By standards of the museum, all players honored in the baseball Hall of Fame are equal. Once a man’s in, he’s in and all players get the same plaque. There is no delineation between the Mickey Mantles and Tommy McCarthys of Cooperstown. Should this be?
Over the past month, I’ve run a project at this website challenging people to determine the best of the best. Between June 18 and the morning of July 15, 235 people submitted countable ballots to rank a 50-player Inner Circle for the Hall of Fame. Anyone was eligible to vote, the only requirements being that people vote for exactly 50 players. To do the players who made the Inner Circle justice, I recruited an All Star lineup of writers.
The results of our handiwork follow momentarily. On a side note, this project is dedicated to two people: my half-brother Richard who died in 2007 and would’ve turned 40 today; and former Sports Illustrated editor and prolific baseball writer Robert Creamer who died Wednesday at 90. Creamer gave an incredible interview to this site over the winter that’s worth a read after this.
Anyhow, here’s how the Hall of Fame Inner Circle came out:
How great was Willie Mays?
He was so great that unless you saw Willie Mays during his prime, you’ve never seen anyone so great.
Granted, his prime lasted a dozen-odd years. But I’ve been watching baseball for nearly forty years, and I didn’t see Willie Mays in his prime. Which means all I’ve got are the memories of those who did see him play before 1965 or ’66 … Well, those memories and an awful lot of statistics.
Statistics, of course, can tell us only so much. Which in this case is actually quite a lot.
At some point it became, perhaps thanks to Bill James, de rigeur to allow that while Willie Mays probably enjoyed the greatest career since Babe Ruth, at his best he wasn’t quite the equal of Mickey Mantle at his best.
I no longer believe that’s true. Mantle drew more walks than Mays. But Mays had Mantle’s power, and Mays was far more valuable on the basepaths and in center field than Mantle. If you look at an overarching measure like Wins Above Replacement, Mays and Mantle’s best seasons were roughly equivalent.
Except Mays had more of those seasons. And he had them in the better league.
Mickey might have been Willie’s equal, if he’d avoided all the injuries or taken better care of himself. But he didn’t, on either account. Both players reached the majors in 1951, at exceptionally tender ages. Twenty years later, Willie led the National League in on-base percentage and Mickey had been retired for three years.
It’s not abundantly clear that Willie Mays is the greatest baseball player who’s ever lived. But if there’s ever been a baseball player who’s done more things brilliantly, nobody has seen him.
2. Babe Ruth 233 votes, written by me
Upon Babe Ruth’s death in 1948, his friend, longtime newspaper columnist Grantland Rice wrote, “No game will ever see his like, his equal again. He was one in many, many lifetimes. One all alone.”
I rate the best of the best in sports by how far above their peers they operate. The term “Inner Circle” was, for all intents and purposes, invented for men like Babe Ruth. He may not have been the greatest player in baseball history (I reserve that honor for Willie Mays and rate Ruth second, personally) but the Bambino was probably the closest thing to a God his sport’s ever known. There were the 714 home runs, his annual totals higher than many teams some years. There was the .342 lifetime batting average, the eight seasons he had at least 10 WAR, the 11 years he had an OPS+ above 200; and the list of statistical accolades of course goes on, way on. And along with all the eye-popping numbers that were, well, Ruthian, there was an out-sized personality to match.
I generally favor a larger, more inclusive Hall of Fame for the sake of history, but by that same token, I recognize Cooperstown could lose half its plaques and not be hugely worse off. That doesn’t go for players like Babe Ruth. The Hall of Fame wouldn’t be the Hall of Fame without him. He could commandeer his own wing, and it might still not do him justice.
Lou Gehrig’s name has escaped the abyss of oblivion and sailed on into our own time.
Sure, Gehrig is one of those unfortunates who bequeathed us a popular nametag for a dreaded disease. But a combination of power, consistency, clutch hitting, and genuine modesty distinguishes him from most of his fellows among the pre-World War II “immortals.”
Gehrig’s reputation survives the enormous shadow cast by his teammate, Babe Ruth. He still holds the American League season record of 184 RBI’s in 1931—- this despite often filling the cleanup spot in the Yankees’ lineup behind the Babe, who regularly cleared the bases himself with towering home runs and left not a scrap for Gehrig to send home. His career totals, though he was cut down near his peak by a fatal illness, remain impressive: A .340 batting average and 494 homers, while his 1995 RBI’s place him fourth behind Hank Aaron, Ruth, and Barry Bonds.
Gehrig is always there when talk about Hall of Famers crops up among
fans, and the recent convincing vote for him as the first baseman for this website’s all-time dream team is a case in point. He remains one of the elite.
The argument against Hank Aaron being one of the all-time greatest players is one of “longevity,” meaning that Aaron didn’t have a high peak, but he instead compiled stats. It’s true he played a lot of games, 3,298, third-most all-time. But you can’t argue with his achievements. He’s the all-time leader in RBI, second in homers, fourth in runs, and fourth in hits. Aaron is one of four players with both 3000 hits and 500 homers, joining Willie Mays, Eddie Murray and Rafael Palmeiro. But of those three players, only Mays is in the top ten all-time in either category, ranking fourth all-time in homers. Aaron is top five in both categories. Call him a compiler all you want, and while it’s true, Aaron is pretty much the best compiler in baseball history.
There was the blazing sprinter’s speed, the L’il Abner physique that generated the superhuman power to produce prodigious home runs from both sides of the plate, the alliterative, catchy, easy-to-remember name (delete the “MIC” from Mickey and the “TLE” from Mantle and what do you have?)
There was the boyish grin that caused his nose to crinkle, the dashing good looks of a blond god, the shy country boy persona, the endearing, innocent clubhouse pranks, and the mischievous ribald sense of humor.
All of it combined to create an “Inner Circle” baseball player.
Mickey Mantle was revered by teammates, (he was friendly and convivial unlike his Yankees’ superstar centerfield predecessor Joe DiMaggio who was aloof and distant), admired by fans (sportscaster Bob Costas carries Mantle’s baseball card in his wallet and comic Billy Crystal admits as a boy he emulated Mantle’s limp and slump-shouldered gait), and respected by opponents, dozens of whom grew up idolizing him.
As a baseball writer I covered Mantle and later assisted him in the writing of his best-selling book, “My Favorite Summer 1956.” I found him to be humble, profane, charming, rude, considerate, crude and generous. During a working brunch I watched him pay the check of an elderly gentleman, a stranger seated at the next table who was unable to pay for his meal.
More than a half century of covering baseball I have learned that home runs and a lofty batting average alone do not make an Inner Circle Player. Rather it’s a mystique, a presence, a perception. It’s a Babe Ruth, a Stan Musial, a Willie Mays, a Mickey Mantle.
That’s truthfully the only way to describe a career like that of Stan “The Man” Musial. Twenty-two years in baseball, all while wearing the ever-recognizable “Birds on the bat,” represents both colossal talent and immense loyalty, the likes of which are not often seen in the game of baseball today.
Musial made his debut with the St. Louis Cardinals on September 17, 1941, and in 1943 won his first “Most Valuable Player” award after posting a .357 average with 220 hits, 48 doubles, 20 triples and 13 home runs. He would win the award again in 1946 and 1948.
On his way to claiming nearly every offensive statistic record in St. Louis history, Musial was a part of three World Series’ teams (1942-44, 1946). His career franchise records include batting average (.331), hits (3,630), RBI (1,959), extra base hits (1,377), and total plate appearances (12,712) … to name a few.
Musial played his final game on September 29, 1963, and was induced into the Hall of Fame on July 28, 1969. In his induction speech, “The Man” said this:
“…of all the thrills I really experienced I still say that the greatest thrill to me was just putting on the uniform, reaching the top of your profession, and becoming a big league ball player … It’s a pleasure now to be a part of this great game and I hope that I gave baseball as much as it gave to me.”
Indeed you did, Mr. Musial. Indeed you did.
Ty Cobb has to be the very first name that comes to mind when you look for an example of a player who was inducted into the Hall of Fame by numbers alone. If he had played in any era I wonder if he would have managed to play long enough to post such historic numbers.
You see, Cobb was not only a racist, but in 1912 he beat a man who had no hands for jeering him at a game against the New York Highlanders. He was only suspended 10 games. Such a horrific act would not have been tolerated had he played in a more popular time. I feel obligated to mention that if he had played in the era of beat writers, I wonder how many would actually vote him in. He wasn’t exactly the nicest guy to talk to.
However, no one can deny his numbers: a .366/.433/.512 line with 4189 hits and 2246 runs in over 24 major league seasons. The Georgia Peach is without a doubt an Inner Circle Hall of Famer, because without such gaudy talent on the baseball diamond, Ty Cobb left much to be desired.
