More than 17,000 people have played Major League Baseball. Countless others have contributed to the game from working in front offices to writing about baseball and more. It’s hard to say who matters most, players or everyone else and it’s an age-old debate. Personally, I believe both groups are important. Few people can play at the highest level. And without a range of support, they wouldn’t do so professionally, at least not in a league that generates close to $10 billion annually.
That said, I decided recently to take this debate public. I spent several weeks asking anyone interested to select the 25 most important people in baseball history. I distributed a 190-person reference ballot with write-in candidates welcome and anyone eligible. There wasn’t a set criteria for importance. I prefer that voters for my projects work independently and make their own determinations.
In all, 262 people voted in this project. Here’s how the top 25 came out:
1. Babe Ruth, 259 votes out of 262
It’s difficult to overstate Babe Ruth’s importance to baseball.
The Boston Red Sox sold Ruth to the New York Yankees months after the 1919 World Series. While that Fall Classic is the most infamous example of players rigging games, gambling had long polluted baseball. The 1905, 1914 and 1917 World Series all had rumors of gambler presence.
Baseball needed saviors in 1920. It got Kenesaw Mountain Landis as commissioner and he immediately began banning crooked players. And baseball got its greatest star, perhaps the greatest star of any sport ever.
With Landis acting with autocratic precision and Ruth out-homering entire teams– 14 of 16 in 1920, for instance– baseball quickly transformed, becoming more popular than ever. If that sounds like hyperbole, consider that while no team attracted 1,000,000 fans in a season before 1920, three broke the mark in the ’20s with a number of other teams seeing spikes in attendance.
One can only wonder what might have been without Landis or Ruth– especially Ruth, who was always larger than life, ideally suited to be baseball’s king.
2. Jackie Robinson, 257 votes out of 262
The impetus for this project came after Ken Burns referred to Jackie Robinson as “the most important person in the history of baseball.”
I think voters for this project got it right, though that’s not to take anything away from Robinson. His breaking of baseball’s 63-year color barrier in 1947 is one of the greatest stories of any sport. Robinson then forged a legit Hall of Fame career, with his contributions above stats actually making him a little underrated.
Like Ruth, Robinson transformed baseball for the better. And like Ruth, baseball’s fate hung in the balance with Robinson. Branch Rickey knew when he signed Robinson that the wrong player could set back integration in the majors by 20 years. Robinson’s stoicism as he endured systemic verbal abuse his first two years with the Dodgers paved the way for numerous star black players.
3. Branch Rickey, 224 votes out of 262
Many people spoke of signing black players between 1884 and 1947. John McGraw had a list of players he wished he could sign. Bill Veeck tried to buy the Philadelphia Phillies in 1942 and stock the team with black stars, but commissioner Landis scuttled his plans.
Perhaps Landis’s death in 1944 and the looming civil rights movement made integration in baseball inevitable. That said, Branch Rickey helped accelerate the process by signing Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in October 1945. Where others spoke, dreamed or quietly accepted the injustice of baseball’s color line, Rickey acted. It didn’t just benefit Robinson. Every black player in the majors before 1970 owes at least part of his career to Rickey.
If helping integrate baseball had been Rickey’s sole contribution, he might make this list. He rates so highly for everything else he did, including: creating baseball’s farm system while general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals; hiring the game’s first sabermetrician, Allan Roth in 1947; and helping spur baseball’s expansion by getting involved in 1959 with a proposed third league, the Continental League.
4. [tie] Hank Aaron, 195 votes out of 262
Much as some people despise Barry Bonds, he encountered nothing of the same vitriol Hank Aaron did in breaking the career home run record. Aaron spent 1973 receiving hate mail as he chased Ruth’s 714 homers. It got so bad that in spring training in 1974, with Aaron still one homer shy of Ruth, the Braves hired Atlanta Police Department detective sergeant Calvin Wardlaw as Aaron’s bodyguard. Aaron, typically low-key, played it down saying, “Ah, he’s a friend of mine and he’s on vacation down here anyway.”
