So, I tried a little experiment — one I would like to try again if I can figure out another way to do it:
The experiment was this: I went on Facebook and started a Baseball Hall of Fame Chain. I named 15 all-time great baseball players. And the idea was for the next person (whoever happened to be next) to name the VERY BEST player in his/her mind not listed among those 15.
Then, the next person comes up with the VERY BEST player (again, in his/her mind) not among the 16. Then the best not among 17. And 18. And 19. On and on until it naturally burns out from relative disinterest.
I’ll give you the results from the first chain in a moment, but first let me say why this interests me. See, there are a lot of ways to break up the Hall of Fame, but it seems to me that most fans split it up in two distinct groups:
1. Players you heard about, read about, watched, loved, admired, appreciated, idolized, etc.
2. The others.
Obviously mostly people think the Hall of Fame is about that first group. But I suspect that there are many more others in the Hall of Fame than there are players who fit that first group. The others cover a lot of ground. It could be you never heard of the player. It could be you know almost nothing about them beyond their name. It could be that you didn’t even KNOW they were in the Hall of Fame. People here will certainly know the answer to this question, but which of these five people is not in the Hall of Fame:
1. Tommy McCarthy
2. Tom Connolly
3. Mickey Welch
4. Dave Bancroft
5. Bowie Kuhn
Of course you already know the answer … it’s a trick question. All of them are in the Hall of Fame.
Then again, it could be that you DO know the player or person and just don’t believe they were quite good enough to be in the Hall Fame.
Whatever the reason, I do believe that the “others” are at least as important a part of the Hall of Fame as the universally beloved players. Those are the players who teach us about baseball. Take Kid Nichols. Most people have never heard of him. I suspect most baseball fans have never heard of him and would have no idea that he is in the Hall of Fame. I’d probably go to another level — many HARDCORE baseball fans have never heard of him. That’s not surprising since Nichols pitched his best baseball before 1900, before there was an American League, before the time when fouls balls were strikes.
But, if you look hard, you will see that Kid Nichols from 1890-1899 was probably the best pitcher in the world. This might mean something to you if you realize that from 1890 to 1899 there was another pretty good pitcher in the world named Cy Young. They both made their National League Debut in 1890, but Nichols had a bigger impact winning 27 games with a 2.23 ERA. Young went only 9-7 that first year.
Nichols was unquestionably better in 1890 and 1891. Young was unquestionably better in 1892. From that point on, it’s an interesting back and forth. But for the decade it’s a pretty clear Nichols win:
Kid Nichols: 297-151, 2.97 ERA, 144 ERA+, 87.2 WAR
Cy Young: 267-151, 3.05 ERA, 140 ERA+, 78.6 WAR
This is not to say that Kid Nichols over a career was a better pitcher than Young — he wasn’t even close. Young went on to be one of the greatest OLD pitchers in baseball history as well as one of the greatest young ones — you don’t win 511 games in a short career. Nichols, meanwhile, declined at 30, then bought a minor league team in his hometown Kansas City and pitched two years for that team* in his young 30s, then had one excellent season with St. Louis at age 34 and was more or less done after that.
*How great would it be if something like THAT happened today? If Roy Halladay bought a minor league team in Colorado and just said, “I’m quitting the big leagues to go pitch for them.”
But the point is Kid Nichols at his best was a truly great player, and even though people may walk into the Hall of Fame knowing nothing about him, they might discover him there. And I think that’s much of the wonder for people who love baseball history: Discovery. There are many Group 2 players in the Hall of Fame, and they are fun to learn about, fun to discuss, fun to argue about.
But they unquestionably spark a different reaction from that first group, the ones who feel like Hall of Famers,. Those players inspire emotions rather than curiosity, memories rather than arguments, connections to childhood rather than trivia, links to other eras, a sense of wonder. There are some people — maybe even many people — who think that the only players who should be in the Hall of Fame are those Group 1 players.
So, I thought it would be fun to find out: Who ARE those Group 1 players? If we had a poll of every baseball fan in America, who would be in the Hall of Fame? So, as a starting point, I kicked off this Hall of Fame chain. My idea was that if we get different people to think of the best player who comes to mind — so these would be the players at the tip of memory, the ones who we most easily associate with greatness — we might come up with an interesting list of players. Now: I’ll give you the results from the first chain.