When you talk about the greatest all-around players in baseball history, Honus Wagner immediately comes to mind. Wagner, like so few others, could do it all– and could do it all well. Upon breaking into the majors with the Louisville Colonels in 1897, he immediately established himself as a premier hitter, posting a 125 OPS+ through his first 242 career at-bats. By 1900, his first season with the Pirates, the then-26-year-old shortstop really came into his own, mashing to the tune of a .381/.434/.573 slash line with a league-best 176 OPS+.
And that was essentially the pace that Wagner would maintain for the next decade, as he went on to post a 175 OPS+ in 1256 games from 1901 to 1909. During his ten-year prime which coincided with the first decade of the 1900s, Wagner racked up 1847 hits, 487 steals, a .417 on-base percentage and 51 homers — outstanding totals in the context of the pre-live ball era. And he did this all while playing great defense at one of the most demanding positions on the baseball diamond.
What can we say about Ted Williams that hasn’t already been said? We all know his biggest claim to fame: he was the last player to ever hit .400 in a season. While his .406 mark is certainly an unbelievable feat, the story (one my grandfather shared with me repeatedly) of how he finished the 1941 season is perhaps the greatest example of the kind of person the Splendid Splinter was not just on the field, but off of it as well.
Entering the final day of the season, the Red Sox were scheduled for a double header against the Philadelphia Athletics. Prior to the start of that day’s twin bill, Williams was hitting .3996, which of course would be rounded up to .400. Understanding the rarity of such a feat, Red Sox manager Joe Cronin planned to sit Williams in order to protect his batting average. Upon seeing his omission from the lineup cards, Williams lobbied to get himself into the lineup. Although he understood Cronin’s rationale, he saw it differently. If he was going to hit .400, he wanted to do it with integrity. He didn’t want it be because his average was rounded up. He played both games of the double header, and finished up 6-for-8 with a double, home run, and two RBIs; thus giving him a .406 batting average on the season.
Above all else, integrity symbolizes Williams’s legacy. He lost nearly five full seasons to fighting in foreign wars, robbing him of much of his prime, and never complained once about taking time away from baseball to fight on behalf of his country. He wasn’t just a baseball great, he was an American hero.
Teddy Ballgame cemented himself as one of the all-time greats by producing a career .344/.482/.634 line with 521 home runs, 525 doubles, 2021 walks, 1839 RBIs, and 139.8 fWAR. One can only imagine his career totals had he not lost nearly five full seasons due to global conflict.
The holder of numerous pitching records that will not be broken any time soon, Denton True “Cy” Young is on the short list of the greatest pitchers who ever lived. He first starred in the high-scoring National League of the 1890s, where he won 286 games in 11 years (1890-1900) for the Cleveland Spiders and St. Louis Cardinals. Just when it appeared he might be slowing down, the 34-year-old joined the Boston club of the upstart American League in 1901, and won 192 games in eight years. After three more seasons, he finally retired with 511 wins, 815 starts, 749 complete games, and 7356 innings pitched, totals that read like misprints today.
At a time of characters and hooligans, Young was a quiet man known for his clean and temperate living. He was known for a great curveball a terrific fastball, one that led to his nickname of Cyclone, shortened to Cy. Honus Wagner, for one, thought he was faster than Walter Johnson. Besides his wonderful accomplishments, Young made his greatest impact on baseball history with his decision to jump to the upstart American League in 1901. The AL spent the winter aggressively trying to lure stars from the NL, it was the defections of Napolean Lajoie and Young that signaled the league might be for real. Within a few short years, the leagues had comparable talent. Young dominated the league right away, starred for the American in the first modern World Series in 1903, and in 1904 threw the first major league perfect game since the advent of the current pitching distance.
Joe DiMaggio is one of the no-brainers amongst the Inner-Cicle’s top fifty players of all-time. The Yankee Clipper never reached the 3,000 hit mark like Derek Jeter, but then again, Jeter didn’t have to serve his country and miss three seasons in his prime.
The Yankee Clipper’s sheer greatness is sometimes overshadowed by the famous 56-game hit streak in the summer of 1941, but his lifetime batting average of .325 and an OBP of .398 are a testament to his mastery at the bat.
Roaming center field with the monuments at old, old Yankee Stadium DiMaggio’s defensive skills were unmatched with speed and accuracy his trademarks.
DiMaggio was voted the “Greatest Living Player” in 1969 while Willie Mays was still an active player.
DiMaggio was the Say-Hey Kid’s idol. What more can you say?
(….and no one could carry $600k in a garbage bag through an earthquake like Joe D. either.)
Growing up, I knew the names of Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Willie Mays, but the first time I ever heard of Jimmie Foxx, I was eight years old and had finally won a game of Home Run Derby on Sega Genesis. Using the crude avatar of Foxx, I was able to defeat the cruel and unfeeling AI despite my stubby fingers and lack of hand-eye coordination. Which is the truest test for anyone’s Hall of Fame merits. How, with a nickname as cool as “The Beast,” coming long before “Beast Mode” or the X-Men character, could Foxx’s Q Score be so low?
Jimmie Foxx ended his career with with 534 home runs and a .325/.428/.609 line, becoming the youngest player to hit 500 HR before Alex Rodriguez came along and beat him by a measly 330 days. Foxx won three MVP awards, lead the league in home runs four times (topping 50 twice), RBI three times, average and walks twice, and slugging five times. As if that wasn’t enough, he started his career as a catcher and ended it as a pitcher, throwing 22.2 innings with a 1.59 ERA for Philadelphia in 1945. To put that into modern perspective, that would be like Albert Pujols finishing his career on the hill and doing a damn fine job.
Were it not for injuries and alcohol, The Beast with “muscles in his hair” would have put up even more spectacular numbers. But even as they stand, and as verified by an eight-year-old playing video games, Jimmie Foxx is absolutely deserving of membership in baseball’s pantheon.
All time great pitchers should possess a number of traits: power, control, and durability. Walter Johnson brought all three to the table and dominated an era of putting the ball in play.
Johnson struck out 3,509 batters during his career, a rate of 5.3 per nine innings. That doesn’t seem like much today, but from 1907 to 1927, the major league average stood at 3.4 per nine innings. The two fewer balls in play per nine innings not only made hits less likely, but the poor fielding of the day would hurt the Big Train less as well.
Batters saw few free passes from Walter especially early in his career. For his first 14 season, Walter averaged 1.8 BB per nine innings. He did lose some control late in his career, winding up walking 2.1 batter per nine innings an outstanding number for any era. Johnson also kept the ball in the park. While home runs rates were low during most of Walter’s career, three times he pitched over 250 innings without allowing a home run. Nineteen sixteen was one of those seasons, Johnson pitching 369 2/3 innings with no homers.
As for durability, Johnson topped 300 innings nine years in a row and pitched nearly 6000 innings during his career. The ability to stay on the mound gave him a career strikeout record that stood until the era of Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver. The eight men who passed Johnson in total Ks all saw their careers start after 1960.
Put that all together and there stands a pitcher with 417 wins, a .599 winning percentage, a 2.17 ERA and a 147 ERA+. Four times Johnson posted an ERA+ over 200, and twice was voted MVP. At age 36, with his skills fading, Johnson went 23-7 to lead Washington to the only World Series championship in the city’s history. In every aspect, he deserved his first class Hall of Fame selection.
Rogers Hornsby’s legacy as a player is unquestioned. Offensively, he shattered that stereotype of the “good-field, no-hit” second baseman, dominating the entire decade of the 1920′s, winning the Triple Crown twice. He .358 career batting average is ranked second all-time, placing him only behind Ty Cobb. He batted over .400 three times, and holds the distinction of being the only player ever to hit more than 40 homers while batting over .400 in a season. At the time of his retirement, he had the home run record for the National League. Hornsby had difficulty translating his playing success to his managerial career, having strained relations with most of his players, showing difficulty understanding why the game didn’t come as easily to others as it did to him.
If you hear anyone say Matty in reference to the Giants today, you probably think of Matt Cain. 100 years ago, though, that honor fell to Hall of Fame right-hander Christy Mathewson. And before Michael Jordan perfected the fadeaway, it’s what they called Mathewson’s signature pitch; we just call it a screwball now.
Mathewson did it all. Though not at quite the rate they tend to at present, he missed a ton of bats in his day while, with his stellar control, not giving up many base on balls. That led to a still-record in the Senior Circuit of 373 wins. He also managed two no-hitters, two pitching Triple Crowns. And he managed it all without pitching Sunday, a day he reserved for the Lord.
If postseason is your thing, Matty was nearly unhittable in the 1905 World Series. He threw three shutouts in six days in that series, walking one and whiffing 18, propelling the New York Giants to their third World Championship.
