The 100 Most Important Players in Baseball History (Pt. 8)
by Lincoln Mitchell
71. David Ortiz- Few players capture the contradictions of baseball in the 21st century like David Oritz does. Ortiz was a slugging designated hitter, beloved by Red Sox fans, but less so in the Bronx. He was an extraordinary clutch hitter who led his team to three World Series championships. He was great with the media and seemed like a friendly easygoing man who was good to the fans as well. And for those reasons he got a pass for PED abuse, one that got him a ticket to Cooperstown while so many better players are on the outside looking in. Ortiz’s best year was 2007 when he hit .332/.445/.621 with a league leading 54 home runs and 137 RBIs, good for an OPS+ of 171. His 6.4 WAR was good enough for 6th in the AL that year. That was his single season high for WAR. Barry Bonds exceeded that number fourteen times, eight times before he started taking PEDs. Alex Rodriguez had more than 6.4 WAR 11 times, Gary Sheffield and Sammy Sosa twice each. You get the point, but there is more to it than that. Bobby Bonds, Darrell Evans and Will Clark all retired with more WAR than Ortiz. There are many more, but those are the first names that came to mind for this Giants fan. Ortiz put up great numbers in a high offense era in Fenway Park while probably using PEDs, so his numbers don't just require a grain of salt, but the whole shaker. However, in an era when post-season play was more important with a longer post-season, Ortiz shone brightly. His OPS+ of .947 in 369 post-season plate appearances against better than average pitching, was fantastic and a big part of his Hall of Fame candidacy. Big Papi, as he was known, probably took PEDs, had offensive numbers inflated the time and place he played, but was also a central part of the 21st century renaissance of the Boston Red Sox when they eclipsed the Yankees as the marquee east coast franchise.
72. Shohei Otani- Shohei Otani is one of the few active players on this list. Otani is the best two-way player in over a century. The last player to hit and pitch as well as Otani did, over a comparable amount of playing time was Babe Ruth during his last few years with the Red Sox. Otani’s accomplishments over the last several years might be more impressive because he is doing it in an age of much greater specialization. Otani is the most exciting player around today and is doing something that nobody alive has ever seen before. He is proof of baseball’s ability to astound even in the midst of all of its other problems. Otani is one of many Japanese players who have made a big impact on MLB in the 21st century and is further evidence of how important globalization is to baseball today.
73. Satchel Paige- Satchel Paige is another of the very few ballplayers who has become a folk hero. Paige was the greatest pitcher in Negro League history, but was much more than that. He had a flair and panache that would have seemed like bluster if Paige had not been so likeable. He gave his pitches goofy nicknames, sometimes walked batters on purpose to load the bases just to create a bigger challenge for himself and on occasion told the outfielders-and sometimes the infielders too-to sit down because he was going to strike the side out. Those are the legends, but are probably more true than not. Paige was also ageless, both because there is some uncertainty about when he was born and also because he pitched for so long. During most of the 1930s and 1940s, Paige was the best and most exciting pitcher around whether playing in the Negro Leagues or barnstorming. By the time Jackie Robinson made it to the Brooklyn Dodgers, Paige was over 40 years old with his best pitching years behind him, so he never had the chance to show how good he was in the American or National League. Except, that is not quite how it worked out. In 1948, Paige joined Larry Doby in Cleveland where together they helped the team win the pennant. One measure of how good he was, is that at 41 years old with all the stress associated with being an African American in the American League at the time, Paige went 6-1 with a save and an ERA+ of 165. He stayed in the league until 1953, but did not pitch in 1950. During those years, when he was 41-46 years old, Paige went 28-31 with 33 saves and an ERA+ of 124. His best year was 1952 when he went 12-10 with a 127 ERA+ for a dreadful St. Louis Browns team. Paige then retired, sort of. He returned in 1965 at age 58 and pitched three innings for the Kansas City Athletics against the Red Sox. The only batter to reach base against him was future Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski who doubled. If Paige was that good in his 40s and 50s, we can only imagine what he was like in his prime. His Negro League statistics don’t capture this because most teams did not play long regular schedules. However, the evidence we have suggests that Paige was probably the greatest pitcher who ever lived.
