The 10 most important people in baseball history

1. Babe Ruth: When Ruth died in 1948, Grantland Rice wrote, “No game will ever see his like, his equal again. He was one in many, many lifetimes. One all alone.” That about sums it up. More than 75 years after his last game, the New York Yankees legend looms eternally large, forever baseball’s greatest slugger, icon and savior. No player before or since has dominated the rest of baseball like Ruth did. No one transformed the game so much.

2. Ban Johnson: Since the National League’s founding in 1876, many rival circuits have come and gone from the Players League to the Federal League to the Continental League to name a few. Johnson started the only rival to the National League that’s lasted, the American League in 1901. “He was the most brilliant baseball man the game has ever known,” Johnson’s successor Will Harridge said. “He was more responsible for making baseball the national game than anyone in the history of the sport.”

3. Kenesaw Mountain Landis: Baseball’s first commissioner and still, 70 years after his death, the standard by which all other commissioners are measured, Landis like Babe Ruth helped save baseball after the 1919 World Series. Where Ruth restored fan interest, Landis effectively rid the game of gambling, which had been endemic in the sport for at least 20 years before Landis took office. Imagine any commissioner today ruling so autocratically or effectively.

4. Branch Rickey: Rickey did at least three major things to change baseball. First, he created the farm system. Then he signed the first black player in the majors since the 1884. Then in the late 1950s, Rickey helped spur baseball to expand by heading up the Continental League, a circuit that would have operated in parts of the western United States where the majors had not yet reached. Though he doesn’t get much credit for it, Rickey’s part of the reason there are teams today in cities like Houston and Denver.

5. Jackie Robinson: Rickey knew before he signed Robinson in October 1945 that the wrong player would set back integration in baseball by 20 years. Without Robinson’s stoicism and unruffled playing ability, there’s no telling how many stars the majors would have lacked over the decades that followed.

6. Marvin Miller: The greatest travesty in baseball today is that this man isn’t in the Hall of Fame. No one in the past 50 years has had a greater effect on the game than Miller who, as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, led the successful fight to abolish the Reserve Clause.

7. Hank Aaron: That many people still consider Aaron the true home run king is a testament to his legacy. That Aaron made his mark in the most trying of circumstances– reams of hate mail during the summer of 1973 and a bodyguard provided by the FBI– only adds to the mystique. He’s been a fine elder statesmen for the game in retirement, too.

8. Rube Foster: The father of black baseball and, with respect to everyone who came after, its most important figure, Foster founded the first successful black baseball circuit, the Negro National League in 1920.

9. Al Spalding: Nineteenth century baseball had a lot of pioneers. Spalding may have been the most multifaceted of them, making his mark as a player, executive and sporting goods distributor, among other things. Among his many contributions, Spalding wore the first glove during the 1870s and organized a world tour for the game during the 1880s.

10. Henry Chadwick: Things like the box score and many stats that modern fans take for granted were Chadwick’s creation in the late 1800s. That has to be good for something.

7 Replies to “The 10 most important people in baseball history”

  1. Great list, Graham. I could list a few people I would add, but then who would I leave off? No answer for that question.
    Another Rickey accomplishment: he was among the first to grasp (and express in writing) the value of walks and and on-base percentage. This was a few decades before the term sabermetrics was coined.

  2. Thanks, Brendan. I considered including that Rickey hired Allan Roth, the game’s first sabermetrician, though I didn’t want that to appear equivalent to Rickey’s larger contributions.

  3. This is a really comprehensive list! Great idea for a post. So hard to choose just 10 people! I will always fight for Women, and especially women in baseball so a longer list would have to include Effa Manley, the first woman I inducted into the Hall of Fame.

  4. How about a list of the most INFAMOUS people in baseball history! (I kind of trend to the darkside of things). Harry Frazee (Red Sox owner who sold Ruth to the Yankees), Charles Comiskey, Walter O’Mally, Cap Anson, Jose Canseco, Abe Attell (gambler who set up the black sox fix) come to mind.

  5. Also, how about Robert Moses who kind of initiated the Dodger’s move to LA thru his dealings (or lack of) with O’Mally. I’m sure there’s a lot more candidates….

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