As this list comes to a conclusion you will see lots of familiar names, some of whom will be in unfamiliar places. Please read part 1 of this series for information about methodology and how this list was compiled.
25: Johnny Bench– Bench made his MLB debut at the age of 19 and was a star at 20. He changed how the position is played by popularizing the one-handed style of catching. He won two MVP awards, ten Gold Gloves, and was selected as an All-Star fourteen times. He won back-to-back World Series championships with the Reds in 1975 & 1976; he was named MVP in the latter. He remains the best combination of offense and defense the position has ever seen.
24: Tris Speaker– Speaker finished his career with a slash line of .345/.428/.500 that translates to an OPS+ of 157. He led the American League in doubles seven times and finished his career with 792 of them, a MLB record. He retired with 3,514 hits and 436 stolen bases. In 1919 Speaker was a player/manager for the Indians. He was accused by Dutch Leonard of fixing a game late that season and betting on his opponent (the Tigers) to win. Joe Posnanski explains the scandal in this fantastic piece. Speaker was believed to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
23: Honus Wagner– Wagner played from 1897-1917 and statistically he’s still the best shortstop ever to play. He likely always be. In two hundred years will Wagner (and Hornsby, Gehrig, Ruth, and Johnson) still be considered the best? Will they still be ranked in the top five or ten on best baseball player lists? The quality of an average player continues to increase. It’s harder and harder for individuals and teams alike to separate themselves from the pack. The middle is really good now and it keeps getting better. Unless there are some drastic rule changes put in place it’s unlikely any other shortstop will ever post a WAR of 131 or lead his league in batting average eight times as Wagner did. Wagner also led the NL in on-base percentage four times, slugging percentage six times, and OPS eight times. He was completely dominant. Think about how great Álex Rodríguez has been (yes he’s had help), he’s “only” led the league in OPS twice and that’s incredible in this day and age. If Rodríguez who had all of the benefits afforded to modern athletes (including steroids and other illegal PEDs) couldn’t top Wagner, who will? Probably no one. Baseball needs to escape the early 20th century. We have all witnessed how sports have evolved, how much bigger and faster all athletes have gotten. Baseball did not reach its pinnacle in 1909, nor did any other sport. Wagner should always be remembered as all-time great but context needs to prevail. I am not discarding Wagner or pretending he didn’t exist (like the BBWAA is doing with steroid guys), however I’ve ranked him further down on the list than his statistics alone would suggest he belongs. I think that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do.
22: Cal Ripken– Ripken won the AL Rookie of the Year award in 1982. The following year he was the league MVP and his Orioles won the World Series. In 1991 he won another MVP and posted a WAR of 11.5. That ranks as the best season any shortstop has ever had. Ripken finished his career with 3,184 hits and 431 home runs. And then there’s the streak. From May 30th 1982 to September 19th 1998 Ripken played in 2,632 consecutive games breaking Lou Gehrig’s record of 2,131. The streak itself is not just one the more impressive records in all of the sports, it also helped bring baseball fans back to the game after the 94-95 player strike.
21: Álex Rodríguez– Rodriguez was the first player chosen in the 1993 draft, he made the majors at 18 and was a superstar at 20. That year, his first full season, he hit .358/.414/.631 with 36 home runs, 54 doubles, 141 runs, and 123 RBI. Until Mike Trout came along that was the best age 20 season ever produced. Rodriguez went on to become one of the best players in the league, really one of the best anyone had ever seen. He led the AL in home runs & runs five times each, slugging percentage four times, OPS twice, and WAR four times. He could hit, hit for power, he could run, and he was excellent in the field. He ranked in the top five in WAR ten times, and people forget this now, he was arguably the most popular player in the league. He was thought to be the heir apparent to Mays, Ruth, Williams, or Cobb. He was supposed to be the next best player ever.
