By In Stuff

500 Words on the Four Greatest Living Players

We have this thing about reducing greatness to a foursome. It’s a Mount Rushmore thing. The other day, a couple of us here at St. Andrews were trying to come up with a Mount Rushmore of golf. Unfortunately, there are FIVE obvious choices for the four spots:

— Jack Nicklaus
— Tiger Woods
— Arnold Palmer
— Bobby Jones
— Ben Hogan

The only way to reduce those five to a foursome is to eliminate someone (probably Hogan) who belongs on the mountain. And, of course, even at five you are still leaving out Walter Hagen and Sam Snead and Byron Nelson and Gary Player and Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris and Tom Watson and Phil Mickelson and so on …

In the end, if you are going to cut a sport down to four you need those four to represent something larger. They need to collectively tell a story. For instance, you can’t have a Mount Rushmore of baseball without Jackie Robinson even though he was not one of the four greatest players in baseball history.

Tuesday, Major League Baseball announced the four greatest Negro Leagues players (as voted by the fans). Buck O’Neil was one of the four. Now Buck would have been the first to tell you that he absolutely was NOT one of the four greatest players, not even close. The other three were Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell which left Oscar Charleston (perhaps the greatest player ever) and Pop Lloyd and Turkey Stearnes and Buck Leonard and Ray Dandridge and Martin Dihigo and many more who were better players than Buck. But Buck’s inclusion tells a story; he was the latter day voice of the Negro Leagues. So much of what we know about the Negro Leagues, we know because Buck O’Neil never stopped remembering.

All of which leads to a frustration with the fans choices with the four Greatest Living Players. The four player were all magnificent — Henry Aaron, Johnny Bench, Sandy Koufax and Willie Mays. But collectively, the four do not tell a larger baseball story. They are from generally the same era (all were active big leaguers in the mid-1960s). They all have been retired for more than 30 years. They all represent a different era of baseball, before expansion and free agency and expanded television.

Then again maybe that WAS the story, that fans believe baseball was a much better game in the 1960s and 1970s. I love history, but that isn’t much to celebrate. Buck used to say: “Baseball is STILL baseball.” The game should not be in a museum just yet. A greatest living player list without Cal Ripken or Greg Maddux or Randy Johnson or Albert Pujols or Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens or ANYONE from the last three decades tells the story that baseball stopped mattering a long time ago.

Maybe that’s fine for people my age. But if you’re 40 or under and love baseball, that list says one thing only: Sorry kid, you missed it.

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113 Responses to 500 Words on the Four Greatest Living Players

  1. John Schulian says:

    Joe: I usually abstain from things like this, and it’s way past my bedtime, which should be another reason not to plunge ahead, but I can’t stop myself. Take a look at the names you listed among the overlooked. Then tell me how any of them could possibly supplant Mays, Aaron, Bench or Koufax. Ripken? Not a chance. Johnson? Sorry, no sale. Bonds, the best player of his time and someone who should be in Cooperstown, disqualified himself. Clemens did the same. Maddux was pure genius as a pitcher, but he was never Koufax. No one was ever Koufax. Only Pujols had a legitimate shot at cracking that majestic quartet, and maybe he would have if the All-Star game had been played in St. Louis. But he’s a DH now, and he was a first baseman before that, which means he has spent a fair amount of game time figuring out where he was in the race for the batting championship. Bench, on the other hand, caught for a Cincinnati ball club for the ages, revolutionizing the position, riding herd on a pitching staff that was less than majestic, and providing certifiable muscle in the middle of the batting order. The workload took years off his career, but he knew the risks going in. And when he took his rightful place with Mays, Aaron and Koufax on Tuesday night, Bench knew one other thing: He’d never been anyone’s damn DH

    • JimB says:

      Pedro was better than Koufax

      • Spencer Steel says:

        The only thing JimB gets wrong about Pedro and Koufax is that Pedro was a LOT better than Koufax.

        As for the rest of Schulian’s argument, most of it is spent arguing the case for a player who was already included in Joe’s list. If you are a forty-year-old man who was a baseball fanatic as a kid, you may recall the six games that John Bench played at catcher when you were seven and eight and forming your first baseball memories. Probably not though. I’ve followed the game religiously since I first put on a Little League uniform. I saw a past-his-prime Bench and wondered what the big deal was. I saw Aaron DH at Tiger Stadium and saw an old man bat a few times. Mays was done when I was just out of diapers. Koufax retired three years before I was born. I am forty-six years old. If you were making an argument against the conclusion of Joe’s piece, you ended up reinforcing the strength of it.

        • buck4you says:

          I am lucky enough to have seen all 4 play. I saw 3 of them play in person. (I missed Koufax) Younger readers always dismiss players who played before their time. It is a generational thing. I can say this with 100% confidence: There is not one single player today who could carry Willie Mays or hank Aaron’s jock strap, much less play as their equal.

          • Herby Smith says:

            There’s this Mike Trout guy…kind of obscure and under-the-radar…you apparently haven’t heard of him…but,uh, pretty good ballplayer.

      • Antonio says:

        100 percent agreed.

    • ajnrules says:

      From a pure career-as-a-whole standpoint, Randy Johnson was as good as Pedro and Koufax combined.

      Clemens was better than Randy Johnson

    • Jay says:

      “Johnson – sorry no sale” is not a great argument against Randy Johnson. I think you’re forgetting his extended dominance over hitters in the peak of baseball’s offensive era, in comparison to Koufax’s short run in an extremely pitcher-friendly environment.