Aaron got his record, cherished enough that some still consider him home run champion. Late in 1974, Aaron also gave an interview where he decried the lack of black managers, telling reporters:
I don’t think baseball has moved as far as it should have since Jackie Robinson’s time. Facts are facts. We have Monte Irvin in the Commissioner’s office and we have Bill Lucas in the front office [of the Atlanta Braves] and that’s all.
There’ve been four managerial changes so far this year and a black man wasn’t considered for any of them. To be absolutely honest about it, I wouldn’t like to manage. But I know other blacks in baseball who would, and could.
Nine days later, the Cleveland Indians named Frank Robinson player-manager.
4. [tie] Kenesaw Mountain Landis, 195 votes out of 262
Kenesaw Mountain Landis is the highest-ranked person here whose impact on baseball was both significantly positive and negative.
On one hand, Landis’ role in excising gambling from the majors after the 1919 World Series cannot be denied. The job of commissioner was created for him, to replace the three-man National Commission. Seventy years after the former federal judge’s death, he remains the standard for commissioners. As longtime baseball writer Fred Lieb noted in his 1977 memoir Baseball As I Have Known It, “None of the men who succeeded him has had anything like the Judge’s czarlike authority and domination.”
That said, Landis may have done more than any man in his lifetime to keep baseball segregated. While it’s no surprise someone named for a Civil War battlefield held bigoted views common to his time, a more progressive commissioner may have allowed Negro League legends like Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston and Cool Papa Bell into the majors. The quality of play in the majors suffered for Landis’s racism.
6. Ty Cobb, 179 votes out of 262
Some people may forget that in the first Hall of Fame election, Ty Cobb finished first with 98.2 percent of the vote. Just four voters failed to select Cobb on their ballots. Early Hall of Fame elections were chaotic, with all players eligible and 30-40 future HOFers generally receiving votes. Still, one must wonder what those Cobb-less ballots looked like.
Cobb’s overwhelming Hall of Fame support was a credit to his much-celebrated 4,191 hits, .367 lifetime batting average [though there is some dispute over these stats] and more. Some fun facts with Cobb include that he won 12 batting titles in a 13-season span, hit .387 for the 1910s and once smacked five home runs in two days after saying he could hit homers if he tried. One newspaper writer noted after Cobb’s home run binge:
All the old fellows in the American League and some of the young ones, too, are crowing raucously and joyously because of the stunts Ty Cobb is doing with the bat. It is the reaction of ball players who have had Babe Ruth’s feats waved before their eyes until they have covertly expressed their annoyance.
7. Marvin Miller, 175 votes out of 262
The Veterans Committee has famously turned down Marvin Miller several times. I’m curious how much longer it takes for Cooperstown to honor the late Miller, who served as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966 until 1982. I doubt any person in the past 50 years has done as much to change baseball as Miller, who led the charge to topple the game’s reserve clause in the 1970s. Baseball’s more equitable for his efforts.
8. Bill James, 159 votes out of 262
I’ll admit it. It may look absurd that a former amateur statistician and one-time pork and beans factory night watchman got more votes for this project than many of the men listed below him and plenty more who didn’t make this list. That seems oddly appropriate for paying tribute to Bill James, who’s made a career of spurning conventional baseball wisdom and encouraging people to think differently.
While James’ methods and findings have sometimes been unorthodox, they’ve been used to great effect by teams like the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics. James has also inspired countless baseball researchers and writers. Sean Forman, founder of Baseball-Reference.com [who, by the way, finished 47th in voting here] told me via email:
Bill James is the central figure of sabermetrics and always will be just as Shakespeare is the central figure in English Literature. All of the work that preceded him fed into his work and all that follows flows from what he did.
9. Ted Williams, 155.5 votes out of 262
Between being baseball’s most recent .400 hitter, winning two Triple Crowns and writing “The Science of Hitting,” Ted Williams might be the most famous hitter ever. He batted .344 lifetime and was remarkably consistent, offering roughly equal adjusted rates of offensive production for both halves of his career, a 193 OPS+ for his first nine seasons and a 187 OPS+ for his final ten.