Then, the steroid rumors started. At first he denied using, then he eventually admitted to doping while playing with the Rangers from 2001-2003 (there was no formal testing or punishments in place for using then). He led the AL in home runs each of those years and won his first MVP in 03. After he admitted using from 01-03 he always maintained that he had never used before or since, but more connections started to surface. He was linked to Dr. Antony Galea who was the subject of a federal investigation for providing athletes with illegal PEDs. Rodriguez denied doing anything wrong and the story eventually faded away. Things were fairly quiet on the PED front for Rodriguez until the Miami New Times published reports that he purchased steroids and other illegal drugs from the Biogenesis clinic. Rodriguez initially denied any link to the clinic or its founder Tony Bosch. MLB launched an investigation, the evidence was overwhelming. Rodriguez was eventually suspended for the entire 2014 regular season, plus the playoffs. It was the longest PED suspension in the history of American team sports. The arbitration process revealed Rodriguez had a league approved therapeutic exemption for using testosterone in 2007. That year he hit .314/.422/.645. He hit 54 home runs, had a career high OPS+ of 176, and won his third MVP award. Further reading can be found here, here, here and here.
20: Frank Robinson– Robinson won the Rookie of the Year in 1956, the NL MVP in 1961, and the AL MVP in 1966. In 1966 he won the Triple Crown, he also led the AL in OBP, SLG, OPS, OPS+, TB, and runs. Later that year he was named World Series MVP as his Orioles swept the Dodgers. He is one of seven players in MLB history with at least 500 home runs, 1,800 RBI, and 1,800 runs. Robinson later became the first African-American to manage a MLB team.
19: Josh Gibson– Gibson is one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game. Even though he never played a game in Major League Baseball his white contemporaries were fully aware of his capabilities. He was a star in the Negro Leagues at the age of 18 and eventually became the signature player on the Homestead Grays dynasty teams of the 1930s and 1940s. Stories of his power reached near mythical proportions, he was commonly referred to as the “black Babe Ruth.” That might have been underselling him. Gibson died of a stroke at the age of 35, just a few months before Jackie Robinson made his MLB debut. Further reading on him can be found here, here, and here.
18: Greg Maddux– Maddux lacked the power of his other all-time great contemporaries but his command of the strike zone and the precision in which he manipulated it was unparalleled. Over his 23 year career he pitched in 5,008.1 innings, won 355 games, and struck out 3,371 batters. Only seven pitchers in MLB history have accomplished all of those things. He won a World Series championship in 1995 and was an essential part of the Braves teams of the 90s and early 2000s that won fourteen division titles in a row (1991-2005). From 1992-1995 Maddux won four consecutive Cy Young awards. His ERA those years were 2.18, 2.36, 1.56, and 1.63. Only 25 starting pitchers in MLB history have ever recorded an ERA+ over 200, Maddux did it twice. Only four times in MLB history has a starter recorded an OPS+ against below 40, Maddux and Pedro each did it twice. Maddux was also an exceptional fielder, perhaps the best fielding pitcher ever to play. He won eighteen Gold Gloves and led pitchers in assists twelve times and putouts in eight, all MLB records.
17: Lou Gehrig– Gehrig won six World Series championships with the Yankees. His slash line in the postseason was an astonishing .361/.483/.731. In the regular season he led the AL in home runs three times, RBI five times, runs four times, and OBP five times. He won the Triple Crown in 1934 and was twice named AL MVP. Gehrig played in 2,130 consecutive games. That streak and his career ended abruptly after he was diagnosed with ALS. Gehrig died at the age of 37 due to complications from the disease.
16: Rogers Hornsby– Hornsby led the NL in batting seven times, hitting at least.400 in three of those years. He led the league in on-base percentage and slugging percentage nine times each and finished his career with an insane slash line of .358/.434/.577 that converts to an OPS+ of 175. The next highest career OPS+ for a second baseman is 150. He is the best offensive second baseman ever to play and likely always will be. It is widely believed that Hornsby was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
15: Joe Morgan– Morgan won back-to-back NL MVP awards in 1975 & 1976. His Reds also won the World Series both of those years. The “Big Red Machine” as they were called are universally considered one of the greatest baseball teams ever assembled. Morgan finished his career with an OBP of .392, 2,517 hits, 268 home runs, and 689 stolen bases. It’s a very short list of players that have matched or bettered all of those numbers.
