The 100 Most Important Players in Baseball History (Pt. 10)
by Lincoln Mitchell
91. Bobby Thomson- On Opening Day of the 1951 season Bobby Thomson was the starting centerfielder for the New York Giants. Within a few months, a rookie named Willie Mays took over in center, so by the final game of the season-more on that game later-Thomson had moved to third base. Thomson spent the next two years playing a little third, but mostly in the outfield for the Giants, including some in centerfield when Mays was in the military. Thomson was then traded to the Milwaukee Braves following the 1953 season because the Braves were looking for a power hitting outfielder. However, Thomson injured himself and did not play in a game for the Braves until July. His injury opened up a spot in the outfield for Henry Aaron. So, in a four year span Thomson lost his job to two of the greatest players ever-and in between he hit the most famous home run in baseball history. Many people who know of Thomson may not know that he was a very good player. He was not a light-hitting infielder who came up big in a dramatic situation like Bucky Dent or Bill Mazeroski. Thomson was one of the Giants best hitters in 1951, leading the team in home runs, slugging percentage and OPS. With the pennant on the line, Bobby Thomson would have been one of perhaps two Giants, the other was Monte Irvin, who most fans of the team would have wanted to see at the plate. The on deck hitter, Willie Mays, was better than both of them, but he was still a rookie. That big moment arose when the Giants and Dodgers ended the 1951 regular season in a tie and split the first two games of the best of three series. In the final game, Thomson came to the plate in the bottom of the ninth with one out, two on and the Giants losing by two. New York was the center of the baseball world at that time. Two New York teams were competing for the opportunity to play the third New York team in the World Series. The game was broadcast on television and radio, including armed service radio, so Americans all around the world heard what happened next. About fifteen years ago, I went to a museum exhibit in New York about baseball in the 1950s. I found myself looking at a picture of Thomson’s home run, while standing next to a man in his seventies. After about thirty seconds, he turned to me and said “I lost a month’s pay on that home run. I was in Korea and I’m from Brooklyn, so I bet on the Dodgers.” He seemed to have gotten over the loss of the money, but not of that pennant.
92. Jim Thorpe- Jim Thorpe was one of the greatest American athletes of the first decades of the twentieth century. He was a star Olympian who also excelled on the football field and basketball court. He was a good enough baseball player to spend parts of six different seasons with the Giants, Reds and Braves between 1913 and 1919. Thorpe was primarily an outfielder, but played some first base as well. He slashed a pretty undistinguished .252/.286/.362 during his baseball career, so does not make this list for anything he did on the ballfield. Rather, Thorpe is important both for his excellence in the Olympics, where he won two gold medals in 1912, and because he is probably the most famous, but not the best, Native American to play in the big leagues. Thorpe’s story is not a happy one. Because Thorpe had played professional baseball, at the minor league level and for very little money, for a few games before the 1912 Olympics, he was stripped of his medals. This was done despite the protests being lodged outside of the time allotted to protests of that nature. The medals were restored to Thorpe posthumously. After leaving baseball, Thorpe did odd jobs, including acting in films and playing football. He died in 1953 at the age of 1965. The history of Native Americans in the big leagues is frequently overlooked, but, particularly in baseball’s early years, there were a fair amount of Native Americans in the game. One way we know that is from the racist practice of nicknaming all Native Americans Chief, including Charles Bender and John Meyers.
93. Joe Torre- Joe Torre is one of the people who make this list in part because he was in baseball for so long. In Torre’s first big league appearance he singled pinch-hitting for Warren Spahn. Henry Aaron and Eddie Mathews were also in the Braves lineup that day in September of 1960. The starting pitcher in one of the last games Torre ever managed was Clayton Kershaw. In between, he managed or played with Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Ozzie Smith, Dale Murphy, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson and Tom Seaver. Torre did not just stick around for a very long time, but was an important manager and player. Torre is probably best remembered for managing the Yankees in the late 1990s and the early part of this century, when he won four World Series during his first five years at the helm of the Yankees, but he was also a very good player. Torre was a slugging catcher and corner infielder who made nine All-Star teams and was the NL MVP in 1971. Torre has almost half a Hall of Fame resume just as a player, but his years managing the Yankees sealed that deal. As a manager, Torre was not a great innovator or in game strategist, but he helped remake the job into one focused on media relations-always a major concern in New York and on building relationships with individual players. Torre would not be able to manage well in today’s environment where managers work closely with the analytics people, but all good managers today are building on the media aspect at which Torre excelled. After his managing career, Torre served as Chief Baseball Officer and then special advisor to the Commissioner for MLB. Like Joe Cronin, Monte Irvin and Frank Robinson, Torre has been one of the handful of great players who were deeply involved in the running of MLB as well.
