In baseball more than other sports, we are captivated by history. The great players who came before us are mythical figures. Bart Starr is pretty much just a football player, but Babe Ruth is something else entirely. We pass down stories to our children of the players we got to see and marvel at how certain players seemed to dominate their era.
Below is a list, entirely my own and entirely subjective, of players I wish I had been alive to see. Anyone who played after 1990 is ineligible and the qualifications are not necessarily based on anything other than who I find to be the exciting and tantalizing figures whom I was unable to see.
9. Brooks Robinson (35th All-Time in position player WAR)
Advanced defensive statistics aren’t particularly reliable before the last several seasons of in depth video analysis, but plenty of baseball statisticians have worked through the data of yesteryear to provide a decent approximation. What those metrics tell us is that Brooks Robinson was 5% more valuable on defense than the second best defender in baseball history. He was a slightly above average hitter, but a preposterously impressive defender. Any old-school eyeball influenced observer would tell you the same. Robinson is quite possibly the best glove man to ever put on a pair of cleats.
8. Jackie Robinson (133rd All-Time in position player WAR)
Jackie is of no relation to Brooks, but that doesn’t make him less interesting. Robinson’s story isn’t one that requires much explanation. He broke baseball’s color barrier and was both a very good player and a man who could restrain his emotions and conduct himself with grace, such that he may be one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. A career 135 wRC+ doesn’t hurt either.
7. Ted Williams (8th All-Time in position player WAR)
Williams’ modest personal goal was to be the greatest hitter whoever lived. Perhaps the only person who can contend for that title with Williams is Babe Ruth. Williams career 188 wRC+ is 2nd only to Ruth and has the highest career OBP in baseball history and is second in slugging percentage to the same. It’s hard to imagine a more impressive plate appearance than what Ted Williams could offer in his prime.
6. Willie Mays (4th All-Time in position player WAR)
Many consider Mays to be the greatest player to ever put on a uniform and I won’t argue with anyone who thinks so. He was a superb defender in centerfield (7th best defender in history according to advanced metrics) and hit a measly 660 homeruns while posting a 154 wRC+. Maybe I wouldn’t say he was best player to ever live, but I couldn’t name too many who’d be in that conversation along with him.
5. Roberto Clemente (34th All-Time in position player WAR)
Clemente’s career was also cut short like Koufax’s, but his was cut short tragically while on an aid mission. He was a fine hitter (career 129 wRC+), but he is on this list for his defense, especially his arm. It was a magic arm. One of the best two of all time and the other contender is two spots below him on this list. Clemente is 5th all time by advanced defensive metrics and trails just one outfielder (Andruw Jones). I’d pay a good amount of money to watch him stand at the warning track and throw baseball’s to third base.
4. Sandy Koufax (62nd All-Time in pitcher WAR)
Now you may think that the only pitcher on this list should be higher on the all time WAR list than 62nd, but Koufax’s low total is the function of a short career and not a brilliant prime. The Dodger lefty is the pitcher most deserving of a spot on this list because 1) many of the game’s best arms pitched during my lifetime and 2) he’s among a small number of Jewish players to truly excel in sports. Among pitchers who were predominantly starters who qualify, he’s 9th all-time in K/9 and he’s at the top of that list if you restrict it to players whose careers ended before 1990. He is the strikeout king of pitchers before my time. He had three 9.8+ WAR seasons. The only other pitcher who can make that claim was Silver King who played in the 1880s! He was awesome.
3. Al Kaline (25th All-Time in position player WAR)
Mr. Tiger gets extra points for being the greatest Tiger to ever live (IMO, take that Cobb!) and being my father’s favorite player growing up. But he’s also everything I love in a player. A fine hitter (134 wRC+) with good plate discipline (11.0% BB rate) and an excellent defender with a brilliant arm. Kaline ranks as the 19th best defensive player ever and has an arm at which Tigers fans still marvel. He used to throw behind runners rounding first base and get them out. I’ve never seen that happen in my years of watching baseball. Additionally, Kaline is an exemplary citizen who has literally worked for just one company since he graduate high school: the Detroit Tigers. Takes “Always a Tiger” to a new level.
2. Joe DiMaggio (33rd All-Time in position player WAR)
DiMaggio was a great player, no question, and a great hitter (career 152 wRC+), but his reason for being on this list is simple. He owns the most impressive record in sports history. I’m very fond of Ripkin’s games played streak, but DiMaggio’s 56 game hit streak is quite simply the pinnacle of human athletic achievement. Hitting a baseball is widely regarded as the most difficult single task in sports and DiMaggio got a base hit or more in 56 consecutive games, when most players rarely make it 10. Yet what makes this record so spectacular is that it is so far ahead of its challengers. It’s 27% longer than the second longest streak ever. 27%! Let me put it this way, Hank Aaron’s 755 homeruns rank second most all time. In order to be 27% better than that, Bonds would have had to hit 959 homeruns. DiMaggio’s accomplishment is without equals.
1. Stan Musial (10th All-Time in position player WAR)
Stan Musial was a brilliant hitter and a brilliant citizen. Ruth, Hornsby, Williams, and Gehrig are the only players in history to exceed Musial in average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage. That’s the whole list. He was a solid defender and was one of the nicest men to ever play professional sports. During his career, hitters struck out 11% of the time. He struck out 5.5% of the time. Relative to league average, he’d be a 10% type strikeout guy today who walked 20% of the time. There is no one even close to that type of ratio. Not even a little. That level of plate discipline belongs on Mount Rushmore.
Who are on your wish you had seem them list?