14: Albert Pujols– Pujols has been the most productive player in baseball since he made his debut in 2001. He led the NL in WAR four consecutive seasons from 2006 to 2009 and placed in the top five an additional four times. His career slash line of .317/.403/.588 translates to an OPS+ of 162. He’s won three MVP awards, two World Series championships, and has been chosen as an All-Star nine times. He has 520 home runs (and counting), he will likely get to 3,000 hits too, he currently has 2,519.
13: Randy Johnson– Johnson struggled with control early on in his career; he didn’t become a star until his age 29 season. From that point going forward he was as good as any pitcher ever has been. He won five Cy Young awards (including a stretch of four in a row), led his league in strikeouts nine times, ERA+ six times, FIP six times, and SO/9 nine times. He holds both the single season and career record in SO/9. He finished his career with 4, 875 strikeouts, 2nd most all time.
12: Oscar Charleston– Oscar Charleston was doing Willie Mays type of things long before Willie Mays was born. He had elite speed, power, and was regarded as the best defender in baseball, black or white. Here’s what Negro League legend Buck O’Neil had to say about him, “Charlie was a tremendous left-handed hitter who could also bunt, steal a hundred bases a year, and cover center field as well as anyone before him or since…he was like Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Tris Speaker rolled into one.” Further reading on Charleston can be found here, here, and here.
11: Rickey Henderson– Henderson rates as the best baserunner in the history of the game. He led the AL in stolen bases twelve times, this includes his 1982 season when he totaled 130, a modern record. He also led the AL in walks four times and runs five times. He retired as the all time leader in stolen bases (1,406), runs (2,295), and walks (2,190). Bonds later surpassed his walks record but the other two still stand. Henderson is the only player in MLB history with at least 3,000 hits and 2,000 walks. He is one of seven players who reached 3,000 hits to also have a career OBP over .400
10: Mike Schmidt– Schmidt was known for his power and his exceptional defense. He led the NL in home runs eight times, on-base percentage three times, slugging percentage five times, and OPS+ six times. He won three MVP awards, a World Series championship (and World Series MVP), and was named an All-Star twelve times. He also won ten Gold Glove awards; advanced defensive metrics suggest he deserved almost all of them. He finished his career with 548 home runs and an OPS+ of 147. Alex Rodriguez in the only post integration era infielder with a higher WAR than Schmidt, he’s a bit complicated though.
9: Ty Cobb– Ty Cobb was a great baseball player and a despicable human being. He made his MLB debut at 18, at 20 he hit .350 leading the AL in hitting for the first of twelve times. He hit .400 or better three times, and .370 or better twelve times. He led the AL in on-base percentage seven times, slugging percentage eight times, OPS ten times, hits seven times, runs five times, stolen bases six times, and triples four times. Only Babe Ruth has more black ink than Cobb, no one has more gray ink. Cobb has the most seasons with a WAR of five or greater. He finished his career with 4,189 hits, 2,256 runs, and a batting average of .366 which is still the highest ever, and likely always will be. Cobb was a part of the Hall of Fame’s inaugural class; he famously received more votes than Babe Ruth.
For much of his life Cobb was a proud racist. He was involved in numerous physical altercations with African-Americans. He got into fights with white people too, including charging and assaulting a disabled man who was heckling him from the stands. Cobb also admitted to betting on the 1919 World Series and was accused of fixing games. Further reading on Cobb can be found here and here.
8: Mickey Mantle– For many people Mantle wasn’t just a great baseball player, he was baseball. He made his debut at 19, was a star at 20, and an icon at 25. He led the American League in home runs four times, walks five times, on-base percentage three times, slugging percentage four times, and OPS six times. He was named AL MVP on three occasions, which easily could have been five. He hit for the Triple Crown in 1956, he won seven World Series championships and played in five more. He was the best player on the most visible sports team in the country. He finished his career with 536 home runs and a slash line of .298/.421/.557 which converts to an OPS+ of 172. He accomplished all of this playing his entire career injured in one way or another. Further reading on Mantle can be found here, here, here, here, and here.
7: Roger Clemens– Clemens won seven Cy Young awards, an MVP, and two World Series championships. He led his league in wins four times, ERA seven times, FIP nine times, and strikeouts five times. He finished his career with 354 wins, 4,672 strikeouts, and an ERA+ of 143. He is the career leader (for pitchers) in fWAR, and he ranks 3rd in bWAR.
