The One Hundred Most Important Players in Baseball History (Pt. 4)
The One Hundred Most Important Players in Baseball History
by Lincoln Mitchell
February 4, 2022
Previous Articles in this Series:
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.
Here are the next ten players on the list.
31. Joe Garagiola– In the early 1940s, Joe Garagiola was probably the second best Italian American high school age catcher in St. Louis. He caught the attention of the Cardinals and began his gig league career with the local team. The other guy-he ended up in the Bronx and then Cooperstown. Garagiola was a decent big league player who could hit a little and was solid behind the plate, but he was never a star. However, Garagiola was a major baseball media presence for decades eventually becoming one of the few baseball personalities who was recognized outside of baseball settings. He announced games for NBC for decades, so if you watched a lot of baseball during the 1960s and 1970s, you saw a lot of Joe Garagiola, but he also hosted Today on NBC, filled in as host on the Johnny Carson show and was involved in numerous other television programs inside and outside of baseball. His television career far outshone his playing career, but he was a regular face on television for millions of Americans for many years.
32. Lou Gehrig– Before discussing Lou Gehrig’s importance to the game and to America, let’s take a moment and talk about Lou Gehrig the hitter. He had a career OPS+ of 179, eleven seasons of seven or more WAR-among hitters only Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron and Barry Bonds had more. Gehrig was also in the top five in OPS in the American League every year from 1926-1937. Those numbers help secure Gehrig’s status is baseball’s greatest first baseman ever, but it was the 2,130 consecutive games played and his tragic death from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), that secured Gehrig’s place in the culture. His personal story of tragedy and grace, as he went from being a strapping and handsome athlete to having his strength and ultimately life fade away, that elevated him from the status of great ballplayer to American icon. Today ALS is known as Lou Gehrig’s disease and is called that even by people who may know very little about the great slugger or even baseball, and that gives you a sense of Lou Gehrig’s impact.
33. Bob Gibson- Bob Gibson was a great pitcher who, while not broadly known outside of baseball, has tremendous significance for fans, historians and former players. Gibson was a hard-throwing right-handed pitcher whose best years occurred in the 1960s low offense environment, but even in that context his numbers stand out. His 1968 season in which he had an ERA of 1.12, an ERA+ of 258, threw 13 shutouts and struck out 268 batters is still one of the best of the modern era, but Gibson is not most known for his numbers. Instead, Gibson, probably more than any pitcher in history, was known as a dominating and intimidating pitcher who many batters simply feared. He threw hard, was not afraid to pitch inside and was thought by many players to be downright mean. Gibson was not a mean man off the field, but his name is still invoked whenever an old time player wants to complain about how pitchers today no longer try to intimidate batters or that batters get too comfortable at the plate now. This often overlooks that Gibson’s style of pitching has been more or less banned for years now. Gibson’s career and reputation is a reminder that baseball at its most primal is a battle between a man with a rock and a man with a stick and that both can be frightening.
34. Josh Gibson– Josh Gibson was one of the greatest hitters in baseball history. The official data on Gibson is sparse, but it shows that during the roughly 600 official Negro League games he played he hit .374/458/.719, for an OPS+ of a Ruthian 215. Those 600 games are only small part of Gibson’s career, because in those days African American players barnstormed, played in tournaments and in other non-league, but highly competitive settings including in Mexico and the Caribbean. Wherever he played, mostly during the late 1930s and 1940s, Gibson was a legendary and feared home run hitter. Gibson also enjoyed a reputation as a fine defensive catcher with whom pitchers liked working. Gibson’s story is ultimately a sad one. He was born in 1911 and was never allowed to compete in the American or National League because he was African American. Baseball history would have bene much richer and more interesting if Gibson and others had not been kept out by racism and ignorance. Gibson died of a brain tumor in January of 1947, about three months before Jackie Robinson played his first game with the Dodgers. Baseball in the first half of the twentieth century was much more than just the American and National Leagues or what the white baseball establishment referred to as Organized Baseball. Josh Gibson is a reminder of that.
35. Hank Greenberg– Hank Greenberg was the first great Jewish baseball star and one of the first Jewish American sports stars. Greenberg was a big slugging first baseman. His career OPS+ of 159 is tied with Stan Musial for the 18th best ever. In 1938, Greenberg hit 58 home runs, almost breaking Babe Ruth’s record of 60 set in 1927. Greenberg encountered antisemitism throughout his career while showing America that Jews could excel at the national pastime. Like many players of his era, Greenberg’s career numbers are lower than they might have been because he served in the military for over three years during World War II. Greenberg was drafted in early 1941, so was the first big league player to join the war effort-even before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Greenberg, a native of the Bronx who grew up in a religious family, remains a hugely important figure in Jewish American history as well as one of the game’s greatest sluggers.
