The 100 Greatest Baseball Players Ever
One comprehensive list
In April 2020, with the baseball season delayed indefinitely, I decided to do something vaguely ambitious and ultimately time-wasting: create my personal list of the 100 greatest baseball players ever. When I wasn’t writing on the pandemic itself, mostly for The Nation, I had enough free time, and this became one of my projects. My Baseball 100 was published before the existence Political Currents, ending up on Medium. After a few years, I’ve decided to share it with all of you.
I’ve written essays on my fascination with tennis, handball, and football, but haven’t tackled my youth “career” as a baseball player, where I poured in much of my blood, sweat, and tears until I turned 18. At some point, you’ll get that piece.
In the meantime, enjoy my list, originally published in 2020. I’ll be anxious at the Yankee ALDS games on Tuesday and Thursday.
Recently, Joe Posnanski of the Athletic completed the wonderfully Herculean task of ranking the top 100 baseball players in history. It’s a marvelous project, with each player assigned an essay that, in true Posnanski fashion, illuminates their careers, personalities, and foibles in entirely new ways. Posnanski is a sharp and empathetic writer. I’ve followed him since I was a lonely high schooler, reading his sports and pop culture blog. In some sense, his whole career has been building towards this series. He’s hinted it will be turned into a book. I will be the first to buy it.
The great thing about lists is that you can argue about them endlessly. With all of us plunged into this pandemic, distractions like these become all the more essential. As a rabid baseball fan whose day job is writing about New York and national politics and policy — it’s a grim time for that — I crave Posnanski’s sort of writing to get me through my days. Like you, I miss baseball terribly. I miss my softball league too. Soon, I hope, we will all get out there again.
In the meantime, Posnanski’s list got my mind churning. Some of you may know I am a baseball history obsessive. I waste too much time trawling through Baseball-Reference pages for the 1929–1931 Philadelphia Athletics and league leaders of the 1960's. A top 100 list is made for me. And that means I get to argue with it.
If I have one criticism of Posnanski’s list, it’s the methodology. He prizes bWAR (Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement, an all-encompassing stat that, as good as any, accounts for a position player and pitcher’s value) which is awesome. He factors in how dominant a player was in his prime. (Great.) He takes into account that extra special stuff, like postseason glory or how much the player meant to the sport. (Also good.) He rightly recognizes the contributions of forgotten Negro League players. (Extremely valuable.) And he occasionally uses numerology to create the rankings. (Not as great.)
This created some odd moments on the list. Joe DiMaggio, because of his 56-game hitting streak, ranks number 56, even though he was clearly more than the 56th best player in history. Tom Seaver, one of the very greatest pitchers ever, gets a 41 ranking because he wore number 41. Mike Trout, who may very well end up as the greatest of them all, is ranked number 27 because he wears number 27. This, to be honest, irked me a bit.
There were also a few snubs that I took up with Posnanski on Twitter. Neither Shoeless Joe Jackson nor Manny Ramirez are on the list. Posnanski told me Jackson was excluded because of his shortened career, along with apparent demerits for his alleged role in the Black Sox scandal. I argued Jackson’s 170 OPS+ through age 32 and clear reputation, at the time, as a near-equal to Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker entitled him to a place in the top 100. Posnanski disagreed. While we each share a forgiving view of the steroid era (you’ll see that from my top 10), Posnanski takes an apparently harsher approach to the Black Sox scandal, which surprised me. This was made apparent when Posnanski revealed he had no number 19 on his list because 1919 was the year the White Sox took money to throw the World Series. (Frank Robinson and Mike Schmidt “tied” for number 20.)
I believe Jackson deserves to be exonerated and inducted into the Hall of Fame. Though he apparently took money from gamblers, he batted .375/.394/.563 in the 1919 World Series, hitting a homerun. There is literally no way to intentionally throw a World Series with a slash line like that. Jackson is a top 100 player and he’s on my list.
The second player Posnanski snubbed was Manny Ramirez. I don’t know why Ramirez was left off, but I can guess. Ramirez twice tested positive for PED’s. We have hard evidence he cheated, unlike Bonds and Clemens. He also was not a well-rounded player. Baserunning and defense were afterthoughts, though he played Fenway Park’s Green Monster with more aplomb than he gets credit for.