Clemens later became a focal point of the Mitchell Report. He was accused by his former trainer Brian McNamee of using steroids and HGH. McNamee would normally be considered an untrustworthy person but all of the other players he implicated in doping confirmed his allegations. McNamee claimed he first injected Clemens with steroids in 1998 and that he believed this was the first time Clemens had ever used. As a side note by the time Clemens met McNamee he had already won four Cy Young awards, had a record of 213-118, 2,882 strikeouts, an ERA+ of 149, and a WAR of 93.2. He was already one of the best pitchers ever to play. Clemens of course denied all of McNamee’s allegations, countersued him, and spent years in court. Roger was eventually called in front of congress to answer questions about his alleged doping, he denied ever using. He was later indicted and charged with one count of obstruction of Congress, three counts of making false statements to Congress and two counts of perjury. After a jury trial he was found not guilty on all counts. MLB had no formal testing or punishments in place for steroid use until 2005.
I ranked Clemens as the best pitcher of all time. I think that’s reasonable considering his accomplishments and the era he pitched in but I know some of you will say “what about the steroids?” Which is fair. Just as I have dropped stars from the dead-ball and segregated eras, I’ve also dropped steroid guys down too. If I took all of their numbers at face value Bonds would be number one on this list, A-Rod would be top ten, and Manny, McGwire, and Palmeiro would all comfortably clear the top 100. Clemens it appears did not receive a similar mark down, here’s why. I’ve experimented with many different ways to adjust his numbers down and regardless of the system I use he still comes out ahead of Johnson, Maddux, and Martinez. Clemens’ WAR is 139.4, I estimate if he were “clean” his WAR would be in the range of 120-130, most of my numbers put him much closer to 130. Even using the extreme of 120, which takes 35% off of his career value from the age of 35 on he still betters Johnson and Maddux by nearly fifteen wins each. That’s hard to dismiss. Honestly, I think removing 35% of his value after he turned 35 is way too much. I think a more reasonable and accurate number is 22%. Here are Roger’s actual numbers IP 4,916.2, W 354, SO 4,672, WAR 139.4, WAA 94.6. Here are is numbers subtracting 22% starting at the age of 35. IP 4,504, W 323, SO 4,278, WAR 129.2 WAA 88.1. He’s still the best of the group. Also, what Clemens did from the age of 35 on is not unprecedented. Both Randy Johnson and Phil Niekro accomplished more than Clemens after turning 35, Lefty Grove came pretty close too. For as long as there has been baseball there have been pitchers who have excelled into their 40s. Why would Clemens, who was already one of the best pitchers of all time before he met Brian McNamee have been any different?
Clemens, Johnson, Maddux, and Martinez were contemporaries, they were all born within ten years of each other. For some it might be tough to digest that the four best pitchers ever all came from the same generation of players. I get that. It is mathematically tough to believe. However, it’s more believable to me that a cluster of greatness like that could happen now than it could in the 1920s. The game continues to evolve, 100 years from now baseball will be much more advanced than it is today. Some innovation will change the game permanently. At that point it would be foolish to still consider Clemens and his contemporaries as the best pitchers ever. Other pitchers will eventually surpass them all. That cluster atop the rankings is temporary, just as the game evolves and changes so should our perception as to who the best players ever are.
6: Stan Musial– Few people in the history of the game could hit like Musial could. He led the NL in hits six times, batting average seven times, on-base percentage six times, and slugging percentage six times. He finished his career with a slash line of .331/.417/.559 with 3,630 hits, 475 home runs, and an OPS+ of 159. He won three MVP awards and three World Series Championships. He missed all of the 1945 season (age 24) because of his military service in World War II. Unlike some of the players on this list Musial was always well liked by his teammates and universally respected for his accomplishments both on the field and off. Further reading on him can be found here, here, and here.
