By In Baseball

No. 54: Rod Carew

Rod Carew was almost named Margaret. You might know this story — he was born on a segregated train in Panama. His mother was in one of the segregated back cars when she went into labor. A nurse happened to be on the train, and she comforted Carew’s mother. She was so kind that she later became Carew’s Godmother and one of his mother’s best friend.

Her name was Margaret Ann. And so one of the purest hitters in baseball history was almost called Margaret Ann Carew. He probably would have gone by Mac.

Fortunately there was also a doctor on the train who actually delivered the baby. His name was Dr. Rodney Cline. His role in the delivery was apparently not nearly as involved as the nurse’s, and so the naming was a close call. In the end, though, the baby was named Rodney Cline Carew.

Rod Carew was obsessed with baseball from the start. The neighborhood game in Gatun — a small town in the Panama Canal Zone — was stickball which Carew recalled playing more or less every waking hour of his childhood. He actually was not a natural. Carew suffered from rheumatic fever for much of his childhood and spent a lot of time in hospitals.

Also his father was abusive. Carew has written: “There wasn’t a time in my life I wasn’t licked or punched or whipped, often for no reason whatsoever. … I think it’s one reason I was so reticent with the press, so cautious about opening up to others. When you’re young and under attack, you withdraw from family and friends. Shyness stays with you.”

Here is where Margaret Ann returns to the story — she lived in New York and when Carew was 14 she asked if he wanted to come live with her in New York and study in America. He and his mother agreed to come. When he saw the New York lights, he would say that his life was forever changed. “I had the feeling,” he would say, “a whole new world was opening up for me.”

Carew never played even one inning of high school baseball. The reason has never been entirely clear. There may have been racial tensions. There was a language barrier. And Carew would say that the high school coach made it clear to him that he wasn’t good enough.

Instead, he played for a sandlot team called the Bronx Cavaliers. The team was coached by a local hero name named Sam Cummando, who managed youth baseball for decades in the Bronx. He marveled not only at Carew’s speed but also (a little bit or irony here) at Carew’s natural power. He crushed long home runs and scouts came to see Carew play. Carew would say he would have signed for nothing. He signed with the Twins for $5,000 instead.*

*There has been an oft-repeated story that the Twins only gave him that much because Carew had gone to a Yankees tryout and (again, here’s that irony) had blasted shot after shot into the Yankee Stadium bleachers. It’s amazing how much home run power the young Carew and how little home run power the older Carew used.

Carew was no natural, though. He hit well, but not overwhelmingly well, in the minors. And then he did not hit .300 in either of his first two seasons. That may not seem like but there are 16 players in baseball history with 9,000 plate appearances and at least a .325 career batting average. Fifteen of them broke .300 in their first two seasons (all but one hit .300 in their FIRST full seasons). Part of the reason that it took Carew a little longer is that his first two seasons happened to be 1967 and 1968, two of the worst hitting seasons in baseball history. His .273 batting average in 1968 actually placed just outside the Top 10 in the American League.

But Carew also would say that he LEARNED how to become a hitter at the Major League level. At first, he had a conventional upright stance, and he swung and missed a lot. He struck out 91 times his rookie year, another 71 his second,* he rarely walked and hit for no power. He certainly wasn’t a bad hitter — he had a 105 OPS+ after two seasons — but he did dramatically chance. He started getting lower in his stance, he moved to the back of the box, he brought down the bat so that it was almost parallel to the ground when he was ready to unleash. He won his first batting title in his third season, hitting .332, more than 20 points better than anyone else in the league. He would win six more.

Carew’s mastery of hitting was in the plan he brought to the plate in every at bat. Announcers often would say that Carew had a slightly different stance for every pitcher — indeed this was one of the most repeated descriptions of any player of my childhood — but that wasn’t exactly right. He did have different stances but he mostly used them not to adjust to a pitcher but to get in the pitcher’s head.

For instance, Carew would sometimes unmistakably crowd the plate in an effort to get the pitcher to throw an inside pitch. Then, if the expected inside pitch came, he had the ability to unleash the hands and lash the ball down the right field line. He would sometimes go into a pronounced crouch against high fastball pitchers like Nolan Ryan to force them to bring their pitches down a bit in the strike zone. He was deadly in that crouch.

Then, he was deadly in all of his stances — that’s what made him so great. He wanted to provoke certain pitches, but even if pitchers refused to take the bait he had the quick hands and extraordinary flexibility to adjust and foul off the pitch or, perhaps, serve it out to left, yank it down the line or smack it up the middle. Twenty five batters got 75-plus plate appearances against Nolan Ryan. Only one hit .300. Yeah. Rod Carew.

For 15 straight seasons, 1969 to 1983, Carew never hit less than .305. He won six batting titles in seven seasons. His 1977 season is legendary. He hit .388, drove in 100 runs, scored 100 runs and slugged a a career high .570. Carew was hitting .403 on Independence Day, and seemed just kind of guy to break the then-35 year drought of .400 hitters. Carew never actually “slumped” but he did hit a mere .326 for the next month, and this dropped his average into the .370s. This is the extraordinary thing about trying to hit .400 — a month of merely outstanding hitting will more or less end the quest.

Anyway, Rod Carew hit .412 the rest of the way.

The other stuff: Carew was a good base runner. Smart. Dynamic. He stole more than 300 bases in his career, including 17 steals of home, more than any players the last 50 years. His stolen base trends reflect his teams. He showed a little bit of speed when his manager was Billy Martin, but under the more conservative Bill Rigney he stole just six bases in 1971 and 12 in 1972.

When young Frank Quilici became manager (Qulici had been Carew’s teammate and backup second baseman) Carew stole 41 bases. When Gene Mauch took over in 1976, Carew stole a career-high 49 bases. Carew simply changed depending on what the team wanted. When they wanted him to be an aggressive base-runner, he was one, perhaps even overaggressive as he was caught stealing 15 or more times in five different seasons.

He was an OK second baseman despite a weak arm because he was a smart and athletic player. Then, late in the 1975 season he was moved to first base. He was not a good first baseman but, more than that, his extreme lack of home run power made him stand out at the position. From 1976 to 1985, Carew hit a total of 46 home runs — 32 first basemen over that time hit more.*

*It was often said that Carew chose not to hit home runs in an effort to get more hits and better help the ballclub. This sort of thing is often said about great hitters who do not hit a lot of home runs.

There’s one other Carew statistic to discuss. Carew did cut down on his strikeouts as the years went along. But he never quite eliminated the strikeout bug from his game. There are eight players in baseball history who hit .325 with 3,000 hits. Of the eight, Carew is the only one to strike out 1,000 times. In fact, none of the others even struck out 700.

What does this mean? It means that Rod Carew must have had had a phenomenally high average on balls in play. And he did. Carew hit .359 on balls in play, the highest for any player since Ty Cobb, Shoeless Joe Jackson and Rogers Hornsby. People argue about the value of measuring batting average on balls in play but, in this case, it seems pretty clear that Carew had a genius for getting hits. He bunted often and beautifully. He knew how to read a defense; Carew was one of the great hit-and-run men. And he just knew how to serve hits into the outfield so that they dropped safely.