94. Cristobal Torriente- Cristobal Torriente might be one of the players on this list who is the least well known, but he was a great ballplayer. Torriente was sometimes known as the Cuban Babe Ruth and was a slugging outfielder who played in the Caribbean and in the Negro Leagues in the US, but was not allowed to play in the American or National Leagues because he was Black. Torriente is important to the history of baseball because he was one of the best Latino ballplayers whose skin color put him on the outside of what was then sometimes referred to as organized baseball. Torriente was born in 1893, so was only a few years older than Babe Ruth. While Ruth’s statistics and accomplishments in baseball are well documented, much less is known about Torriente. The statistical record about him is sparse, but the anecdotes describing what a ferocious hitter he was are ample. Torriente is a reminder both of baseball’s racist past, but also of how much is not fully or widely known about baseball’s early days outside of the American and National Leagues.
95. Mike Trout- Mike Trout has been the best player in baseball for over a decade and is one of the greatest in the history of the game. Trout turned 30 late last season, so 2021 was technically his age 29 season. Among position players, only Rogers Hornsby, Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth and Alex Rodriguez had WAR than Trout’s 76.1 through their age 29 season. This does not include Negro League stars and several players like Willie Mays and Ted Williams who would be in that group if not for military service early in their career. Similarly, Trout’s OPS+ of 176 is the eighth highest ever of any player through his age 29 season. Trout is a wonderful player, but there is something workmanlike and unglamorous about him. When healthy he just goes out every year hits over .300, draws over 100 walks, wallops 35-45 home runs and plays solid defense in centerfield. But, it is tough to think of any one great moment in Trout’s career. For a player who has been an All-Star nine times and has won three MVP awards, he has a very light footprint in the collective baseball memory. It doesn't help that Trout has only appeared in one post-season series during his career. There is something else extraordinary about Trout that helps explain baseball in the 21st century. Trout is the best player in the game and has spent his entire career with the Angels, who play in the country’s second largest media market. However, he is almost completely unknown outside of the baseball world. It is not an exaggeration to say that few Americans who are not big baseball fans would recognize Trout if he were standing behind them in line at the grocery store. Trout is a great symbol of how baseball is so much less culturally relevant than it once was.
96. Fernando Valenzuela- As a 20 year old rookie in 1981, Fernando Valenzuela was the biggest thing in baseball. After being called up late in the 1980 season and throwing 17.2 scoreless innings for the Dodgers, he shut out the Houston Astros on Opening Day in 1981. Fernando made a total of five starts that April giving up only one run. That came at Candlestick Park in his second start of the season. I remember because I was at that game and commented to my friend that we had seen Fernando give up his first run. He went on to win the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year award that year as his Dodgers won the World Series-because this is a Yankees site we are not going to discuss that here. In 1981, Fernando was not just a great pitcher, but a huge and culturally significant celebrity. Fernando was not just discussed in the baseball media, but in the larger media and culture as well. He was also an important person to the Mexican American community throughout the country, but specifically in Los Angeles. The Dodgers, going back to the construction of Dodger Stadium, had long had a poor relationship with Mexican Americans in Southern California, but Fernando changed that. Valenzuela was Mexican and became a prominent celebrity in that country as well. Even today, he is known in Los Angeles, where he has been part of the Dodgers Spanish language broadcast team for twenty years, simply as Fernando. Valenzuela remained one of the top pitchers in the National League through 1986 and retired with 173 wins and 41.4 WAR. Fernando was the best pitcher in the league for several years and one of the most remembered and celebrated Dodgers ever. His story remains central to the history of Mexican Americans in baseball, both as players and as fans-and that’s coming from a lifelong Giants fan.
97. Honus Wagner- There is a good case to be made that Honus Wagner was the greatest player ever. In my view he is fourth among those who played in the National or American Leagues behind Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Barry Bonds, but that is to some extent because he played in the dead ball era so his home run numbers are not great. However, Wagner hit a lot of doubles and triples and led his league in slugging percentage six times. Only, Rogers Hornsby, Stan Musial, Barry Bonds, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams and Babe Ruth have equaled or exceeded that. Wagner also led his league in WAR for non-pitchers 11 times, something only Mays, Hornsby, Bonds and Ruth have done. Wagner was a great hitter who stole bases and, in his era, was a powerful hitter and run producer, but he was also a standout defensive shortstop. If you took Jeff Bagwell’s offensive value and maybe not Ozzie Smith, but perhaps somebody like Omar Vizquel’s glove, you would get Honus Wagner. That is a very valuable player, but, that is not why Wagner is on this list. Honus Wagner is on this list because of baseball cards. Many fans, including me, are or have been, collectors of baseball cards. I have not collected in decades, but I still love looking at my old cards. Because I am very much an amateur in the baseball card world, my collection is not very valuable, but I have a few cards that are worth a few hundred dollars-and no they are not for sale. For decades, the most valuable baseball card was the Honus Wagner from 1911. Last year one of the few existing copies sold for more than $6.6 million. This is an amazing amount of money for a baseball card, even that of a player as great as Wagner. The card is rare because in those days, tobacco companies sponsored cards and they were sold with tobacco products. Wagner did not smoke and thought smoking was harmful, particularly for young people, so did not want to be associated with tobacco products. However, the American Tobacco Company had already made a very small number of those cards. Some remain in circulation and are worth a fortune. Baseball cards are fun, sometimes valuable, frequently weird and as much part of the lore and feel of the game as bleacher seats, the crack of the bat or labor strife-and no card is more famous than Wagner’s.