I argue here a top 100 list cannot exist without Manny Ramirez, who was my generation’s Jimmie Foxx, a prodigious slugger and offensive savant, the kind of complete hitter — Ramirez hit for high average and great power — that rarely comes along. At the plate, he was every bit the equal of contemporaries like Frank Thomas and Miguel Cabrera. His career 154 OPS+ is stunning. For context, that’s almost exactly the same as Hank Aaron’s 155 OPS+. Once you’ve cleared the 150 mark and played a full career (this means, over time, your OPS was 50 percent better than league average) you are hovering among the gods.
Beyond the numbers, facing Ramirez was terrifying. I’m a Yankee fan and I grew up watching the Washington Heights product punish his hometown team year after year. If I had to play a baseball game against Satan and needed one guy to knock in a run from second base with two outs in the 9th, Manny may very well be my first pick.
Now, before we get to my complete list, here’s a word on my methodology. First, this list is imperfect! Comparing pitchers to hitters is almost impossible. You can certainly disagree with me. That’s the fun of a list. This is what I had in mind as I created my own top 100:
Career and single-season WAR. I use Baseball-Reference WAR. What’s great about WAR is that it take the complete ballplayer into account, factoring in the era he played in, his competition, and the ballpark. Baserunning and defense count. WAR is a cumulative stat, so the more you play, the more chances you have to add to your WAR. A player can have a negative WAR or lose WAR if he performs so badly he is worth less than the “replacement level” player, a calculation that equates to a fringe Major League player, just above Minor League quality. The higher the WAR, the more “wins” you have above replacement. It’s actually quite intuitive. A 10 WAR single season is incredible. 100 career WAR makes you one of the greats. Babe Ruth is the career WAR leader at 182.5. That is absurdly high. For pitchers, WAR is valuable because it takes into account the ballpark pitched in, the defense behind the pitcher, and the era the pitcher competes in. Old-time legends who pitched an incomprehensible number of innings accumulated higher WAR than contemporary stars. Walter Johnson is your career pitcher WAR king at 164.5. My only criticisms of WAR are that it favors, a bit much, accumulators over dominators and overweighs, in my estimation, defense for position players. There are players on my list with lower career WAR ranked above players with higher career WAR. Generally, however, I deferred to career WAR, when in doubt.
OPS+ for hitters. ERA+ for pitchers. Both stats are great for comparing stars to their contemporaries. 100 is the league average ERA or OPS. If you have a season at 140 OPS+ or end your career there, you’ve been quite good. That means your OPS (on base plus slugging) was 40 percent higher than the competition. For a hitter, a 200 OPS+ season is extremely rare, a marker of legendary dominance. Hank Aaron never had a 200 OPS+ season. Ted Williams, amazingly, had six. Pitchers operate on a similar scale. When Pedro Martinez posted a 1.74 ERA in the year 2000, the height of the steroid era in the American League, his ERA+ was a staggering 291, 191 percent beyond the average ERA that year. In 2019, the MLB leader in ERA+ was Gerrit Cole at an amazing, but not godly, 185.
When you played. This is subjective. If your career peak came before 1920, the beginning of the live ball era and well before integration, your career is weighed less than those who peaked afterwards. Baseball was a great game before 1920 but it was a different game. Modern ball began with Babe Ruth’s 54 HR season in 1920 and changed forever. This isn't going to be one of those lists that ranks Honus Wagner ahead of Alex Rodriguez or Cy Young ahead of Tom Seaver. It doesn’t help if you’ve played any baseball in the 19th century or were born before 1885.
Dominance vs. Longevity. This is a tough one, an eternal baseball debate. I give credence to both sides where I can. Longevity does matter. It’s a skill to be great for a long period of time. That’s why we are still in awe of players like Hank Aaron, who never hit 50 homeruns but performed with such miraculous consistency, playing baseball as well at age 38 as he did at 25. Dominance matters too. It’s why, unlike Posnanski, I can’t bring myself to rank Phil Niekro or Gaylord Perry ahead of Sandy Koufax. Both knuckleballers accumulated more value than Koufax by pitching far longer. But it’s inarguable Koufax was the better pitcher, dominating for a six-year stretch like few in baseball history. At the same juncture, Koufax does not crack my top 50 because his career was so short and benefited from a 1960’s environment and ballpark that largely favored pitchers.