As mentioned, I started the chain by listing 15 players — 10 hitters, 5 pitchers — who I think are obvious Hall of Famers to everybody. They include:
1. Babe Ruth. Obviously.
2. Willie Mays. The king of five tools.
3. Mickey Mantle. The most beloved player ever?
4. Henry Aaron. The home run king.
5. Ty Cobb. Widely viewed as best player ever when Hall of Fame opened.
6. Ted Williams. Best pure hitter ever?
7. Stan Musial. The Man.
8. Honus Wagner. The most expensive baseball card of them all.
9. Lou Gehrig. The Iron Horse.
10. Rogers Hornsby. Had four players in mind for this final slot, but gave it to Hornsby.
1. Walter Johnson. The Big Train
2. Cy Young. The man and the award.
3. Pete Alexander. Named for one president (Grover Cleveland) played by another (Ronald Reagan)
4. Christy Mathewson. Pitching in a pinch.
5. Lefty Grove. I don’t know where he would have scored, but he’s one of the greatest pitchers ever.
And then I opened it up.
Here then is the order which the chain went — I am writing this as I go so I’m discovering the order along with you:
16. Barry Bonds.
— I had a list of about 10 players I thought COULD be the first pick in the chain — Bonds was one of the 10 but he was low on my list. He would have been my choice; I think he is the best player not listed among my original 15. But I figured that the steroid scandal and general bad press would push him down on the list. Obviously, if someone else had gotten in first, Bonds wouldn’t have been No. 1 overall. But I find it interesting that he was.
17. Sandy Koufax
— I thought Bonds probably should have have been the first choice. But I thought Koufax or Joe DiMaggio WOULD be the first choice. Koufax was an amazing pitcher over his four-year summit, and he also had impeccable timing. By pitching in Dodger Stadium when the mounds were high and when pitching dominated baseball, Koufax’s greatness echoes in the memory. There are many people who believe, and always will, that Koufax was the greatest pitcher ever.
18. Joe DiMaggio
— I thought The Great DiMaggio would be the first player picked..
19. Greg Maddux
— A viable candidate for greatest pitcher ever, though you could argue — if you ignore the steroid issue — that Roger Clemens was best pitcher of the era. I wonder where Clemens will get picked.
20. Goose Gossage
— Our first shocker. I figured if any Yankees closer would be listed this high, it might be, you know, the other guy. Gossage did have a great nickname and a very high Q rating among baseball fans.
21. Joe Morgan
— I’m happy to see him go this high. He was an astonishingly good player. One of the things I’ve been toying around with is the best players of every decade post. Joe Morgan was probably the best player of the 1970s.
22. Ken Griffey Jr.
— A great player AND an absolute joy to watch in his prime.
23. Johnny Bench
— Best Major League catcher ever? Maybe. I thought Yogi Berra might go before him.
24. Pedro Martinez
— I’ve written this before but I still believe it to be true: I think that Pedro Martinez at his zenith was better than any pitcher in baseball history.
25. Albert Pujols
— Our first active player.
26. Tris Speaker
— A nod to history. Remember I said I had four players for the 15th spot on my list. They were: Hornsby, Speaker, DiMaggio and Josh Gibson.
27. Josh Gibson
— And there goes Josh … our first Negro Leaguer.
28. Oscar Charleston
— And our second Negro Leagues player. Buck O’Neil always said that Oscar Charleston was the best player he ever saw — including Ruth, Maybe, Gibson and Aaron. … It’s interesting that Satchel Paige isn’t listed yet since he’s widely viewed as the most famous Negro Leagues player ever.
29. Jimmie Foxx (though age 32)
— The parenthetical isn’t needed, but it was added by the voter … Foxx through his 32 season had exactly 500 home runs. Aaron had 442.
30. Frank Robinson
— Glad to see him listed high. A truly great player who I think has been somewhat forgotten.
