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  • Lincoln Mitchell

The 100 Most Important Players in Baseball History (Pt. 9)

by Lincoln Mitchell


81. Jackie Robinson- There is not a lot new to say about Jackie Robinson who was the first African American to play in the American or National League in the twentieth century. In 1947, his first year with the Dodgers, Robinson encountered horrific racism and extraordinary pressure. Had he failed on the field or been unable to keep his cool, baseball, and indeed American, history would have been very different. During that year, Robinson played a new position, first base, and hit a very solid .297 with 12 home runs and a league leading 27 stolen bases. He had a similar year the following season, but then got even better in 1949 when he began playing primarily second base. From 1949-1954 he slashed .327/.428/.505 and was an All-Star every year. Robinson is much more than a baseball hero. He is an American hero and an important figure in the Civil Rights Movement. One way to understand this is that Robinson began his career with the Dodgers before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Brown v. Board of Education or the Sit-ins at lunch counters in the South. When Robinson joined the Dodgers, Martin Luther King, Jr. was an undergraduate at Morehouse College and Malcolm X was beginning the jail sentence that would change his life. In other words, Jackie Robinson ended segregation in the baseball when it was still strong in much of the rest of the country and when the modern Civil Rights Movement was still just getting started. That fact is sometimes overlooked, but it speaks to the barriers Robinson faced and why his career was so important.

82. Alex Rodriguez- As a twenty-year-old, Alex Rodriguez slashed .358/.414/.631 for an OPS+ of 161, hitting 36 home runs and stealing 15 bases while playing excellent defense at shortstop. Alex Rodriguez was one of the greatest and most complete players ever, but not only did he use PEDs, but he we don’t know when he started. Unlike Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens, A-Rod, as he was known, did not establish himself as a great player and then start using PEDs. More accurately, he might have, but we just don’t now. Rodriguez was one of the most controversial players of his era-the PEDs, the feud with Derek Jeter early in his career, the huge free agent contract he signed with the Rangers in 2001, his very rocky relationship with the Yankees fans after coming to New York in 2004 and even his off the field romances, made him one of the most visible and divisive figures in baseball history. The truth is he was not so much divisive as broadly disliked by fans of all teams including many Yankees fans. Rodriguez played in the PED era and, like many of the players he played with and against, used PEDs, but he was also an extraordinary player. His career totals of more than 3,000 hits, just short of 700 home runs, 117.5 WAR-second only to Barry Bonds among players who started their career after 1960-and two Gold Gloves speak for themselves. Rodriguez was one of the very few big name players to be penalized for PED use and was suspended for the entire 2014 season. Had he played that year, he would have hit at least four home runs to get him to 700, and probably at least nineteen to pass Babe Ruth. Rodriguez was on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time last year and only got 34% of the vote. How his candidacy plays out over the coming years will be the next chapter in how baseball reckons with the PED era.

83. Pete Rose- If you did not see Pete Rose play, you may not appreciate what a big star he was in the 1970s. He was the face of the Big Red Machine and a constant in the post-season-playing October baseball in seven seasons between 1970-1983, back when only four teams made the playoffs. He played in every All-Star Game from 1965-1982, but that only captures some of his fame. He was Charlie Hustle, a throwback, a winner; the dude ran to first base when he drew a walk. Rose was also a strange player with a strange skill set. He could hit and get on base, but had little speed or power. He never stole twenty or more bases or hit twenty or more home runs in a season. However, Rose could play anywhere and changed positions frequently throughout his career. He started out as a second baseman, moved to the outfield, then to third and finally first base. During his career, he played 500 or more games at first, second, third, left and right. Rose has more hits, singles, plate appearances and games than anybody who ever played big league baseball, but he is even more important because of the gambling scandal that brough Rose down in 1989. It turns out Rose had bet on baseball, including his own team for years. Charlie Hustle ended up being banned from baseball, excluded from the Hall of Fame and even did time in jail because of his gambling and other financial problems. It was a sad coda to the career of one of the most famous players ever. The treatment of Rose when seen from today’s angle seems a little different, given baseball’s new policy of embracing gambling.

84. Babe Ruth- Babe Ruth was the first baseball star to cross over and become a cultural icon-even a legend. In the more than 70 years since his death, his memory has been further steeped in mythology-the called shot, the prodigious appetites, the humble origins, the huge personality and extraordinary skills on the diamond don’t seem quite real. If the Bambino had not existed, some 1920s baseball writer would have invented him. But the Babe was real and because of him modern baseball began to take shape. Ruth was the best player on the best team in the biggest city just as the 20th century media culture was beginning to change. He achieved a level of fame that would not have been possible on another team, in a previous decade, for a lesser player or if he had a different personality. It all came together for Ruth and for baseball. Babe Ruth’s life story taught Americans how to think about their baseball heroes and how to turn ballplayers into American celebrities and heroes. Babe Ruth did not just help create baseball fan and celebrity culture, but helped American learn how to consume culture and celebrity. Enough has been written about Babe Ruth as a player, but one thing you may not know is that on the last day of the 1933 season the Yankees beat the Red Sox 6-5. The 38 year old Ruth hit a solo home run, but he also pitched a complete game in his first time on the mound in two years and only his third since 1921.

