The One Hundred Most Important Players in Baseball History (Pt. 7)
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.
61. Andy Messersmith– Andy Messersmith, who was a very good pitcher during the first half of the 1970s, helped make free agency possible by testing the reserve clause. Unlike Curt Flood, whose contributions to changing owner-player relations began with a trade he did not want, or Catfish Hunter, who became a free agent because A’s owner Charlie O. Finley did not fully honor his contract, Messersmith, along with Oriole’s pitcher Dave McNally took on the reserve clause directly. Messersmith was one of the best pitchers in baseball in 1974. At age 28 he went 20-6 with a 2.59 ERA and 5.9 WAR. His second-place finish in the Cy Young voting reflected his contributions to the pennant winning Dodgers that year. The Dodgers did not give Messersmith the raise he wanted after his fine season, so he held out for more money. He finally settled played for what the Dodgers offered him, played without agreeing to a contract and had an even better year in 1975 going 19-14 with seven shutouts a 2.29 ERA and 6.5 WAR. Messersmith, and McNally, who was in a similar situation with the Montreal Expos, took their case to arbitration, arguing that teams only had the right to renew contracts unilaterally for one year. The arbiter, Peter Seitz, ruled for the players and the reserve clause was effectively finished. McNally retired due to arm issues, but Messersmith landed a three year one million dollar contract with the Braves and the era of free agency had arrived. Messersmith soon encountered arm problems of his own and retired after the 1979 season.
62. Minnie Minoso– Minnie Minoso has recently, and deservedly, been elected to the Hall of Fame, so many fans may be thinking about him a bit more than usual this year. Minoso was one of the first Black players to play in the American League and the first Afro-Cuban player to star in either the American or National Leagues. Like Larry Doby and Satchel Paige, Minoso came up with Cleveland, but after a brief stint there in 1949, was traded to the White Sox early in the 1951 season. In Chicago he developed into a star and became one of the best and most exciting AL outfielders in the 1950s. Minoso was the kind of player who could do many things well, but did not dominate in any one area. During his prime years from 1951-1960, Minoso slashed .307/.397/.476 while averaging 16 home runs and 18 stolen bases a year. He made the All-Star team eight times during this period. Minoso began to decline after that and was released midway through the 1964 season. Minoso remained in baseball and twelve years later White Sox owner Bill Veeck, for whom Minoso had played his first games with Cleveland, brought Minoso back at age 50. Minoso played in three games and managed to get one hit in eight trips to the plate and in doing that became one of a handful of players to play in four decades. Four years later, Veeck brought Minoso back for two more games. At 54 years old Minoso could not manage to get a hit in two plate appearances, but he became a five decade player. Minoso is not on this list for any of these oddities, but for being a trailblazer as the first Afro-Cuban and Afro-Latino to star in the American or National Leagues. He was a great player and a trailblazer who unfortunately did not live to see his election to the Hall of Fame.
63. Moe Berg– Those of you who are particularly facile with the alphabet may notice that Berg begins with the letter B and we are in the Ms. The truth is I overlooked Berg at first, but he needs to be on the list, so he is with the Ms-for Moe. Berg was a backup catcher who rarely played. He spent 15 years in the big leagues and appeared in only 663 games. In 14 of those seasons, he started fewer than 70 games. The primary reason for that was that he could never hit. His lifetime slash line of .243/.278/.299 reflect his anemic bat. Berg was a fish out of water in the baseball of his, or any, era. He was one of the rare players with a college degree-even fewer had an Ivy League degree as Berg did, and he was Jewish. He read newspapers incessantly, spoke many languages and liked to visit museums when on the road. This was a far cry from the hot dogs and beer culture, best exemplified by Babe Ruth, that most ballplayers experienced. Berg’s story is unlike that of any other ballplayer because of his war heroism of a very unusual kind. There are two episodes in Berg’s life which stand out for their importance, and given that he was a baseball player, sheer strangeness. In 1934, Berg was part of a barnstorming trip to Japan that featured many baseball stars and one aging backup catcher. Berg found time on that trip to go on the roof of a hospital and take numerous photos of Tokyo and its surroundings from that high place. He then delivered those photos to the US military and they were used to help identify bombing targets during the war. The most extraordinary episode of Berg’s war time activities occurred a decade later when he was sent to attend a meeting in Switzerland where Werner Heisenberg, the top Nazi scientist, was giving a talk. Berg’s task, based on his strong knowledge of physics, was to determine if the Nazis were developing an atomic bomb and whether or not they would get one before the US did. If Berg found that to be the case, he was to shoot Heisenberg and then take a cyanide pill. Berg determined the Germans were not going to get the bomb first, so did not need to shoot Heisenberg. Berg’s extraordinary contributions to the war effort were not just impactful, but are the stuff of movies or books, not light-hitting catchers.