    • jposnanski says:

      Hi John. All fair points. You know how much I admire Bench. I think you underrate Ripken. He was an amazing young player, and if you give Bench credit for throwing himself into his workload (which he did), certainly Ripken did the same. As for Koufax, this has been a big topic on the board. Koufax’s seasons — considering the innings pitched and postseason dominance — are basically unmatchable in today’s era. But it was also in a low-run scoring era from a pitching mound roughly six miles above the ground. Koufax is one of my favorite players, but I think Maddux, Johnson, Seaver or Pedro have strong arguments as being better … and Clemens, though he did disqualify himself (as you say) was otherworldly.

      • John Schulian says:

        Joe: Whoever mentioned Frank Robinson deserves a medal. He was a marvelous ballplayer who terrorized up the American League when he went to the Orioles. A slugger who’d knock a second baseman into left field to break up a double play? What rare bird was this? He’d be a worthy replacement for Aaron — just don’t make me break the news to Hammerin’ Hank. As for Ripken, I was around for his first five seasons and admired him greatly. But later, when I watched from afar, it seemed that his insistence on breaking Gehrig’s Iron Man record got in the way of what he should have put first. All in all, I’ll still take the four guys they trotted out at the all-star game, though, because they’re my generation’s guys. Your generation has a different set of guys, and so does the generation after yours. But when we get to Taylor Swift, I’m sorry, I’m going to go to my room and listen to Emmylou Harris.

    • I agree with the rest of the comments here. Even Koufax wasn’t Koufax. As Joe demonstrated a few months ago Koufax was an excellent pitcher, at home, for a few seasons, during an a pitcher’s era.

      • So, this whole concept is misleading. Koufax was excellent on the road:

        1961 Opponents on the road hit .208/.280/.311 against him
        1962 .212/.288/.315 road
        1963 .208/.251/.316 road
        1964 .214/.253/.307
        1965 .205/.256/.332
        1966 .207/.249/.310

        Pretty damned impressive.

        So, it’s not like he was compiling amazing home stats & sucked on the road. Yeah, his Dodger Stadium numbers were unworldly, but it’s also usually the case that pitchers do pitch much better at home than on the road. Essentially, his road stats were very consistent, even in 1961 when he was pitching at the Coliseum. The biggest reason he became awesome in 1962, the year he moved to Dodger Stadium, was because he cut his walks in half. His away walk rate improved similarly. So it wasn’t JUST Dodger Stadium. His command improved that same year which cannot be explained by the height of the mound.

        • invitro says:

          So Koufax was an excellent pitcher. Who’s doubting that?

          • There have been some posters in the past (haven’t read all the comments this time) that have gone so far as to question whether Koufax is even a HOFer. One of the big arguments has been the mound & the stadium “made him”. So, I’m not saying you question it, or even most question it, but some are. I just find it annoying. It’s one thing to say Pedro is better or Johnson is better, but it always seems to go well beyond that.

        • NevadaMark says:

          This height of the mound business is really annoying. Did they lower it each inning when the home team was batting?

    • doncoffin64 says:

      Isn’t the question here what the meaning of “greatest” is? As Joe sais, you can’t have a Mt, Rushmore of baseball without Jackie Robinson. So, in *hat sense* greatest means “most consequential for the history and development of baseball.” And I don’t even want to begin to list 4.

    • DjangoZ says:

      Koufax is the weakest inclusion of the four. That’s pretty easy to demonstrate.

    • Iggy says:

      Nicely put!

  2. NormE says:

    Two points: Your premise of “4” is too arbitrary.
    Those who saw Ruth, Cobb, Christy M. and the other pre-tv era players were unable to vote.

  3. Mark R says:

    I thought the selection was harmless … any fan vote is understood to be a bit of a popularity contest, and there seems to always be a bias toward older men whenever the title of “greatest living ballplayer” is being used. For example, even if Barry Bonds (arguably the actual greatest living ballplayer) were not strongly disliked for many reasons, I think Willie Mays would easily outdistance him in any public vote for this title.

    I’m 42 and I never felt excluded or bummed when I was younger, when Joe DiMaggio used to be referred to as the Greatest Living Ballplayer (even if it was objectively untrue). I hope today’s younger generation of fans has a similar feeling for Mays and Aaron. Maybe the next wave will see the likes of Seaver, Schmidt, etc being introduced & appreciated this way, who knows. Just a nice nod to the best of older generations who are still with us.

    • David Eberly says:

      This is exactly right. I am sure if this had been done in, say, 1957, the 4 would be Cobb, Speaker, Lajoie and Hornsby or something, to the exclusion of DiMaggio, Williams, Musial, etc.

      I actually find this ENDEARING rather than off putting, and I did as a kid, too — even then I appreciated baseball BECA– USE of its amazingly rich history, rather than being bored by it. I’m sure I’m not alone.

    • Right, and since it’s a fan vote, I think that it shows the demographic of the baseball fan today. 50 years old+. If they had a fan vote in the early 70s, you would have seen kids voting in current players, or at least recently retired players. That can’t happen today because kids don’t follow baseball. My kids, who are huge sports fans and athletes, who do actually enjoy going to baseball games, absolutely do not follow baseball and will not watch it on TV. When I switched on the all start game the other day, they left the room, apologizing that they just can’t watch baseball on TV. That’s the way it is today.

      • Cooper Nielson says:

        “If they had a fan vote in the early 70s, you would have seen kids voting in current players, or at least recently retired players.”