74. Chan Ho Park- Chan Ho Park was the first Korean to play in the big leagues. He appeared in a few games in April of 1994 with the Dodgers before being sent down and two more as a September call up in 1995. Because of those 1994 games, Park was the second Asian player, after Masanori Murakami, to play in the US. Park established himself in 1996 as a second tier pitcher on the Dodgers, but between 1997 and 2001 was a very solid starter going a combined 75-49 with an ERA+ of 108. After that, Park bounced around playing with the Rangers, Padres, Mets, Pirates, Yankees and Dodgers again. He was never a very good pitcher after 2001, but he pitched until 2010. Today there are not quite as many Koreans as Japanese in the big leagues, but there are several and it began with Park.
75. Buster Posey- Buster Posey was one of the last people I added to the list. Posey was a great player who retired following a very strong 2021 season at 34 years old with 44.9 WAR in ten full seasons and parts of two others. Posey was the best catcher in the National League for most of his career. He was an excellent defender and handler of pitchers and slashed .302/.379/460 for an OPS+ of 129. He was the starting catcher and one of the best hitters on three Giants World Series winning teams. Because of his short career, his spot in Cooperstown is, while deserved, not quite assured. Posey is on this list for a different reason because of something that happened early in the 2011 season, the year after his first World Series victory. On May 25th of that year, the Giants were hosting the Rockies in San Francisco. In the bottom of the 12th, with the score tied 6-6, Rockies shortstop Emilio Bonifacio hit a long fly ball and Scott Cousins, the Rockies centerfielder-both Bonifacio and Cousins had entered the game a few innings earlier-tried to tag up and score from third. The play at the plate was close, but Cousins ran over Posey and was called safe. Cousins did more than run over Posey. Cousins ran into the catcher very hard. Posey’s leg was broken and one of baseball’s best young players was out for the season. There were doubts if he would ever be an impact player again. Giants fans, and many around baseball, were outraged. Soon baseball changed the rule so that runners now have to run on a direct line from third to home and cannot go out of that line to make contact with the catcher. This is a good rule that makes the game safer without taking anything away from it, but it is also fodder for those who claim ballplayers today are not tough enough. There are few players who have a rule change named after them, but Buster Posey is one of them.
76. Pee Wee Reese- No team holds a place in the collective baseball and cultural memory quite like the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Dodgers were more less a laughingstock for most of their existence until about 1941 when they won only their third pennant. They would win six more before moving to Los Angeles in 1958. No Dodger captures the spirit of that Boys of Summer era more than Pee Wee Reese. Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges and Duke Snider were bigger stars, but Reese was the constant and, beginning in 1950m the captain. He was the starting shortstop on every one of those seven Dodgers pennant winning teams and played in every one of those World Series games. Reese was also among a handful of National League stars, along with Hank Greenberg and Stan Musial who chose to be visibly on the right side of history when Jackie Robinson was breaking in. Unlike the others, Reese was a teammate. The most famous example of this may or may not have occurred, but the story is that on a May 13th game against the Reds in Cincinnati, Reese, a native of Louisville, Kentucky, put his arms around Robinson while fans were booing and yelling racial epithets at the newest Dodger. The specifics of that story are shrouded in myth, but the point is clear. Reese was a team leader who sided with Robinson rather than the racists. There is something else about Reese that we should remember-he was a very good ballplayer. Despite missing three years in the prime of his career to military service, Reese retired with 68.5 WAR, the fourteenth highest among shortstops. He was an excellent defender who did enough with the bat-some power, a decent average and good eye-to provide real value. He did not blossom as a hitter until 1946, his first year back from the war, but from 1946-1955, he posted a 108 OPS+. That is less impressive now, but in an era when shortstops didn’t hit, it was excellent. Reese went with the Dodgers to Los Angeles and was in the starting lineup on Opening Day as the Dodgers got drubbed 8-0 by the Giants.
77. Branch Rickey- Branch Rickey played in 118 games for the St. Louis Browns between 1905 and 1907 and two more in 1914. He was a catcher who hit well in 1906, but not in any other year and did not have an impactful career as a player. He spent ten years managing the Browns and later the Cardinals between 1913-1925, but did not make much of a mark there either. However, Rickey was one of the most important and innovative executives in baseball history. Rickey began his career in the front office with the St. Louis Cardinals from 1919-1942. Once he gave up his position as manager, the Cardinals became the best team in the National League. They won the pennant in 1926, and again in 1928 and 1930. They would in their first World Series in 1931, and repeat in 1934 and 1942. The next two years, with the team that Rickey built, the Cardinals won the pennant again in 1943 and the World Series in 1944. In total from the 19 years from 1926-1944 the Cardinals won eight pennants and four World Series. That was a nice run, but Rickey’s major accomplishment during that period was to create the system of affiliated minor league teams that exist today. The Cardinals built up an extensive network of minor league teams to which they had exclusive rights of the players. That was the foundation for their ascendancy in the National League. Within a few years most other teams were copying that system and it is still in place today. That alone would make Rickey one of the most important people in baseball history ,but he did something else as well. In October of 1945, Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a contract to play with the Dodgers farm team in Montreal. In spring of 1947, Rickey inked Robinson to a contract with the Dodgers and baseball was transformed, for the better, forever.