64. Joe Morgan– Joe Morgan was one of the most well-rounded players in baseball history. He was a fine fielding second baseman who won four gold gloves, stole 30 or more bases nine times, hit twenty or more home runs four times and drew 100 or more walks eight times. Morgan was also a great clutch player and who always made his teams better. Over the course of his career, Morgan accumulated almost twenty more WAR than any other postwar second baseman. Morgan got the game winning hit in the top of the ninth inning of game seven of the 1975 World Series, was the best player on the 1975-1976 Reds which may have had the best starting lineup ever, knocked the Dodgers out of the playoffs with a big home run on the last day of the season as a member of the San Francisco Giants in 1982 and was part of the 1983 pennant winning Phillies, known as the Wheeze Kids were he reunited with former Reds teammates Tony Perez and Pete Morgan, all of whom were at least 39 years old, but those are not the reasons why Morgan is on this list. After he retired Joe Morgan had a second career as an announcer where he regularly criticized advanced metrics and new ways of understanding the game. This was ironic because Morgan’s style of play-power, patience and offensive value that far exceeds batting average was precisely the kind of play that advanced metrics loved. Morgan walked a lot, had a high base stealing success rate and rarely made mistakes on the bases. Those were all things that advanced metrics capture better than conventional measures. Nonetheless, Morgan never warmed to this new way of understanding the game. That is the paradox of the quantitative revolution that changed the game and Morgan’s career on and off the field is the best example of that.
65. Masanori Murakami– Did you know that Masanori Murakami got the save in the Roseboro-Marichal game? That is not enough to get him on this list, but it is one of my favorite bits of baseball trivia. One of the best things about MLB over the last few decades is that it has become much more global. This goes back to early Latino stars like Minnie Minoso, Roberto Clemente and Felipe Alou, but players from Japan, Taiwan and Korea have also contributed a lot to the game in recent years. That began not with Ichiro, Hideo Nomo or Chan Ho Park, but with Masanori Murakami in 1964. Murakami was a left-handed reliever who pitched for the Giants in 1964 and 1965. Over the course of those two seasons, when he was 20-21 years old, he more than held his own going 6-1 with an ERA+ of 106 and 11 saves. After the 1965 season, Murakami returned to Japan and had a successful baseball career there that lasted until 1982. Murakami was as much an aberration as a trailblazer as no other Japanese player would make it to MLB for a few more decades, but he demonstrated that Japanese were certainly good enough to play in the US. Moreover, he did this fewer than twenty years after World War II when bigotry against Japanese people was quite strong.
66. Stan Musial– Stan Musial is one of the few truly great players who is still underrated. Musial won three MVP awards, finished in the top ten in MVP voting 13 times, including every year from 1948-1957 and was on the All Star team in 20 seasons. His 475 career home runs and .331 batting average put him a category with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Ted Williams as the only players to hit 400 home runs with a batting average of .330 or better. Advanced metrics are even kinder to Musial. His OPS+ of 159 is tied for 18th. Despite missing a year serving in the military during World War II and among players who began their careers after 1920, only Henry Aaron, Barry Bonds and Willie Mays have more WAR than Musial’s 128. Musial is on this list because like George Brett and Tony Gwynn he is deeply associated with one team and is the face of that franchise-in Musial’s case, the Cardinals. Almost a half century after retiring, Musial is still a huge part of the history of that famous franchise. So much of mid-century baseball historiography focuses on the three New York teams that Musial has been badly overlooked, but he was the best player on the best team in baseball for most of the 1940s and the best player in the National League during the 1950s. Musial is also on this list as a reminder that baseball does not just happen in New York-even in the 1950s.
67. Hideo Nomo– One of the key events of the second wave of globalization of MLB began on May 2nd, 1995 at Candlestick Park. Because of the late start of the season due to a labor dispute (sound familiar?) it was only the eighth game of the season for both the Giants and the visiting Dodgers. It was an exciting game that was tied at 0-0 after fourteen innings. The Dodgers scored three in the top of the fifteenth, but the Giants came back with four in the bottom half of the inning to win the game, but that is not why the game was important. The Dodgers starting pitcher that day was a 26 year old rookie from Japan named Hideo Nomo. Nomo struck out seven while allowing no runs and only one hit over five innings in his big league debut. He was the first Japanese player in 30 years and immediately became a major baseball sensation. Nomomania swept the baseball world, particularly in Los Angeles where there was a sizeable Japanese American population. By mid-season, Nomo was starting the All-Star game for the NL. He threw two scoreless innings while striking out Kenny Lofton, Edgar Martinez and Albert Belle. In 1995, Nomo led the league in strikeouts and shutouts while finishing fourth in the Cy Young balloting and taking home Rookie of the Year honors. Nomo was the first of the wave of Japanese players that have added so much to MLB this century. He had a pretty solid career winning 123 games with 20.9 WAR. Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire’s home run race in 1998, and Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game record are often credited with saving baseball after the 1994 strike, but Nomomania was a big part of that too.
