The One Hundred Most Important Players in Baseball History
by Lincoln Mitchell
January 26, 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.
21. Joe Cronin– Joe Cronin was an excellent shortstop for the Red Sox and Senators from 1926-1945. He was the best American League shortstop of the pre-war era, and until the 1980s, a good argument could still be made that he was the best shortstop in American League history. Cronin is also one of only a handful of players to make the transition from player to not just MLB official, but league president. Cronin served as American League from 1959-1973. In those years, the two leagues were distinct entities with fewer players moving from one league to the other and with genuine differences between the leagues. During Cronin’s time as American League President, the league added four teams, relocated several teams and adapted the designated hitter rule, so Cronin is a central figure in the creation of the modern American League. Before taking over the American League, Cronin was the general manager of the Red Sox, where unfortunately he helped make the Red Sox the last team in the league to field an African American player.
22. Dizzy Dean– Dizzy Dean played an important role in much of the myth-making of baseball as a magical rural pastime that brought goofy, but well-meaning country boys to the big city. In that capacity he helped popularize the sport for generations of fans. Dean was also, until he got hurt, a wonderful pitcher. His best season was 1934, when as the ace of the Gashouse Gang St. Louis Cardinals, he won thirty games and two more in the World Series. His brother Paul won the other two. No National League pitcher has won thirty games since. Unfortunately, Dean’s pitching career was cut short by an injury in the 1937 All-Star Game when a line drive off the bat of Earl Averill hit him in the foot. After his playing days, Dean was a well known announcer calling games for the Cardinals, Browns, Yankees and Braves as well as for the national networks. In that capacity he helped further popularize the game and helped bring it to parts of the country in the early days of televised baseball. Dean also drew the exasperation of grammarians by saying things on the air like “he slud into third” and his liberal use of the word “ain’t.”
23. Joe DiMaggio– Not a lot of people have heard of him, but I put him on the list because we grew up a few blocks from each other, although a few decades apart, in San Francisco. I am joking, of course. DiMaggio was one of the most important players in the history of the game whose role in the culture was enormous. There a handful of examples of players popping up in song lyrics or short stories, but DiMaggio was mentioned in a Hemingway short story, a famous Paul Simon song and in the lyrics of Rodgers and Hammerstein in the play South Pacific. DiMaggio was, almost from the time he started playing with the Yankees, more than just a great player. His grace on the field, relative silence and later marriage to Marilyn Monroe struck a chord with America that was bigger than baseball. DiMaggio was also the first great Italian American crossover celebrity and helped break down nasty stereotypes about Italian Americans.
24. Larry Doby– Larry Doby was the first African American player in the American League, appearing in first game for Cleveland during the same season, 1947, as Jackie Robinson played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Doby was a centerfielder who could hit and had power. During the 1950s he was probably the second best centerfielder in the American League. Doby helped Cleveland win the World Series in 1948 and the American League pennant in 1954. Doby also managed the White Sox for much of the 1978 season and was MLB’s second African American manager. Doby was a great player and important figure in the struggle for racial equality in baseball.
25. Dock Ellis- Dock Ellis was a very good pitcher mostly with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He also had one very good season pitching for the Yankees before bouncing around a bit and ending his career back with Pittsburgh. Ellis was perhaps the ultimate 1970s ballplayer. He was part of the generation of African American players that came of age during the Civil Rights Movement and both revealed and suffered at the hands of institutional baseball racism. Ellis also embraced the counterculture of the 1970s and today may be most remembered for throwing a no-hitter while on LSD. Ellis was also part of baseball history in several other ways. In 1971 he started the All Star Game for the National League. The American League starting piytcher was Vida Blue. That was the first, and thus far only, time that two African American pitchers started the All-Star Game. On September 1st of that year, Ellis was the starting Pirates pitcher against the Phillies. The Pirates’ starting lineup was the first time a big league team started a lineup made up entirely of Black players.