You know who is next on the BABIP list, by the way? Right. Derek Jeter. He hit .353 on balls in play. How many of those were bloopers just over the second baseman’s head?

One of the great surviving baseball myths is that Rod Carew is Jewish. The big reason for this is Adam Sandler’s classic Chanukah Song, where one verse goes: “O.J. Simpson. Not a Jew. But guess who is, Hall of Famer Rod Carew! (He converted).”

Only it isn’t true, Carew never did convert. He did (against tremendous pressure) marry a Jewish woman and they raised their children Jewish. Carew always has always had a great affinity for the Jewish faith and he would wear a Chai necklace as a player, Chai being a Hebrew for “Life.” But he did not convert. He wrote a letter to Sandler to explain his situation. In it, he apparently did say that he found the song very funny.

93 Responses to No. 54: Rod Carew

  1. Jim Haas says:

    I always liked the way Carew handled the bat more like a painter’s brush or a conductor’s baton — delicate but in control.

  2. Anon says:

    My favorite player of all-time. Stat check though – Boggs hit .328 with 745 Ks so perhaps you meant 750 K or 800 K.

  3. Joe Zwilling says:

    I always thought that it was very cool that Tom Seaver and Rod Carew were the NL and AL Rookies of the Year in 1967 — and that, on the same day, August 4, 1985, Seaver won his 300th,game and Carew got his 3000th hit.

  4. Chad Meisgeier says:

    Another great article. My No. 54 would be Ozzie Smith.

  5. dlf9 says:

    The last player who was a “hero” to me. While I still really enjoy baseball, after Carew, I was too old to really idolize ballplayers anymore.

    One of my favorite memories of my childhood was attending a game at the old Met Stadium in Bloomington during the Summer of 1977. Going 3 for 5 on the second day of the season, he briefly went over .400, but then “slumped” into the .300s for a while. But on a warm, sunny June 26th, with a nine year old me in attendance, Carew, from that swept back stance and giant ball of mixed tobacco and chewing gum (yes really) went 4 for 5 with a double, a homer, six ribbies and 5 runs scored in a 19-12 victory over the hated White Sox. When the stadium scoreboard showed that he went over .400, the audience went nuts and I fell in love with the sport.

    As an adult, Carew is still something of a hero to me, but it has little to do with his on-field exploits. Carew’s teenaged daughter passed away of cancer in 1996, in part because it was so difficult to find a bone marrow donor due to her unusual genetic background. Carew has been a leading voice in getting people tested to be potential donors and expanding exponentially the registry of known volunteers. Joe’s piece above is written one week after Carew was the keynote speaker at the Fred Hutchinson Award ceremony:–striking-out-cancer.html

    Thanks Rod!

    • otistaylor89 says:

      Very sad story of Rod’s daughter Michelle passing at age 18, with the family trying to do everything in their power to save her. The link you provided has that photo of Rod holding Michelle’s had while she is in a protective tent.
      I just can’t image losing a child that young.

  6. adam says:

    Sandler’s song is not the only pop-culture song reference to Rod Carew:

    “…and I’ve got mad hits like I was Rod Carew”
    -Sure Shot, Beastie Boys.

    I always loved that line.

  7. invitro says:

    I would put Gehringer a spot ahead of Carew. They are essentially tied in WAR, WAR7, JAWS, WAA — within 1 of each other on all of these. But while Carew had an OPS of .591 in 14 playoff games, Gehringer had .782 in 20 games. It isn’t much, but I don’t see a reason to put Carew ahead, unless you diminish WAR or its fielding or position components, or playoff performance.

    Joe had Gehringer #63. I think I’d have Carew around #70 and Gehringer #63.

    Bill James had Gehringer #59 and Carew #64. ESPN has Carew #55 and Gehringer #81. The Sporting News had Gehringer #46 and Carew #61. The Hall of Stats has Gehringer #60 and Carew #61.

    A harder problem is comparing JRobinson with these two, but we’ll cross that bridge later.

    The kids in my neighborhood called him “Rockaroo”. Google doesn’t have a match for that and I’m surprised. He was very, very popular among the other kids, nearly the most popular player of the time.

    I am happy to see this series resume.

    • dlf9 says:

      If you timeline at all, Carew is ahead of Gehringer. I think the game in which the Mechanical Man played in the ’30s is significantly inferior, primarily due to integration, than was played by Carew in the ’70s.

      Beyond that, the best thing about this series is not the ordinal rankings, but the writing. Anyone can create a spreadsheet of WAR, JAWS, Win Shares, OPS+ or the like, but few can spin the tales of the players on those spreadsheets nearly as well as Poz.

      • invitro says:

        I don’t timeline at all, other than perhaps discounting pre-1893 seasons. And I think both the writing and ranking of this series are interesting.

        It’s true, well sort of, that anyone can spreadsheet WAR. And anyone can spreadsheet playoff and clutch performance. But they’re not… these and other rankings really don’t reflect either. And not everyone can accurately rate JRobinson and Joe Gordon due to lost seasons. Ranking by stats and logic starts with WAR but doesn’t end there.

        I am interested in anyone’s rankings if they are made with reason.

        • ingres77 says:

          Carew was probably the better hitter (131 OPS+) than Gehringer (124), and he played post-integration.

          Those two things, for me, make it reasonably easy to put Carew ahead.

          • DM says:

            It’s an interesting comparison between Carew and Gehringer. I’d say more often than not, you see Gehringer ranked slightly ahead of Carew on various all-time listings at 2B, but it’s certainly not always the case. Gehringer tends to be in the top 6…..Carew typically just below that, but usually top 10. OPS+ does tilt towards Carew, and I think if you had to choose which one had more offensive value, I can see rating Carew slightly ahead.

            However, I think Gehringer was clearly the better defensive 2B, both by reputation and by the numbers. I think when you talk all-time top defensive players at 2B, Mazeroski, Frank White, Nellie Fox, Joe Gordon….players like that tend to gravitate to the top. I think Gehringer was probably a little below those guys….not an all-time great defender, but pretty darn good. Carew, in contrast, had a poor defensive reputation, and I think the defensive numbers, such as they are, tell pretty much the same story. When you look at the whole picture, with Carew having half of his career at 1B and half at 2B, if I had to choose a 2B for my team, I’d take Gehringer over Carew. But, in my opinion, it’s close.

        • Andrew says:

          Knowing Joe’s deference to Bill James, who I remember ranking Gehringer only behind Hornsby and Morgan, it is somewhat surprising to see Carew here. But I don’t see any reason to be slavish about which player ranks where in this particular list. I’d thnk of this as more of one man’s personal inventory, somewhat like Dave Marsh’s book, “Heart of Rock & Soul: 1001 Greatest Singles.” There’s a certain quality of autobiography in it, freely acknowledged.