If peak is your thing, Christy had that in spades too. In fact, he may have had one of the most unbelievable pitching peaks in history. From 1901 to 1913 Mathewson accumulated a bWAR of 92.8.
Sadly, Matty didn’t make it to his induction into Cooperstown’s five-man inaugural class in 1936, passing from tuberculosis in ’25 at the age of 45.
It was all about the knee. For 20 major league seasons, pitch after pitch, Tom Seaver dragged that right knee of his across the front of the mound with a form that was as consistent as his results. The dirtier the knee, the adage went, the better Tom was throwing. And in his prime — roughly 1968 through 1978 — Seaver’s knee, like his stuff, was positively filthy. During that period, “Tom Terrific” was terrific indeed, notching five 20+ win seasons, leading the NL in ERA and WHIP three times, and taking home three Cy Youngs. He logged nine straight 200+ strikeout seasons (leading the NL five times), and would made it eleven straight if he hadn’t whiffed “only” 196 hitters in 1977.
Seaver had some solid later years with the Reds and White Sox, but it was with the Mets that he firmly established his greatness, lifting a once-pathetic team onto his shoulders and carrying them to respectability, and a World Series championship to boot. He went 198-124 over 11½ seasons with the Mets, a W-L record that would be even more impressive had the Mets been able to put some decent bats in their lineup. He was so firmly established as the face of the franchise that many New Yorkers of a certain age can still tell you where they were when the news hit about his “midnight massacre” trade to Cincinnati. It happened about a month before the NYC blackout; and for many young Mets fans at the time, it was even more memorably traumatic.
What makes Frank Robinson an inner-circle Hall of Famer? Robby’s numbers don’t pop out at you the way you sometimes see with other greats – he simply achieved such a consistent level of excellent that he almost made awesomness seem run-of-the-mill. He fell short of obvious “great” milestone, like 3,000 hits and 600 homers, and his Triple Crown year was the only time he led the league in any one of the Triple Crown categories. Robinson was a jack-of-all-trades that just happened to master most of them and he put up a superstar season nearly every year for two decades, only occasionally slipping to the level of an ordinary star. Going by a more sabermetric stat, baseball-reference’s wins above replacement, Robinson ranks 20th among position players, 6th among those that have played in the last 40 years. It takes a darn good player to make acquiring a solid pitcher like Milt Pappas look like a bad idea, but Frank Robinson managed to do that. An inner-circle without Frank Robinson is a very small one.
17-Tie. Johnny Bench, 213 votes, written by Jonathan Wagner
After the 1976 World Series, Cincinnati manager Sparky Anderson was asked to compare Yankees catcher Thurman Munson to his own catcher, the newly crowned World Series MVP. Anderson replied, “You don’t compare anyone to Johnny Bench. You don’t want to embarrass anybody”.
What is there left to say?
He has more Offensive bWAR than Mark McGwire, Raffy Palmeiro and Willie Stargell. He has more Defensive bWAR than Mike Schmidt, Luke Appling and Willie Mays. And he did it while spending 13 years as a full time catcher (in Cincinnati, in summer.)
Other things Bench achieved:
- Multiple Rings and MVPs ( Rookie of the Year, too )
- Double-Digit All-Star appearances and Gold Gloves
- First Ballot HOF Inductee
- Exceptional Durability in his prime (averaged over 140 games caught for his first 10 seasons)
- Spent his whole career in one town and was one of the leaders of (arguably) the greatest team in Baseball History, The Big Red Machine
- Namesake for the annual honor for the best young catcher in the nation, the Johnny Bench Award
He’s the first or second name mentioned in any and all Best Catcher discussions. The voters on this very site elected him Catcher for the BPP All-Time Dream Project this past spring, giving him more votes than the rest of the top 5 combined.
It is almost easier to try to list reasons that Johnny Bench is not one of the 50 best players ever because he fills out the resume so completely. Take Mike Piazza’s power and patience, Yogi Berra’s durability and leadership and Ivan Rodriguez’s mobility and rifle arm, and well… you’ve got Johnny Bench.
What makes a great player rank among the truly greatest players? If the player in question happens to be Rickey Henderson, then in his own words he is “the greatest of all time.” Rickey was a unique player for a whole host of reasons. From batting right-handed despite throwing left-handed, to his numerous pithy quotes and stories, or of course his fantastic batting numbers, he was always one to garner attention.
He was the best leadoff hitter of all time, with a lifetime on-base percentage of .401. His 1,406 stolen bases are 400 more than second place Lou Brock. On 81 separate occasions he started the scoring single handedly, hitting a home run to lead off his team. Those 81 leadoff home runs are a MLB record. To further illustrate him as one of the game’s inner-circle Hall of Famers, another record he holds is most runs scored in a career. You can’t win if you don’t score, and Rickey has scored more runs than anyone in the history of the game. Rickey has more unintentional walks than Barry Bonds, more doubles than Babe Ruth and hit more home runs than Brooks Robinson.
For 24 seasons Rickey was a part of the game, and now he is a first ballot Hall of Famer. To quote the great Bill James: “If you could split him in two, you’d have two Hall of Famers.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. By any metric, new school or old, Rickey ranks among the greatest to ever play the game.
Mike Schmidt was the greatest third baseman in major league history. Period. He was also arguably the best player in baseball in over the course of his career, which lasted from 1972 to 1989. Indeed, over the 30-year span from 1965 to 1995, he leads all players, pitchers included, in Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement (bWAR). From 1974 to 1987, the 14 seasons in which Schmidt qualified for the batting title, he hit .274/.387/.546 while averaging 36 home runs, 104 RBIs, 99 runs scored, and 98 walks per season and led the NL in homers eight times and the majors six times. He not only won ten gold gloves during that span, but earned them, seven times leading NL third basemen in Total Zone Runs saved.
Before he turned 32, he stole 141 bases (averaging 17 a season from 1974 to 1981) at a 69 percent success rate (not great, but significant for a power hitter in that era). He finished in the top three in the NL in bWAR every year from 1974 to 1981, and from 1980 to 1986, his age-30 to -36 seasons, he led his league in OPS+ six times in seven seasons (posting a 161 mark over the entire seven-year span) and won three Most Valuable Player awards. When he retired in 1989, the 12-time All-Star was seventh all-time in both home runs (548) and intentional walks (201), and in the nearly quarter century since, no one has come close to challenging his largely uncontested place as the game’s greatest third baseman.
In 1968’s “Year of the Pitcher,” no other hurler dominated like Bob Gibson of the St. Louis Cardinals. His numbers are still familiar 44 years later: 1.12 ERA. Thirteen shutouts. Seventeen strikeouts in Game One of the World Series. His accolades as Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winner are familiar too, as well as the fact Major League Baseball lowered the pitcher’s mound in 1969.
And while 1968 was Gibson’s best season, it was just one of many very successful ones. He was the pitching cornerstone of the Cardinals 1960s World Championship teams. During the team’s epic 1964 stretch run alone, where they came back from 11 games behind the Phillies on Aug. 23 to win the pennant, Gibson was 9-2 with seven complete games and one shutout. He started three World Series games, winning two, including Game Seven on two days’ rest. He set a World Series record with 31 strikeouts and was named Series MVP.
Gibson was a fierce, intimidating competitor who rarely smiled and would never hesitate to throw a brushback pitch. Yet he was tough as well, facing three more batters after a Roberto Clemente line drive hit and fractured his right leg in July 1967. He returned in September and won three games during the World Series, again being named Series MVP.
During his 17-year career, Gibson was 251-174 with a 2.91 ERA, 3,117 strikeouts, 255 complete games and 56 shutouts. In addition to 1968, he also won the Cy Young Award in 1970. Gibson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1981, his first year of eligibility.
Interesting side note: Gibson received a basketball scholarship to Creighton University and averaged 22 points a game his junior season. He even was a Harlem Globetrotter in 1957, before making his Major League debut in 1959 at age 23.
One of the earliest five-tool players, Speaker is criminally underrated by contemporary audiences, despite how well his numbers still hold up even today. The Hall of Fame center fielder is in the top ten all-time in numerous categories, including WAR, batting average, doubles, triples, hits, and outfield assists. While he played he was considered every inch the player as rival Ty Cobb. Speaker’s career OPS+ of 157 just nudges out the player many consider to be the best ever; Willie Mays, who posted a 156 mark. Speaker was also the linchpin of three World Series winning teams, including being the player/manager for the victorious 1920 Cleveland Indians. His penchant for playing an extremely shallow center field is an enduring legacy in baseball history and a testament to what a great defensive player he was. He had it all and did it all during his 22 year career; making his inclusion in the inner circle an absolute must.