Without service in two wars costing him roughly five seasons, Williams also may have broken Ruth’s home run record. I have Williams at 668 homers without military service and I assume Williams would have played longer than 1960 if he’d had a reasonable chance to catch Ruth. After all, the Splendid Splinter had an offer to pinch hit for the Yankees in 1961.
There’s more to Williams’ legacy than hitting, though. In his Hall of Fame induction speech in 1966, Williams said, “I hope that some day Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will be voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols of the great Negro League players who are not here only because they weren’t given the chance.” Negro League inductions began five years later.
10. [tie] Willie Mays, 141 votes out of 262
The Say Hey Kid’s low rank strikes me, as he’s dominated two of my previous projects. In 2012, Mays got the most votes for a proposed Hall of Fame inner circle. Mays was also selected in 2012 as center fielder for an all-time dream team, besting Ty Cobb by a 4-1 margin in votes. I’m not sure what led to the switch this time, though I didn’t have Mays in a personal top ten list I that posted in September. Perhaps that influenced votes.
So we’re clear, I think Mays or Ruth is the greatest player in baseball history. I go back and forth on this, but it’s clearly a two-man race to me. Robert Creamer said in an interview here in January 2012 that Mays was the best player he covered, noting, “He could rise to a pitch of intensity that was almost unbelievable, creating an excitement that I have never forgotten.” Like Williams, Mays also may have broken Ruth’s home run record without missing time for military service.
But this project is about more than simply being a magnificent player. While I set no parameters, encouraging voters to determine their own criteria for importance, there seems to be a trend of honoring people who made contributions beyond the playing field. It’s hard to find anything Mays did to transcend baseball beyond playing it better than anyone of his era, if not ever.
10. [tie] Curt Flood, 141 votes out of 262
Reading votes for this project, I was reminded how many people were at least peripherally related to the fight to end baseball’s reserve clause. To name a few, there are Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, at the center of the 1975 arbitration case that led to free agency. There’s Catfish Hunter, who became a free agent because of a contract glitch in 1974, though it’s worth adding his case set no precedent. Then there are lesser-known figures such as New York Giants outfielder Danny Gardella who sued baseball challenging the reserve clause after being barred for jumping to the Mexican League in 1946.
For all the important figures of baseball’s labor movement, though, Curt Flood gets a lion’s share of the attention even if he was unsuccessful in his efforts. Flood’s refusal to report to the Philadelphia Phillies after a trade in December 1969 and his subsequent lawsuit against baseball to challenge its reserve clause effectively ended his career. It’s a common misconception that Flood’s case ended the clause. Flood lost 5-3 in the Supreme Court on June 6, 1972 and the reserve clause and baseball’s exemption to anti-trust laws remained. That said, Flood helped affect change.
While it can be argued that arbitrator Peter Seitz acted independently of Flood’s case when he abrogated the reserve clause in 1975, creating free agency, Flood’s case cast attention. It also had an unexpected benefit for players, as noted in this New York Times piece: It gave owners false confidence heading into the McNally-Messersmith case.
12. Lou Gehrig, 120 votes out of 262
Most consecutive games played until Cal Ripken Jr. Gave best speech in baseball history. Arguably the greatest first baseman of all-time.
Rather than say more, I encourage people to read what Frank Graham Jr. wrote for my all-time dream team project about his boyhood friendship with Gehrig.
13. Al Spalding, 116 votes out of 262
With Abner Doubleday long since debunked as baseball’s founder and Alexander Cartwright’s status as the game’s true founder dismissed in recent years, there’s a question of who could rank as baseball’s most important 19th century figure and pioneer. The honor could go to Spalding, a Hall of Fame executive, one of baseball’s first star players and a sporting goods magnate.
