The One Hundred Most Important Players in Baseball History (Pt. 6)
The One Hundred Most Important Players in Baseball History
by Lincoln Mitchell
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.
51. Mickey Mantle– In recent decades, Mickey Mantle has become remembered less for his play and more for his excessive drinking, difficult personal life and his supposed inability to play after his prime. The latter is a product of Mantle’s final years coinciding with a lesser offensive environment. During his last year, Mantle’s OPS+ was 143 and over his last three it was 153, so he was not exactly washed up when he retired at age 36. Mantle was, in fact, one of the greatest players ever. Willie Mays was a better all around player, but Mantle was a better hitter as indicated by his career OPS+ that was 17 points higher than Mays’s. Mantle was an important player because he was the golden boy of postwar baseball. He was the face of the most dominant team in the cultural, financial and baseball capital of the US at its height of global hegemony. In those years, Mantle was not just the face of the game, but in some respects was the face of America. He was a country boy, lost in the big city, but getting by on his good looks and his extraordinary talent. That is not a bad metaphor for the US during much of Mantle’s career. Mantle was driven to succeed and excel by an intense baseball obsessed father who pushed him to succeed from a very young age. Mantle succeeded on the ballfield but bore the scars of the pressure from his father for the rest of his life. Donald Hall wrote baseball is “fathers playing catch with sons.” That is true, but baseball is also father’s pushing sons too hard in ways that can cross over into verbal and psychological abuse. Mantle was one of those sons.
52. Juan Marichal– Juan Marichal was the first great Dominican player in the National or American League and the first Dominican elected to the Hall of Fame. The great right-hander spent most of his career with the Giants-one of six players in this installment of the series who are primarily associated with the Giants. Marichal mixed up different pitches and different deliveries, but was famous for his high leg kick. Known as the Dominican Dandy, his best years were in the 1960s, so he was often overshadowed by greats like Koufax, Gibson and Don Drysdale. However, during that decade nobody won more games than Marichal’s 191. Gibson was second with 164. Similarly, nobody had more WAR than Marichal’s 55.3, but during that entire decade Marichal did not get a single vote for the Cy Young Award and no Dominican pitcher won the award until Pedro Martinez in 1997. Marichal is a hugely important figure in the Dominican Republic where he also served as Minister of Sports and Culture in the late 1960s. Marichal is also remembered for his role in one of the most violent incidents in baseball history when he clobbered Dodgers catcher John Roseboro with a bat. While the violence was terrible, it was also an extraordinarily complex moment framed by political instability in the Dominican Republic and Los Angeles and demonstrates baseball’s growing pains as it became increasingly global.
53. Roger Maris– In 1961, Roger Maris set the single season home run record. His 61 home runs broke Babe Ruth’s record of 60 set in 1927 and stood until 1998. Breaking that record put Maris in the middle of an extraordinary media frenzy due to several factors. First, Babe Ruth was and is a beloved folk hero in American and baseball lore. Breaking one of his records in 1961 seemed almost unseemly. Maris, did not face the horrific racism that Henry Aaron did when breaking another of Ruth’s record 13 years later, but he got his share of hate mail and abuse. Second, 1961 was the last season in a four year period when the Yankees had New York all to themselves. In 1961 as far as baseball in New York went, the Yankees were the only game in town. This put Maris at the center of the baseball universe as his quest became one of the biggest in-season baseball stories ever. Third, the American League had just expanded to ten teams and 162 games so there was some concern about what to do if Maris broke the record after 154 games-which is what he eventually did. Fourth, Maris was only in his second season with the Yankees and many fans expected and hope that Mantle not Maris would break the record. The two were neck and neck in the home run race for most of the seasons but Mantle got hurt and ended up with only 54 home runs. However, Mantle ended up with a higher OBP, batting average and slugging percentage than Maris for 1961. This gave him fully 3.5 more WAR than Maris, but Maris because of the record was the AL MVP that year. Maris’s record breaking season has now slipped into almost mythical status, but it was the story in the summer of 1961 and baseball and Maris were at the center of it. Through various films, memoirs and books it has also become something of a coming of age moments for the Baby Boomer generation-one of those treacly loss of collective innocence stories that nonetheless resonates at least a little.