People forget the proximity of WWII to the Jackie Robinson era. He was a great uplift for a war-weary nation, who had become sickened by the specter of their own casualties and the atrocities committed upon millions simply because of their ethnicity, religion and skin color.
The war was over, and the GI Bill was helping millions of vets get back on their feet. For the first time in a generation there was hope for a better life. Major League Baseball with the best players was back. And while not the best Negro Leaguer, Jackie would become a MLB All-Star six times in his remarkable career.
Though many white ball fans, still consigned African Americans to “less than” status for reasons they were never quite sure of, eventually joined the African American community, to celebrate his play, and his dignity. It was a beginning.
Jackie was probably the toughest man to ever play the game; physically, emotionally, and mentally. Nobody outside of combat has ever been tested the way Jackie Robinson was.
Forget the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Inner Circle of the 50 greatest ballplayers of all time. Jackie Robinson belongs in the Inner Circle of the Human Race Hall of Fame. And I am greatly privileged to have been given an opportunity to share my thoughts with you about Jackie.
Baseball in Kansas City in the mid-1970’s was electric. The Royals had everything you needed to build the blueprint for a successful baseball franchise. They had some power, a lot of speed, great defense, and excellent starting pitching from the left and right side. They had a great manager and an owner who loved his team and the city he lived in. But, one player emerged from those great ball clubs as a legend of the city.
George Brett was a California kid with a gap between his teeth, a plug of tobacco in his mouth and golden blonde hair flowing out the pack of his heavily salted cap. He played the game at 150 percent and was the dirtiest guy in the stadium almost every game he played. He had a textbook swing that began with a spin of his bat, shifting his weight back in the box before he uncoiled a beautiful swing that every kid in my school tried to emulate at 3&2 fields.
The fans of Kansas City saw Brett work hard on his defense to become a solid defender and a fantastic all around talent. He became a star in 1976 and the face of the franchise soon after. He played hard off the field as well as stories of long nights with his buddies are still told to this day. He respected the game and if clutch exists, and I believe it does, you should find a picture of Brett in the definition.
Those teams did not win a championship though as Chris Chambliss and the Yankees would rip out the heart of this city in one famous swing in 1976. But, Brett entered the 80’s with his book still being written.
1980 started off as one of the best sports years ever when Team USA beat Russia in Olympic Hockey. For Kansas City fans what followed could not have been written up by its own native son Walt Disney. George Brett went after the hardest and most prestigious goal in major league baseball “.400”.
After the first month of the season he was hitting just .259 and he was at .301 after May. He was at .337 on June 10th before one of his many career trips to the D.L cost him a month but when he returned on July 10th the magic began. He went 21-38 his first 9 games back and we saw his .AVG climb to .377 it was at .390 to end July. On August 17th he was above .400 (as high as .406) for 6 games. He dipped below for 3 games before a 5-5 game on August 26th at Milwaukee put him at a season high .407. He competed all year and was last at .400 on September 19th. The season ended with a .390 clip. However, the now 27 year old star, lead his Royals to finally beat the Yankees and get to the World Series.
The last half of the career of the face of his organization included a World Series title in 1985 and one more batting title as a 37 year old in 1990 which meant he was the only player in baseball history to win titles in 3 different decades. He reached the 3000 hit plateau near his boyhood home (El Segundo, CA) against the Angels and closed out his career in true Brett fashion. His second to last At Bat he grounded out to 2B and busted his ass the entire way to first. I would bet that if you asked him he would have loved for this to be his last AB because it was so important to him to show young fans the right way to play the game. But, for fans his last at-bat was perfect as he faced Tom Henke in the ninth inning at Texas singling up the middle for hit number 3,154.
Royals’ fans are like a childhood star that makes it in Hollywood but suffers the rest of his life as payment for the success he/she had before the age of 30. The last years are full of “remember when” and “if I could just get one more break” and this is often tortuous and leads to years of abuse to body and soul. George Brett, though, is a figure we can always go back to that reminds us of how great it once was.
If the Inner Circle is going to have a lefty, Warren Spahn is the perfect choice. Warren Spahn is the winningest lefty of all time, and has the most wins for a pitcher in the live-ball era.
Spahn debuted in the majors in 1942 but was demoted by Braves manager Casey Stengel for refusing to throw at Pee-Wee Reese. When Spahn returned to baseball after WWII he began dominating the National League. With his high leg kick, pinpoint control and flawless mechanics, Spahn started a string of thirteen 20-win seasons, 17 All-Star Games, two World Series appearances and the Cy Young Award in 1957.
When Spahn’s fastball began to wane he started throwing a devastating screwball, further confounding hitters and extending his career. Spahn’s greatest game was in 1963 when he was 42 years old, a 15-inning duel with 25-year-old Juan Marichal, in which Spahn gave up a solo homer to Willie Mays to lose 1-0.
Spahn played briefly for Casey Stengel’s Mets and the Giants in 1965 before leaving the major leagues. After two seasons in minor league ball Spahn retired for good. Spahn was enshrined in Cooperstown in 1973.
A few weeks ago I sat in the smoky mountains, drinking wine and chatting with an aging gentleman from Pittsburgh who sat in the bleachers at Forbes Field and watched Roberto Clemente play in the late 1950’s as a child. I’ll always remember this exact quote he said to me, “Son, you ain’t EVER seen an arm like that.”
Sitting there listening to this man transform back to being a little boy and now knowing he had witnessed in person one of the greatest players of all-time got me and him a little misty eyed. Now obviously Clemente was more than a right fielder displaying a precise and powerful arm. He won four batting titles, amassed 3,000 hits, won 12 gold gloves, went to the same number of all-star games and finished in the top 10 of MVP voting 8 times and winning it in 1966.
On New Years Eve 1972, following 18 tremendous seasons playing baseball Clemente, he died a saint’s death, killed in a plane crash attempting to deliver food and supplies to Nicaragua after an earthquake.
Clemente and Lou Gehrig are immortal; they are the only players to have the five-year waiting period waived so they could be enshrined in the Hall of Fame immediately after their deaths.
His sweetest moment may have been, in the dugout after the Pirates won the 1971 World Series, be brought pride to all Latin America by choosing to speak Spanish to honor his parents back home.
In Spanish, Clemente means merciful. And it had to do the way he played and what he meant to his entire country.
He was intensely proud of everything about his native land; he was the fire of dignity, on and off the field. He was a patron saint for the way he played the game on the field and for what he did off it.
Until I was about five, I thought that the adorable, older man who played with the New York Yankees when my dad was growing up, who I always saw on television or heard stories about and who was famous for his silly quotes was actually named Yogi Bear. Unfortunately, my parents never corrected me because they thought my mistake was cute and it wasn’t until I arrived in kindergarten that I learned the error of my ways. It was 1979 and I figured I’d impress the boys with my baseball knowledge until one of them said to me rather obnoxiously, “His name isn’t Yogi Bear! It’s Yogi Berra!!”
As a young child, I didn’t quite understand just how good the man, Yogi Berra, actually was. And I think because he played in an era that is now so long ago, a lot of baseball fans still don’t know the greatness of Berra. So here are some facts about Yogi that everyone should know.
He has won more World Series championships than any other player in the history of Major League Baseball – he has enough rings for all of his fingers. He also appeared in 14 World Series, 14 All-Star games, was a three-time MVP, and was in the Top 30 in MVP voting every year from 1947-1961.
Berra had a long, consistent career, finishing with a .285/.348/.482/.830 line and 358 home runs. And while his batting average may not have been as high as Ted Williams (.344) and his home run total wasn’t exactly world beating like Mickey Mantle’s 536, his numbers are still impressive considering he played the majority of his career at catcher.
One more thing to know about Yogi Berra is that on October 8, 1956 he caught the only perfect game in World Series play. And as his battery mate Don Larsen walked off the field, Berra ran up to him, jumped into Larsen’s arms and wrapped his legs around him. For his part, Larsen didn’t miss a beat and kept on walking toward the victor’s dugout with Berra latched onto him. That iconic film image is still shown regularly today.
It is an absolute certainty that Cal Ripken, Jr. will forever be associated with “The Streak.” From May 1982 through September 1998, Ripken played in 2,632 consecutive games as the Baltimore Orioles shortstop and third baseman. For the first five of those years, he even played in every inning.