85. Nolan Ryan- There is nothing in baseball quite like the strikeout; and no player quite like the strikeout pitcher. The strikeout is the primal baseball outcome of the eternal baseball battle between batter and pitcher. There has never been a strikeout pitcher quite like Nolan Ryan. Ryan is nowhere near being the best pitcher of all time, but he is very clearly the best strikeout pitcher. Ryan led his league in strikeouts more times, 11, including when he was 43 years old, than any pitcher in history. He set the single season record for strikeouts since 1900 in 1973 and still holds that record. Ryan’s 5,714 career strikeouts are the most ever by a margin of almost 900. Randy Johnson is second with 4,875. Only 19 pitchers in baseball history have even half as many career strikeouts as Ryan. Ryan threw an astounding seven no-hitters, three more than any other pitcher ever. Ryan had a pretty good curve, but by far his best pitch was his Linda Rondstadt fastball, as we used to say in the 1970s when Ryan was in his prime, because it Blue Bayou. Ryan was not only the hardest throwing pitcher of his era, but he remained among the very fastest in the game well into his 40s. He was one of the few pitchers of the time to be clocked at over 100 MPH. Ryan was despite his great accomplishments, never an inner circle elite pitcher, partially because he couldn’t always find the strike zone. He led the league in walks eight times, has the record for most career walks with no other pitcher coming within 900 walks, or two thirds as many as Ryan. He never won a Cy Young award and had very few big moments or games that were not simply personal accomplishments. He pitched well in his only World Series, with the Mets in 1969, but did not have any big post-season moments. However, Ryan was a pitcher unlike any other who threw hard, pitched forever and struck everybody out.

86. Curt Schilling- I’ve hated Curt Schilling since way before it was cool. As a Yankees fan, I was frustrated by his pitching in both the 2001 World Series and the 2004 ALCS. I thought the bloody sock schtick was a bit much and for me he always represented the height of Red Sox triumphalism. Nonetheless, Schilling was a great pitcher. While he never quite seemed to be a Hall of Fame caliber pitcher when he was playing, by the time he retired he had a strong Hall of Fame case. Schilling had just short of 80 career WAR, was 15th on the all-time strikeout list, an ERA+ of 127 and a post-season record of 11-2 with a 2.23 ERA. The 216 career wins, on the low side for the Hall of Fame, and no Cy Young awards may have put some voters off at first, but he looked certain to get in. Schilling came close to getting to Cooperstown a couple of times, including winning 71.1% of the votes in 2021, but in 2022, his tenth and final year up on the ballot, he came up well short of the 75% needed to make it into the Hall of Fame. Schilling was never associated with PED use or gambling, so that was not the obstacle. Nor did he commit violent crime or anything like that. Rather, Schilling is being kept out of the Hall of Fame because of his political opinions-for the record his opinions are pretty much the opposite of mine, but I don’t have a Hall of Fame vote. Schilling is important because he is former ballplayer who demonstrates how the politicization and polarization of American life has permeated areas where politics were never previously part of the discourse. There are other former ballplayers, notably Aubrey Huff, who share Schilling’s views and have faced similar controversies in retirement, but Schilling was the best and highest profile player of the bunch.

87. Tom Seaver- Tom Seaver is the third, and best, of three consecutive hard-throwing righties on the list and one of three players in this section who had strong connections to the Mets. Seaver and Ryan were teammates on the Mets for a few years. Seaver was the first great player in Mets history and the face of the team when it won the 1969 World Series and came within one game of doing it again in 1973. Seaver was one of the greatest pitchers ever who is still sixth on the all-time WAR list for pitchers and fourth among pitchers after 1900. He is also sixth on the all-time strikeout list, won over 300 games had a career ERA+ of 127. From 1967-1975 he was the best pitcher in baseball averaging 19 wins, four shutouts, 233 strikeouts and 7.3 WAR with an ERA+ of 143. During that period, he won three Cy Young awards and finished in the top ten Cy Young voting three other times, but it is Seaver’s special relationship with the Mets that puts him on this list. He remains the best and most beloved player in Mets history, but there is more to it than that. Seaver was traded from the Mets to the Reds midway through the 1977 season. The trade was, in today’s terms, a salary dump as the Mets received serviceable but unremarkable players in returns. There are a handful of trades in baseball history that makes fans feel like they have been betrayed, but none more so than this one. The Mets were smart enough to get Seaver back from the Reds following the 1982 season, but then were foolish enough to leave him unprotected in the free agent compensation pool a year later when Seaver was selected by the White Sox. Seaver is still the face of the Mets franchise and there is nothing more Mets than the way they treated Seaver.