        I think you may be overstating this. In 1969 they had a vote for the All-Time Greatest Team as well as the Greatest Living Players for baseball’s centennial. The players were first nominated by the fans, and then selected by writers and broadcasters. For Greatest Living Players, the only active player selected was Willie Mays.

        The others were George Sisler (retired 1930), Stan Musial (1963), Charlie Gehringer (1942), Joe Cronin (1945), Pie Traynor (1937), Joe DiMaggio (1951), Ted Williams (1960), Bill Dickey (1946), Lefty Grove (1941), and Bob Feller (1956).

        So only 2 or 3 of those guys could be said to be “recently retired.”

        The result might have possibly been different if they had online polls back then and the fans had the final say. However, I’m inclined to believe, as some have said above, that baseball fans have always “honored their elders” in this type of poll.

  4. Big Al says:

    If, I’m drafting, Tom Terrific, Lefty, Gibson, Maddux, Mo, all would be on big board above Koufax. How many games did Koufax win? Are you telling me Rose will still be on the board after Bench? Please. BTW, what’s the name of the golf course Palmer would be a favorite over Hogan on?

  5. Pak says:

    I turned the game on late, and didn’t know why those 4 were on the field. I talked to someone about them this morning saying “Aaron, Mays and 2 others” because Hank and Willie have their own mountain. There was some discussion last week on sports radio here in minnesota abota the All Star game 50 years ago, and that the National League team was prehaps the greatest team ever assembled. That made me look at some of the teams of that era and it struck me that the Nationals were always led by Hank & Willie when they were truly dominant, even thogh Hank wasn’t always great in the All Star game. I don’t think the dominance was a coincidence.

  6. The younger heroes of the 80’s, like Donnie Baseball or Dale Murphy, fizzled into the 90’s. Ken Griffey Jr. fizzled into the 00’s. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens tarnished themselves. The pitchers who overcame the steroid era – Pedro, Unit, Maddux – were truly remarkable even if we didn’t quite understand just how bizarre they were at the time. ESPN came around. The same sort of transcendence just hasn’t happened in my lifetime, not the way it happened with Michael Jordan in the NBA. Arguably, it’s starting to come around again, as everybody who watches baseball knows Albert Pujols, but baseball guys are not as loud and brash as LeBron James, so Pujols will never transcend our culture in the same way. It’s like trying to pit the greatest offensive lineman or defensive tackle against Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. They’re no less great, but induction into Canton is usually met with a collective shrug vs. Jerry Rice or Dan Marino. Baseball players tend to be humble family guys, and if they are guys who create spectacle, like Bryce Harper or Yasiel Puig, they have as many detractors as they do supporters. Mike Trout should already be an everywhere kind of guy, but he’s a little more of an aw shucks kind of guy, which it seems baseball prefers. But baseball has become a little more of a niche thing in the general public’s eye in the wake of the steroid scandal and the emergence of the iPhone. While the non-fan still might watch the Super Bowl or at least know who LeBron James is, that same cultural dominance hasn’t happened since Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa broke the record.

  7. Koufax was amazing for a few years, but we know how to adjust for the era he played in and the effect his home park had on his stats. Putting him up there over Johnson, Clemens, Seaver or Maddux is a mistake, but then, that’s the whole point of this exercise, to create debate.

    • You’re right in that Johnson, Clemens, Seaver and Maddux did have better careers than Koufax. Really that shouldn’t be in dispute by very many, despite whoever put the list together. (I don’t think Bench belongs on the list either, but what do I know). What annoys me is how people try to twist the numbers to argue that Koufax doesn’t even belong in the HOF.

      • Marc Schneider says:

        I agree. There seems to be some need for people-perhaps younger-to diminish Koufax entirely because of the era he pitched in and Dodger Stadium. Bob Gibson pitched in the same era and with the same mounds (although not at Dodger Stadium). Do you think he would have had a 1.12 ERA in, say, 2002? All the pitchers in that era benefitted from the higher mound and larger strike zones. Yet, Koufax seems to be the one that people take aim at. It’s iconoclasm taken to an extreme. As you say, I understand the argument about others being better, but there seems to be real animus toward Koufax among some. I’m not sure Hank Aaron or Willie Mays would agree with the Koufax bashing.

  8. Jeff A. says:

    One 35 year old’s list:

    Aaron should probably be there in place of Pedro, but man, Pedro was just some kind of super-powered alien from another planet during his peak years, he kind of has to be there. And Clemens was better than Pedro, so he has to be there. And Bonds was better than Aaron or Mays, so he has to be there. And Mays > Aaron, so there you have it.

  9. Doug says:

    Johnny Bench was a greater player than Frank Robinson? I don’t think so…

    • Tampa Mike says:

      Johnny Bench is there because they wanted a Cincinnati player for the host city. He absolutely doesn’t belong.

      • Herby Smith says:

        1. Catcher is certainly the most underrated position.
        2. Bench is considered by almost everyone as the greatest catcher of all time.
        3. F Robby played half his career in Cinci.

  10. jpg says:

    My top four would be Mays, Frank Robinson, Aaron and Seaver. I feel like you have to have a pitcher in there so I could live with swapping out Seaver for any of Gibson, Unit, Pedro, Clemens or Carlton.

  11. Spencer Steel says:

    I’ll just be here in the corner pretending the two greatest post-war careers (and my life from age seventeen through 38) didn’t happen.

    Narratives aside, Clemens is the best living pitcher by some margin. Bonds is the best living hitter by a very wide one.