But Cal was more than the streak. From 1982 to 1991, a period bookended by a Rookie of the Year award and two American League Most Valuable Player awards, Ripken was one of the greatest shortstops to ever play the game. Despite his unconventional height, Ripken played a strong defense, setting a record for errorless games (95) and errorless chances (428) for a shortstop in 1990. In his “New Historical Abstract”, Bill James claimed that “Ripken had the best arm I ever saw on a shortstop.” It was his offense that set him apart, though. At a time when offense – and especially home runs – was down, Ripken had ten straight years of 20-or-more home runs at an historically weak position. He dwarfed his contemporaries (including greats like Ozzie Smith, Alan Trammell, and Barry Larkin) in home runs, runs, runs batted in, slugging, OPS and more over that time. He also managed to put up an astonishing 67.4 Wins Above Replacement in that time, led mostly by his offensive contributions.
In the end, Ripken finished with many career records besides “The Streak”, including most home runs by a shortstop and most consecutive All-Star starts. The 1990s weren’t as kind to the Baltimore star, but the historic and league-changing start to his career more than makes up for any decline he experienced. There is no doubt that Cal Ripken, Jr. belongs on the very short list of “Best Shortstop in Major League History.”
If you only know Joe Morgan as an announcer that baseball analysts like to ridicule, then you should know that you missed one of the greatest players to ever play the game. For proof, there are the awards–two MVP’s, five Gold Gloves and ten All-Star game appearances–and there are the numbers–leading the league four times in OBP, once in Slugging, twice in OPS. He was a walking and stolen base machine. The ultimate sabermetric stat, Wins Above Replacment, ranks Morgan as the third-best second baseman of all time, behind Hornsby and Collins.
But they only tell part of the story. If you saw Morgan play, you remember the left elbow sticking straight out at bat. He always flipped the elbow down toward his body when the pitch was thrown. If he flipped it more than once, he was nervous. If he was locked in, just once. You also remember Bill James’ observation that Morgan was always standing on first base when a pitchout was thrown. He always picked up something from the catcher or pitcher that told him a pitchout was coming and held his ground. Pitching out was a waste of time against Little Joe.
And I remember the time that my brother, who had Morgan on his APBA for his entire career, once wrote Joe because he was worried that his stolen bases were down. Joe wrote back and told my brother to hang onto him, that he’d be stealing bases again soon. I don’t think my brother ever regretted that choice.
Truth is, when Morgan first began announcing the ESPN games with Jon Miller, I thought he was one of the best baseball announcers I had heard. His insights were quick and often spot on. He brought those brains and experience to the broadcast booth every day. He hasn’t done well with baseball analysts in recent years. Which is ironic, really. Because Morgan’s combination of skills made him an idol of the sabermetric set in his playing days. He was the best second baseman I ever saw.
30. Sandy Koufax, 178 votes, written by Dan Evans, former general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers
Perhaps the most dominant pitcher over a five-year period in baseball history, left-hander Sandy Koufax harnessed control issues that plagued him early in his career and excelled before an arthritic elbow condition prematurely ended his career at age 30.
Koufax signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers for $14,000 at age 19 in December 1954, and existing rules slowed his development since he had to remain in the Majors his first two seasons as a “bonus baby.” Koufax was a pedestrian 46-38 his first six seasons.
Once a delivery flaw was detected in his overhand motion prior to the 1961 season, Koufax’ performance levels reached superior levels. Over the next six years, he was 119-49 with a 2.19 ERA, won the Cy Young Award unanimously three times, won the 1963 NL MVP, made seven consecutive All-Star teams, and led the National League in ERA his final five seasons. In addition, Koufax became the first pitcher to throw four no-hitters, including a perfect game in 1965.
His arthritic elbow, first diagnosed in 1956, forced him to end his career after an incredible 1966 season in which he went 27-9 with a 1.73 ERA and his final Cy Young Award. He finished with a career 165-87 record and 2.76 ERA.
He is the youngest person elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame, attaining the honor in 1972 just weeks after his 36th birthday. His #32 was retired by the Dodgers that same year, and was named to the All-Century Team in 1999.
31. Bob Feller, 177 votes, written by Ev Cope, baseball historian
Much has been written about the amazing Iowa farm boy, American sports and World War II hero, Bob Feller. This writer had the privilege of being friends with Bob for almost 30 years. Over that period of time he never changed from the up-front, out-spoken, tell-it-like-it-is person that let you know if you were friend or foe. If you were the former, he would do anything for you. If you were the latter, you might as well stay away.
Bob Feller probably was baseball’s greatest ambassador – even more than Babe Ruth – due in part to his long and active life of 92 years. He also could rightful claim to have thrown more baseballs than anyone in history since he was still going to spring training, and doing exhibitions into his 80s. An example of Bob’s philosophy was how he kept his autograph fees at appearances affordable. He always defended that by saying he felt that anyone that wanted his autograph should be able to afford it. This attitude cost Bob several thousand dollars during the peak of paid appearances and also caused him to be criticized by contemporary signing players.
If not for two bunt singles and a miss-played fly-ball triple, Feller could have had a total of six no-hitters in his World War II interrupted career. Another ‘what if’ study shared with Bob is what if he had signed with the Yankees and pitched on those pennant-winning teams. Based on his actual record, the Indians’ record and that of the Yankees’ during Bob’s career, he could have won 300 games even with his lost war years and maybe won as many as 375 games with those seasons. How about this thought? With New York, he might have had two 30-win seasons (actually 33 in 1941 and 1946) and 29 in 1939!
|1942||U. S. Navy all season|
|1943||U. S. Navy all season|
|1944||U. S. Navy all season|
|1945||U. S. Navy most of season|
● Bob averaged 21.1 wins a season during his top 10 seasons and might have added another 75-80 wins to the above totals if not for WWII.
● Feller’s 26 victories represented 38% of his team’s wins in 1946.
● Bold – Indicates league leader.
Bob Feller never regretted being an Indian instead of a Yankee and was loyal to the city of Cleveland, and Indian fans, until the end of his life. Nor did he regret being a naval hero instead of an Indian for almost four seasons. His records were impressive, but Bob Feller was about more than numbers. Thanks for the memories Bob.
Napoleon Lajoie was not your prototypical Deadball Era 2nd baseman. At 6’1” and 200 lbs. he was a big man with a big bat, while fielding his position with sure hands and a strong arm.
In 21 seasons(1896-1916) Lajoie never played on a Pennant winner, but he was a lifetime .338 hitter with 3242 hits. He led the league in hitting 5x, hitting over .300 in 16 seasons, while leading all 2nd baseman in fielding % 7x.
After playing his 1st 5 seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies, he jumped to the American League in 1901 to play with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s.
Despite an injunction filed by the Phillies, citing baseball’s reserve clause, Lajoie was able to put together a Triple Crown season for the A’s, which featured a .426 average, the highest in the 20th Century.
At the start of the 1902 season a Pennsylvania Appeals court ruled in favor of the Phillies, a ruling that only had jurisdiction in Pennsylvania. Mack promptly sold Lajoie to the Cleveland Bronchos. In 1903 the city of Cleveland honored their slugging 2nd baseman by renaming the team the Naps. He played 13 seasons in Cleveland.
He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1937, his 2nd year on the ballot.
Robert Grove (“Lefty” because, well, it was a simpler time) was probably the greatest southpaw ever. In seventeen seasons, pitching for the Philadelphia Athletics and Boston Red Sox, Grove won exactly 300 games, led the league in strikeouts seven times, and led in ERA nine times. For comparison’s sake: last year, Justin Verlander put up one of the best pitching years in recent memory, logging 251 innings and racking up 8.3 WAR. Over a seven-year span from 1930 to 1936, Lefty Grove put up more innings and a better WAR five times. For the better part of two offense-heavy decades, there was no one better.
Oddly to modern fans of the game, he did it all while striking out only 5.2 batters per nine. That’s a rate lower than the career K/9 of Jason Marquis, a pitcher only the Twins could love. The more one looks at baseball’s history, the more it astounds. Baseball’s been exactly the same for over a hundred years, except in all the ways it’s changed.
“There is a catcher that any big league club would love. He can do everything. He hits the ball a mile.” –Walter Johnson
Josh Gibson was, by most accounts, the greatest hitter in Negro League history. Records are incomplete, but statistics provided by the Hall of Fame show a lifetime Negro National League batting average of .359 for Gibson, and a slugging percentage of .644. He won four batting titles, but the long ball was his signature talent. Gibson reportedly hit 84 home runs in 1936 alone. His Hall of Fame plaque credits him with “almost 800 home runs,” others have his total even higher.
Many called Gibson “the black Babe Ruth,” while others insisted that Ruth was “the white Josh Gibson.” Tales of 600-foot blasts to the farthest reaches of every stadium defy belief, but there is no doubt Gibson had remarkable power. As my favorite story goes, Gibson once hit a rocket in Pittsburgh, so deep the ball never landed. The next day, in Philadelphia, a baseball dropped from the sky into a fielder’s glove. The umpire pointed to Josh and said, “You’re out… yesterday, in Pittsburgh!” Gibson was, to my mind, the greatest catcher who ever lived.