5: Barry Bonds– According to the book Game of Shadows Bonds started juicing after the 1998 season. Prior to that point he was a lean five-tool-player, who was already one of the best players ever to play the game. He had won three MVP awards, eight Gold Gloves, and was chosen as an All-Star on eight occasions. His career slash line was.290/.411/.556 which converts to an OPS+ of 164 (Pujols’ is 162). He had 411 home runs, 445 stolen bases, and 403 doubles. Here’s the list of players who have also accomplished all of those things. His career WAR was 99.6, that alone would rank 10th among integration era position players.
Bonds’ career did not end after the 1998 season. He did not retire at the age of 34 because steroids were now everywhere in Major League Baseball and he wanted no part of them. It’s fun to think that might have happened in some sort of bizarro universe but we know that’s not how things played out in ours. Instead of retiring in protest Bonds became the best baseball anyone has ever seen. He did things no other player had ever done before and likely never will again. His physique had changed, noticeably, he had muscles on top of muscles and his was single handedly assaulting the record book. He was doing all of this in a pitcher friendly park at an age when players normally decline. Something wasn’t right. Soon we would know why. BALCO was raided by federal investigators in September of 2003. Evidence showing Bonds’ elaborate doping regimen (and that of several other players) started to trickle out. The evidence against him seemed overwhelming, Bonds repeatedly denied ever using. Eventually federal prosecutors indicted Bonds on perjury and obstruction of justice charges, accusing him of lying to a grand jury. He was eventually convicted of one obstruction charge but the jury was hung on any of the charges that specifically used the words steroids in them. Bonds still denies having ever knowingly used steroids.
Here’s the thing, those seasons from 1999-2007, specifically 2000-2004 happened. Yes they were likely aided by illegal performance enhancing drugs but they still happened. Bonds did hit 73 home runs in 2001, he actually had a slugging percentage of .863 that year. In 2004 he had an on-base percentage of .609 and walked 232 times. That happened, in real baseball, pretending it didn’t is just a farce. I don’t think Bonds would have broken Hank Aaron’s home run record had he never used, but I know with a 100% certainty he wouldn’t have hit zero home runs from 1999-2007 either. Giving him no credit for anything during that time is a point of view that is destined to fail. I would suggest that Bonds’ numbers, even those from 2000-2004 are far more authentic than many of those posted by players in the dead-ball or segregation eras. He shouldn’t be credited in full for all of his accomplishments (if I did that he would be ranked number 1 on this list), but we definitely shouldn’t be giving him no credit either.
Legacy is a complicated thing. We want those are who are good to be nothing but good and those who are bad to be nothing but bad. That’s not usually how life works. Barry Bonds is one of the greatest baseball players ever to play the game, this is good. He also took illegal steroids and other drugs to enhance his performance, this is bad. He is both an all-time great and a cheater, he deserves to remembered as both.
4: Hank Aaron– Thankfully Hank Aaron was never the focal point of a federal investigation, so this write-up will be much shorter than the previous one. Aaron was consistently great for a remarkably long time. In 1955, his second year in MLB, he posted and OPS+ of 141. He maintained or bettered that production until 1974 (128) when he was forty years old. During that stretch he never hit fewer than 20 home runs, he never hit more than 50 either. He has the most seasons of 30 or more home runs in MLB history. He played at an MVP level for seventeen consecutive years. No one else has ever done that, truly no one. Aaron is still the all time leader in RBI (2,297), TB (6,856), and extra base hits (1,577). He retired with 755 home runs, 3,771 hits, and 2,174 runs.
3: Babe Ruth– Ruth was a star pitcher before becoming the game’s best hitter. He won three World Series championships with the Red Sox, the last of which came in 1918. Ruth wanted to play every day, he converted to an outfielder full time in 1919 (he still pitched 133.1 innings that year) and quickly established a new single season home run record hitting 29. Then he was sold to the New York Yankees. In 1920 Ruth demolished his own home run record hitting 54 in his first year in pinstripes. That year he hit more home runs than any other American League team, only the Phillies in the NL hit more homers (64) than Ruth did that year. His dominance continued. He led the AL in home runs 12 times, on-base percentage 10 times, slugging percentage 13 times, and OPS 13 times. He finished his career with an insane slash line of .342/.474/.690 which converts to an OPS+ of 206. He still holds numerous MLB records including the most seasons with 40 home runs, most seasons with an OBP% over .500, most seasons with a SLG% over .700, most seasons with an OPS+ over 200, and most seasons with a WAR of 10.0 or better. He was completely dominant in a way no one had ever been before or since. He went on to win four additional World Series championships with the Yankees, including one in 1927 on a team that is widely regarded as one of the best ever assembled.