  12. John Leavy says:

    Any time you have a “Greatest of All Time” list in any category, the list is liable to exclude our contemporaries, and to be a little more retro than we’d like.

    A survey that asked people to name the #1 musical act of all-time would undoubtedly put Elvis and the Beatles much higher than Taylor Swift.

    A survey that asked people to name the Greatest Scientist of all time would probably include Albert Einstein, but NOT Steven Weinberg (if you asked “Steven Who,” you proved my point).

    It’s certainly possible that Weinberg is smarter than Einstein, that Taylor Swift will eventually sell more recordings than Elvis, and that Mike Trout will end up having a greater career than Willie Mays. But in the meantime, I don’t have a big problem with people waiting to see who stands the test of time.

    • David says:

      No one is asking them to include current players, like Pujols or Mike Trout. We’re talking about including players whose careers have already finished, like Bonds and Pedro. Pedro’s not going to be adding any more “records sold” to his career.

    • Brett Alan says:

      If you surveyed people on the Greatest Scientist of All Time, Steven Weinberg wouldn’t make the top four, but Stephen Hawking sure would.

      And if you did this in basketball, Michael Jordan would certainly make it, and LeBron James would be pretty likely, too. It’s a bit more complicated than you’re suggesting.

    • invitro says:

      Taylor Swift will never, ever be mentioned as one of the 100 greatest musical acts of all time, let alone #1. Seriously, what are you smoking to suggest that she will be at some point?

      • Spencer says:

        You’re not paying attention, she’s a juggernaut.

        • Herby Smith says:

          She’s ALREADY in the Top 100. And she’s roughly the same age as The Beatles when they played Ed Sullivan in ’64.

          Sorry dude, but you’re in that category of guys who say “Bryce Harper sucks!” because he’s young, and has a Mohawk, and doesn’t seem humble enough, and GET OFF MY LAWN!

          • invitro says:

            Herby, I don’t mean top 100 most profitable. I mean top 100 greatest. The two have very little in common.

            Unless you think that Celine Dion is one of the ten greatest musicians of all time.

  13. Shelton says:

    Any time baseball celebrates Henry Aaron and Willie Mays on the big stage is always a plus for baseball.

  14. dlf9 says:

    I think that JoeP’s point about history is a good reason why Koufax, despite not being atop the best living pitchers, belongs on Mt. Rushmore. Telling baseball history with living players:

    Hank Aaron – the slow unraveling of the horrors of segregation, the migration of teams from the East Coast to emerging cities and the long shadow of Babe Ruth.

    Sandy Koufax – the opening of California, the second deadball era, the glory of the World Series, and the ascendency of television.

    Reggie Jackson – the birth of free agency, explosion of money in the game, and the rebirth of the most storied franchise.

    Roger Clemens – the change to a pure power game, the decrease in pitcher work-lode, and the hubris of the Selig era.

    Or doing this without using any players:

    Vin Scully
    James Andrews
    Bill James
    Bud Selig

    Or going through the entire history of the game:

    Cap Anson – club sport becoming professional, emergence of the NL, scientific baseball, introduction of the color line

    Babe Ruth – becoming the national pastime, mega-celebrity, emergence of power, dynastic baseball teams

    Willie Mays – America goes coast to coast, eroding of the color line

    Tom Seaver – Expansion, growth of college educated players, move towards TTO.

    I could do that again and again with completely different players every time …

    Christy Mathewson – America goes to War, AL-NL battles, introduction of the World Series, elimination of gambling

    Bob Feller – America goes to war again, stereotypical country boy off the farm, phenom, power pitching uber alles

    Bob Gibson – Lingering effects of the racial divide, second deadball.

    Alex Rodriguez – emergence of the anti-hero motif.

    Or folks off the field no longer with us:

    Henry Chadwick
    KM Landis
    Branch Rickey (ok, he briefly played, but no one knew)
    George Steinbrenner

    … and that is without using such iconic figures like Bonds, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Grove, Johnson, or – especially – Jackie R.

    tl;dr — baseball is far too rich to reduce it to four men on some mini-mountain in the middle of nowhere.

    • Darrel says:

      That was a really long well thought out post and I can’t disagree with most anything you said but for the love of all things holy am I sick of Joe and many BR referring to the steroid era as the Selig era. I’m no lover of commissioner Bud but did he stick the needle in Clemens’ rear end or Bonds’. Where was Don Fehr on getting drug testing. This myth that Selig was the driving force behind the proliferation of steroids and that all of the cheaters, enablers, and hangers on should get a pass makes me want to puke.

      • dlf9 says:

        I just typed a longer reply, but the internet ate it … shorter version:
        Blaming only the players, when the owners and management were fully aware and either turned a blind eye or actively supported it while banking the hundreds of millions that flowed into the game post ’94 work stoppage is, IMHO, part of a larger tendency to side with owners in salary disputes and other labor matters where well meaning but uninformed people complain about men playing kids games. Regarding steroids, teams expressly excluded them from disqualifying language in contracts (see Jason Giambi and NYY) teams had medical personnel come into training camp to discuss safe use (see BOS) team personnel approached Selig about dangers and were told to but out (see sworn testimony by CIN trainer) and teams expressly discussed usage patters when making free agent offers (see LAD in the Mitchell report). Bud Selig and the GMs, owners, and others are those exact “enablers and hangers on” you are condemning.