The Negro Leagues. I did my best, like Posnanski, to honor the greats of the Negro Leagues who never played in the Majors or lost key years, like Monte Irvin and Jackie Robinson. I deferred to Posnanski, an expert on the matter, whenever possible. I rated other players higher than Posnanski, like Satchel Paige, who has a pretty clear claim to being one of the two greatest pitchers ever, ahead of Walter Johnson. Paige was able to become a very good MLB pitcher in his 40’s. Josh Gibson also appears in my top 20. Though statistical records are hard to find, the consensus is that he was the most dominating Negro Leaguer of all-time and did it all at catcher, the most physically taxing position on the field. He played later than Oscar Charleston, likely facing better competition. Had Gibson not died so tragically young, he would have broken the color barrier in 1947. Unlike Posnanski, I am less interested in numerology so Jackie Robinson ends up higher on my list.
Steroids. By now, you can probably guess where I come down on steroids and cheating in baseball. My rankings will certainly tell you. Without drug testing in baseball, we don’t know who did what, though we can guess. Barry Bonds probably did steroids. He also probably hit homeruns off players who did steroids. Roger Clemens, on possible juice, was striking out juiced players. I don’t believe statistics can simply be ignored. Despite the conventional wisdom, there actually isn’t a lot of great evidence for how exactly PED’s improve performance on a baseball field. The best we can say is that they help players recover from injuries faster and build muscle. Muscle can help hit a baseball further. Ted Williams, one of the very best hitters ever, also didn’t have a lot of muscle. Ultimately, there is no drug that can give you Bonds’ batting eye and early career speed and defensive ability. He was the second coming of Willie Mays, a flawless player who, in his second act, broke the game of baseball. Bonds is still the only player in MLB history to achieve a 1.400 OPS in a single season. Not even Ruth did it. He posted OBP’s beyond .500 and .600, numbers we will probably not see again. He hit for high average, he hit for supreme power, and he dominated the sport like no one else. As for Clemens, there are those who will also wave away what he did on a baseball field. By the numbers, he is the greatest pitcher in modern MLB history, which nets him the top ranking on my list, since I’d rather send Clemens to the hill than a pitcher born between 1860 and 1890. A good way to understand Clemens’ achievements (7 Cy Youngs, 354 wins) is to take the careers of Sandy Koufax and Pedro Martinez and combine them, as Posnanski has pointed out. Again, there is no magic drug to make you throw a baseball 97 mph with pinpoint control. He, along with Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, and Pedro Martinez, represented the very best pitchers who ever lived. Many of us were fortunate enough to live through that era. We won’t witness anything quite like it again.
The Moderns. There are two young active players on this list: Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw is still just 32. Trout, who is the unquestioned best position player in the sport, is 28. By WAR, Trout has already accumulated as much value as Derek Jeter. There is no question he is on a trajectory for immortality. If he plays like this for the 2020’s, he will be ranked among the very best who ever lived. If he retired tomorrow, he’s still a first ballot Hall of Famer. Posnanski put Trout at 27; I’m more conservative at 52, just behind Ken Griffey Jr., which was intentional. Griffey is the cautionary tale here. By his 30th birthday, Griffey had racked up around 70 WAR and was the heir apparent to Mays. He had an outside shot at Ruth and Aaron’s career homerun totals. Though his career was still marvelous, Griffey sharply declined after age 30. Another great, Trout teammate Albert Pujols, experienced a steep decline phase that began at 32. I don’t know what the future holds for Mike Trout. He could easily be another Hank Aaron or Ted Williams, two of the greatest old players of all-time. (Williams somehow batted .388 at age 38, falling five hits shy of another .400 season.) Or he can suffer an injury and never be the same. For now, I am keeping Trout out of the top 50, paying some deference to the unknowable future. Like Trout, Kershaw plays in Southern California and has never won a World Series ring, which unfortunately may be what defines him to casual fans, along with his notable postseason struggles. But Kershaw, in my ranking, is already three slots ahead of the Dodgers’ greatest icon, Sandy Koufax. Fans can’t forget just how good Kershaw used to be. He led the league in ERA and WHIP four consecutive years and won three Cy Young awards. He’s struck out 300 batters in a season. His career ERA+ of 157 dwarfs Koufax’s 131 in a similar career length. Kershaw’s fastball velocity is down and he’s no longer the all-time great he used to be. If he can find a way to turn around his career like Justin Verlander, who is five years older but pitched far more dominantly in 2019, he will be one of the very best who ever stepped on a pitcher’s mound. Speaking of Verlander, you probably aren’t surprised to see him cracking the top 100. You may raise an eyebrow at the quirky Zack Greinke, his Astros teammate, for being here. Did you know that Verlander and Greinke, both born in 1983, are statistically almost identical? Verlander’s career WAR is 71.6. Greinke’s is 71. Verlander’s ERA+ is 129. Greinke’s? 125. Verlander has two Cy Youngs. Greinke has one, but was runner-up another time. One is far more revered than the other. That should change.