36. Ken Griffey, Jr.– Ken Griffey, Jr. had a strange career. From 1989-2000 he was one of the best players in the game. He then stuck around for another decade when he was usually injured or not playing well, and occasionally both. Nonetheless, he is rightly remembered as one of the all-time greats. Griffey was also the clean face of baseball during the steroids era. He was a good looking man with a great smile, who began playing very young and was one of those players who seemed to drip with enthusiasm for playing the game. He wore his cap backwards and pulled it off with panache while excelling at every aspect of the game for a decade or so. During the PED era, Griffey was one of a handful of superstars who were never suspected of using. Griffey is what baseball might have become in the 21st century, but somewhere in there it made a wrong turn. PED use was encouraged and tolerated for several years before it wasn’t, and Griffey’s star faded in the wake of barrages of home runs by bloated sluggers.
37. Tony Gwynn– Tony Gwynn is another player whose importance rests on his greatness and his connections to one franchise, the Padres. Gwynn spent his whole career from 1982-2001 with the Padres. He had the skill set of a player from another era. At a time when the power and patience paradigm was taking over, Gwynn never hit twenty home runs or drew 85 walks in a single season. All he did was hit. Among players whose careers were largely in the post World War II era, only Ted Williams has a higher lifetime batting average than Gwynn’s .338. The Padres are one of baseball’s strangest and most overlooked franchises. They have been around for over fifty years, have won two pennants and never won the World Series. They have almost always found themselves in the shadow of the Dodgers and are something of an awkward third wheel to the Dodgers-Giants rivalry. They are also uniquely bad at branding, frequently changing colors and uniforms, and never really carving out an identity even in San Diego. However, even strange franchises need franchise players. Tony Gwynn, who died way too young at the age of 54, remains the most beloved player in the history of the Padres.
38. Bryce Harper– Bryce Harper is one of the best players in the game today. He is a two time MVP and six time All-Star with over 250 home runs and 40 WAR and will turn 30 during the 2022 postseason. Harper, perhaps more than any other big league star, shows how youth baseball and the pipeline to the big leagues for American players has changed since the days when hard throwing high school kids and slugging farmboys were discovered in the backroads, farms and inner city high schools of what feels like a different country. Harper was tracked for big league success from a young age, playing in high level baseball programs and national teams. He left high school after his sophomore year to enroll in a junior college so he could be eligible for the draft sooner. Before leaving high school he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Harper was then taken by the Nationals with the first pick of the first round when he was only 17. The story of the corporatization of big league baseball is more than just new stadiums, rising ticket prices, labor disputes and teams moving into the real estate sector, but is also about youth baseball and how young players are developed. Harper is the face of that.
39. Rickey Henderson– Rickey Henderson was the most exciting player I ever saw. I was just a bit too young to see Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Roberto Clemente or Frank Robinson in person, but I have seen pretty much every great player since then. None were as exciting or fun to watch as Henderson, particularly in his early years with the A’s. Whenever he got to first base, which was often, the whole ballpark would watch him lead, draw a few pickoff throws and then steal second, and frequently third as well. He also played great defense and hit with surprising power. Henderson played 25 years and was one of the greatest players ever, but few players have dominated in one area the way Henderson did with regards to stolen bases. The gap between Henderson’s record 1406 stolen bases and Lou Brock, who is second all time with 938. Is the same as the gap between Brock and Jimmy Rollins who is 46th all time. Henderson led his league in stolen bases 12 times, also the most ever. Few players have changed the way the game is played as Henderson did in the early 1980s and none have dominated an important statistical category the way Henderson did.
40. Catfish Hunter– Catfish Hunter is not on this list just because Bob Dylan wrote a song about him. Hunter is one of those players to whom advanced metrics are not friendly. His career WAR of 40.9 and ERA+ of 104 are not Hall of Fame caliber, but it did not seem that way in the 1970s. Hunter won 20 games every season from 1971-75, was the best pitcher on the early 1970s A’s dynasty and pitched in three consecutive World Series for two different teams, the A’s from 1972-1974 and the Yankees from 1976-1978, but he is not on the lists for those reasons either. Hunter was the first player to cash in on free agency. After being declared a free agent because A’s owner Charlie O. Finley did not fully honor this contract, Hunter signed a five-year contract with the Yankees for over three million dollars. That was the first indicator of how much money players were poised to make in free agency. Hunter was the first player to benefit from the sacrifices Curt Flood and others had made.