        • dlf9 says:

          I just reread what I typed and don’t like the tenor – it sounds much more hostile than intended. I’d rather than you for the initial compliment and leave it at I believe that management was complicit in and benefited from the hubris of the 90s / 00s as much as the players or MLBPA. Sorry if my initial tone came across worse than that.

          • dlf9 says:

            Gah! Last try. Second sentence should be “I’d rather THANK you … ” instead of “than you.” I’m not sure if I should blame my typing skills, editorial strengths, lazy proof reading, the gremlins in my keyboard.

      • Spencer says:

        Forbid steroids in baseball and actually test for them is something that should have been done. Selig knew, we all did if we could be honest with ourselves.

        Make it illegal and they and many other players probably don’t use.

        So yeah, in a sense he did stick that needle in their ass.

        The blame lies on many people, saying Selig takes blame is not letting the players who used off the hook.

    • Herby Smith says:

      Tyrus Raymond Cobb?

      Multiple negative points, but isn’t this about telling the story? And nobody had more “stories:” the first “Southern” star, the epitome of the Deadball player, by FAR the biggest star in the half-century history of the sport, the “transition” guy (ie, a guy with much in common with the 1800’s stars of the sport, but who was still hitting .400 during Ruth’s prime).

  15. MikeN says:

    Ruth Mays Musial Henderson

  16. Just Bob says:

    Joe, you mention that all of these players were active in the ‘60’s. Which makes me think that would be a very interesting column; who would be on the “Mount Rushmore of Baseball” for each decade? The great thing about lists like this is that they’re very subjective. The bad thing is that so many great players get left off. I’m absolutely positive someone will name a player that I will regret having left off. Anyway, here’s my list. (I’ve chosen to not have any carry-over, though I’m sure some players could have made the list for more than one decade)

    1900’s – Cy Young, Nap Lajoie, Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner
    1910’s – Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Tris Speaker, Joe Jackson
    1920’s – Grover Cleveland Alexander, Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Oscar Charleston
    1930’s – Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Jimmy Foxx, Hank Greenberg
    1940’s – Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio
    1950’s – Ernie Banks, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays
    1960’s – Hank Aaron, Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Roberto Clemente
    1970’s – Tom Seaver, Mike Schmidt, Johnny Bench, Pete Rose
    1980’s – George Brett, Wade Boggs, Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines
    1990’s – Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Ken Griffey Jr., Greg Maddux
    2000’s – Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez
    2010’s – Miguel Cabrera, Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Mike Trout

    Disclaimer – Even though I was born in 1965, I don’t remember watching a single baseball game until around 1976. My parents weren’t big sports fans, and I was never really exposed to it much. And I’m not much of a statistics guy, though I do believe they tell the story better than memories. So the names on the list pre-1970’s were strictly on heresay. I did no research whatsoever, no Fangraphs, no BA, no nothing. So take the list for what it’s worth. I look forward to your feedback.

    • dlf9 says:

      Love the idea, even though I may quibble over some of the choices. Off the top of my head, some of the best you left out are: Eddie Collins, Joe Morgan, Cal Ripken, Pops Lloyd, Lou Gehrig, Eddie Mathews, Mel Ott, Lefty Grove, Buck Leonard, and Warren Spahn,

      • jalabar says:

        I find that Ripken is often underestimated by folks that didn’t watch him regularly. Most think that his main claim to fame was The Streak and not the FACT that, all things considered, he’s one of the three best SS to ever play the game, and then was a decent third baseman. Due to positioning and fundamental excellence was probably one of the five best DEFENSIVE SSs ever despite not being a springy lightning bug like Smith or Vizquel. Ripken is the best SS of his generation*.

        *A-Rod is/was better but he is/was disqualified for the same reasons as Bonds, Clemens etal, plus he moved to 3rd much earlier. And is a ****.

        Why is Raffy Palmeiro always overlooked despite having a statistical profile matched by only a handful of players ever… Yes, I know he had the same issue as Rodrimensonds but at least they get mentioned as disqualified. Raffy doesn’t get a mention despite the 500-3000 club that he WAS only the fifth member of (A-Rod is now too).

        • Brett Alan says:

          I’m sorry, but Palmeiro just wasn’t in that class. He never finished top 4 in MVP voting and while his stat profile is certainly HOF worthy (if he weren’t a PED user), it’s not comparable to the Mt. Rushmore type players.

          I do agree, though, that Ripken needs to be in the 80’s quartet–certainly ahead of Raines. I’d also put Gehrig ahead of Alexander, and I’d have to find room for Jackie Robinson in there somewhere.

        • Palmeiro’s value is completely in his hitting, because he was a poor defender who often DH’d. He also played in a lefthanded batters mecca in Texas that helped inflate his stats. His OPS# is only 132, which for a guy who’s offense is 100% of his value, isn’t really all that awesome. I’m not saying he wouldn’t have been a HOFer if he didn’t have PED taint, but he would have been a low end HOFer. He doesn’t belong in any conversations about top anything, much less Top 4 greatest living players. He wasn’t ever even in the Top 4 in his own league when he played.

    • Not Jennifer Gibbs says:

      Personally, I’d substitute Frank Robinson for Clemente in the 60s and Reggie Jackson for Rose in the 70s. I think a case could be made for someone like Robin Roberts over Ernie Banks in the 50s, but I can’t quibble with Banks.

    • bpdelia says:

      I LOVE LOVE tim raines but no way. Cal ripken was clearly a better choice. Steve Carlton if we can’t fit him in the 70s.

      Also this really brings home the arbitrary end point issue.
      So many great players who don’t fit neatly in a decade

    • Jeremy Jolley says:

      How could you leave Jack Morris out of the 80’s? He had more wins than anyone for the decade!

