The One Hundred Most Important Players in Baseball History (Pt. 5)
The One Hundred Most Important Players in Baseball History
by Lincoln Mitchell
Previous Articles in this Series:
The One Hundred Most Important Players in Baseball History (Pt. 1)
The One Hundred Most Important Players in Baseball History (Pt. 2)
The One Hundred Most Important Players in Baseball History (Pt. 3)
The One Hundred Most Important Players in Baseball History (Pt. 4)
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.
41. Monte Irvin– Monte Irvin was a Negro League star who moved to the National League in 1949 and became the first African American player on the New York Giants. He was thirty years old at the time. In his first four full years with the Giants, Irvin continued to be top hitter .314/.503/.511 and was probably the best player on the Giants when they won the pennant in 1951. Irvin was joined in the Giants outfielder by another, much younger, African American player that year, and helped mentor the Willie Mays. Irvin retired after the 1956 season, which he spent with the Cubs. In 1968, he became the first African American to work in the front office for Major League Baseball. Irvin represented the Commissioner’s office in Atlanta in 1974 when Henry Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record, an event that apparently Commissioner Bowie Kuhn did not think was important enough to merit his attendance. Irvin is the only player who was elected to the Mexican League, Negro Leagues and Major League Halls of Fame.
42. Bo Jackson– Bo Jackson may have been the best athlete ever to play the game, but in some ways he didn’t know diddly. Jackson was a college football star who for several years split his time between the Oakland Raiders and the Kansas City Royals. He was powerful hitter with great speed capable of flashes of crowd-pleasing brilliance in the outfield, but he struck out too much. For a few years he was a very good player, but he injuries derailed a fascinating two-sport career. Jackson was an extremely exciting and unusual player, but he was also as successfully marketed as almost any ballplayer in history. Jackson was a rare modern ballplayer who had an appeal in both sports and popular culture. He was marketable, likeable and famous. At one time, Jackson seemed like the future model of baseball marketing, but talents and personalities like his do not come along too frequently.
43. Joe Jackson– Joe Jackson was one of the very best hitters of the deadball era. His .356 batting average is still the third best in the history of the American or National League and his OPS+ of 170 is just below that of Mickey Mantle and a little bit better than Ty Cobb’s. Jackson was the best and most famous players on the 1919 Chicago White Sox that threw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds and was subsequently banned from baseball for life after the 1920 season when he was 32 years old. The Black Sox scandal, as it came to be known, was a major turning point in baseball history. After that World Series baseball finally got its gambling problem under control-something which MLB appears to be reversing now. Cleaning up gambling and the introduction of the live ball at that same time changed the game into what we now recognize as the modern game. Today Jackson is remembered for the plaintiff, and probably apocryphal words of a young boy upon hearing what Jackson had done. “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”
44. Reggie Jackson– There has never been a player quite like Reggie Jackson. During the 1970s, Reggie was the biggest name in baseball. Jackson was the best player on the A’s teams that won five consecutive division titles and three straight World Series during that decade. Then, after a year with the Oriole, he spent five years with the Yankees including helping them win two consecutive World Series. The three home runs he hit in the final game of the 1977 World Series was the signature moment of his extraordinary career and is the main reason he has known as “Mr. October.” Jackson was not just a great player, but a cultural and social phenomena. During the 1970s, which Tom Wolfe called the “Me decade,” no player embraced the egoism of the era more than Reggie. He was visible in the media, referred to himself as the “the straw that stirs the drink” when he joined the Yankees, became the face of free agency and the new money in baseball when he signed with the Yankees, used phrases like “the magnitude of me” and even, and outrageously claimed that if they played in New York, they would name a candy bar after him-and they did.
45. Derek Jeter– Derek Jeter was the most famous player on the most famous team in baseball for about twenty years. During that time he led the Yankees to five World Series championships and eventually fell one vote short of unanimous election to the Hall of Fame. Because he played in New York, Jeter was an extremely visible player and a face of the game type for much of his career. He was seen as a bit of a throwback to another era. He did not use PEDs, referred to his manager as Mr. Torre and was way too media savvy to ever say much to the media other than platitudes about winning. Jeter was also a fascinatingly polarizing player. The New York media, and a big segment of the national media loved him. He was portrayed as baseball’s golden boy-respectful, hard-working, a team player and an elite talent. However, among some fans that worshipful media coverage engendered resentment and Jeter came to be seen as overrated. His defense was the focal point of this as his four Gold Gloves told a very different story than advanced metrics. By the last half of his career, Jeter was both overrated-particularly his defense and underrated. He was no Ozzie Smith with the glove, but he had an amazing feel for the game when in the field, and was by any measure one of the all-time greats. He was an excellent offensive player who got on base a lot, had decent power and was extraordinarily consistent, but Derek Jeter was also a larger than life figure in a way that is increasingly unusual in 21st century baseball.