X Factors. The fun stuff. The intangibles. Postseason success. Awards. What extra spice did the player bring to the table? Joe Posnanski left Whitey Ford off his top 100, probably because his career WAR is below 60, putting him in line with less notable (though still quite good) pitchers like Tim Hudson. Ford, of course, was a postseason hero, the ace on Yankee teams that regularly appeared in the World Series, where the lefty from Queens excelled. Yes, he was lucky to get the opportunities. But you still need to take advantage of them.
Explaining my top 10. While I don’t have the time to attach essays to every player, I wanted to take a moment to explain how I arrived at my top 10. Posnanski of the Athletic will name Mays, and not Ruth, his greatest player of all-time. It’s a fair thing to do but I disagreed, in part because Ruth was penalized for playing before integration while Walter Johnson, who peaked in the deadball era and never pitched to a black batter, was named the greatest pitcher of all. Posnanski is right to argue it’s a bit odd the consensus greatest baseball player in history was born in 1895 and ended his career before the outbreak of World War II. But I put Ruth number one because his statistical record is inarguable — the highest WAR, the highest OPS+, second most homeruns —and he was a true revolutionary of the sport. Ruth, of course, pitched before he became a full-time outfielder in his final season with the Red Sox. He blew the game open in 1920 when he outhomered every other team in the American League. Ruth could have probably entered the Hall of Fame if he remained a pitcher, which speaks to his remarkable athleticism. It’s notable too that Ruth’s upper cut swing changed the way a generation of hitters approached their at bats, ushering in a new era power hitting. Today, ballplayers obsess over launch angles to generate power. Ruth, quite literally, invented the launch angle. Mays is my number two, ahead of Bonds, which for me was a tough call because Bonds managed to surpass Mays in career WAR and, at his second peak in the early 2000’s, played baseball like no one else in history, Ruth included. I ultimately gave the tiebreaker to Mays because he was his own revolution: a five-tool superstar center fielder who brought a combination of speed and power to the sport that had never been seen before. Had stolen bases been emphasized more in Mays’ 1950’s heyday — 50’s baseball wasn’t so different than today’s in that regard — undoubtedly Mays would have swiped many more bags. Mickey Mantle, at his best, was every bit as good as Mays and maybe better, but Mays’ body didn’t break down from injuries and alcohol. No one should be surprised to see Hank Aaron at four or Ted Williams at five. I had considered elevating Williams to four because he was probably the best hitter in baseball history. His achievements, to this day, are still difficult to fathom. But Aaron was the more complete player and he held a career homerun record for decades. Most readers will probably be surprised to find Roger Clemens at number six. Clemens, due to the strong suspicion he used PED’s, is often dismissed by fans altogether, his career reduced to a mirage. As I explain in the steroids section above, the statistical record is too sterling dismiss. At a time when offense dramatically spiked in the 1990’s and 2000’s, Clemens soared like few others in the history of the sport. He was better than you remember. After Clemens, I chose Satchel Paige, who was universally regarded as the Negro League’s greatest pitcher and competed in an era modern enough to produce a reliable record of his greatness. He deserves to be placed ahead of Walter Johnson. The rest of the top ten is fairly predictable. Stan Musial was almost as good as Ted Williams. Ty Cobb was the greatest player in history before Babe Ruth came along. Mickey Mantle, for me, deserved to be in the top 10 because his wounded mythos almost overshadows just how statistically great he was. Even as his body was breaking down, he was posting OPS+’s north of 140. His career OBP of .421 surpasses DiMaggio’s .398, even though Joltin’ Joe’s career battign average was 27 points higher. At his very best, Mantle was as good as any player in history. He was brilliantly fast and hit with unimaginable power. He twice posted single-season OPS+’s above 200. The 1956 Triple Crown season is one of the very best ever. And finally, though he’s not in the top 10, I want to make a note about Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod is here at 11, which for some is probably too high. Again, he is a cheater. He used PED’s multiple times in his career. For some, that’s enough to pretend the numbers don’t matter. It’s worth remembering that A-Rod was the greatest high school baseball prospect in baseball history and that was when he was a skinny kid in the early 1990’s. At 20, he won a batting title. Outside of Willie Mays, there was no more complete player to walk on a field. In his prime, A-Rod was Mickey Mantle at shortstop. His arm was so good he probably could have played quarterback in the NFL. He hit with tremendous power and reached base frequently. He was a game-breaking base stealer, swiping as many as 46 bases in a season and stealing, for his career, at an 81% clip, one of the best ever for the number of bases he stole. He is the game’s greatest shortstop and third baseman. He should have booted Derek Jeter to third base in 2004. His postseason struggles were real; then, in 2009, he carried the Yankees to the World Series almost single-handedly. A-Rod was selfish, arrogant, and often didn’t know how to relate to the media. He cheated. Yet teammates still swore by him and he’s more likely to manage a baseball team at this point than Jeter, who is in the Michael Jordan-like process of immolating a franchise. I could have ranked A-Rod ahead of Cobb. I thought very hard about it.
