the Pittsburgh Pirates just before they acquired Honus Wagner. He kept the club above .500, but barely. McCarthey and Mack’s records were so close in the American League, that Joe’s success in the National lifts him over “The Grand Old Man of Baseball”. It comes down to the two Irishmen and the Brit, Harry Wright. You can make a pretty good case that Harry Wright was the most influential person in the history of professional sports. He was a pioneer, and everything he did was precedent setting. That does not make him the best manager in history. His six total championships in a 23 year career is just not the equal of the other two. McGraw had 10 League Championships to McCarthy’s 9, but McCarthy’s teams won 7 World Championships to the “Little Napoleon’s”  3. McCarthy’s team’s overall record was 2,125-1,333 (.615) to McGraw’s 2,763-1,948 (.586) in 36 years. Bill James’ ranking put McGraw first at 79, with McCarthy 3rd at 71 (Mack is 2nd at 72). Don’t ask me tomorrow or I might change my mind. Joe McCarthy (1926-1946, 1948-1950).

Top 5 Greatest Managers of All-Time

2. John McGraw (1899-1932)

3. Connie Mack (1894-1896, 1901-1950) 

4. Harry Wright (1871-1893)  

5. Casey Stengel (1934-1936, 1938-1943, 1949-1960, 1962-1965)

The Greatest Baseball Player of All-Time

It would be fun to have a deep debate about this. Make a passionate argument for Honus Wagner or Willie Mays or Walter Johnson. But this answer is pretty clear. Unless you issue him a huge penalty for the era he played in, and we mean HUGE, there’s only one choice: George Herman “Babe” Ruth (1914-1934).

 In an article we wrote a couple years ago (Honus Wagner) we listed Stan Musial as the 5th greatest player in history. We now realize that was a mistake and am much more comfortable listing him as one of the 15 greatest players than top 5. The main reason is we did not discount him enough for his years during World War II. 

2. Honus Wagner (1897-1917)

3. Willie Mays (1951-1952, 1954-1973)

4. Walter Johnson (1907-1927)

5. Henry Aaron (1954-1976)

4 comments

  1. Great article …. my two cents:
    There are 3 distinct qualifiers in player’s stats …. 1) deadball era 2) color barrier 3) PEDS. Because of this, Ted William’s actual numbers (not including what he probably accrues had he not served his country) were achieved without any disqualifier. Compare those to Barry Bonds (steroids were taken for a reason, don’t forget that), and Ted’s per game averages in AVE, H, HR, R, RBI, OBP, SLG and OPS are all better than Bond’s (if you assume Bonds started using PEDs around turn of century). I definitely give Bonds the advantage in fielding and base-running, but the biggest contribution these guys made to their teams was when they came to the plate and for that reason, Williams is obvious choice in left field.

    P.S. you might guess what I think about your rankings for Clemens and Rodriguez (Ivan & Alex).

    Like

    • Love your feedback! Thank you. Respect you completely on putting Williams and your thoughts on the PED use. It is a tricky thing trying to figure out who to quantify it. Should they be kicked out of the conversation all together because they used at one point in their careers? Should one judge their careers prior to the PED use? It will is tricky and we can completely respect your opinions on it. They are valid.

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