88. Sammy Sosa- Sammy Sosa hit 60 or more home runs in a season three times, but did not lead the league in home runs in any of those years. Sosa was an absurdly one dimensional player. He is ninth on the all time home run list with 609 home runs. All eight players ahead of him have at least 73.1 WAR and an OPS+ of 136. Sosa career totals were 58.6 WAR and an OPS+ of 128. Sosa played most of career in Wrigley Field, in a very high offense era while on steroids, so his raw numbers overstate how good he was. Sosa was like David Ortiz, but more so and without any significant post-season experience. Moreover, there were a lot of things that Sosa could not do well. He played a corner outfield position and was never a great defender. He had a career batting high batting average of .273, and for a power hitter, other than in 2001, never drew a lot of walks. However, he had some speed and even had two 30-30 seasons. His raw numbers always looked good, but he never led the league in batting average, OBP, slugging percentage, OPS or walks. He was a solid player who put up gaudy power numbers. Sosa was also part of the best feel good duet in baseball history, that at the time, was credited with saving baseball. This, of course, was the 1998 home run race when he and Mark McGwire competed to break Roger Maris’s single season home run record. McGwire hit 70 home runs to Sosa’s 66. The race was celebrated in the treacly tones that some fans love and some find downright silly. The story quickly looked very different as both protagonists became enmeshed in the PED scandal. Sosa was briefly the face of baseball, and is now the face of the absurdity, hypocrisy and strangeness that was the PED era.

89. Casey Stengel- Casey Stengel played in his first big league game on September 17, 1912. His Brooklyn Dodgers were at home against the Pirates. This was before the Dodgers played in Ebbets Field. Stengel had an excellent debut hitting four singles, driving in a run and drawing a walk as Brooklyn won by a score of 7-3. The cleanup hitter for Pittsburgh that day was Honus Wagner. Wagner was one of the greatest players ever, but is almost from baseball’s pre-history. Stengel had a solid career as a player slashing .284/.356/.510 over fourteen seasons for the Dodgers, Pirates, Phillies, Giants and Braves. More than half a century later, the hapless New York Mets, on their way to their fourth consecutive last place finish dropped a game to the Phillies 5-1. The cleanup hitter that July 24th, the last game Stengel ever managed, was Dick Allen. The distance from Honus Wagner to Dick Allen feels like a baseball eternity, but Stengel was there for all of it. Stengel played for John McGraw and mentored Billy Martin. He batted against Carl Mays and Ernie Shore in his first World Series while Bill Mazeroski and Roberto Clemente were his opponents in the last World Series in which Stengel managed. Stengel did more than just stick around the game for a long time. He was an innovator who helped evolve the system of platooning players. He is the only manager ever to win five straight World Series championships. Stengel was one of the great baseball characters who combined wisdom and humor that helped popularize the game. Damon Runyon, yes that Damon Runyon, wrote a wonderful column about Stengel hitting an inside the park home run in the 1923 World Series. Stengel is the only person who played or managed all four of the New York teams-the Yankees, Dodgers, Giants and Mets. Stengel also was also involved in some of baseball’s uglier episodes. He was in no hurry to integrate the Yankees when he was their manager in the 1950s and he dismissed Warren Spahn as not being tough enough to make it in the big leagues because he didn’t want to throw at a hitter.

90. Ichiro Suzuki-Baseball fans have had a lot of tsurris in the 21st century-the PED scandal, the shortened Covid season, the current lockout, tanking, the Astros cheating scandal, Curt Schilling, pace of play and length of game issues, shifts and the evolution of the game into the three true outcomes style of play, but if there is one player who captures what is still great about the game, it is Ichiro Suzuki. Ichiro was a very special player for all the right reasons. He was a wonderful player who played hard, was respected by his teammates and his opponents, never dabbled in PEDs and was always a joy to watch. Ichiro was the kind of guy who came to the US from Japan and then learned some Spanish so that he could communicate, and goof around, with teammates and opponents. I remember watching a few innings of an All-Star game a few years back when Ichiro came to bat and got a hit. The person with whom I was watching was not a baseball fan, but noticed Ichiro and commented how cool he seemed. Ty Cobb retired almost half a century before I was born and I was never a Pete Rose fan, so in my mind Ichiro is the all-time hit leader. His 4,367 combined hit total from the US and Japan are more than Rose’s 4,256, and unlike Rose nobody ever questioned Ichiro’s integrity on or off the field. Ichiro was an unusual player with a very unusual skill set. He high for average, stole bases and played excellent defense in right field, but had very little power and did not walk much. There are not a lot of players like that in the modern game. In the age of power and patience Ichiro had neither and, accordingly, modern metrics are not kind to him as his OPS+ of 107 and 60 WAR do not place him among the greats. But Ichiro was a great and important player who just kept hitting. His ten seasons of 200 or more hits are tied with Rose for the most ever, but are even more impressive because he began his MLB career at age 27 after coming over from Japan. Ichiro’s love of the game is legendary and Japan and in the US making him one of the faces of globalized baseball today.



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