Why the Sandy Koufax picture? He’s not even your top pitcher! I grew up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, one neighborhood over from Koufax’s Bensonhurst. I throw left-handed, though I topped out under 80 mph. I’m Jewish. The Koufax mystique is inarguable. His performances in the 1963 and 1965 World Series are still chill-inducing. In my novel, Demolition Night, I have a protagonist who bets against Koufax at the start of the 1963 World Series, assuming the Brooklyn boy would wilt under the pressure of facing the mighty Yankees at Yankee Stadium. His performance in Game 1 has been a quiet obsession of mine. At the time, the Yankees had won the World Series in 1961 and 1962. They had narrowly lost in 1960. Only once, in 1955, had the Dodgers franchise ever bested the Yankees. 1963 should have been a repeat. The Yankee lineup — an aging Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, and young standouts like Tom Tresh and Joe Pepitone — was still quite formidable. Whitey Ford, an October hero and fellow New York native, was opposing him. Going into that game, Koufax must have been nervous. He grew up watching the Yankees humble the Dodgers. This was the franchise’s first appearance in Yankee Stadium since they moved to Los Angeles. Koufax had been great, sure, but this was the Yankees. Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle. And what does Koufax do? He strikes out the first five batters he sees, tying a World Series record. He pitches a complete game, striking out 15, setting a record. It is Koufax’s first leap toward immortality. After the game, Yogi Berra is dazed. “I can see how he won 25 games,” Berra said. “What I don’t understand is how he lost five.” It’s worth remembering that in the movie version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, R.P. McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson, tries to watch this very World Series in the mental institution. Nurse Ratched cruelly denies him. Undeterred, McMurphy decides to narrate the game on the blank television, inventing an alternate reality. “Koufax kicks, he delivers, it’s up the middle, it’s a base hit, [Bobby] Richardson is rounding first, he’s going for second, the ball’s into deep right center, [Willie] Davis over in the corner to cut the ball off! Here comes the throw, Richardson rounding first and he goes into second and he slides and he’s safe!” McMurphy shouts. “Koufax is in big fucking trouble, big trouble baby!” By now, all the patients have rallied around McMurphy, entranced by his narration. “Koufax’s curveball is snapping off like a fucking firecracker. Alright, here we come with the next pitch and Tresh swings, it’s a long fly ball to deep left center, it’s going, it’s going, it’s gone!” Next up, McMurphy says, is Mickey Mantle. “He swings and it’s a fucking homerun!” His fellow patients erupt with joy. It should be noted that Tresh, indeed, did hit a two-run homerun off Koufax, but it came in the 8th inning when the game was out of reach. Mantle, though, was 0–3 against the great left-hander. Ultimately, this moving scene merges two of my great interests: baseball and literature. Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, is among my favorite American writers. And the 1963 World Series, despite the defeat of my favorite Yankees, continues to loom large in my mind.
If you’ve got comments or questions on the rankings, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Twitter, @RossBarkan. The DM’s are open. I hope you enjoy my list. Feel free to argue about it.
The Ross Barkan Baseball 100.
Cal Ripken Jr.
Ken Griffey Jr.
Smokey Joe Williams
Shoeless Joe Jackson
Cool Papa Bell
Political Currents by Ross Barkan is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.