68. Lefty O’Doul– Just over 2,000 players have come to the plate 3,000 or more times in their big league career. Of those only five, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Joe Jackson and Negro Leaguers, Oscar Charleston and Jud Wilson had a higher batting average than O’Doul’s .349. A sixth, Turkey Stearnes, was tied with O’Doul. O’Doul, who rounded out that batting average with an OPS+ of 143 over parts of 11 big league seasons may be the greatest hitter about whom most fans know the least. O’Doul was more than just a great hitter. He was a central figure in baseball on the west coast before the Giants and Dodgers arrived. He also spent decades promoting the game in Japan. O’Doul was a San Franciscan who starred the San Francisco Seals of the old Pacific Coast League (PCL) in the 1920s and 1930s. In those days, many in the west coast viewed the PCL as a third Major League. The talent level was very high and some players eschewed careers in the NL or AL, because they preferred playing in the PCL. O’Doul was unusual because he went back and forth. For example, although he had cups of coffee with the Red Sox and Yankees in 1919-1923, he did not establish himself in the big leagues until 1928, because from 1924-1927, he played, and raked, in the PCL. The best and most famous franchise in the PCL was the San Francisco Seals. O’Doul played for them on and off from 1917-1940 appearing in ten different seasons for the Seals. He solidified his place as the face of the PCL’s marquee team by managing the Seals from 1935-1951. During those years, he was one of the most famous and recognized sports figures in San Francisco. O’Doul also played and managed for several other PCL teams. O’Doul’s career illustrates the importance of west coast baseball before 1958, but there is more to O’Doul’s story than that. O’Doul made his first trip to Japan as part of a baseball tour in 1931. He went back several times in the 1930s to try build up the game in Japan. Those visits stopped during the war, but began again in 1949 and the 1950s. In those years, the trips were meant to strengthen relations between the US and Japan who had become Cold War allies. No other American player did nearly as much for baseball in Japan. O’Doul is enshrined in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. Someday Cooperstown might find room for somebody whose impact on baseball was so large and hit for a higher batting average than Babe Ruth or Ted Williams.
69. Sadaharu Oh– Sadaharu Oh was the greatest home run hitter in Japanese baseball history and possibly in all of baseball history. Oh slugged 868 home runs during his 22 year career with the Yomiuri Giants. He then managed that team for five more years and spent another 14 years managing in Japan before retiring following the 2008 season. In an odd coincidence, like Willie McCovey, Oh was a powerful left-handed throwing and hitting first baseman who played from 1959-1980. Oh never played in the US, but many American players who competed against him indicated he would have been a star in the US as well. Today there are many Japanese players starring in MLB, but Oh never got that chance-and perhaps never wanted it. However, he remains an icon of the game in Japan and his career is a reminder of the global and diverse history of baseball-even in relatively modern times.
70. Buck O’Neil– Buck O’Neil was a Negro League player in the 1930s and 1940s. Like many of his generation, he missed some of his career, in O’Neil’s case the 1944 and 1945 season, because he was serving in the military. O’Neil was a first baseman, but cannot be counted among the best of the Negro League greats. In the 1950s, after his playing career wound down, O’Neil earned a reputation as a very keen evaluator of talent and helped discover stars like Elston Howard, Ernie Banks, Lou Brock and Oscar Gamble. O’Neil served as a scout and later coach for the Cubs beginning in 1955 and was the first African American coach in the AL or NL. O’Neil’s great importance of the game lay in his commitment to keeping the memory and history of the Negro Leagues alive. During the 1970s-1990s, when the Negro Leagues were forgotten by many, O’Neil, who was telegenic, charming and a gifted raconteur, never stopped telling stories about those days or talking about great Negro League players. He became known more broadly because Ken Burns used the O’Neil throughout his 1994 multi-part documentary about baseball. O’Neil later served on the Veterans Committee of the Hall of Fame and helped preserve the memory of the Negro Leagues, and many of its stars, in Cooperstown. O’Neil passed away in 2006 at the age of 94, but was not elected to the Hall of Fame until last year and will be inducted posthumously later this year. The Negro Leagues are finally recognition as a Major League and O’Neil was one of the most important people in making that happen.