          I am about Joe’s age, from Detroit instead of Cleveland, and I remember wondering why Carew only hit .350 when he seemed to hit double that against us.

  8. Johnny B says:

    I remember, as a ute in Yankee Stadium watching batting practice and Carew would dump 5 or 6 bunts in different spots on the infield. His bat control was remarkable.

  9. otistaylor89 says:

    “The other stuff: Carew was a good base runner. Smart. Dynamic. He stole more than 300 bases in his career, including 17 steals of home, more than any players the last 50 years. His stolen base trends reflect his teams. He showed a little bit of speed when his manager was Billy Martin, but under the more conservative Bill Rigney he stole just six bases in 1971 and 12 in 1972.”

    I think the lack of stolen bases in 1971 and 1972 had more to do with a severe knee injury he suffered in 1970 than anything. The injury limited him for several years speed wise.

  10. Anon says:

    Unlike his contemporary, Jim Rice, Rod Carew was feared – led the league in IBB 3 times.

  11. NevadaMark says:

    To me his most amazing feat was stealing home 7 times in one season. I probably have not seen 7 steals of home total in the last 20 years. Just incredible.

  12. PistolPete says:

    Thanks for all the additional information in the comments. I was a young kid when Carew was at his prime, but my Dad always loved pure hitters and made sure I was paying attention if we happened to have the chance to see him at the plate.

  13. Julkid11 says:

    I know it’s not a fashionable stat, but to lead your league 7 times in batting average it’s something I don’t think we’ll be seeing any more.

  14. Michael Green says:

    Ron Luciano told the story that he was umpiring behind the plate one day and Carew was batting. On the 2-2 pitch, he said, “What’s coming, Rodney?” Carew said, as the pitcher was just about to throw, “Curve, and I’m going to left with it.” And he did. ‘Nuff said.

  15. Alejo says:

    Horror stories about accommodation and media hotels in Sochi everywhere.

    How are you doing?

  16. Great story! Funny beginning to an incredible post.

  17. scotharr says:

    One if my favorite baseball memories was attending a doubleheader at the Met against the Orioles in ’69, which the Twins swept. Rodney stole home twice(!) that day, the second time on his own with Killebrew at bat, with his back to him. The next day in the paper Harmon was quoted as saying that he only heard Carew’s footsteps at the last moment, stepping out of the box to make way for him. He came close to swinging and blasting Rodney’s head into the left field bleachers.

    • Stephen says:

      In looking at Retrosheet for the answer to a question above about the number of times Carew was thrown out trying to steal home, I noticed that his steals of home looked pretty spread out. After reading your post I went back and doublechecked: as it turns out, in ’69 the Twins didn’t play a DH against Baltimore, and Carew never did steal home in 2 consecutive games, let alone twice on the same day.

      Don;t you hate it when that happens? So now I’m curious about what game your memory really was from.

      I like May 18 against Detroit, which has this remarkable sequence:
      Tovar singled; Lolich balked [Tovar to second]; Tovar stole third; Carew walked; Tovar stole home and Carew stole second; Carew stole third; Carew stole home

      Or the consecutive double-steals of June 16 against the Angels:
      Carew stole third and Oliva stole second; Carew stole home and Oliva stole third;

      And I’m partial to the triple-steal game of July 16 vs. the Sox:
      Carew stole home and Killebrew stole third and Manuel stole second;
      though this probably isn’t what you’re remembering as Killebrew wasn’t batting when Carew came home.

      Fun stuff. Must have been wonderful to watch.

  18. I had Angels tickets, so I saw a lot of Carew. He was a big FA signing, so a lot was expected. He never lived up to fan expectations largely because he couldn’t stay on the field. He seemed to have a lot of games missed with seemingly minor issues, so of course fan frustration grew and his toughness was questioned. In reality, he signed the big money contract past his prime and, I guess, his body was breaking down. Still, I view his time with the Angels as a disappointment.

    • johnq11 says:

      Yeah, that was in the early days of free agency, extremely early days of saber-metrics so I don’t think teams fully understood a players peak or prime years etc. I don’t think teams and media really understood that a players prime years were in his mid to late 20’s and that it was un-realistic to expect a player to continue to perform at an extremely high level in his age 33-38 seasons.

      I think overall Carew was pretty good with the Angels he just wasn’t the dominate player he was with the Twins during the mid 1970’s. It’s also understandable because Carew was in his mid 30’s at that point. I think out of all Gene Autry’s free agents, Carew was probably the best signing.

      Fred Lynn was a massive bust in 1981. He bounced back in ’82 and had some decent years but he never reverted back to his 1975 & ’79 MVP caliber play.

      Don Baylor was a very overrated player in hindsight. He was a horrible fielder so he had to DH most of the time and his numbers for DH were kind of mediocre. Actually some years they were kind of awful. .262/.337/.448 for a guy that was a DH 60% of the time and a lousy defensive outfielder the rest?

      That Reggie Jackson signing was terrible. Other than 1982, he hit .228/.333/.413 from 1983-1986. And this was from DH horrible fielding RF in his late 30’s.

      Those teams won partly because Bobby Grich was massively underrated. Brian Downing came out of nowhere and starting hitting HRs at 31 years old. I mean now it looks like he was probably using PED’s. Then you would have a fluky season like Doug DeCinces in 1982.

      Gary Pettis in Center Field was very good glove and a under-rated overlooked player. Bob Boone was a gold glove at catcher. So between Grich, Pettis and Boone you had some really good defense up the middle. And Tim Foli and Dick Schofield were solid at SS.

      It seemed like they would always have decent pitching. Mike Witt was kind of underrated and they would always get decent performances out of guys like Bruce Kison or Geoff Zahn. Then they would get an old guy Like Don Sutton to pitch well for them. And then the bullpen always seemed to be decent.

      So it’s odd because all the money Autry spent didn’t really make a difference. They were good because they could pitch and play defense up the middle, Carew was good and they had guy like Grich who was very underrated.

      • ken says:

        Well, Reggie DID save the Queen as an Angel.

      • Andrew says:

        Brian Downing as a PED user? I don’t like to tar a guy with empty speculation, but I do remember that Downing bulked up suddenly one year, apparently after taking up weightlifting. I remember him as a quickish rookie hitting an inside-the-park home run against the Tigers, and all of a sudden he was as big as Lance Parrish.

  19. mrgjg says:

    As far as Carew converting to Judaism, I’ve heard that long before Sandlers song. It was a common refrain during his playing days and I still have old baseball annuals that state he converted.
    Back to Carew the player; when he was winning those batting titles in the 70’s he was leading the league by record setting margins. In 1973 he hit .350, 2nd place was George Scott at .306.
    1974 it was .364-.316, 1975 .359-.331, 1977 388-.336 .
    If he played during the sillyball era, he would have it .400 in one of those years.