As John Thorn wrote in Baseball in the Garden of Eden, Spalding also backed the Abraham G. Mills Commission which anointed Doubleday as baseball’s founder in 1908. Thorn wrote:
It has turned out that Spalding and Chadwick– like the calculated exponents of Doubleday and Cartwright– were not mere liars and blowhards. They were conscious architects of legend… They were trying to create a national mythology from baseball, which they identified as America’s secular religion because it seemed to support faith for the faithless and unify them, perhaps in a way that might suit other ends. If in the process of crafting this useful past, certain individuals, events, ball clubs– even competing versions of the game, like those played in New England or Pennsylvania– had to be left along the road in the name of progress, so be it.
As a footnote, Thorn wrote of four people with a better claim to inventing baseball than anyone mentioned thus far: Doc Adams, William H. Tucker, Louis Wadsworth and William R. Wheaton.
14. Dr. Frank Jobe, 110.5 votes out of 262
Not counting Al Spalding or Babe Ruth– or Ted Williams or Ty Cobb, who each pitched briefly in the majors– Jobe got more votes here than any pitcher. In a sense, the doctor who developed Tommy John Surgery in 1974 and, later, reconstructive shoulder surgery is responsible for more wins than anyone. David Schoenfield noted for ESPN.com upon Jobe’s death in March that more than 500 pitchers have had Tommy John Surgery. Jobe isn’t in Cooperstown, though some like Schoenfield think he belongs.
15. [tie] Ban Johnson, 108 votes out of 262
Since its founding in 1876, the National League has faced many competing leagues. Most have quickly disappeared, such as the Union Association of 1884 which had teams that didn’t make it through the season. Ban Johnson established the only competitor that’s lasted, transforming the minor Western League into the American League in 1901. Johnson steered his circuit well enough for it to survive an ensuing war with the National League over the next two years. When peace was settled, he helped institute the World Series.
15. [tie] Cy Young, 108 votes out of 262
With few exceptions, Deadball Era pitchers were done in their mid-30s. Christy Mathewson, Kid Nichols and Ed Walsh all last pitched at 36. Chief Bender and Rube Waddell left the majors at 33.
Cy Young, however, pitched until age 44. As such, he holds records for wins, losses, games, innings pitched and a staggering 29,565 batters faced. No active pitcher has faced half as many. There’s a reason the top award for pitchers is named for Cy Young.
15. [tie] Henry Chadwick, 108 votes out of 262
The Bill James of 19th century baseball statisticians, Chadwick modernized the box score and invented a number of basic stats, such earned run average, batting average and the RBI. Chadwick has been in the Hall of Fame since 1939, one reason I think James will eventually be enshrined.
15. [tie] Roberto Clemente, 108 votes out of 262
The Pittsburgh Pirates plucked Roberto Clemente from the Brooklyn Dodgers’ farm system in the rule 5 draft in 1954 after Clemente hit .257 for Montreal. Clemente needed several more years to become a star, hitting .282 with an 89 OPS+ through 1959 for Pittsburgh. A weird thing happened, however, as Clemente aged– he got better as conditions for hitters grew significantly more challenging. After the size of the strike zone was increased in January 1963, causing run totals to plummet, Clemente hit .331 with a 149 OPS+ over his final 10 seasons, winning three of his four batting titles.
Clemente built a reputation beyond hitting, too. A cannon-armed right fielder, he won 12 consecutive Gold Gloves and, according to the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index tool, Clemente’s 205 defensive runs saved are fifth-best in baseball history. Clemente was also a veteran leader for Pittsburgh until his death in a 1972 plane crash. He had been en route to help victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua. Appropriately, baseball’s annual humanitarian award is named in Clemente’s honor.
19. [tie] Barry Bonds, 107 votes out of 262
19. [tie] Pete Rose, 107 votes out of 262
It seems fitting that two of the more controversial players in baseball history would wind up tied here. Barry Bonds and Pete Rose are both regulars in another project I do having people vote on the 50 best players not in the Hall of Fame. For what it’s worth, I predicted recently that Bonds and Rose will both be in Cooperstown within 20 years.