Ruth became one of the most famous people in the country and his unprecedented power transformed how the game is played. The only thing keeping him from the number one spot on this list is the era he played in. Ruth played in a more advanced league than Cobb or Wagner but he still retired in 1935 having played in a fully segregated league, competing against almost exclusively American born players. The game was not fully formed, neither was the talent pool from which it drew. Modern medicine was in its infancy, weight training was barely a thing. Players were smaller, there was no video analysis or internet. Pitchers were not throwing 100-mph fastballs, and defenders did not cover anywhere near the amount of ground they do today. Ruth should always be remembered as one of the best players ever to play but it’s important to contextualize the era and time he dominated in.
2: Ted Williams– Williams could hit as well as anyone in the history of the game. His 3rd year with Red Sox (age 22) he hit .406/.553/.735 which converts to an OPS+ of 235. It was one of the greatest seasons ever produced, he didn’t win the MVP. The following year he won the Triple Crown and had a slash line of .356/.499/.648, he didn’t win the MVP. He missed the next three seasons in their entirety due to his military service in World War II. When he returned, having not played baseball in three years, he hit .342/.497/.667 and won his first MVP. Williams’ bat was elite for the duration of his career. He led the AL in batting average six times, on-base percentage twelve times, slugging percentage nine times, total bases six times, and home runs four times. He finished his career 521 home runs and a slash line of .344/.482/.634. He is one of three players in MLB history with at least 500 home runs and 2,000 walks. In addition to his military service in World War II Williams also served in the Korean War, missing nearly two full seasons as he did, imagine what his numbers would look like if he hadn’t lost five years of his prime.
During his Hall Fame induction speech in 1966 Williams lobbied for the inclusion of Negro League players in the museum saying “I’ve been a very lucky guy to have worn a baseball uniform, and I hope some day the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in some way can be added as a symbol of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren’t given a chance.” Five years later Paige became the first player from the Negro Leagues inducted into the Hall of Fame. Further reading on Williams can be found here, here, here, here, and here.
1: Willie Mays– Mays made his MLB debut at the age of 20 and won the Rookie of the Year award. The following year he was drafted into the Korean War, he missed nearly two full seasons due to his military service. When he returned he became the greatest all around baseball player the game had ever seen. He was an exceptional defender, he had power, he could run, and he got on base a ton. He won two MVP awards; he probably should have won five more. He won twelve Gold Gloves, was named an All-Star on twenty four occasions, and helped the Giants win a World Series in 1954. He finished his career with 660 home runs, 338 stolen bases, and 3,283 hits. He’s one of only four players in MLB history with at least 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, the other three could not run or field as well as him. He led the NL in WAR nine times, and had six ten win seasons. He was a true five-tool-player who became the prototype of the ideal modern baseball player. Further reading on Mays can be found here, here, here, here, and here.
Data courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com
So that’s my list.
I’m psyched with how this all came together. I think it’s a different take from other top 100 type of lists, not just because of its size but also because I haven’t seen another list that combines players from Major League Baseball, Nippon Pro Baseball, and the Negro Leagues. I like that 23 players in my top 50 and 57 in my top 100 are still alive. I think that makes a lot of sense.
My one take back is Wilbur Wood. I ranked Wood at 235 but I think that’s too high. I also think I undervalued Negro League great Hilton Smith. Smith is my 251, he was the last guy I cut from the top 250 but he should be probably be in.
Thank you to all of you that followed along for all ten parts of this series. I hope you enjoyed it. I’ll so some updates periodically.
I worked on this list off and on throughout the 2014 season but really it was a lifetime in the making. I’ve been making baseball lists for as long as I can remember, I don’t see that stopping anytime soon.
Follow me on Twitter @RossCarey and join the conversation at #Top250