98. Hoyt Wilhelm- Hoyt Wilhelm was unlike any player in baseball history. He did not pitch in his first big league game until he was 29 years old, but stuck around in the big leagues until he few weeks before he turned 50. Wilhelm was the first pitcher to make it to the Hall of Fame as a reliever. Over the course of his career, he pitched in 1070 games and only started 52. He was not a closer, but more of a fireman who came into the game to stop rallies and frequently pitched more than one inning. Wilhelm retired 50 years ago and he still may be the best reliever ever other than Mariano Rivera. Wilhelm essentially created the role of the modern reliver. There had been pitchers before him who threw mostly in relief, but none for as long or as effectively. Wilhelm bounced around pitched for nine teams but primarily the Giants, Orioles and White Sox. Wilhelm’s best pitch was the knuckleball. The knuckleball is a strange and important part of the game and deserves some representation on this list. Wilhelm was not the greatest knuckleballer ever. That title belongs to Wilhelm’s one-time teammate Phil Niekro. However, Wilhelm is one of the very few relievers who relied on the knuckleball.
99. Ted Williams- It is sometimes difficult to understand just how good a hitter Ted Williams was. A lot has been written about that topic, so I will make two points that are sometimes overlooked. First, John Updike wrote a famous essay about Williams’s last game at Fenway Park and the home run he hit that day. It is a wonderful piece of prose that captures something special about Williams. However, there is more to Williams’s last season, 1960, than what Updike wrote. The AL MVP that year was Roger Maris. Maris was, like Williams a slugging outfielder. Age and injuries limited Williams to only 113 games and 390 plate appearances in 1960, so he did not quite play a full season. However, during 1960 Williams had a higher batting average, slugging percentage and OBP than Maris. Williams’s OPS+ was a full thirty points higher than Maris’s in 1960. Second, most people know that Williams missed a lot of playing time due to military service, but that deserves some more attention. Williams missed three years in his prime and about one and three quarters more in his early thirties. If he had managed 129 home runs, 600 hits and 500 walks during those seasons, all conservative estimates, Williams would have retired with more than 650 home runs, more than 3000 hits and the second most walks of any player ever. His rate statistics would be higher too. Williams was one of the greatest hitters ever, but he was important for other reasons as well. Williams was not well liked by the media when he was playing and was frequently described as surly or disagreeable, but I have long believed there is more to Williams than that. Williams, who spent his whole career with the Red Sox, the last team to have an African American player, occupies a fascinating role in baseball’s racial history. During his Hall of Fame induction speech in 1966, Williams encouraged the Hall to recognize the great Negro League players who had been excluded and is credited for helping open up the doors to Cooperstown to many of those players. Many fans know that, but fewer are aware that Williams was Mexican American. Williams was his mother’s second husband’s last name. Williams began playing with the Red Sox when segregation was still strong in baseball, particularly with the Red Sox. Given his skin pigment and last name, Williams was able to pass, but that undoubtedly caused him stress and to be more aware of the casual racism of the era-and maybe that is why he was not always the most cheerful fellow.
100. Cy Young- Cy Young’s career started in the baseball pre-history of the 19th century, but he played until 1911. Because of this, his counting statistics are extraordinary. For example, between 1891-1904 he won twenty or more games every season, and thirty or more games five times. Young holds career records for wins, losses, games started, complete games, hits allowed, earned runs allowed and batters faced. Young was by any measure a great pitcher, but his numbers are hard to interpret, so he is rarely part of the conversation of the greatest pitcher ever. However, if we don't penalize him for playing a very different game than he should at the very least be part of the discussion. Modern analytics also demonstrate that as well. His 163.6 WAR is second only to Walter Johnson’s 164.8-meaning they are essentially tied. His 138 ERA+ is excellent, but behind that of Pedro Martinez, Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove and a few others. Did you know that Cy Young threw the first World Series pitch ever. In 1903, Young’s Red Sox, then known as the Pilgrims, hosted the Pittsburgh Pirates in the first World Series. Young, naturally, threw a complete game, but Boston lost that game. He ended up going 2-1 over four games and 34 innings in that series, which the Pilgrims won five games to three. Cy Young’s enduring fame is not due to his amazing 511 wins, but to the award named after him. The award for the best rookie is named after Jackie Robinson, but nobody calls it that. The Henry Aaron Award goes to the best overall offensive player in each league, but nobody pays much attention to that award. The Cy Young award is different. In the baseball world, everybody knows what the Cy Young Award is, and cares about who wins it ever year. Cy Young, like Tommy John, has become a baseball phrase that is more well known than the player himself, but Young was a great, and important player.