Satchel Paige is human hyperbole; the words we use to describe him mean nothing when compared to anyone or anything else. His adjectives, much like his statistics, simply don’t translate.
Certainly, Paige was baseball player who threw baseballs and won baseball games and struck baseball players out. He did those things, and we have numbers to represent some of them, numbers that are strong enough to warrant our appreciation.
But what makes Satchel Paige such a special ballplayer was the way in which he created his own story. None of us are in complete control over our destiny; there are always external forces that buffet us from place to place. These forces kept Paige out of major league baseball until he was more than forty years old. They forced him to reinvent himself when his arm began to throb, commission new pitches with new names.
Paige’s career reads like an Icelandic saga: enjoying triumphs and weathering setbacks, voyaging to exotic new lands and conquering foes. He did not submit to the kings of his time, but instead earned his revenge by outliving them and writing his own history. His style, in pitching, as in life, was electric and ultimately unique.
It’s a shame that we haven’t perfected time travel, because if such a thing existed, I would gleefully head back to New York City in the 20s, 30s, and 40s just to catch a glimpse of the amazing Mel Ott. From his diminutive size — listed at 5’9″ on Baseball-Reference — to his highly leveraged swing — a swing that featured a leg kick, something ahead of its time — Mel Ott broke the mold as a professional baseball player.
Even after 65 years from his last game played, Ott is still in a class of his own — which is exactly the kind of player the Inner Circle needs. At his retirement in 1947 he exited the National League holding the records for the following offensive categories: Home runs (511), runs scored (1,859), RBI (1,860), walks (1,708), and total bases (5,041). Ott just didn’t redefine the concept of an offensive superstar — he shattered it. At age 19, in 1928, he produced the finest season ever for a teenager in professional baseball when he batted .322/.397/.524 (139 OPS+); in that season, the league average batter hit .281/.344/.397, and as a mere teenager, Ott bested men nearly twice his age.
Ott’s defensive tools were praised, too. He boasted a strong, and accurate, throwing arm from right field and most reports from his day indicate he was more than adept in the field; Total Zone figures Ott was worth +50 runs over his career on defense.
Some will point to Ott’s home park, the Polo Grounds, as the cause for his prodigious home run totals, and that’s not unreasonable; Ott surely benefited from hitting in the Polo Grounds, but to brush him off as something of a park-creation is unfair, and not to mention shortsighted.
Consider the following: Ott had 12 separate seasons in which he posted an OPS+ of 150 or greater (meaning that he was 50 percent better than the league average batter). That’s more seasons than Rogers Hornsby (11), Mickey Mantle (11), Albert Pujols (10), and Jimmie Foxx (10) just to name a few greats. OPS+ accounts for home park and league, so even though Ott saw benefits from hitting in the Polo Grounds, we can also see that he was a fantastic hitter in his own right, home park or not. Just a truly amazing and gifted ballplayer.
Mel Ott is, of course, a worthy addition to the Inner Circle Project. Now, if I could just figure out this time travel stuff …
The son of a Depression Era potato farmer who was a good semipro ballplayer himself, Carl was brought up with a tremendous work ethic. As early as age six, he would spend evenings hitting tennis balls against his dad’s pitching in their backyard. Carl’s dad knew his son had natural ability, and made sure his son had the best chance at succeeding in baseball.
The elder Yastrzemski turned down an offer from the Yankees to sign Carl prior to college, ostensibly because the scout visiting the Yastrzemski house “flipped a pencil” when he was given the family’s asking price. After a year at Notre Dame, the Red Sox signed Yaz in 1958, and two years later, he was in Fenway Park, faced with the unenviable task of replacing Ted Williams in left field.
At 5’11” and 175 pounds, he wasn’t a physical presence, and he wasn’t particularly fleet of foot. However, he learned to play “The Green Monster” extremely well, racking up 195 outfield assists and seven Gold Gloves during his 23-year career. He wasn’t a classic power hitter, but did top 40 homers three times. Instead, he peppered the Monster to the tune of 646 doubles, eighth-best all-time. He was also disciplined at the plate, walking in 13.2% of all plate appearances while striking out in only ten percent of them. And of course, he was the most recent batter to win the Triple Crown.
At the time of his induction into Cooperstown in 1989, he had the 6th-highest percentage of ballots cast (94.6%).
It’s amazing to think that of all the pitching greats that have graced this game, Steve Carlton was the first one to win four Cy Young’s.
Carlton’s amazing career spanned three decades and five U.S. presidencies while wearing six different uniforms.
But his best work came in Philly in 1972. His first season there he led the league in wins (27), ERA (1.97) and complete games (30). The lefty was an innings eater and even though he scuffled the following season with a 13-20 record, he still led the league with 18 complete games.
From 1972-1980 he never had less than 10 complete games while finishing with an astounding 254 for his career and a highly respectable 12 complete games per 162-game average.
The 35-year-old anchored the staff in 1980 and won Games 2 and 6 of the World Series to bring the title to Philadelphia.
Carlton had a good battle with Nolan Ryan for the all-time strikeout record before finishing fourth with 4,136 to finish behind Ryan, Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens.
Despite having a cantankerous relationship with the media, Carlton was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1994 by nearly a 96 percent vote.
39-Tie. Eddie Collins, 148 votes, written by Jacob Pomrenke, chairman of SABR’s Black Sox Scandal Research Committee
Bill James once wrote:
Eddie Collins is described by various sources as the best bunter in the history of baseball, the best hit-and-run man in the history of baseball, the best defensive second baseman in the history of baseball, the best sign-stealer who ever lived, and the greatest World Series star who ever lived. … It seems unlikely that all of these claims could be true.
But they’re not too far off. Collins was called “Cocky”, and he had every reason to be. His 3,315 career hits and 741 stolen bases still rank among the top 10 in baseball history, more than a century after his major league career began.
As captain of Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s dynasty from 1910-14, Collins’ aggressive, intelligent style of play was perfectly suited for the Deadball Era. Yet when offensive firepower began to rule the game in the 1920s, Collins adapted and excelled with the star-crossed Chicago White Sox — hitting .346 after age 32.
Eddie Collins was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939, the year the museum opened in Cooperstown. He was part of baseball’s inner circle of greats then, and time has not diminished his legacy as one of baseball’s all-time best players.
Eddie Mathews was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1978 after failing to be inducted the four previous years. To be quite honest, this is nothing short of a travesty as Mathews is and was unarguably one of the best players to have ever played the game. There was no reason that he should have been left off of a single ballot.
Mathews ranks 23rd all-time in fWAR with 107.2. The only two third basemen to rank ahead of Mathews in fWAR are Mike Schmidt and Alex Rodriguez (who has played more innings at shortstop than at third base). His 512 homeruns are the 21st most in history and his 1444 walks are 24th most.
Mathews was an offensive juggernaut at a position that was not used to seeing such great offense. His WPA of 57.6 is the 19th best mark in history and his RE24 of 616.64 is 21st. Mathews’ bat alone is one of the best we have ever seen. Oh, and Mathews handled the glove well with a career +33 UZR. His 2049 putouts are the 9th most at the hot corner and his 4322 assists are the 7th most.
Eddie Mathews, simply put, is not only one of the best third basemen of all-time but he would likely belong in any Hall-of-Fame inner circle of only 25 players and was an easy selection for Graham’s Hall of Fame Inner Circle Project.
A heavy drinker whose career began just over a century ago, Grover Cleveland Alexander, still ranks as one of baseball’s most accomplished pitchers. Nicknamed Old Pete, he was a workhorse who was capable of throwing well over 300 innings per season and established himself as an inner circle hall of famer during the first half of his career. From 1911 until 1920 he averaged 312 innings pitched while maintaining a 2.06 ERA that was 47 percent better than league average. At his peak, he was the National League’s best pitcher for six out of seven seasons. The one exception was 1918 when he missed the majority of the season while recovering from an accident that occurred during a WWI training exercise.
For his career, Alexander ranks second in shutouts behind only the great Walter Johnson, he is fourth in pitching Wins Above Replacement, tenth in innings pitched, 21st in ERA+, and is tied for third in wins with a staggering 373 victories during his 20-year career. Few pitchers are capable of even coming close to matching Alexander’s career accomplishments. He not only had tremendous longevity and endurance but also had one of the greatest peaks of any starting pitcher in the history of baseball. An examination of Cooperstown’s Inner Circle would be woefully incomplete if it did not include Grover Cleveland Alexander.