54. Pedro Martinez– During the late 1990s and early 21st century when baseball was at the height of its steroid induced homer-mania, Pedro Martinez was almost unhittable earning his place among the greatest pitchers ever. From 1997-2003, Martinez had 2.20 ERA with an ERA+ of unbelievable 213 while striking out more than 11 batters an inning. Martinez has probably displaced Juan Marichal as the greatest Dominican pitcher ever, but Martinez has spoken of Marichal as a role model or mentor. Martinez’s importance rests on his greatness, but also his place in Dominican baseball history. He also for helped reinvigorate the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. He, more than any other player, was the face of that rivalry from 1999-2004, when it was particularly intense. However, Yankees fans may still have not forgiven him for his rough treatment of beloved Yankees coach, and former Red Sox manager, Don Zimmer.
55. Christy Mathewson– Christy Mathewson was one of the great pitchers of the early years of the twentieth century. He won thirty games four times and twenty games nine more times on his way to 373 career wins and an ERA+ of 136. Perhaps his most impressive feat was the three shutouts he pitched in the 1905 World Series. Matty spent his entire career, other than one game with the Reds, with the New York Giants when they were baseball’s marquee franchise. As the best player on baseball’s best team in the biggest city Mathewson was one of the game’s first major stars. He was also one of the rare players of that era who had been to college, having attended Bucknell University and was viewed as gentleman in a game that had a pretty rough edge back then. In that respect Mathewson was the first baseball star who was also looked to as a role model for young people.
56. Willie Mays- Willie Mays is one of the two greatest players in history, but he was much more than that. Nobody played the game with such grace, joy, panache and joie de vivre as the Say Hey Kid. Mays, another player who spent almost all of his career with the Giants, could do it all on the field. He was a tremendous power hitter, who managed to hit for a consistently high batting average while stealing bases and playing centerfield like nobody before or since. The images of Willie Mays making a wonderful catch in the 1954 World Series, playing stickball on the streets of Northern Manhattan or his hat flying off as he ran the bases are part of our collective visual baseball memory. But Mays is more important than that. He was one of the first generation of African American players to integrate the National League and lived long enough not just to see an African American President in the White House, but to coach that President on his throwing. Mays retired following the 1973 World Series, in which he appeared as a member of the New York Mets, but in the almost half century since then he has remained one of America’s most famous and beloved people. Mays is on the very short list of players who have crossed over into the status of icons and national treasures.
57. Willie McCovey– It is fitting that Willie McCovey appear on this list right after his longtime teammate Willie Mays because McCovey spent much of his career in the shadow of the better player with whom he shared a first name and home state. That is unfortunate because McCovey was an awesome player in his own right. He was a frighteningly powerful left-handed slugger who hit long home runs and drew walks in impressive numbers. Even today among National Leaguers only Barry Bonds has more home runs from the left side of the plate. I am going to tell you a secret about Willie McCovey. In San Francisco, well into the 1990s, McCovey was more beloved than Willie Mays. McCovey had a special relationship with that city and with Giants fans there. Unlike Mays, he did not come with the team from New York, so San Franciscans were more quickly drawn to McCovey. McCovey also played more years in San Francisco because after a brief stint with the Padres and A’s he returned to the Giants in 1977 and played there until he retired in 1980. This gave a new generation of Giants fans, too young to have seen Willie Mays, an opportunity to bond with the enormous powerful slugger who had a very strong gentle giant vibe. I was one of those young fans. Few players have been embraced by a fan base the way McCovey was by Giants fans. During his second stint with the Giants, San Francisco George Moscone, who had been Giants fan since the team came to San Francisco, described McCovey as being a San Francisco institution like the cable cars or the Golden Gate Bridge. That sounds like an exaggeration by a politician, but it rang true at the time. Baseball fans today may be most familiar with McCovey’s name from McCovey Cove, the inlet of the San Francisco Bay behind right field at Oracle Park where long home runs sometimes land. That has also helped imprint his name and memory on Giants fans who never got the chance to see him play. Despite all his great accomplishments and long home runs, the most famous play of McCovey’s career is a hard drive he hit that was caught for the final out of the 1962 World Series. With the tying run on third and the winning run on second and two outs in the bottom of the ninth of game seven, McCovey hit a line drive, but right at Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson. A foot or two either way and McCovey would have been a World Series hero, but he just missed. Charles M. Schultz captured the feelings of Giants fans in not one but two cartoon strips.