I see a special steroid era committee enshrining all-time home run leader Bonds and a number of other players like Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire who, for better or worse, defined and dominated their era. In addition, Bonds was a Hall of Famer before he likely began using performance enhancing drugs. Bonds’ use of steroids obscures that younger version of him. In a sense, Bonds is underrated.
As for all-time hits leader Rose, someone who admitted to betting on games his teams played in is less attractive as a Hall of Fame candidate than a steroid user. But there’s no proof Rose bet on his teams to lose. Rose’s actions, while egregious, aren’t on the same level of Shoeless Joe Jackson, who took $5,000 to help throw the 1919 World Series. Time diminishes outrage, too. I see Rose being inducted by the Veterans Committee shortly after his death.
21. Bud Selig, 105 votes out of 262
Say what you will about Bud Selig who will retire in January after 23 years as baseball commissioner. He’s extremely polarizing and he’s presided over some of baseball’s darkest moments in the past quarter century, notably the 1994 strike and the steroid era.
Some like Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated have laid blame for steroid use in baseball on players, noting that baseball banned steroids in 1991 and that the players union wouldn’t agree to testing until 2004. Selig deserves some share of the blame in my book. Major League Baseball had to have some idea what its players were up to. It was on Selig to blow the whistle, ask for federal help, perhaps from the Drug Enforcement Agency to address baseball’s steroid problem.
Instead, Selig placed profitability first and that, ultimately, relates to what he will be remembered for. As CEO, in effect, of a multi-billion dollar enterprise, Selig has been very successful. Total MLB revenues were around $1.2 billion annually– about $2 billion in 2014 dollars– when Selig became acting commissioner in 1992. Today, MLB revenues are around $9 billion annually. From a pure business standpoint, Bud Selig is the best commissioner in baseball history and it isn’t close. He’ll be in the Hall of Fame soon, this year, maybe next.
22. Satchel Paige, 99 votes out of 262
A retired scout once asked me to name the most durable pitcher in baseball history. I thought for a moment and suggested Walter Johnson. “Nolan Ryan!” the scout chortled and our conversation was effectively over. I thought more about it later and it occurred to me that the answer had to be Satchel Paige. The legendary hurler debuted in 1926 and was pitching in exhibitions as late as 1969, estimating he won 2,000 games. Counting exhibition play, he might be the only pitcher to strike out Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron.
23. [tie] Bill Veeck, 95 votes out of 262
He wasn’t the most successful owner, not by a long shot. He might not have been the most creative one either, with Charlie Finley and Chris von der Ahe each giving him a run for this honor. But Bill Veeck was a masterful enough promoter and showman to still be talked about more than 50 years since he did anything of note, aside of course from his role in the infamous Disco Demolition Night of 1979.
Finer moments for Veeck include helping break the American League color barrier in July 1947 by signing Larry Doby, giving Satchel Paige a long overdue shot in the majors, having midget Eddie Gaedel hit, creating the exploding scoreboard and building pennant winners with the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox.
23. [tie] John McGraw, 95 votes out of 262
25. Connie Mack, 94 votes out of 262
It’s hard to choose the best manager in baseball history. Joe McCarthy, who never had a losing season, has the top winning percentage at .615. Readers here selected Casey Stengel as manager for the all-time dream project. Tony LaRussa, meanwhile, got the most votes of any write-in candidate in this project with 19. I’ve found a person will get three to four times as many votes, sometimes more, if they’re on the ballot for my projects, so it’s conceivable LaRussa would be the top-ranked manager here if I’d included him.
I don’t know if I see LaRussa getting more votes, though, than McGraw or Mack who’ve had more than a century to build their lore. Mack has nearly 1,000 more credited wins than any manager in baseball history, sitting on the Philadelphia Athletics bench until months before his 88th birthday in 1950. He built [and for economic reasons dismantled] two dynasties, winning nine pennants and five championships. While Mack had few winning teams and was mostly a figurehead after 1932, McGraw stayed competitive throughout his 33 years managing the New York Giants and Baltimore Orioles. He had just four losing years, winning 10 pennants and three championships.