A list like this isn’t nearly as fun or accurate if we just pretend active players don’t exist. The way I rated active players is simple. I considered their accomplishments up to this point and then assumed a healthy, reasonable, finish to their careers.
These are the top 15 baseball players of all time:
15. Jimmie Foxx
Foxx was an animal at the plate. His career averages are blistering. I had to rate Hornsby higher due to OPS+, career batting average, and defensive skills but it was a tough decision.
14. Cy Young
Cy Young is probably the most famous pitcher of all-time but I'm almost certain that he wasn't the best. In fact, I'm almost certain that he wasn't anywhere near what his numbers might indicate. Young's career stats rate favorably to Mathewson's. However, Young's competition was considerably worse. I rated Mathewson higher because I think if Mathewson played when Young played and for the same duration, his number's would be better than Young's. There weren't even two leagues for the majority of Young's career. He should be recognized for being one of the pioneers of pitching but his numbers should be taken into context. I would not be against rating him lower but his lengthy career and unreachable records count for something.
13. Rogers Hornsby
Hornsby could be rated higher on this list and I probably wouldn't complain too much. The main reason why I have him rated lower than his numbers might merit is because unlike Cobb, he played in the boomin' 20's when offense was to baseball as pizza is to my diet. His averages are fantastic but he clearly should be rated lower than Ruth and Gehrig in his era alone not to mention other eras. I am comfortable with Hornsby at number 13.
12. Christy Mathewson
Mathewson doesn't get a lot of "love" from baseball historians. By that, I mean that he's usually rated lower than Seaver. However, I think Mathewson was actually better than that. He pitched 800 more innings than Grove with a significantly better WHIP and Batting Average Against. Seaver's ERA+ is a paltry 127 which should keep him out of anybody's top five.
11. Joe DiMaggio
This is the first instance when a player was rated higher than their actual stats merited because of missed time in the service. DiMaggio missed three prime years. He won two MVP's before he served and one MVP after he served. It stands to reason that DiMaggio's best baseball years were probably spent in Europe. DiMaggio was as brilliant in the field as he was with his bat. He also had the misfortune of playing in a "nightmare" park for right-handed batters. The left-field fence at Yankees stadium back then was 457 feet! I am not convinced that Willie Mays was a) a better defensive centerfielder, b) a better hitter and c) a better all-around player. Even if DiMaggio hadn't missed three years, his career totals would have come up considerably short to Mays since Mays played 22 seasons. It bothers me that I have rated DiMaggio so low on this list but I can't rationalize rating him higher because of his relatively short career.
10. Stan Musial
The "Man" has some awesome career numbers. They would have been even better if he hadn't missed a full season due to WWII. However, Musial is pretty far behind Gehrig's offensive numbers in terms of averages. He also is far enough ahead of DiMaggio's numbers to the point where I couldn't rate Musial any higher or any lower.
9. Lefty Grove
The argument for anyone who says that Grove is one of the top two pitchers of all-time is based on his performance compared to his contemporaries. The argument is pretty compelling, too. There isn't another pitcher on this list that played during the same time frame as Grove which might make Grove's numbers compared to the league average better than someone who pitched in a more competitive era like Clemens or Johnson. At this point, I have a decision to make. Do I conclude that Grove was just that much better than everyone else because he was so good, or do I conclude that Grove had the good fortune of pitching during a time when the pitching was at one of the weakest points in MLB history? I can't say I know enough to be certain about my choice but if you look at other pitchers during that era, the numbers aren't pretty. Grove also deserves credit for pitching during a league-wide offensive explosion and being the only guy who seemingly adapted to that explosion.
8. Lou Gehrig
Gehrig was overshadowed by the Great Bambino (The Babe) and rightfully so. Unfortunately, I don't think people realize just how awesome Gehrig was. He ranks third all-time in Runs Created (RC) per nine innings. He ranks third all-time in OPS. He ranks third all-time in OPS +. Gehrig's career was a little shorter than the players above him on this list due to an unfortunate disease that was later named after him. I don't see how he could be rated any lower than number eight considering how superior his numbers are to everyone lower on the list.
7. Walter Johnson
photo: American Tobacco
There is some debate as to whether Walter Johnson or Lefty Grove was the better pitcher. I don't think this debate holds much weight. Johnson pitched much longer and had equally brilliant numbers. Johnson shows up one spot behind Clemens since both had similarly dominating careers. I give the edge to Clemens but Johnson is a close second.
