The One Hundred Most Important Players in Baseball History (Pt. 2)
The One Hundred Most Important Players in Baseball History
by Lincoln Mitchell
January 18, 2022
Many baseball scholars and writers have sought to create their list of the one hundred greatest players in baseball histories. Joe Posnanski’s highly readable and very thorough 2021 book, The Baseball 100, is one of the best and most recent examples of that genre.
This list of the one hundred most important players in baseball history seeks to do something different – to identify the one hundred players who have had the biggest impact on the game, globally, but primarily in the USA. Impact includes the way the game is played, the ongoing story of baseball and also American culture and history.
There is some overlap between the one hundred greatest and most important players. For example, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Honus Wagner appear on both lists. However, there are some all-time greats who are not on this list, like Tris Speaker or Greg Maddux. There are also a handful of very good players who are not close to being among the top one hundred who are on the list, like Felipe Alou or Chan Ho Park, as well as some players like Glenn Burke who had very short careers and were not great players.
Importantly, like Posnanski’s list, this group is not restricted to players who appeared in MLB, so but is limited it to players who played at least part of their careers after 1900. This is a list of baseball players, not baseball people so there are no owners, labor leaders, executive and the like on the list, unless they also played the game at a high level after 1900. This means that Branch Rickey makes the list, even though his contributions were as an executive, but Marvin Miller does not because he was never a ballplayer.
I explored several ways to group the players. One idea was to rank them from one to one hundred, but I decided not to do this because I am more interested in having discussions about who should be on the list not where people belong on the list. I then thought about grouping them into categories that might include players who changed how the game was played, important figures in the Negro Leagues, cultural icons or those who had changed the economy of the game. However, I found this unworkable because many players are both. Willie Mays, was both an important part of the story of the Negro Leagues, but also a cultural icon. Similarly, Babe Ruth had a huge impact on the economics of baseball, changed how the game was played and was a massively important cultural figure.
Given all this, I decided to present the list and the comments in alphabetical order. This makes it easy to check if a particular player is on the list and also leads to ensures a good mixture, as well known players can be sandwiched around lesser known players, players from different eras are next to each other and the like.
Previous Articles in this Series:
Here are the next ten players on the list.
11. Jim Bouton– Jim Bouton was one of the few baseball players who became a hero to many who live in the overlap between baseball obsession and the counterculture. Another player who fits this description, but did not make this list, is Bill Lee. Bouton’s 1970 book Ball Four was a seminal baseball work that is part of the educated baseball fan cannon. Ball Four was Bouton’s journal from the 1969 season which he spent as a struggling knuckleballer trying to stick first with the expansion Seattle Pilots and then the Houston Astros. It is a funny, irreverent, and highly readable book filled with great baseball stories and more than a few nuggets of wisdom. Ball Four was the first baseball book to tell the truth about life in the big leagues and show ballplayers not just in their greatness, but also revealed their pettiness, immaturity, substance abuse problems and humor while giving readers a sense of the stress, boredom, fun and worry of the long baseball season. Much of how we understand and read about big league baseball today can be traced back to that book. If you haven’t read Ball Four, before you get to number twelve on this list you should check it out.
12. George Brett- George Brett was one of the greatest third baseman in baseball history who carried an otherwise mediocre Royals team to the World Series championship in 1985. In 1980, he hit .390, the closest any player has come to hitting .400 over a full season since Ted Williams in 1941. Brett spent his entire 21 year career with the Royals and remains the best and most famous player in that franchise’s history. That would make Brett a strong candidate for this list, but his spot on the list is solidified by the home run he may have hit in the Pine Tar Game in 1983. The video of Brett’s fury when the home run was taken back has become of the most famous images in modern baseball history. The Pine Tar Game was one of baseball history’s most well-known in-game controversies and Brett was at the center of it.
13. Jim Bunning– Jim Bunning was a Hall of Fame pitcher known best for winning one hundred games and throwing no hitters in both the American and National League. He was a very good pitcher, but never quite as good as Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal and other elites of his era. However, none of those pitchers had a successful career in electoral politics in the US after retiring. Bunning, a Kentucky Republican, had a thirty-year career in politics, culminating with serving two terms in the US Senate. Every now and then you hear about a player who is so popular they might get into politics after they retire-in the late 1970s and early 1980s-people used to say this about Steve Garvey, but very few players pursue this course and no big league ballplayer was ever as successful in politics as Bunning was. However, this one-time Yale University first-baseman did pretty well.
14. Glenn Burke– Glenn Burke, as most fans know, was the first big league player who was broadly known to be gay. While he was not exactly out when he was playing, his sexual orientation was an open secret. Burke was an outfielder with the Dodgers and A’s who made it to the big leagues in 1976 and played his last game in 1979. Burke had the misfortune not just to play at a time when attitudes towards LGBTQ people were only beginning to change, but also to play for two managers, Tommy Lasorda and Billy Martin, who shared the widespread homophobia of the time. There is no question that Burke’s big league career was truncated because he was gay, but the widely reported notion that he would have been the next Willie Mays is wrong. The idea that the next Willie Mays missed out a career because he was gay dramatizes the bigotry Burke faced, but it also makes it one dimensional. If Burke had been as talented as Mays, he might have been a ground-breaking player, a kind of gay Jackie Robinson if you will. Instead, the career missed out on was that of a backup outfielder, who in a good year plays almost every day. Burke’s glove and speed were enough to help any team, but his difficulty hitting would have prevented him from being a real star. Those kind of fourth outfielders need to be well liked and not seen as troublemakers. Homophobia is what prevented Burke from having that type of career-because due to the bigotry of the time, he was viewed as a problem and a potential troublemaker. Nonetheless, as society and baseball grow more tolerant, Burke’s role in baseball history is increasingly recognized, as it should.