    • Anon says:

      Carew’s massive edge in BA are why he led the league in OBP 4 times despite having a middling BB% of just under 10%. In 3 of the 4 years that he led the league in OBP, he led the league in BA by at least 28 points but never led the league in OBP by more than 19 points. (1978 is the exception but that was an odd year – Carew barely beat out Al Oliver for BA but only one other player in the top 10 in BA was also int he top 10 in OBP (fred Lynn). Just a big year for high average, low BB% players I guess)

  20. Drew Thomas says:

    Thanks, Joe, for the series….and thanks to all of you who comment who add great insight and context to all of these capsules, and who can argue and debate like adults should.

  21. Geoff says:

    Great post, as always.

    This adds a tiny bit of clarity to the ongoing projections, since some argued that Carew was a candidate to be left off the list.

    I maintain that the five biggest snubs will be Carter, Piazza, Pudge (either one), Niekro, and Pop Lloyd, with Kaline as a dark-horse. Needless to say, I’d take any of those guys over Koufax. 🙂

    There are obviously some great players that aren’t going to make a top-100 list, and I certainly won’t argue with, say, Lou Whitaker over Pudge Rodriguez. But in retrospect, the inclusion of Mariano Rivera and Old Hoss Radbourn are fairly ridiculous.

    Radbourn had two great seasons in an 11-year career, playing in at a level that (if I remember Baseball Between the Numbers correctly) was roughly equivalent to low-A today, only if Midwest and Sally league pitchers threw from a 50′ mound. His selection is also intellectually inconsistent, since it makes no sense to include Radbourn, but not Cap Anson (among others).

    Rivera is a worse selection, as it’s completely illogical to anyone who actually understands the factors that contribute to wins and losses (which Joe obviously does). I get that Joe was basically trying to split the difference between crazy Yankee fans who think Rivera is the most valuable player on the Yankees over the last 18 years and those up us who think Rivera may not belong in the top-*200*, but the result is the omission of someone that is clearly much more deserving. It’s like making an NFL top-100 and leaving off Kurt Warner or Michael Strahan so you can include Ray Guy. Neither of those guys, individually, has to make the list, but you’d have to be crazy to believe that Guy was a greater football player than either of them.

    • ingres77 says:

      I’m not a “crazy Yankee fan”, but how is someone who is *clearly* the best player to ever do his job (and to do so for almost 20 years) not one of the 100 best players ever?

      Whether you like it or not, relief pitching is an integral part of today’s game, and you simply don’t get better than Rivera. Virtually everyone agrees on this.

      He has more WAR than CC Sabathia, Whitey Ford, and Sandy Koufax – in WAY fewer innings. That’s how awesome he is.

      In short, Joe made more sense than you.

      • Geoff says:

        “(H)ow is someone who is *clearly* the best player to ever do his job (and to do so for almost 20 years) not one of the 100 best players ever?”

        The same way way Ray Guy and Morten Andersen are not considered among the best 100 football players ever, despite being, respectively, the greatest punter and kicker in NFL history.

        “Whether you like it or not, relief pitching is an integral part of today’s game, and you simply don’t get better than Rivera. Virtually everyone agrees on this.”

        Whether you like it or not, punting is an integral part of today’s game, and you simply don’t get better than Shane Lechler. Virtually everyone agrees on this.

        “He has more WAR than CC Sabathia, Whitey Ford, and Sandy Koufax – in WAY fewer innings. That’s how awesome he is.”

        Um, you’re making a WAR-based argument based on a guy that has not (yet) earned a place in Cooperstown, a guy who lost 2.5 seasons to the Korean War (and is overrated because he played for the Yankees), and the most overrated player in baseball history? Why not compare him to Vic Willis and Waite Hoyt while you’re at it? Mariano is the greatest one-inning reliever in baseball history, which earns him a plaque, but doesn’t make him one of the greatest 100 players in baseball history. I would bet that there’s not a single GM in baseball (non-Colletti/Amaro division) that would, given the choice, take Rivera’s career over Mike Piazza’s or Pudge Rodriguez’s.

        “In short, Joe made more sense than you.”

        In short, I almost always make more sense than you.

        • ingres77 says:

          There isn’t a 1-to-1 correlation between football and baseball. I see your point – but don’t really think it really does anything to dismiss the argument that Rivera is one of the 100 best players in the history of the game.

          With that said, maybe kickers are underrated in football. [shrug]

          My point wasn’t that Rivera was better than Sabathia, Ford, and/or Koufax. My point was that in the most comprehensive stat we have to measure the cumulative value of someone’s career, Rivera stacks up with players who are generally agreed to be (or have been) excellent.

          The difference?

          Rivera: 1,283 innings
          Koufax: 2,324
          Sabathia: 2,775
          Ford: 3,170

          Regardless of whether Koufax is “the most overrated” or Ford is “overrated because he’s a Yankee”, are you really going to sit there and argue that they don’t deserve to be in the Hall of Fame? Rivera was a great pitcher, I don’t think that’s questionable.

          The issue is whether he was great enough for the top 100. I think so. Specifically because he’s so special. He’s the opposite of an “accumulator”.

          Imagine if Mike Trout, for the next six years, continues the pace he has set the past two years. Then, in 2020, he retires. Less than 6,000 AB, but over 70 WAR. That would be spectacular, right? Surely you can agree with this absurd hypothetical?

          Is this Trout analogy (to use my above phrase) a “1-to-1 correlation? No. I’m just using it to make the point that Rivera was so absurdly great that he put up historically great numbers despite playing roughly half as much as everyone else at his level.

          I think that warrants inclusion in the top 100.

          “In short, I almost always make more sense than you.”

          Good lord you’re an insufferable little child, aren’t you?

          Every time I’ve tried to engage you in a debate, you inevitably turn towards meanness. You do understand we’re discussing opinion, right? That most of what we’re saying isn’t objective fact, but interpretations of rough data? You get that two people can look at the same information and come away with different conclusions, and that it’s entirely possible that one is no more correct than the other?

          Have fun on here. I think I’ll refrain from going to this well again. For what little you have to offer, you’re far too sensitive to be worth my time.

          • Geoff says:

            Wow, really? “An insufferable little child?”

            How is it that each time you respond to my posts, which include *my* opinions, you always make sure to take a dig at me in doing so, and yet when I respond with a shot at you suddenly I’m the one that’s “far too sensitive?”

            Get over yourself. And if you don’t want to respond to my posts, don’t.

            Oh, and your Trout analogy sucks because it’s nothing like the Rivera situation. Even if his overall WAR was comparable to Rivera’s, his peak value would be in Mantle/Speaker territory, one of the dozen or so greatest of all-time and more than double Rivera’s.

            A better analogy would be to a player who’s easily the greatest basestealer/baserunner of all-time, but can’t do anything else. He steals bases at 95%, though, and scores easily from first on just about any double. If you used that guy 130-150 times as a pinch-runner, and he stole 100+ bases, he’d probably be around a 3-4 win player each year. If he did that for 20 years, he’d basically be Mariano Rivera.