  17. Michael Green says:

    This is what a wise friend of mine called a barstool debate. And I don’t care what statistics you trot out, you’re going to find a way to argue against some of them and against others–both the numbers and the individuals. The fans voted on this and the greatest four pioneers didn’t include Ty Cobb but included Napoleon Lajoie? Set aside the numbers, whatever they may show, and it comes down to this: who is more talked about and who stuffed the ballot box?

    By the way, they also could have picked the four greatest umpires, the four greatest announcers, the four greatest front office executives–that would have been a wild one.

  18. Richard says:

    If you really, really care about this, and don’t want to see any arguments at all, simply pick the four living players with the highest career WAR. But what fun is that?

    Personally, I thought it was cool that Nolan Ryan got picked as one of the “Franchise Four” for three franchises – Angels, Astros, and Rangers….

  19. Ryan says:

    Bonds wasn’t even a .300 career hitter. We’ll never know how good he actually was. Bonds couldn’t hold Ted Williams’ jock strap. Williams still had eye popping numbers and missed seasons in his prime to serve our country. Williams also played in an era where pitchers were too proud to issue intentional walks, unlike Bonds.

    • DB says:

      I love Ted Williams but to say Bonds could not hold his jock strap is putting it out there. If you want to argue that steroids helped Bonds that much or give extra credit for the war years, then you can (you could also argue that Williams was helped not facing all the best pitchers because of segregation even though that was not his fault definitely). I would argue that Williams is the better hitter but that is just hitting and Bonds was much better on all other aspects of the game. They are both top 5 hitters of all time.

      1. Offensive War — 142.6 to 126.3 (Bonds 3 and Williams 6 but since this is a counting stat, probably can make them even for the war years but Bonds was basically also colluded out of the game).
      2. Regular OPS — 1.1155 to 1.0512 (Williams 2 and Bonds 4)
      3. Adjusted OPS — 190 to 182 (Williams 2 and Bonds 3)

      • Ted Williams played until 1960. Over half his career was after the color barrier was broken. I’m also tired of the “integration card”. Who are these black pitchers that would have curled Babe Ruth or Joe Dimaggio into the fetal position? There would have been a handful of good ones, I’m sure, but even if you look at the last 50 years, who are these black pitchers that are just beating up on the league? BTW: I love pitchers like Gibson & Newcombe and others. But it’s not like there were just dozens of those guys ready to jump into the big leagues in the 1930s to slay the great white hopes. It’s such nonsense to put any weight to this argument.

        • dlf9 says:

          I’d encourage you to read or reread Joe’s recent post on the slow integration timeline. While Robinson came up in ’47, there were very, very few African American / dark skinned Latin American players until well into the next decade. Williams’ own Red Sox didn’t integrate until Teddy Ballgame’s penultimate season.
          No one claims that Ruth or DiMaggio would have “curled … into the fetal position” but facing Satchel Paige, Smokey Joe Williams, Bullet Rogan, or Ted Ratcliff, and others, would have brought their numbers down. Shame that bigotry prevents us from knowing how much. And having Oscar Charleston, Martin Dihigo, Buck Leonard, Turkey Stearns, or Josh Gibson, and others, on the field too would have made the apparent difference between Joe D and his fellow batsmen shrink somewhat. Again, due to factors that those of us living many decades later have no control over, we can’t know how much, but while the size of the effect is unknown, the direction should be undisputed.

  20. ely says:

    one thing worth pointing out re the mays-aaron-koufax-bench group:
    they were all one-team players (i think we can ignore willie & hank’s end-of-career returns to ny & milwaukee, respectively).
    i agree w/ joe that this list is largely about nostalgia for “baseball back in the day …” can you imagine the nba greatest-living-players list having 4 players from the 60s?

    • Ted says:

      Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West?

      • Ted says:

        Sorry – Wilt not still alive. Kareem just misses being NBA in the 60’s.

      • ely says:

        a reaonable, defensible list, but no way would that be the result of a current vote of nba fans

        • Ted says:

          You’re absolutely right, and that wouldn’t even be my list. I was just brainstorming in reaction to the “can you imagine” question. And I was also wrong about Kareem, he did start his NBA career in the last couple of months of the 1960’s.

        • Right. Because NBA fans trend much younger than baseball fans. Their demographic, on average, is at least 20 years younger. So, Jordan is still in their consciousness, but barely. Give it 10 years and talking about him will sound a lot like waxing poetic about West or Chamberlain. Young kids will nod, but they won’t have seen them play. Baseball fans are older, so they vote for the players they saw when they were kids.

          • invitro says:

            I understand your general sentiment, but there’s no way that Jordan would/will not be listed in a greatest four living players in 10 years. His popularity over his contemporaries far exceeds that of West or Chamberlain (Wilt and Jerry weren’t even that popular when they played, compared to Russell and Kareem).

            Actually, I’ll make a bet with you that Jordan will be selected to the top 4 living NBA players for his entire rest of his life. He’s the Babe Ruth of basketball, and we aren’t in any danger of people forgetting who Babe Ruth was.

            What you should go for is saying that Barkley, Stockton, and Malone will be forgotten in 10 years. I think Stockton and Malone are already forgotten, and Barkley would be if his big mug wasn’t on TNT every week. That seems believable. And if you want a stronger statement, say Bird & Magic will be forgotten… but I don’t think 10 years is enough for that to happen.