78. Cal Ripken, Jr.- Cal Ripken, Jr. is one of the two greatest shortstops of the modern era. The only real competitor for this title is Alex Rodriguez who spent about half his career at third base, and like many stars of his era, used PEDs. Ripken was a slugging shortstop who played great defense as well. His defense was often overlooked as he only won two Gold Gloves, but his 35.7 career defensive WAR is the fourth highest ever. Ripken’s career was divided into two periods. Through 1991, his age 30 season, he slashed .280/.349/.467 for an OPS+ of 126. Those were excellent numbers for a shortstop at that time. However, over the next decade his OPS+ was only 97 and had to move to third base for the last five years or so of his career. Ripken is not on this list because he was a great player, but for two other reasons. The first is the streak. For decades Lou Gehrig’s record was one of the few baseball records, Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak was another, that nobody believed would ever be broken. Between the time Lou Gehrig’s streak ended in 1939 and when Ripken broke it only two players even played in half as many games as Gehrig’s streak and nobody came within 900 games of it. On September 6, 1995, Ripken played in his 2131st consecutive game and broke Gehrig’s record. It was an amazing accomplishment reflecting Ripken’s longevity, excellent play and work ethic. Ripken went on to play 500 more consecutive games and his record of 2,632 consecutive games played ended in 1998 and looks as unbreakable as Gehrig’s once did. Ripken played in 3,001 games during his career, ninth on the all-time list. Only Carl Yastrzemski, Henry Aaron, Ty Cobb and Stan Musial ever played more games than Ripken did with the Orioles, with whom he spent his entire career. Ripken is the most beloved and famous player in Orioles history.
79. Mariano Rivera- Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer in baseball history and the only player ever unanimously elected to the Hall of Fame. The closer is an unusual position. It evolved from relievers being fringe pitchers, to later becoming firemen tasked with stopping rallies and pitching multiple innings to being one inning specialists. It is very possible that closers will be phased out as teams continue to innovate with how they manage their pitching staffs. The golden age of closers was roughly the thirty years from the late 1980s until very recently and Rivera was by far the best of that era. He retired with 50 more saves than any other pitcher in baseball history. His ERA+ of 205 is the highest of any pitcher ever. His 56.3 career WAR is ten more than any other pitcher amassed out of the bullpen. For good measure Rivera threw 141 innings in the post season in which he went 8-1 with a 0.70 ERA and 42 saves. During an era when players were bulking up, often with the help of PEDs, Rivera was smaller than most pitchers, but better than almost all of them. Rivera is one of the few pitchers in baseball history to get by almost entirely one pitch-a cutter that mixed with a good fastball, and thrown with excellent control, baffled a generation of pitchers.
80. Frank Robinson- Frank Robinson was the first great African American player who never played in the Negro Leagues. Robinson, who played from 1956-1976 is also one of the most underrated great players in the game. That is partially because he was a right fielder whose came to the big leagues two years after Henry Aaron and who was never quite as good as Aaron, but also because Roberto Clemente, another great right fielder, was also almost an exact contemporary. Robinson had the better numbers, but Clemente’s personal story and tragic death have overshadowed Robinson over the last four decades or so. Robinson was a great slugger and solid defender who is still the only player to win the MVP in both leagues. Moreover, no player in baseball history was a victim of the tyranny of round numbers more than Robinson was. Had he got 57 more hit and 14 more home runs, he would have retired with 600 home runs and 3000, something only Willie Mays, Henry Aaron and Alex Rodriguez have done. Part of that blame lies with Robinson’s manager during the last two years of his career when the aging slugger was playing with Cleveland and only came to bat 228 times despite a very strong 136 OPS+. The manager responsible for that decision was Robinson himself who was trying to put the team and other players above his personal goals. Robinson was the first African American manager in both the American and National League, piloting Cleveland from in 1975 and 1976 and then the Giants in 1981-1984. Robinson managed a total of 16 years in the big leagues before becoming an executive and advisor for MLB. Robinson was one of the greatest players ever, a groundbreaking manager and a longtime MLB executive and left a huge mark on baseball.