            That guy’s an incredibly useful player, but I’m not sure I’d put him in the Hall of Fame.

      • invitro says:

        Rivera fans should be aware of this: his WPA of 56.6 is the best ever. His RE24 is the best ever too (I assume you know that these numbers only exist since 1945). I don’t know what to make of it. Joe Nathan’s WPA is 31.6. I trust WPA and RE24 and don’t know a reason not to trust it for RPs. When combined with his amazing postseason record, I’m probably one of those who’d put him in the top 50, let alone 100.

        • Geoff says:

          This argument requires you to buy into the idea that pitching in the 9th inning (or in high-leverage situations) is inherently more difficult in pitching in general, an idea that’s not actually supported by any evidence.

          Imagine if Rivera had had the exact same career, except that he had always started games and pitched only the first inning because his managers believed it was most valuable to always have him face the top of the lineup. His WPA would be considerably lower; would you then say that Joe Nathan had a better career than Rivera? Leave aside the first inning idea…what if the Yankees

          Rivera’s WPA is artificially inflated by the manner in which he was used. That doesn’t actually make him a better pitcher.

          • invitro says:

            “This argument requires you to buy into the idea that pitching in the 9th inning (or in high-leverage situations) is inherently more difficult in pitching in general”

            I don’t think so.

            What it requires is just a belief that WPA accurately measures win probability added. Debate that if you want. Or that the occasions when Rivera pitched were higher-leverage than pitching in general. Potentially more valuable, but also potentially more dangerous.

            I don’t believe that such pitching is more difficult, unless I suppose if such pitching involves facing better hitters than pitching in general. And I suppose that could be true, given pinch-hitters, but I don’t know.

            “Imagine if Rivera had had the exact same career, except that he had always started games and pitched only the first inning because his managers believed it was most valuable to always have him face the top of the lineup. His WPA would be considerably lower; would you then say that Joe Nathan had a better career than Rivera? ”

            I would see what his WPA (and other numbers) is and compare it to Nathan’s.

    • DM says:


      I agree with you on Radbourn. There are much better candidates out there.

      Since Whitaker’s name also came up……I happen to think Whitaker is a stretch for top 100. I understand his case, but, to me, the top 100 should approximate the following:

      25-30 pitchers
      70-75 position players.

      If each of the 8 field positions (counting LF, CF, and RF as separate positions rather than lumping all outfielders into one position) is evenly represented (obviously, it doesn’t have to be that way….you could reasonably have a few more or a few less at each position), then that suggests that the top 9 or 10 at each position would make reasonable candidates for a top 100 list.

      If your projections of remaining players (that you’ve stated before) is correct, then position representation would be as follows:

      C 4
      1B 13
      2B 12
      3B 8
      SS 9
      LF 9
      CF 10
      RF 10
      P 26

      (adds up to 101 because of the Bagwell/Thomas tandem)

      Again….they don’t have to be perfectly distributed, but it does speak to catchers being very underrepresented, and 1B & 2B maybe a bit over-represented. Assuming Nap Lajoie, Jackie Robinson, Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins, and Joe Morgan will be mentioned in the remaining posts, that would be 12 2nd basemen. I’d rather see someone like Piazza, I. Rodriguez, or Carter included rather than Whitaker.

      I’m reminded of something Bill James commented on in the Historical Abstract, and that is that, quite often, when people put together player rankings, who they ultimately choose sometimes reflects a point that they are trying to make. Many people are of the opinion that Whitaker has been severely underrated because he was more consistent than he was spectacular. I agree that it’s a shame that he didn’t receive enough HOF votes to even make a second ballot. I suspect this was a chance for Joe, by including him here, to give him a an opportunity to be recognized, to make the point that he should have been more highly regarded than he was. I can see that point, but to me, Whitaker is maybe a top 12-15 second baseman, That’s still terrific, but it comes to a top 100 list, I think he should be on the outside looking in.

      • invitro says:

        If I were to pick on a 2B, I’d pick on Biggio instead of Whitaker. (Unless you don’t buy their WAR fielding numbers.)

      • Geoff says:

        I agree with pretty much everything you’ve written here, and I think the point you make re: James is a great one.

        I probably wouldn’t have Whitaker in my top-100, either, but the point I was really making is that you can make a solid case for pretty much everyone Joe’s included, with the exceptions of Rivera and Radbourn. Well, you can make a case for Radbourn, but then you’d have to include a handful of other guys that aren’t really being considered here.

        I do think it’s a mistake to get too caught up in the number of guys at each position, aside from catcher. Catchers are clearly not being fairly represented by metrics like WAR, and are underrepresented as a result. But with other positions, A) there may be some structural reasons that certain positions are disproportionately represented (e.g., the fact that lefties can only play 1B and OF), and B) there’s probably some flukiness to the “true” breakdown of the top 100.

      • tombando says:

        Lou Whitaker in the top 100 is silly. Al Simmons, Mickey Cochrane and Fergie Jenkins outside is even worse.

        • ingres77 says:

          Why is it “silly” to have Whitaker in the top 100?

          I have him as maybe the sixth best 2nd baseman in MLB history. He’s almost certainly top 10.

          I don’t know that he’d make my top 100, but he wouldn’t be far outside.

          • DM says:

            Hi Ingres77,

            I agree with you that it’s not “silly” to have Whitaker in the top 100. I think he has a case, although in my opinion, I wouldn’t put him as high as 6th at the position, and I wouldn’t have him in top 100. If forced to rank the second basemen, here’s how I’d personally rank them:

            1 Eddie Collins
            2 Rogers Hornsby
            3 Joe Morgan
            4 Nap Lajoie
            5 Charlie Gehringer
            6 Jackie Robinson
            7 Ryne Sandberg
            8 Frankie Frisch
            9 Roberto Alomar
            10 Rod Carew
            11 Craig Biggio
            12 Bobby Grich
            13 Lou Whitaker

            I’d have Gordon, Doerr, and Utley right after them, maybe Herman and Randolph. I think there’s very little separation among Biggio, Grich, and Whitaker. If someone wants to consider Whitaker as a top 10 2B, I certainly wouldn’t argue very hard. I don’t think Sandberg, Frisch, or Alomar (my #7 through #9) are really all that much better than Whitaker….but if forced to do it, this is how I would rank them.

            I don’t often find myself quoting JAWS, but I think JAWS actually has him pegged pretty well. It has Whitaker #11 overall in JAWS, which averages the career WAR and the best 7-year (a.k.a., “peak”) WAR. It has him #7 at the position in career WAR, and #18 in peak WAR. I think that pretty well sums up Whitaker’s career…..he wasn’t flashy, he wasn’t brilliant, he didn’t soar to great heights…..he was consistently good over a long career. I believe he’s #4 in games at second base, which is certainly impressive in its own way.