15. Miguel Cabrera– Miguel Cabrera is the greatest Venezuelan player ever and Venezuelans have become an increasingly significant part of big league baseball. Although his career his winding down, Cabrera was a fearsome slugger for almost twenty years and was the last player to win a Triple Crown. The Triple Crown he won in 2012 was the first since 1967. That accomplishment also placed Cabrera in the middle of one of the most seminal debates of the advanced metrics period as more traditionalist fans and writers believed it was axiomatic that a Triple Crown winner should be the MVP, while more analytically inclined fans believed Mike Trout, who had more WAR than Cabrera, deserved the award. The voters decided Cabrera was indeed the MVP that year. Cabrera is an almost certain first ballot Hall of Famer whose career is central to the history of Venzuelans in baseball as well as to evolving understandings of the game.
16. Roberto Clemente– Roberto Clemente was one of those very rare players whose extraordinary abilities was matched by a grace and beauty on the field. Clemente was also the first great Puerto Rican player in MLB and the first Puerto Rican elected to the Hall of Fame. Clemente encountered prejudice as a player due to both his skin color and for being Puerto Rican, but still was one of the best players in the history of the game. Those struggles were shared, and continue to be shared, by many Latino ballplayers today. No player is more central to the history of Latinos in MLB than Clemente. Clemente’s tragic death on New Year’s Eve of 1972 while trying to bring supplies to an earthquake ravaged Nicaragua demonstrate not just The Great One’s humanitarian impulses, but also the extent to which he saw himself, and was, an important figure in the broader Latin American world.
17. Hal Chase– Hal Chase is one of the least known players on this list. Chase played most of his career in the deadball era and was primarily a first baseman. During his 15-year career, primarily with the Yankees, Chase was known as an elite defender-a reputation which is not supported by advanced metrics. During the 1910s, professional baseball was experiencing some growing pains. The Federal League, where Chase played in 1914 and 1915, threatened the duopoly of the American and National Leagues. The decade ended with the Chicago White Sox throwing the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds, but that was hardly the only case of gambling and betting in big league baseball. Numerous players were associated with or accused of being involved with gambling, betting or throwing games during those years, but none more than Chase. For example, several of his managers, including Hall of Fames Frank Chance and Christy Mathewson accused him of throwing games and he was suspended for trying to bribe his teammates. During a rough period in baseball, Chase was, by most accounts, a pretty bad actor. His career is a reminder of baseball’s difficult early years. Of course, now that baseball has a policy of embracing gambling and addicting fans to it, maybe Chase was just ahead of his time.
18. Roger Clemens– Roger Clemens was a fantastic pitcher-a hard throwing righty who is one of only four pitchers to strike out twenty batters in a game. His career track is somewhat similar to that of Barry Bonds. Both established themselves as all-time greats from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, but both also were involved in PEDs later in their career. In both cases, this allowed them to achieve even higher levels of greatness while bringing scrutiny and criticism onto themselves. Clemens was an important player not just because of his place in the PED era. He also is on the short-list of greatest pitchers ever and was one of the dominant strikeout pitchers of an era when baseball was beginning to become oriented much more around the strikeout. He also was one of a handful of players to excel on both sides of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. Clemens is one of those rare great players whose most famous on the field moment demonstrates not his greatness, but his strangeness. In the 2000 World Series, he threw a broken off part of Mike Piazza’s bat at the great Mets catcher, setting off a bench-clearing incident between the two teams. That is the image that comes first to the minds of many fans when they think of Clemens, but many forget that Clemens went on to throw eight shutout innings in that game, striking out nine and only allowing two base runners. That was also Roger Clemens.
19. Ty Cobb– Ty Cobb was the greatest player of the deadball era. The stories of his mean temperament, erratic behavior and racism have somewhat overshadowed his play on the field but he absolutely dominated a game that looks almost nothing like big league baseball today. Cobb was the face of that era who set records for stolen bases and hits that lasted for well over half a century. His lifetime batting average of .366 has not been approached by any player since Cobb retired. For much of the period from 1920-1970 there were still many older fans, sportswriters and players who looked down on the home run era the same way those same types of people today eschew advanced metrics. For those fans, Cobb, not Babe Ruth, was seen as the greatest player in the game. Deadball was an important part of baseball history and Cobb best exemplified the style of play during those early years.
20. Eddie Collins– Eddie Collins was also a deadball era star. He and Cobb were teammates at the end of their careers with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1928. Collins was a wonderful defensive second baseman who hit for high average and stole bases and is still probably the greatest second baseman in the history of the American League. Collins was a Columbia University alum who was the second greatest player ever to attend that university-where the author of this series now teaches, but he is on this list for a couple of other reasons. Collins was a member of the 1919 White Sox, but was not one of the players who threw the World Series. Rather, he was the best and most famous of the players on that team who were not involved. However, Collins is on this list for something less honorable than that. Baseball frequently celebrates the accomplishments and stories of trailblazers like Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente, but we frequently overlook that the people who put obstacles in front of them. Collins was one of those people. As general manager of the Boston Red Sox in 1945, Collins was pressured to give a tryout to three Negro League players. He finally agreed and quickly dismissed the players as not good enough to play for the Red Sox. One of those players was Jackie Robinson. Collins stayed as the Red Sox general manager for two more years and died in 1951. It was not until 1959 that the Red Sox finally signed an African American player.