46. Tommy John- Tommy John is the first of three left-handed pitchers who spent much or all of their career with the Dodgers in this section. A fourth will appear later on the list. John was an excellent pitcher for a very long time. He was very comparable, but better according to every conventional and advanced metric, than recently elected Hall of Famer Jim Kaat. John was a sinkerball specialist who got a lot of ground ball outs. He was also an extremely good big game pitcher going 6-3 with a 2.65 ERA in the post-season. John pitched from 1963-1989, but makes this list because of 1975, the only year during that period when he did not throw a single pitch. John missed all of that year because he was trying to make a comeback after having an innovative surgery in which his ulnar collateral ligament was replaced with a ligament from his right arm. John made a full comeback and was a very good pitcher for many more years. That surgery is now extremely common with many pitchers, even high school and college pitchers, needing it every year. The medical terminology is rarely used because the procedure is more widely known as Tommy John surgery.
47. Walter Johnson– Walter Johnson may have been the greatest pitcher in baseball history. His 410 wins, 110 shutouts and 164.8 WAR are all records for the post 1900 era. There is something magical about a great fastball pitcher. It is an American and baseball icon and Johnson was the archetype of that during his career that spanned from 1907-1927. Johnson spent his entire career with the Washington Senators and was deeply identified with that franchise. His record as a pitcher also captures how much pitching has changed. The few videos of Johnson that still exist show his odd sidearm motion and suggest that he threw hard for his era, but not by today’s standards. However, with a dead ball for most of his career, poor lighting and different physical training regimens, that was enough to be the best of his time. One statistical indicator of this is that Johnson’s 110 shutouts are 47 more than any pitcher who began his career after World War II. I am counting Warren Spahn, who threw 63 shutouts in this category. However, eight pitchers who started their careers after World War II have more strikeouts than Johnson. In one of the stranger popular culture links, Walter Johnson was further immortalized in song by the quirky proto-punk, goofy folk singer Jonathan Richman.
48. Sandy Koufax– Sandy Koufax made life easier for every Jewish American who ever had to explain to a teacher, boss or colleague why they were not coming in to work on a High Holiday because of what he did in 1965. That year Koufax’s Dodgers were scheduled to open the World Series in Minnesota against the Twins on Yom Kippur. They wanted to give the ball to their ace, but Koufax declined to pitch that day and in doing that showed what Jewish religious observance meant to a country that still, in many cases, knew little about it. Sandy Koufax did not have a very long peak because it took him a while to get started and he retired due to arm troubles at age 30, but from 1961-1966 he averaged 22 wins and 286 strikeouts with an ERA+ of 156. For those six years, he was the best pitcher on the planet and, other than Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, the most famous player in America. Koufax was, along with Hank Greenberg, one of the two greatest Jewish players ever. Unlike Greenberg, Koufax played his entire career in cities with huge Jewish populations-New York and Los Angeles-and he did it in a different media era, so his position in Jewish American history is even greater. Koufax was also one of the first players to understand the importance of bargaining collectively. He and fellow Dodgers ace Don Drysdale had a joint holdout in 1966 demanding a total of one million dollars over three years to be split evenly between the two pitchers. They did not succeed in getting all that money, but both got big contracts and demonstrated the value of players working together to increase their salaries. Oh, if you’re wondering what happened in that 1965 World Series, Koufax still managed to start three games and pitch 24 innings. The Twins managed a total of one earned run, but Koufax threw a complete game shutout in game seven and the Dodgers won the series.
49. Tommy Lasorda– Tommy Lasorda was also a left-handed pitcher Dodgers pitcher. Lasorda appeared in eight games, never got a decision, had a 7.62 ERA and struck out nine, during his Dodgers career. Lasorda’s stint with the Dodgers as a pitcher ended when he was sent down to the minors in 1955 to make room for, you guessed it, Sandy Koufax. After one year with the Kansas City Royals, Lasorda was back in the Dodgers system by 1960 and remained there for pretty much the rest of his life, managing the Dodgers from 1976-1996. Lasorda was one of the most famous managers in baseball history. He was the face of a very successful Dodgers franchise, hobnobbed with Los Angeles celebrities, managed national teams for the USA and became a roving ambassador for the game in his later years. Recently, he has earned some more fans for his colorful use of the English language on and off the field. However, there is another side of Tommy Lasorda. He was the manager who pushed Glenn Burke off the Dodgers and was linked to several disturbingly racist comment and incidents.
50. Dolf Luque– Dolf Luque is one of the most obscure players on this list. He was a very good pitcher mostly for the Reds, but also for the Boston Braves, New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers. Luque was not a Hall of Fame caliber player, but very much a Hall of Very Good player. He was one of the best pitchers on the Cincinnati Reds squad that beat the White Sox in the infamous 1919 World Series, but his best season was 1923 when the righty led the NL in wins, winning percentage, shutout and ERA. Luque’s career captures the complexity of baseball’s racism in the first half of the twentieth century. Luque was born in Cuba was one of a very few Cuban players to play in the American or National League before Jackie Robinson integrated the National League in 1947. Luque was light-skinned so in baseball parlance was white enough for the National League. However, he was also clearly Latino, being from Cuba. His darker skinned countrymen who were just as talented as him were unable to play. Segregation in baseball kept great African American players like Josh Gibson from playing in the AL or NL, but it also kept darker skinned Latinos out of the game. Some Latinos, like Luque, due to their skin pigment were able to play. Racism in baseball then was ugly, but also strange and complicated.