It’s too easy to sit here and rattle off his 5,714 strikeouts, 7 no hitters, 15 seasons of 200+ K’s explaining why he should be in the hall of the inner circle. So I’ll talk about a particular moment in time when I saw him pitch for the first time in person. It was April 30, 1989, his first season with my local nine, the Rangers. I was a junior in high school and he was a VERY seasoned veteran pitching at the remarkable age of 42.
I was sitting in the left field bleachers at the old Arlington Stadium on a sunny Sunday afternoon, he was facing a very young Roger Clemens, who was on his way to staking a claim to being one of the best pitchers of his generation.
In the top of the first Ryan gave up a walk, hit by pitch and a wild pitch brought home a Red Sox run. But in the old gun fighter on the porch, Ryan stayed out there for eight innings and 136 pitches, not allowing anything else, while doing what else? Striking out 11.
Clemens was fantastic as well, out dueling his child hood hero into the bottom of the 8th, when Rafael Palmeiro hit a 2-run home run into the right field bleachers to give Ryan and the Rangers. 2-1 win.
The 1989 season, at the ripe old age of 42, he won 16 games, pitched 239.1 innings, 1.08 WHIP, was an all-star and finished in the top five in voting for the Cy Young Award.
This is what Hall of Famers do, they shoulder the load and make you never forget.
When Cool Papa Bell first noticed Ernie Banks, he was a skinny teenager playing semi-pro ball in Amarillo, Texas. Later that winter, after hearing from Bell, Buck O’Neil signed Banks to his first contract to play for the legendary Kansas City Monarchs in 1950. After serving two years in the Army, Banks returned to the Monarchs and batted .347 in 1953. After that performance, O’Neil signed him again– this time, for the Chicago Cubs.
From 1954 thru 1960, Banks hit .294/.354/.557, averaging 41 homeruns and 118 RBI per 162 games, with a 140 OPS+. A peak performance of that magnitude is Hall of Fame worthy from any position, let alone shortstop. His play in the middle of the diamond was nothing to slouch at. In 1960, Banks became the only shortstop to ever lead the league in both homers and fielding.
As a player with two sides, Ernie Banks was ahead of his time. He provided power at from the shortstop position in a way that hadn’t been seen before, while also playing the game with a level of respect he learned from the greats of the ‘30s and ‘40s, on the Monarchs.
Becoming an elite baseball player is hard enough; becoming an elite baseball in a climate when both fans and fellow players would shout disparaging remarks about your religion is even harder but that’s exactly what Hank Greenberg did during an extremely volatile time in American History.
He played in the 1930’s when World War II was on the verge of erupting and in the 1940s when the war was being fought and being the first successful Jewish ballplayer was both a blessing and a curse for Greenberg.
But Greenberg, who was a proud man and a hard worker, didn’t let the names he was called on a daily basis affect his play, in fact, he was so good at the game of baseball that he won an MVP in two different years playing two different positions – first base in 1935 and left field in 1940. His career was shortened by both Military World War II – and by a wrist but Greenberg was still able to finish with a .313/.412/.605/1.017 career line. In his 13-year career he collected 1,628 hits, clubbed 331 home runs and amassed 1,276 RBI.
45. Al Kaline, 113 votes, written by Alex Putterman of this website
For more than two decades, Al Kaline roamed right field at Tiger Stadium and terrorized American League pitchers from the right-hand batters box. Dubbed Mr. Tiger, he remains a hero in Detroit, having served the organization in some capacity continuously since 1953, when he began a 22-year career of home runs, diving catches, and overall excellent play. Throughout his lengthy prime, Kaline was as much a five-tool player as anyone this side of Willie Mays.
An 18-time all-star and nine-time top 10 MVP finisher, Kaline amassed 3,007 career hits and 399 home runs while playing the 17th most games (2,834) of any player ever. All in all, he racked up the 24th most total bases all-time and stole 137 more. And while proprietor of undeniably gaudy offensive stats, the rightfielder was perhaps equally impressive in the field, where he won ten gold gloves while ranking as one of the best defensive corner outfielders ever according to both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference, which credit Kaline with 101.9 and 87.4 total wins above replacement respectively, good for 24th and 28th all-time among position players.
46. Brooks Robinson, 109 votes, written by Brendan Bingham of this website
Cosmologists tell us that parallel universes exist. In one such alternate realm, the baseball player known as Brooks Robinson retired after the 1969 season. His career .274 BA and .421 SLG, coupled with his MVP award and ten consecutive Gold Gloves, were worthy of the game’s highest honor.
That world is different from ours in at least three important ways. First, Chico Salmon is the answer to the question, Who replaced the Vacuum Cleaner? Second, Aurelio Rodriguez won the first of his several Gold Gloves following Robinson’s retirement. Third, Paul Blair won the 1970 World Series MVP award.
Meanwhile, in our world, Doug DeCinces is the name of the player who replaced Robinson as the Orioles third baseman, but only after Robinson won six more Gold Gloves, while Rodriguez won the award only once. Of greatest importance, Robinson was the MVP of the 1970 World Series, redefining third base defensive excellence in the process. Numerous balls hit by Johnny Bench, Lee May and their Reds teammates failed to fulfill their potential as doubles into the left field corner, all thanks to Robinson’s glove work. Oh, and Robinson was a hitting star in that Series, too.
The Robinson who retired in 1969 is a Hall of Famer in his world, whereas the one who played until 1977 in our world is Inner Circle. We live in a far richer world.
One of the greatest aspects of baseball, that few sports share, is its history. We can reach back 140-plus years and investigate performances, legends, facts and data. As such, it is somewhat shocking that Adrian Constantine “Cap” Anson joins just Honus Wagner, Cy Young and Nap Lajoie as 19th century ballplayers recognized by the Hall of Fame Inner Circle Project. Anson, perhaps the least known of the four, is no less deserving.
From 1880-1891, Anson led baseball in RBIs eight times. While RBIs alone can be hallow, during that time, Anson led the league in OBP three times, and average and OPS twice. He is also the hit king of the 1800s, being the first player ever to surpass 3,000 hits and finishing the century with roughly 800 more hits than anyone else. Anson owns a .334/.394/.447 career line, 142 OPS+ and 88.7 fWAR (the most accumulated before 1900).
In addition to his playing career, Anson managed for 21 seasons, serving as player-manager in all but one. In MLB history, 15 players with 90+ bWAR managed at least one MLB game. Anson has the best winning percentage, is the only manager that is more than 100 games above .500, and managed and won the most games of the group. Anson is credited with creating Spring Training, the hook slide, hit and run, third base coach and cutoff man. Connie Mack called Anson the “Napoleon of the Diamond.” Cy Young and Honus Wagner also served as managers during their playing careers, but lasted 11 games, combined.
Hall of Fame Inner Circle. Why does Tony Gwynn belong in such a theoretical realm?
Why doesn’t he? Gwynn didn’t walk or hit for power; his offensive value was heavily dependent on batting average. This is true, although hitting .338 makes it less of an issue. Only 17 men in history have a higher mark, and all of their careers ended by 1960. Besides, it’s not like a .388 OBP or .459 SLG is terrible.
Gwynn has come the closest to .400 in a single season since Ted Williams did it in 1941, hitting .394 in the strike-shortened 1994 season. Gwynn won eight National League batting titles, including four straight from 1994 to 1997. From 1993 to 1999 (his last season as a regular, at age 39), he posted a slash line of .358/.402/.503 in nearly 3,700 plate appearances.
Gwynn won five Gold Gloves and seven Silver Sluggers. He was named to the NL All-Star team every year but one from 1984 to 1999. He ranks 19th all time in hits and 27th in doubles. He stole 319 bases.
Gwynn played for bad teams in a small market, and stayed there his entire career. He is an institution in San Diego and a great representative of a team that often gets overlooked. Beyond that, he is a great representative of baseball, period.
Teddy Roosevelt’s old adage “Speak softly and carry a big stick” was personified in baseball by the great Harmon Killebrew. Fondly known as Harm by former Twins legendary broadcaster Herb Carneal, Killebrew’s nickname was particularly apt for what he liked to do to baseballs.
And much harm he did. One of the early ‘bonus babies’, Killebrew toiled for parts of five years with the Senators before breaking out with 42 long balls at age 23 in 1959. He’d hardly ever look back, smashing 573 round-trippers in his storied career. In his fourth year of eligibility, Killebrew was inducted into the Hall of Fame, propelled by his power propensity (currently 11th on the all-time list behind a few noted steroids suspects) and keen batting eye (15th on all-time walk list). Killebrew’s inner circle case rests on overlooking his batting average, and the fact that he was a three true outcomes (HR-BB-K) player, and giving him ample credit for his power, and that he carried excellent on-base percentages.