            I don’t think the baseball vote is as simple as saying it’s old people voting for who they saw when they were kids. I think it’s more likely a case of people voting for who they heard other people say was the greatest, the most often. And I think the same is true for NBA fans.

            But I’d love to see some actual research on these questions.

        • Spencer says:

          Leaving Lebron and Jordan off is in no way reasonable or defensible.

    • Ben Johnson says:

      I bet that if you did the same vote for basketball, the 80’s and early 90’s would be to basketball fans as the 60’s are to baseball fans. If that vote happens, open to the public, Jordan is obviously a shoo-in, and I suspect Magic is as well. Decent chance Bird makes it (he is the most popular player for one of the league’s popular franchises), and then your fourth would probably be someone more recent: probably LeBron, but maybe Shaq or Kobe. But still, I’d say the NBA has a “classic era” in the 80’s/90’s that mirrors pretty closely to how baseball from the 50’s/60’s gets talked about.

  21. Me, Steve says:

    Let’s not forget that Ted Williams, through the wonders of voodoo science, could still possibly return to again be one of the greatest living ballplayers.

  22. Jeff's Dad says:

    Robinson over Clemente in the 60s? No knock on Frank who did hit almost twice as many HRs and had 149 more RBIs than Roberto and a triple crown in 66.

    The 60s were Clemente’s decade though. Four batting titles and 9 straight gold gloves. Beyond that he had a higher batting average and WAR than Robinson over the decade.

    In fact in 1966, when Robby won the triple crown and AL MVP ( his second of the decade ), Clemente was the NL MVP. Compare the two’s stats for that year and other than HRs, the rest of their stats are almost identical. In fact, if Robinson would have still been playing in the NL, he would not have won the triple crown. Clemente had the higher batting average.

    • If my math is right, the difference in WAR between the two is less than 2 wins by baseball-reference WAR, which is a pretty negligible difference over a decade. Robinson was clearly the better hitter–he bettered Clemente in OPS+ every year but two, 1963 (136 v. 133) and 1969 (168 v. 165), and beat him by about 30 points on average in the 8 years he had the better OPS+, he had the higher OBP every year but one, and he had the higher slugging every year but one. I’m distrustful of the defensive element of WAR, and I don’t think that Clemente’s arm and defensive prowess can make up for Robinson’s offensive advantage. Given that Clemente’s edge in WAR is so small and composed in part by defense, I’d go with Robinson. However, neither is a bad choice.

  23. CB says:

    find it hard to believe that the greatest leadoff hitter ever only got one mention (where he was lumped in with dead guys) as a top 4 living player. I’d give Rickey one of the 4 spots over Bench and Koufax. Would give either Seaver or Maddux the other.

    • Trent Phloog says:

      Amen! Rickey is sorely overlooked/underrated, which is amazing considering he was a one-man hype machine. My list goes Aaron Mays Henderson Maddux. Wish I could get Mike Schmidt on there but he just misses the cut…

  24. Iggy says:

    This post is a great example of the fact that we read sports writers for their writing not for their knowledge.

  25. Sterling says:

    Just because Pete Rose is not HoF eligible, does that make him not Franchise 4 eligible? I think he has to be over Koufax and Possibly Bench.

    • Rose was a Franchise 4 for the Reds. But he barely even made that list. Rose was a singles hitter. Possibly the greatest singles hitter ever, but his value is completely in his hits and OBP and doesn’t even approach the other guys on the list. No power, poor defense, didn’t really steal bases, weak arm. Hardly the 5 tool player that we’d expect to see on this list. Aaron and Mays obviously belong. You can question Bench’s inclusion, but he was a classic 5 tool player. He was a dominating defensive player at the toughest position on the diamond who completely shut down the opposition run game when stealing bases was employed much more liberally than today. Throw in a couple of MVPs and a couple of Championships as the cherries. Still, I’d be OK with leaving Bench off the list in favor of someone else, but not to include Rose.

  26. NevadaMark says:

    Well, if you had to be ruthless and drop one golfer from the five, I’d drop Palmer. No PGA championships and only one US Open win. Plus the biggest choke in US Open history(1966, blew a 7 stroke lead with 9 holes to play, ESPN should do 30 for 30 on that). Of course, he was also perhaps the most famous golfer in history, so there’s that.

    • Karyn says:

      More famous than Tiger Woods? I may be suffering from being too young to fully appreciate Arnold Palmer’s play and his fame, but Tiger really raised the profile of the PGA and golf to a huge degree.

  27. Johnny says:

    Trent Phloog finally brought up Mike Schmidt!

    Willie Mays
    Hank Aaron
    Mike Schmidt
    Greg Maddux

    Four of the greatest ever, and between them they played every year from 1951 – 2008. A perfect representation of the greatest living players.

  28. dlf9 says:

    Forget the players. The more important question is who joins JoeP on the Mount Rushmore of writers?
    With apologies to Leonard Koppett, Jim Murray, and many others who are either before my time or just never made it into my library, my choices are: Roger Angell, Bill James, Pat Jordan, and Joe Poz.

  29. I think it is much simpler than all that. When we are asked to name the “greatest”, those from the past look much better than those we are familiar with. I am too young to remember Willie Mays falling down or the fact that Koufax really only had 6 great seasons, but I do recall the Yankees dominating Pedro or Johnson’s subpar years with the Yanks. Chances are that most voters were actually the younger ones who do not remember the careers of Mays/Aaron/Koufax/Bench. In the same vein, I would guess that a vote for four greatest players of all time would be unlikely to contain a single living player. Time erases the blips and leaves us with only the legend.