31. Alex Rodriguez
— Well, it was kind of a shocker to see him listed this high, not because he isn’t great (he absolutely is an all-time great) but because people just don’t seem to like him.
32. Ed Delahanty
— A great player who mostly played in the 19th Century.
33. Satchel Paige
— There’s the Great Satchel. I should say that I am skipping duplicate choices — this thing is like every fantasy draft I’ve ever been in where people are constantly picking guys who have already been taken.
34. Mike Schmidt
— Power, patience and glove … people know he was great, but I’m not sure people full appreciate that he might have been the best player between Mays/Aaron and Bonds/Pujols.*
*It could also be Rickey Henderson, who hasn’t been taken yet.
35. Yuni Betancourt
— Come on. That doesn’t count.
35. George Brett
— Someone sees Schmidt, and Brett immediately comes to mind. Perhaps the two best third basemen ever, and they were contemporaries.
36. Roger Clemens
— He finally gets mentioned. Without steroids, how much higher does he go in this chain?
37. Bob Feller
— Good to see Rapid Robert here. Lost almost four full (and prime) years to World War II. Led league in wins, innings and strikeouts every full year he pitched between age 20 and age 28.
38. Warren Spahn
— Won between 20 and 23 games THIRTEEN times. That’s consistency
39. Rickey Henderson
— Rickey is happy that Rickey is in the Top 40.
40. Carl Yastrzemski
— One of the most beloved players in baseball history. But I should say here that there’s someone who has not yet been named and I’m shocked about it. You probably know who I’m thinking about. Hint: He’s also an outfielder.
41. Mel Ott
— Led the league in homers and walks six times each with perhaps the most stirring swing ever.
42. Edgar Martinez
— An all-time great hitter, but this seems way too high.
43. Tony Gwynn
— Eight batting titles — would he have hit .400 in 1994?
44. Steve Carlton
— Did you know that Carlton in his late 30s was actually a BETTER strikeout pitcher than in his dominant mid-20s?
45. Eddie Collins
— One of the Black Sox trivia question: Which of these members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox actually had the WORST offensive series by the numbers?
1. Shoeless Joe Jackson
2. Chick Gandil
3. Buck Weaver
4. Eddie Collins
The answer, of course, is Eddie Collins. Shoeless Joe hit .375, hit the series only home run and led the White Sox in both runs and RBIs. Buck Weaver hit .324 with four doubles. Even Gandil, the brainchild of the whole thing, hit .233 with a triple, a run scored and five RBIs.
But Collins hit only .226, scored only two runs, drove in one, had one extra-base hit and was just one for two in stolen base attempts.
The first three, of course, were banned for life for their connection with throwing of the series. Collins was unanimously viewed to have played it honestly, and he was an adamant opponent of the scam. He just had a lousy series.
46. Chipper Jones
— Chipper might have been at his best as a hitter at ages 34, 35 and 36 — but he couldn’t stay healthy enough to play 140-plus games any of those years.
47. Bob Gibson
— This is lower than I expected for Bob Gibson. But there are two other hard-throwing righties who have not been named yet that shock me.
48. Nap Lajoie
— I’m surprised how well the great historical players like Delahanty and Lajoie are doing. I guess the people who worked this Hall of Fame chain tend to be intense baseball fans.
49. Old Hoss Radbourn
— Well, sure, he’s in the Top 50 — heck, he started his own Twitter campaign.
50. Shoeless Joe Jackson
— I would have bet Pete Rose would have been taken before Shoeless Joe …
51. Pete Rose
— … but as soon as Shoeless Joe goes, the Hit King goes off the board.
52. Cap Anson
— I guess Shoeless Joe and Pete Rose reminded people to select some controversial choices.
53. Frank White (the greatest fielding second baseman ever)
— I did think that more people would throw their personal favorites into this list rather than following the idea of “best player not yet listed.” … Frank really was an amazing fielder; in many ways he reinvented how you play the position because of artificial turf.
54. Tom Glavine
— This seems VERY high for Glavine. There’s a lefty contemporary of his who — I think we can all agree — was a lot better.
55. Ryne Sandberg
— One of my best friend’s least favorite players, but she hates the Cubs.