26. Bob Feller- There is an old baseball myth about a country boy from somewhere in the Midwest who throws harder than anybody has seen for years, who makes it to the big leagues as a teenager and keeps striking batters out. In the particularly shmaltzy version of this story, that kid than goes on to serve his country heroically in World War II before coming back and helping his team, naturally the only team he ever played for, win the World Series. Sounds like a myth, but that was Bob Feller. By seventeen, Feller was striking out more than a batter an inning in the big leagues and by his early twenties had established himself as the best pitcher around. His only real rival at that time was his future teammate Satchel Paige. Feller wound up with “only” 266 wins and 2,581 strikeouts because he missed his ages 23-25 seasons fighting in World War II. In 1948, Feller, Paige, Lou Boudreau and Larry Doby helped Cleveland win the World Series. They have not won one since. As an older man, Feller became a caricature of the grumpy former ballplayer who looked down upon modern players, but he was a war hero, the hardest throwing pitcher of his era, one of the great teenage pitching phenoms and perhaps still the most beloved player in Cleveland history.
27. Curt Flood- Curt Flood is not only was one of the handful of players whose courage and vision was most instrumental in radically changing labor relations in baseball and making hundreds of players extremely wealthy, but he is one of the few who paid a price for it. Flood was an excellent defensive centerfielder who posted a .342 lifetime on base percentage while playing mostly in a pitcher’s era. His best years were the Cardinals, where he shared the outfield with, and batted second behind, Lou Brock on pennant winning Cardinals teams in 1967 and 1968-in 1964, when the Cardinals also won the pennant, Flood batted first and Brock second. Following the 1969 season, the Cardinals sent Flood to the Phillies. Flood refused the trade and with the support of Marvin Miller and the newly formed Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), challenged the reserve clause and sat out the 1970 season. The reserve clause crumbled and within a few years, free agency had arrived. Unlike other free agent pioneers, Flood never cashed in. Instead, he was blacklisted and only played 13 more big league games after taking his courageous stand.
28. Rube Foster- Rube Foster was a hard throwing right handed pitcher who has been described of one of the best pitcher of his era, but his biggest contributions came as an executive. Foster pitched in the early years of the twentieth century when the Negro Leagues were in their embryonic stage. In those days, there were no formal leagues, but a lot of very good players and teams who barnstormed, played irregularly scheduled series and tournaments, or in very short lived leagues. In 1920, after being a player and manager for years, Foster changed that. He was the visionary behind the Negro National League which he created and ran from 1920-1926. Foster was in many ways the father of the modern Negro Leagues.
29. Frankie Frisch- Frankie Frisch was Hall of Fame second baseman who hit for average, had limited power, fielded his position well and could steal bases. On the field, he was a bit like Lou Whitaker with less power and more speed, a higher batting average but fewer walks. However, Frisch’s most significant contribution to the game can be seen at the Hall of Fame. Have you ever been participated in a Hall of Fame debate about a recent player like Whitaker, Keith Hernandez, Bobby Abreu or anybody else and wondered why so many inferior players from baseball’s earlier years are in the Hall of Fame? If so, Frisch is a big part of your answer because he served on, and dominated, the Veteran’s Committee for Hall of Fame selection from 1967 until his death in 1973. During that time he helped a number of players like Chick Hafey (31.2 career WAR), High Pockets Kelly (25.9 career WAR), Jesse Haines (32.6 career WAR) and other former teammates get into Cooperstown. If you ever had the feeling that the Hall of Fame has too many good, but not great, white guys from the 1920s and 1930s, the reason is essentially Frankie Frisch. The Hall of Fame, for better or for worse, helps define how we understand baseball history and Frisch did a lot to frame that for fans and historians of the game.
30. Eddie Gaedel- Eddie Gaedel had the shortest playing career, pardon the terrible pun, of any player on this list. Gaedel only played in one game-on August 19, 1951. He came to bat once, but did not register an official at bat because he drew a walk. Gaedel was a little person who was well under four feet tall. He appearance in that game, as the leadoff hitter in the second game of a double header was a stunt by St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck seeking to generate some excitement around a moribund Browns franchise. Veeck was unsuccessful as the Browns drew fewer than 300,000 fans for the entire season before moving to Baltimore and becoming the Orioles in 1954. Gaedel is on this list because his career is a reminder of how baseball, in its so called “Golden Age” still struggled. Fans today associate the game with frequently sold out ballparks, big television contracts and a lot of money, but that was not the case for much of baseball history.