58. John McGraw– John McGraw’s best years as a player were with the Baltimore Orioles in the 19th century when they were still part of the National League. However, he played through 1907 appearing with the Cardinals, Orioles and Giants, but like the three players above him on this list, the team with which McGraw is most associated with is the Giants. He managed the team from 1902-1925 winning ten pennants and three World Series. Even more than Christy Mathewson, with whom he had a close relationship, John McGraw was the leader of the Giants during the first quarter of the twentieth century when they were the best team in baseball. McGraw was a major figure in baseball during the years it was consolidating its status as a major industry and the national pastime. McGraw was an fierce and brilliant strategists whose need to win was intense and was a master of deadball era tactics like the stolen base, sacrifice bunt and the hit and run. It also helped that had some great players like Matty, Joe McGinnity, Frankie Frisch, Roger Breshnahan and many others on those Giants teams.
59. Mark McGwire– Mark McGwire saved baseball until he didn’t. McGwire began his career as a very good home run hitter who drew some walks, hit for an unimpressive batting average and did not field well. However, that was good enough for a .244/.351/.488 slash line and a 135 OPS+ through his age 27 season. He was a perennial All-Star and second tier MVP candidate from 1987-1991, but then things some changed. He spent the next few years battling injuries, beginning, or continuing, to dabble with steroids and by 1995 had become a much better hitter. By that year, it was clear McGwire was using. That was overlooked by much of the baseball world and McGwire and Sammy Sosa were celebrated for their 1998 home run race as both sought to break Roger Maris’s single season record. McGwire ended up with 70 and Sosa with only 66. It was an odd story because many enjoyed it, but the PED use was pretty obvious even at the time. MLB ignored or even encouraged it because it was baseball’s post-1994 coming out party. McGwire played three more years and retired after the 2001 season when he was only 37 years old. McGwire’s PED use was then revealed, although it had long been an open secret and McGwire did not comport himself well when asked about it. McGwire ended up with 583 home runs and a 163 OPS+. We know he used PEDs, but we don’t know when he began. It may well have been as early as the late 1980s. McGwire is, along with Barry Bonds and a few others, at the center of the PED scandal and a very clear symbol of MLB and the baseball writer’s hypocrisy on the issue-celebrating McGwire the PED user when he was generating excitement for the game, but also keeping him out of the Hall of Fame.
60. Fred Merkle- Baseball is a game of rules and details and no player exemplifies that more than Fred Merkle. Fred Merkle was a solid big leaguer who came to the plate 6,400 times and had a career OPS+ of 109. He appeared in five World Series and received MVP votes in two seasons. His teammates included Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Pete Alexander. He is not remembered for any of those things or for anything he did on the ballfield. Rather he is remembered for something he did not do when he was 19 years old and just starting out in baseball. There are a very small handful of regular season games that are remembered and discussed for decades. The game between Merkle’s Giants and the Chicago Cubs on September 23, 1908 was the first game of that kind. Before the Dodgers-Giants rivalry, the Cubs-Giants rivalry was the biggest in baseball. They were the two best teams in the National League and they played in the country’s two biggest cities. The two teams started that day tied for first place in the National League. The Cubs had the pennant the two previous years and the Giants were trying to end that streak. The game was a pitching duel through eight and a half innings-Christy Mathewson was the Giants pitcher that day. In the bottom of the ninth with the score tied at 1-1, the Giants put runners on the corners for shortstop Al Bridwell. Bridwell hit a walk-off single and the Giants won-but that is not what happened. In the excitement and confusion of the moment, Merkle left the field before touching second base. Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers called for the ball, but never got it as the fans the Giants kept it from him. The league eventually ruled the run didn’t count and the game would have to replayed later. The Cubs won the replay and the pennant. By forgetting to touch second base Merkle cost the Giants the pennant and sealed in place in baseball history. Merkle is often remembered for what is considered a stupid mistake, but there is more to it than that. Judging Merkle too harshly seems to me to be unfairly judging a good player for his worst moment. None of us would that for ourselves. However, Merkle’s action are also a reminder that in baseball, and in life, we should always touch all the bases.