56. Randy Johnson
— And, finally, someone takes Big Unit. Behind Glavine? Another post I’ve been toying around with is a list of the 10 or so pitchers who have a legitimate case as the best ever. Unit is one of them.
57. Mark McGwire
— Many say his peak was an steroid-infused illusion … I’m not going to argue. But it was amazing to watch.
58. Yogi Berra
— Shocked — utterly shocked — that it took this long to name him. But there are several players who I’m shocked about.
59. Tom Seaver
— Finally, finally, finally. Seaver is also on that list of pitchers with a case as the best ever. And he was absolutely beloved figure. Heck, he still holds the record for highest Hall of Fame percentage. I thought he’d go Top 10.
60. Cal Ripken Jr.
— Ripken was probably the most celebrated player of his era. But I would say — maybe because of his relatively low batting average, his defense being underrated and him playing years beyond his peak — Ripken’s greatness has not endured in people’s minds the way I expected.
61. Jeff Bagwell
— Will he go into the Hall of Fame next year with Biggio? Do sportswriters have that sort sense of drama?
62. Roberto Clemente
— FINALLY! Wow. This is my biggest shock. I’m not saying Clemente was one of the five best players in the chain. But I thought FOR SURE he would be one of the first five players chosen.
From “City Slickers:”
Daniel Stern: Henry Aaron was the greatest right fielder of our generation.
Bruno Kirby: Could he run like Clemente? Could he throw like Clemente?
Stern: Look, I’m going to say one thing to you — 755 home runs. Good bye.
Kirby: And Clemente was killed in a plane crash.
Stern: You’re going to blame that on Aaron?
Kirby: No, I’m not blaming, I’m just saying.
63. Roberto Alomar
— Did one “Roberto” lead naturally in thought to another? That’s a fun thing about the chain … seeing how one player leads to another.
64. Eddie Mathews
— Did you know that on his first ballot, Eddie Mathews got only 32.3% of the vote? It took him FIVE YEARS to get elected. What more could anyone have wanted from Eddie Mathews?
65. Craig Biggio
— Yet another post I’ve been toying with — I have like 10 backed up at the moment — is how much 3,000 hits matters in defining a player’s legacy. Biggio seems a lock to get into the Hall of Fame quickly and I would say that 3,000 hits is the big reason. That’s sort of a shame because it took him six seasons of relative offensive mediocrity to get there. Biggio was a terrific player for about five years, 1995-99, and it seems to me that’s what made him a Hall of Famer (if you believe he IS a Hall of Famer). From 2002 on, with only a couple of exceptions, he wasn’t that terrific player anymore.
66. Harmon Killebrew
— He hit 573 homers. If you use Baseball Reference’s neutralized batting tool and play his whole career in the same conditions as the National League in 2000, it’s up to 642 home runs. If you play his whole career in the Baker Bowl in 1930 Philadelphia, he is up to 690 homers. And so on.
67. Bill Dickey
— The list is getting A LOT of repeats. Seems to me that people are running out of ideas. But there are at least two players — one hitter and one pitcher — I’m shocked have not been mentioned.
68. Nolan Ryan
— There’s the pitcher. He might have been an extremely flawed pitcher but he was also one of a kind. I might have argued that he’s the most famous pitcher in baseball history. And he goes 68th on this list? I’ll bet if I do this again, he will go a lot higher.
69. Luis Aparicio
— Surprised to see this one. If you are going to pick a great fielding shortstop, I might have expected a guy named Ozzie.*
70. Hank Greenberg
— Hammerin’ Hank tended to hit them two at a time; in his 58-homer season he had 11 games with multiple homers. In fact the last two weeks of that season, he hit only four homers — two multiple homer games.
71. Keith Hernandez
— Best fielding first baseman ever?