6. Roger Clemens
photo: Keith Allison
I wrote about Clemens being the best pitcher ever. Nobody has sustained brilliance in a more difficult era and for a longer time than Clemens. Even in his mid-40s he was still piling up sub 3.00 ERA seasons like they're a trip to McDonald's. One of the themes of my top 50 lists is to accurately rate players on their careers and not on how people perceive them. Historical players almost always get rated higher just because their names have become legendary. People like to hold on to childhood beliefs and the notion that things were just better a long time ago. That defies reason. At some point, people have to be willing to acknowledge that certain contemporary players might be better than those heroes. Clemens is a perfect example. In some people's minds, it is blasphemy to say that Clemens is/was better than Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, Cy Young, or even Tom Seaver. I've tried to eliminate any advantage to players from different eras based solely on legend or lore. It's possible that Clemens should rate even higher on this list. Are there really five batters better than the best pitcher ever? That's a tough call. Now that we know that Clemens took performance-enhancing drugs, his legacy is destined to be the same as Barry Bonds's.
5. Barry Bonds
photo: Kevin Rushforth
Yep, that's an asterisk next to Bonds' name. You'll find one next to Roger Clemens' name as well. I think it's appropriate because they are the only two players of the top 50 who most certainly took steroids. We'll just have to wait on A-Rod. If I rate Bonds by his pre-giant head numbers, he wouldn't rate anywhere near number five on the list. Remember, before Bonds decided to "juice-up", there was a difficult debate in MLB as to who was better--Barry Bonds or Ken Griffey Jr. That debate seems ludicrous now, mostly because Griffey didn't take steroids. Bonds' numbers (with steroids) are off the chart. There is no comparison to him over the last 70 years. Only Ruth's numbers stand up. Bonds isn't rated higher because he only put up Ruth-like numbers for a few years. This is probably the biggest reason why I despise Bonds's steroid-use. There's no telling how high some of the other players would've rated on this list had they juiced-up too. I've compromised by giving Bonds credit for the numbers that he put up but including the dreaded asterisk.
4. Willie Mays
photo: William C. Greene
Willie Mays is most likely the best all-around centerfield in baseball history. He finished in the top six of the MVP voting in 12 of 13 seasons between 1954 and 1966. I doubt we will ever see that kind of consistency again. Some people believe Willie Mays was the best baseball player ever. It's hard to know just how much of an impact his defense had. It's possible that his defensive superiority merits a higher ranking. Mays was not as good of a hitter as some people believe. He was a great hitter no doubt. But, he was nowhere near Ruth, Williams, Cobb or many of the other players lower on the list. His positioning on any list will undoubtedly be affected by the rater's emphasis on defense. While Mays was an amazing defensive outfielder, I don't think that makes up for the substantial difference in run production.
3. Ty Cobb
Ty Cobb was the first superstar of the 20th century. He was a nasty man but a brilliant ballplayer. Nobody hit better. Nobody ran the bases better. Cobb may have been the best player ever. It's difficult to tell because he played in the dead-ball era while Ruth and Williams likely benefited from playing after the dead-ball era had ended. Cobb's all-around play may merit the number one slot but Ruth and Williams have numbers that are just unfathomable. Also, from reading about Cobb's exploits in various books, it seems as though the overall lack of defensive skill (at least compared to later times) in his day helped him tremendously on the base paths and various other areas. I can't see a good reason to rate Cobb lower than third though.
2. Ted Williams
Williams missed close to five years of his prime serving in two different wars. His numbers would have been through the roof (as if they aren't already) had he not missed those seasons. He may have been the best "pure" hitter in baseball history. The only other players to hold a candle to Williams in terms of hitting played in the hitter-friendly era of the early 1900's. I don't think there is a legitimate reason to rate Williams ahead of Ruth even with the missed time in WWII. Williams never won a World Series. He also didn't have the presence on the base paths as someone like Ty Cobb or Willie Mays. Williams' career OPS+ of 190 is considerably higher than anyone other than Ruth.
1. Babe Ruth
Ruth is number one by a long shot in terms of offensive numbers. I can't rationalize putting anyone else in this position. He was a fantastic pitcher to go along with being the "Sultan of Swat". He also revolutionized the game by hitting more home runs than any other team in the American League in 1920. Had the MVP been alive in its current format during Ruth's career, he likely would've won at least nine MVPs.