            The common characteristic of the 10 on my list above is that they were, at their best, MVP winners…or at least in the running (well, technically Lajoie wasn’t, because most of his career essentially pre-dated MVP-type awards, but you get the idea….he was unquestionably one of the best of his era). Alomar never won one, but he was certainly in the running a few time. They were more spectacular, more brilliant, capable of higher peaks (and lower valleys, too). Whitaker, of course, was pretty invisible….he did his job, he did it quietly, he was consistent.

            So….top 10 at position? You can make a case. He’s certainly underrated in the scope of history (as is Grich). I personally have him just outside the top 10 at 2B. Top 100? Same deal…..I’d have him outside that. Obviously, no shame or disrespect where I have him.


          • ingres77 says:

            It’s interesting you have Whitaker so low.

            Carew played most of his career at first, so I don’t really see it as fair to place him above Whitaker. Nap Lajoie (though certainly iconic) played part of his career in the 19th century, and all of his career before 1920. Why not also put Hardy Richardson up there? Or Cupid Childs?

            Collins and Hornsby were so dominant that it’s hard to argue that they wouldn’t be great in any decade. Collins, however, had his greatest seasons before WWI. I think there’s a little too much adoration given to Deadball players, personally.

            Here’s how I rank 2nd basemen:

            1. Joe Morgan
            2. Rogers Hornsby
            3. Eddie Collins
            4. Jackie Robinson
            5. Charlie Gehringer
            6. Lou Whitaker
            7. Bobby Grich
            8. Craig Biggio
            9. Nap Lajoie
            10. Roberto Alomar

            I tend to use WAR (for most positions) as a starting point. I then make adjustments based on playing time, the era played in, and other factors. Pre-integration players get knocked down a bit for me, and pre-modern players get knocked down a lot.

            Lou Whitaker is 8th in WAR. He, Frisch, Grich, and Biggio are all virtually tied. Given that Frisch played pre-WWII, it’s hard to justify putting him ahead of the latter three. And Sandberg? You have him way too high, in my opinion.

            Whitaker is the classic example of someone who is good at a lot of things but not really great at anything, and being underrated because of it.

            I think JAWS is taken a little too overused in these kinds of conversations. A player like Whitaker may not have had a great peak, but he was consistently good for a long time. That has value, and it’s too often overlooked.

            Generally, I don’t think we’re too far apart. I think I probably give the older players less credit than you, though.

          • Geoff says:

            “Hardy Richardson up there? Or Cupid Childs?”

            Exactly, why not Hardy Richardson or Cupid Childs? I mean, if you add their careers together, they actually have 166 more career hits than Lajoie! Never mind that Childs played half his career before 1893 and Richardson’s career was *over* by then…these guys belong in the Hall of Fame. Somebody call Rich Lederer!!!

          • DM says:

            OK…don’t know if this “reply” is going to line up in the proper place…it doesn’t look like it’s going to. I’m trying to reply to Ingres77’s reply to my post….I’ll give it a go.

            First of all…..Geoff, man……no fair….you beat me to it!!! 🙂

            Ingres77…..First of all, thanks for the reply. I enjoy the discussion.

            Your question to me was:
            “Nap Lajoie (though certainly iconic) played part of his career in the 19th century, and all of his career before 1920. Why not also put Hardy Richardson up there? Or Cupid Childs?”

            There’s an extremely simple answer to that. Lajoie was much better than those two. I don’t even think it’s close. I feel confident most people would clearly agree with that. What possible relevance do Richardson and Childs even have in this discussion, other than to serve as a red herring? They had nowhere near the impact in their eras that Lajoie did in his.

            You’re correct, I suppose I give more credit to old-time players that you do. I can go along with a general point of view that the standard of play tends to improve over time, but I also adhere to the fact that great players are great players, and would be so in any era. The best you can do is judge players in the context and conditions that they actually played, and make “reasonable” adjustments. If you’re such a believer in “career” WAR, as you seem to be since it’s one of your big points in favor of Whitaker, are you saying that Lajoie’s total needs a more than 30% downward adjustment? Because, that’s basically what you would have to do to have him below Whitaker. That seems like a pretty big discount. Will all players from that era, including Cobb, Wagner, Mathewson, etc. pay a similar tax?

            You gave the opinion that you couldn’t believe I had Whitaker so low, and Sandberg so high. As a starting point….here’s Joe’s relative ranking, assuming Morgan, Hornsby, Collins, Robinson, and Lajoie are still to come:

            tbd Rogers Hornsby
            tbd Eddie Collins
            tbd Joe Morgan
            tbd Nap Lajoie
            tbd Jackie Robinson
            6 Rod Carew
            7 Charlie Gehringer
            8 Ryne Sandberg
            9 Roberto Alomar
            10 Frankie Frisch
            11 Craig Biggio
            12 Lou Whitaker 

            Of course, that’s just one man’s opinion, and that doesn’t make it right. However, I think you’ll find, more often than not, if you seek out various rankings, that most people would rank Sandberg higher than Whitaker, and that Whitaker would be more likely to be about where Joe and I both him (in the 12-15 range) than anywhere near #6. In other words, I think your ranking is the one out of step with the consensus. Doesn’t make you wrong… just means that your evaluation is putting him higher than he tends to be. Again, as I said, I don’t think there’s a huge difference among any of the plyers from Sandberg through Whitaker (including Grich, who’s not on Joe’s list), but whenever I have players fairly comparable, my tendency is to rate the player with the higher peak as the greater player. Which leads into the next point…..

            “A player like Whitaker may not have had a great peak, but he was consistently good for a long time. That has value, and it’s too often overlooked.”

            I agree that a long, consistent career has value, and it can result in someone being overlooked. But, I also think this touches on a topic that I think is very important, and runs kind of subliminally through all of these threads but is often not directly addressed, and is really at the source of so many disagreements. And that’s this: the nature of Joe’s list is that is tries to identify the 100 “greatest” players of all time. So the question is….do you equate value with greatness? Do you equate longevity with greatness? I’m not playing semantics here….I don’t think they’re the same thing. There’s not really a right or wrong, but here’s my take on it. Greatness implies more than just value, and it implies more than just being good for a long time.

            Many of the players that do well on the career WAR metric are those that managed to play for a long time. Career WAR is a decent starting point, but it should never the end of the argument, and it should never be the ultimate arbiter of a ranking. Peak value does matter. If two players seem roughly equivalent, I will tend to favor the one with greater peak value. I feel that those players are “greater”. They’re more likely to make the difference in winning a pennant. Bill James’ classic example in his HOF book, of course, was the comparison of Steve Carlton to Don Sutton, who had fairly similar career records in many ways, but Carlton had the “big years”, and Sutton was much more consistent, but less brilliant. The conclusion was that the peak years make a difference, because they are more likely to make the difference in winning a pennant or not. And, once you win a pennant…..they never take it away. Pennants and championships are the reason they play in the first place.