Let’s not pretend that what made Reggie great was anything other than his 563 regular-season home runs, with 18 more in the playoffs. His on-base percentage ranks just 534th in baseball history (3,000 PA minimum). He stole more bases than you realize, but without a good percentage. His defense was fine early in his career and not fine late. He struck out more than anyone in history (though Jim Thome is closing in and four years of Adam Dunn should be plenty of time for him to catch up).
No, Reggie hit dongers. He cracked 40 or more in a season twice back when that was really hard to do. He led his league four times. He’s 13th in major-league history and Albert Pujols, the only active player we can count on passing Reggie, is over 100 behind. Reggie hit memorable homers and he hit boring homers and he hit homers that were memorable only to the people watching at the time. He hit long ones, like the famous Tiger Stadium All-Star Game shot off Dock Ellis, and (presumably) short ones. He hit important homers and homers in blowouts. Reggie hit homers.
How other Hall of Fame players fared in the voting
30-86 votes: Cool Papa Bell 72, Wade Boggs 86, Lou Brock 43, Roy Campanella 69, Rod Carew 82, Gary Carter 33, Oscar Charleston 69, Mickey Cochrane 40, Ed Delahanty 38, Carlton Fisk 67, Whitey Ford 62, Charlie Gehringer 68, Carl Hubbell 49, Buck Leonard 30, Juan Marichal 54, Willie McCovey 63, Eddie Murray 49, Kid Nichols 53, Phil Niekro 34, Jim Palmer 64, Gaylord Perry 33, Eddie Plank 30, Al Simmons 33, George Sisler 69, Ozzie Smith 71, Duke Snider 43, Arky Vaughan 33, Paul Waner 39, Robin Yount 68
10-29 votes: Roberto Alomar 27, Luis Aparicio 12, Home Run Baker 21, Bert Blyleven 26, Dan Brouthers 22, Mordecai Brown 24, Jimmy Collins 15, Roger Connor 25, Sam Crawford 29, Joe Cronin 14, George Davis 10, Dizzy Dean 19, Bill Dickey 28, Martin Dihigo 16, Don Drysdale 22, Dennis Eckersley 24, Frankie Frisch 15, Rich Gossage 10, Billy Hamilton 15, Harry Heilmann 13, Catfish Hunter 12, Fergie Jenkins 28, Willie Keeler 11, Ralph Kiner 26, Pop Lloyd 13, Johnny Mize 23, Paul Molitor 23, Kirby Puckett 11, Old Hoss Radbourn 25, Robin Roberts 22, Ryne Sandberg 17, Enos Slaughter 11, Willie Stargell 22, Bill Terry 13, Pie Traynor 18, Ed Walsh 19, Hoyt Wilhelm 11, Smokey Joe Williams 14, Hack Wilson 24, Dave Winfield 18
1-9 votes: Luke Appling 8, Richie Ashburn 5, Earl Averill 1, Chief Bender 5, Jim Bottomley 2, Lou Boudreau 4, Roger Bresnahan 2, Jesse Burkett 1, Orlando Cepeda 3, Frank Chance 2, Jack Chesbro 5, Fred Clarke 2, John Clarkson 7, Earle Combs 2, Kiki Cuyler 1, Ray Dandridge 1, Andre Dawson 3, Larry Doby 4, Bobby Doerr 3, Hugh Duffy 3, Johnny Evers 1, Buck Ewing 8, Rick Ferrell 1, Rollie Fingers 6, Nellie Fox 7, Pud Galvin 6, Lefty Gomez 8, Joe Gordon 1, Goose Goslin 6. Gabby Hartnett 7, Waite Hoyt 1, Monte Irvin 6, Hughie Jennings 3, Judy Johnson 2, Addie Joss 7, Tim Keefe 7, George Kell 1, King Kelly 7, Chuck Klein 6, Barry Larkin 9, Bob Lemon 5, Heinie Manush 2, Rabbit Maranville 2, Rube Marquard 4, Bill Mazeroski 5, Joe Medwick 6, Joe McGinnity 3, Hal Newhouser 2, Jim O’Rourke 1, Pee Wee Reese 7, Jim Rice 8, Sam Rice 7, Eppa Rixey 1, Phil Rizzuto 5, Bullet Rogan 3, Edd Roush 1, Red Ruffing 1, Amos Rusie 2, Ron Santo 8, Red Schoendienst 3, Joe Sewell 1, Hilton Smith 3, Turkey Stearnes 6, Bruce Sutter 5, Mule Suttles 3, Don Sutton 6, Sam Thompson 6, Cristobal Torriente 2, Dazzy Vance 5, Rube Waddell 6, Lloyd Waner 6, Monte Ward 3, Mickey Welch 1, Willie Wells 2, Zack Wheat 1, Billy Williams 7, Early Wynn 5
Appeared on the ballot, got zero countable votes: Dave Bancroft 0, Jake Beckley 0, Ray Brown 0, Willard Brown 0, Jim Bunning 0, Max Carey 0, Andy Cooper 0, Stan Coveleski 0, Leon Day 0, Red Faber 0, Elmer Flick 0, Bill Foster 0, Frank Grant 0, Clark Griffith 0, Burleigh Grimes 0, Chick Hafey 0, Jesse Haines 0, Billy Herman 0, Pete Hill 0, Harry Hooper 0, Travis Jackson 0, Joe Kelley 0, High Pockets Kelly 0, Tony Lazzeri 0, Freddie Lindstrom 0, Ernie Lombardi 0, Ted Lyons 0, Biz Mackey 0, Tommy McCarthy 0, Bid McPhee 0, Jose Mendez 0, Herb Pennock 0, Tony Perez 0, Louis Santop 0, Ray Schalk 0, Ben Taylor 0, Joe Tinker 0, Bobby Wallace 0, Vic Willis 0, Jud Wilson 0, Ross Youngs 0
The best of the rest, by Adam Darowski of Beyond the Box Score
By my count, there are about thirty players who are simply no-brainers for such an Inner Circle. These are players that I can’t imagine anyone leaving out for any reason whatsoever. The last twenty or so spots? I’d imagine you could make a good case for over a hundred players.
With any select group like this, I can’t help but wonder who the snubs are. Since I’ve dedicated my baseballing life to giving overlooked players their due, this is just natural. While I actually agreed with 80% of the choices (good job, all!), here I’ll cover two snubs who stood above the rest.
Most egregious snub: Kid Nichols
Kid Nichols’ 111.6 Wins Above Replacement ranks fourth among Hall of Fame pitchers and fourteenth among all Hall of Famers. Let me remind you—we’re choosing the fifty greatest Hall of Famers. Nichols should have been one.
Nichols isn’t just a sabermetric darling. His 361 wins rank seventh (and he did it with a dominating .634 winning percentage). His sparkling ERA of 2.96 translates to an ERA+ of 140 when compared to his peers. Among Hall of Famers, only Lefty Grove, Walter Johnson, Hoyt Wilhelm, Ed Walsh, and Addie Joss finished with an ERA+ north of Nichols. Johnson did in nearly 6,000 innings. Nichols did it in 5,000. Grove had fewer than 4,000 and nobody else was remotely close.
Nichols’ combination of dominance and durability is matched by few Hall of Famers. I would put him in an elite group with Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Pete Alexander, Christy Mathewson, Lefty Grove, and Tom Seaver. Nichols finished with 53 votes (23%). Compare that to Warren Spahn (who was in my Inner Circle). Spahn had about the same number of wins and innings as Nichols. But he also had a much lower winning percentage and didn’t come close to Nichols’ ERA+. Spahn, however, was named on 84% of ballots.
Most surprising snub: Wade Boggs
It never occurred to me that Wade Boggs might not make the cut. He nearly did, finishing one vote behind Reggie Jackson. Meanwhile, George Brett garnered more than twice as many votes as The Chicken Man.
I have no problem with George Brett (who’s career and position overlapped Boggs’) making the Inner Circle. But I am downright confused about how he could generate so much more support than Boggs. Boggs reached base 4,445 times. Brett reached base 4,283 times. Boggs was worth 84.0 Wins above Replacement and 57.5 Wins above Average. Brett was worth 88.3 WAR and 50.7 WAA. Boggs generated 441 WAR batting runs. Brett generated 427. Boggs won five batting titles. Brett won three. Boggs had a 131 OPS+. Brett had a 135. Boggs had a 131 wRC+. Brett’s was 133. The two key differences between the two? Brett lasted longer while Boggs was worth more defensively (he stayed at third base longer and played it better, according to Total Zone). They were very similar players. Both should have been in. Comfortably.
(Editor’s note: Initially, 270 ballots were submitted, though a number of people voted for more or less than 50 players. I emailed everyone I could to correct their vote totals, and ultimately, I only counted 50-player ballots submitted by the morning of July 15.)
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