    • itchiemayer says:

      Wow, hi son of R’ M.Y. – four greatest are The Babe, Honus, Lefty G., and the “Say Hey Kid”. Only competition could be from Bonds, Clemens (if you include steroiders) or a Negro league player like Josh Gibson, or perhaps replace Lefty with one of the Johnson brothers, Big Train or Randy. Now for four that “tell a story”, Babe and Jackie are absolute no brainers for the Mountain, and cover the years 1918 to 1957. The next two should arguably cover roughly 1960 through the present, and like Babe and Jackie,
      should be beloved by the baseball world. Cal Ripken Jr. fits perfectly for the third position. As I see it, number four should be a pitcher. Tom Terrific seems to fit the bill, although Pedro would add to the cultural/ethnic diversity of the Mountain. Okay, how ’bout Ruth, Robinson, Ripken, and Pedro? The biggest weakness of these four would be no player represented from 1958 through 1982. No matter what four are chosen, there will almost certainly be a significant gap that is unrepresented. Anyhow, just now is the first time I have gone through this exercise. My gut tells me Seaver over Martinez, but Martinez is better for the “story”.

  30. andrew says:

    Yogi Berra won 10 Championships, played with DiMaggio, Mantle and Ford and Stengel said he was the most valuable player he had

  31. EnzoHernandez11 says:

    Mays, Aaron, Bonds, Seaver. The first three are easy, the last one tough.

    First four out (to borrow from Bracketology): Clemens, Pedro, Schmidt, Morgan

    Next four: Maddux, F. Robinson, Bench, and either Unit or Rickey.

    I’m not sure why baseball is the only sport where we celebrate our parents’ heroes over our own. I remember wondering, after Mays and Aaron stepped out in the mid-1970s, why there were no more great players left. It never occurred to me at the time that I was watching, arguably, the best second baseman ever, the best catcher of all time, the two best third basemen ever to play the game, and, in Seaver, the best pitcher since at least Warren Spahn. Part of it was our blind obsession with the number .300 (“Mike Schmidt’s only a .270 hitter!”), and part of it was our complete ignorance of contextual factors such as ballpark effects.

    The next generation will have to decide how much steroids matter when they evaluate their own parents’ heroes. I fear, though, that the way we denigrate everything that happened between 1987 and 2005, the next group of kids won’t hear the same kinds of stories that we did. And then what happens to baseball?

    • invitro says:

      “the way we denigrate everything that happened between 1987 and 2005”
      Didn’t Maddux happen between 1987 and 2005? And Randy J., and Ripken, and Glavine, and Frank T.? Do you think they’re being denigrated? How so?

      • Karyn says:

        I would say not so much denigrated, as not elevated to the degree that many stars from yesteryear are.

      • EnzoHernandez11 says:

        The era has tainted almost everyone. You can find articles in fairly mainstream places like Bleacher Report that speculate openly about Randy and Ripken. I’ve seen plenty of comment boards where people say, “How do we KNOW Frank Thomas was clean?” Thomas Boswell was quoted several years ago as saying that he knew of at least one Hall of Famer who once mixed a “Canseco milkshake” right in front of him, and then Boswell left us to guess who it was. People have even tried to link Tony Gwynn to steroids, for chrissakes (cause, really, that dude was ripped).

        That’s the sort of denigration I’m talking about. Maddux seems to have survived it with his reputation fully intact, but almost every other major star has come under fire at one time or another, even if just from some uninformed chatter online. But those uninformed folks have kids, too, and they speak for a lot of other people who legitimately wonder who was clean and who wasn’t. Hell, I wonder sometimes, and I don’t even care that much (I’d put Bonds and Clemens in the Hall tomorrow).

        • Spencer says:

          Steroids don’t necessarily make you ripped. Gwynn absolutely could have done them. You can’t just tell by looking at physique. The general public has a severe misunderstanding of how steroids work.

  32. Ryan C says:

    This sure reminds me of the Hall of Five post from a few months or was it years back. That was a great post for starting a baseball discussion. These comments are almost as fun.

  33. Brent says:

    If you were going to take a 70s star who is arguably the greatest ever at his position, I don’t know you end up with Bench and not Schmidt or Morgan.

  34. Dano says:

    Can’t argue with Mays and Aaron. Bench was a favorite of mine as I caught in little league but I don’t think he’s one of the 4 best living players. Koufax–pitched in an era when pitching was a bit easier due to the high mound. BUT, he also pitched to folks like Mays, Aaron, Robinson, etc. Had he been around 30 years later, maybe he would have been able to continue his career instead of retiring so early. Other pitchers had better career stats. Few were better in their prime than he was in his. Johnson had some great years too with lots of Ks and a great won/loss percentage. I don’t count Clemens because some of his greatness was due to a needle. Seaver was great too but Johnson/Koufax in their prime were better in my opinion.

    • young michael says:

      the idea of 4 is stupid. We can probably all agree on that. I am just amazed how little love Mike Schmidt gets. They was generally beloved. He hits all the advanced stat high notes. By WAR he is pretty easily the greatest living infielder and he passes the “eye test” by a large enough margin to satisfy the old timers.

      • young michael says:

        edit that. Some how I over looked ARod. To a certain degree that reinforces my point on the futility of the greatest 4.

  35. […] great sports writer Joe Posnanski (and I sincerely mean great, he is one of the best) wrote this piece about how the selection fails to tell a larger baseball story as they are all from the same era […]

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