            Of players who I felt were in a pretty tight group together (Sandberg, Biggio, Frisch, Whitaker, Grich, Carew, Alomar), the ones other than Whitaker tended to have the bigger years. If we’re going to engage in analogies…..Whitaker is like a saleperson who goes to work every day and does his job for 40 years, has perfect attendance, and makes his sales goals……but he’s never salesperson of the year. Well….those consistent performers certainly have “value”….but that doesn’t make them “great”. Give me the difference-makers anyday.


          • ingres77 says:


            My point about Cupid Childs was more glib than anything. The point being that you can’t simply take someone’s numbers from that era at face value. OF COURSE Lajoie was better than Cupid Childs. That doesn’t mean he was better than Jackie Robinson.

            Also, I don’t believe it’s true that “the best you can do is judge players by their era.” You can make adjustments for players who benefited from era-specific things (such as no black or foreign players).

            And, yes, I do give everyone from that era a significant downgrade. While I agree that I may be knocking Lajoie down too much, but that era just reeks of unreliable numbers. Why has no one his .400 since WWII? Are there simply no hitters as good as that anymore? We look at Barry Bonds c.2002 and automatically know those numbers aren’t real, that they were inflated through PED use. But we look at Babe Ruth and Rogers Hornsby and are supposed to assume it’s indicative of talent?

            I don’t buy it. I don’t buy that guys swinging 50 oz bouts aren’t an indication of the lower quality of pitching. I don’t buy that men who didn’t spend their entire lives honing their bodies specifically to play baseball were better than those who did. I don’t believe that players who didn’t have all the technology and information and benefits of the modern world are so much better than those who do.

            You’re right that Joe probably has Sandberg so much higher than Whitaker as well….but I don’t see why he does, either. Maybe I’m underestimating Sandberg – but I think this all comes down to years of sustained excellence don’t impress as readily as a few years of absolute brilliance. Sandberg’s peak was no doubt higher than Whitakers. No doubt. Through ages 29-30, they were virtually tied in WAR (both around 39 at age 30). Sandberg jumps ahead for three years….until his career stalls before ending after adding only 4 WAR. Whitaker, however, continued to steadily play well for the rest of his career.

            Which is better, sustained excellence, or a few years of brilliance surrounded by years of good? In my mind, they are two sides of the same coin. If they were tied for the same WAR, I’d give Sandberg the edge. But they aren’t. Whitaker finished with almost 10 more WAR over his career. That’s not insignificant.

            Now, I don’t think this is a hard and fast rule. WAR, ultimately, is a counting stat. Pedro Martinez and Don Sutton (according to Fangraphs) have the same WAR. Does that mean they are are equally good? No. Of course not. Sutton accumulated his WAR in almost twice as many innings as Pedro. That’s significant.

            The difference between Whitaker and Sandberg is only about 400 plate appearances. That’s not enough to explain the 8 WAR difference.

            I don’t disagree that Whitaker and Sandberg are in the grouping.

            For me, there’s Morgan, Hornsby, Collins and maybe Jackie Robinson. Gehringer and the rest of my top 10 are not quite interchangeable, but they’re all pretty close.

          • DM says:


            First of all, you’re taking a few liberties that I can’t let go by.

            You said:

            “Which is better, sustained excellence, or a few years of brilliance surrounded by years of good? In my mind, they are two sides of the same coin. If they were tied for the same WAR, I’d give Sandberg the edge. But they aren’t. Whitaker finished with almost 10 more WAR over his career. That’s not insignificant.”

            A little later:
            “The difference between Whitaker and Sandberg is only about 400 plate appearances. That’s not enough to explain the 8 WAR difference.”

            Whitaker’s WAR on bb-ref is 74.8. Sandberg’s is 67.6. That’s 7.2 difference. When you said “8”, at least that was somewhat close, so I don’t want to nit-pick that. But is 7.2 considered to be “almost 10”? WAR, by the creators’ own admissions, is an approximation anyway. If you’re going to start rounding that approximation up to the nearest 10, I’m not quite sure what to say.

            Also, in the interest of accuracy…..Whitaker had 685 more plate appearances, not about 400.

            Basically, what all of this means is that there’s very little to choose from between the 2 on career WAR, which you do effectively acknowledge. And, I do concede that Whitaker’s is higher. But, if you’re going to play the WAR card, you also have to acknowledge that Sandberg had 4 years with a WAR higher than Whitaker’s highest WAR (6.7). Whitaker’s advantage is that he had A LOT more in the 4 to 5 range. I’ll say it again……Sandberg at his best was better than Whitaker at his best. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that WAR PROVES that, because I never think WAR “proves” anything…..but it is consistent with the thought that Sandberg had a higher peak. If that’s not your litmus test of whether someone is greater than another, I can’t help you. We all evaluate differently. You’re essentially saying that Whitaker’s higher career WAR gives him the advantage, because you said that if they were tied, you’d give Sandberg the edge. Since they’re not, you’re putting your eggs in Whitaker’s career WAR basket.

            Also, I wasn’t trying to point out that Joe’s ranking is the ultimate list. Obviously not. What I was saying was that, I don’t think you’ll find Whitaker as high up as 6th on ANYONE’S list of all time 2B. Take a look around, consult different sources. There’s no shortage of opinion. You might find him that high somewhere, but I’m confident that’s not the consensus. If you really feel he’s that high, that’s fine….it’s your ranking, you can use whatever criteria you want. But, again, you’re the one going against a consensus.

            Also, you really missed the point on early-era players. When commenting on my thoughts on evaluating players from other eras, you applied some distortion to what I said, so of course I can’t let that pass.

            You stated:
            “Also, I don’t believe it’s true that “the best you can do is judge players by their era.” You can make adjustments for players who benefited from era-specific things (such as no black or foreign players).”

            Actually, you didn’t capture what I was saying, at all. You truncated it. What I actually said was:
            “I also adhere to the fact that great players are great players, and would be so in any era. The best you can do is judge players in the context and conditions that they actually played, and make “reasonable” adjustments.”

            So, you left off the part where I said you should make “reasonable” adjustments. I think on the part where I said that great players are great players in any era, you interpreted that to mean that they would perform like they did in their time. No, that’s not it at all. I’m not claiming that Cobb or Lajoie would hit .400 now. I’m not saying anything remotely close to that. They wouldn’t hit .400 now. The lack of .400 hitters doesn’t mean that today’s players aren’t as good. Extreme performances like that speak more to the fact that there was a greater disparity of top-to-bottom talent in those days. They weren’t supermen. The game today isn’t conducive to .400 hitters. The talent pool is much deeper now….I still believe that the BEST players from different eras deserve consideration, and you shouldn’t assume they wouldn’t be among the elite.

            So, no, they weren’t supermen. However, I think there is a thought out there that players then couldn’t cut it now, that they were deficient by today’s standards, that they were a bunch of nothings or nobodies compared to modern players. I’m guessing you might be one of those people that agrees with Will Leitch, who is normally a fine writer, but who offered the opinion that “If you put Babe Ruth on the field now, he would strike out every time he batted, thanks to the curveballs, the sliders and the fastballs – split finger or 100 mph – all things he never saw anything close to” In other words, Ruth was just a fat, hot-dog eating slob who would have no business in today’s game. Is that your opinion too?