72. Jim Palmer
— You know what I never realized about Palmer? He walked a LOT of guys. He was Top 5 in walks six times. Part of it was he threw a lot of innings, but consider this: After Deadball (when strikeouts were hard to come by) the LOWEST strikeout-to-walk ratio among 250 game winners are:
1. Ted Lyons, 0.96
(Meaning, yes, Lyons walked more than he struck out in his Hall of Fame career)
2. Red Ruffing, 1.29
3. Early Wynn, 1.31
4. Bob Feller, 1.46
5. Jim Palmer, 1.69
Palmer doesn’t seem to fit that group; in my memory he had impeccable control. But there he is. Who is No. 6 on this list? Tom Glavine. Of course there are people who believe Glavine NEVER threw a strike.
73. Bert Blyleven
— Well, yeah, this list was done on the Internet. And the Internet has been berry, berry good to Bert.
74. Mike Piazza
— We’re getting three or four repeats now for every new name listed so we’re clearly winding down… I will say that one person put a whole bunch of names down here in a row which kind of defeats the purpose. But he put them down, so I’ll list them here.
75. Ivan Rodriguez
— From 1996 to 2001, Pudge v. 2.0 threw out about 55% of the people foolish enough to try and steal.
76. Brooks Robinson
— Another beloved player I thought would have scored a bit higher.
77. Dizzy Dean
— An unquestionably great pitcher for three or four years, but would he have been anywhere near this list if they had called him “Jay Dean?”
78. Arky Vaughan
— In 1935, Vaughan was hitting .401 on September 10. He went 11 for his last 48 (.229 average) to finish the year at .385.
79. Gaylord Perry
— When Gaylord Perry was coaching at Limestone College — he started the program there, if I remember correctly — he really had to teach baseball. He told me a story about how had a kid up at the plate with a 3-0 count when the baserunner on first was picked off or was caught stealing. Well this guy led off the next inning, the pitcher threw a ball, and he started walking to first. He thought those three balls carried over.
80. Kid Nichols
— I’m impressed; I did not expect to see him on this list. … My great outfielder still have not been mentioned … I’ll keep going until he does get mentioned.
81. Eppa Rixey
— I would have given you 10-to-1 odds, at least, that nobody would have mentioned Eppa Rixey.
82. Addie Joss
— And 20-to-1 odds against Addie Joss. Where in the heck is my guy?
83. Ozzie Smith
— One of the sporting thrills of my life was just standing on the field in Cincinnati and watching the Wizard take infield practice. It was like watching Springsteen rehearse.
84. Gary Carter
— From my good friend Rob, who points out (correctly) that people have mostly run out of names at this point.
85. Dwight Gooden
— If you went through baseball history and could pick a staff of five pitchers in their best year, who would you choose? I think my staff might have Dwight Gooden on it.
No. 1 starter: Pedro Martinez, 2000 (or 1999)
No. 2 starter: Steve Carlton, 1972
No. 3 starter: Bob Gibson, 1968
No. 4 starter: Walter Johnson, 1913
No. 5 starter: Dwight Gooden, 1985 or Sandy Koufax 1966.
Also under consideration: Greg Maddux 1995, Bob Feller 1946, Tom Seaver 1973, Gaylord Perry 1972, Roger Clemens 1997.
86. Ernie Banks
— No, he’s not my missing link but I am surprised that Mr. Cub went this low.
87. Tim Raines
— A great player, as we know, but do I need to start giving hints about the all-time outfielder who is beloved and STILL has not been mentioned?
88. Jim Edmonds
— Fine player but, uh, no, it isn’t him.
89. Jim Thome
— The modern day Killebrew.
90. Paul Molitor
— One heck of a nice guy. Got to sit down and talk with him for a while last time I was up for a Twins game.
91. Mariano Rivera
— When I saw Goose Gossage all the way near the top, I just assumed Rivera would come up in the next 10 or 15.
92. Kirby Puckett
— Come on. Nobody’s going to name him?
93. Earl Averill
— Wow. OK, I can’t keep going forever. I mean these are fine players, but …
No Reggie Jackson …
No Wade Boggs …
No Rod Carew …
No Robin Yount …
No Frank Thomas or Frankie Frisch or Derek Jeter (that’s a shocker) or Duke Snider or Juan Marichal or Phil Niekro.
But the player I cannot believe has not been named is: Al Kaline.
Well, I’ll have to figure out a way to do this again and see how much different the results might be.