            The point I was making about Lajoie (or Cobb, or Wagner, or anyone from that era) was not that they would reproduce the same stats…..but that, as the best from their era, they would likely to be the best in whatever era they happened to end up in. If you could somehow miraculously transport them to different eras to compete, they wouldn’t bring their stats with them…..but they would get the advantages of that era, too, including whatever nutritional, technological, and physical advances have occurred. They would be competitive with the best players. Their batting averages would not be enormous, but they would still likely be among the better players.

            In adjusting for timelines, let me ask this. Forget about Lajoie, Cobb, Wagner, etc….how do you feel about Ted Williams. I mean, he started playing 75 years ago. That’s an awfully long time ago, and it was pre-integration. How much do you downgrade him? Would he be able to compete? Mickey Mantle? Started playing more than 60 years ago…..wonder how he would fare now with all of the changes? Joe Morgan started playing 50 years ago, and besides that was a runt at 5’7″”/160 lbs. Guess the more modern conditions and players would eat him alive.

          • Geoff says:

            It always amazes me that in sports like track, football, basketball, etc., no one questions the idea that today’s athletes are far, far better than those of the past. Heck, Jesse Owens’ winning time in 100M at the 1936 Olympics would not even stand out at the California state HIGH SCHOOL track championships now. Yet somehow many baseball fans believe that the game hasn’t really changed that much over the last hundred years. Will Leitch is probably overstating things a bit; I don’t actually think Ruth would be the worst hitter in baseball if he magically showed up at spring training, as we do know that he had exceptional power even by today’s standards. But I do think he’d struggle mightily, as the game really is completely different. Today’s pitchers throw WAY harder than they ever have before. The slider wasn’t in widespread use until the 1940’s or 50’s, and the split-fingered fastball wasn’t prominent until the 1990’s. I think Ruth would be switching to a much smaller bat almost immediately, and wouldn’t be surprised at all if he hit .240/.330/.480 or something.

            Even if I’m right about all this, though, so what? I’ve made this point before, but it’s not particularly interesting to rank the greatest players of all-time if you begin with the assumption that everyone whose career started more than 30 years ago (or more than 100 years ago) was basically a joke. It’s even worse when this thinking is applied selectively, whereby, say Ted Williams is ranked among the greats, but Ruth’s performance is heavily discounted. I use 1893 as a pretty hard dividing line, because the game was far less organized at the time and the rules changed pretty dramatically that year, but other than that I think the game has improved more or less along a smooth curve. Sure, there was a bigger bump than usual in 1947, but it’s not like Williams, Musial, Feller, etc. suddenly sucked. Yeah, Lajoie would have struggled if he showed up today. So would Gehrig. And Williams. And Mays. And Yaz. And Brett. The more recent guys would have found the adjustment easier, but I think 1974 Brett would be amazed if he walked onto a big league field on Opening Day 2014 and had to hit off Justin Verlander or Max Scherzer.

            I think it’s reasonable to assume that the greatest players in *any* era were exceptionally talented, and given proper training, nutrition, etc, they would be great no matter when they played. In other words, 1920 Babe Ruth might not be very good in 2014, but if you transplanted 1899 Babe Ruth to 1994, the guy you’d have in 2014 would be among the best players in the game.

          • DM says:


            Thanks for the post.

            On your final paragraph, where you say:

            “I think it’s reasonable to assume that the greatest players in *any* era were exceptionally talented, and given proper training, nutrition, etc, they would be great no matter when they played. In other words, 1920 Babe Ruth might not be very good in 2014, but if you transplanted 1899 Babe Ruth to 1994, the guy you’d have in 2014 would be among the best players in the game.”

            I agree. That’s essentially the point that I was trying to make, but I actually prefer the way you expressed it. And that’s exactly why I think it’s absolutely valid to identify the best players in various eras and to try, as best we can, to rank them accordingly. If we need to adjust the statistical lens, I’m all for that, We have to adjust that lens even when comparing players of the SAME era, let alone different ones. I’m assuming that Wagner, if he was re-created twenty years ago or so and drove himself to passionately pursue baseball again, would be a great shortstop today. I doubt he’d end up with a .328 average again, but I think he’d be great. The greats of that era, in doing all-time rankings like these, deserve to be fairly considered. They shouldn’t be deified, but they shouldn’t be dismissed either.

            On your other point about other sports over time (such as track), where you said:

            “It always amazes me that in sports like track, football, basketball, etc., no one questions the idea that today’s athletes are far, far better than those of the past. Heck, Jesse Owens’ winning time in 100M at the 1936 Olympics would not even stand out at the California state HIGH SCHOOL track championships now.”

            I hear you, and I have partial agreement with that. I think no one questions track athletes because their performances are measured against the clock or the tape measure, which is a much more objective judge than a game of a variety of skills such as baseball where the athletes are competing against each other in a game. But is it the athletes themselves who are better, or is it just the performances and the results? Is it the people, or is it the other factors (like training, nutrition, equipment, etc.) that are advancing? Maybe it’s a little of both. But, I think if you asked people to rank the best track and field athletes of all time, we’d probably experience the same thing as we’re doing here. We wouldn’t just look up the best performances, the longest jumps, the fastest times, and rank based on that….we would consider what the athletes accomplished, when they did it, and the circumstances of their achievements. If Joe (or anyone) set out to list the “100 greatest track athletes”, I would anticipate Jesse Owens would rate quite highly in such a pursuit, and so would Carl Lewis, even though their records may have been pushed aside.

            Regarding other team sports…..I think it’s generally accepted that players are faster, stronger, and more athletic now, for many of the same reasons we’ve talked about, but, again great players are great players. Bill Russell wouldn’t average 20 rebounds a game over his career today, and I’m sure Chamberlain wouldn’t have a season where he averaged 50 points a game. But there’s no reason to believe that they wouldn’t be among the better players.

            I agree with you that sports and athletic endeavors tend to improve over time over a smooth curve, that the time continuum and general advancements in how we do things tends to push it that direction. I, for one, am glad that that does not prevent us from acknowledging and putting into perspective great achievements and great athletes from prior generations simply because they were born too soon. 🙂


    • Stephen says:

      Joe Posnanski is a really good writer who knows a great deal about baseball (which after all is why we are all here, yes)?

      rather than claiming that he chose Rivera because he was “trying to split the difference” between two opposing groups of observers, it would be fairer and I suspect much more accurate to say that he chose Rivera because he *actually believes that Rivera belongs on the list.* To say otherwise seems condescending at best.

      And no, I’m not a Yankees fan by any stretch of the imagination. Though I’ll admit I never saw anything in Rivera to hate.

      One further thought: I don’t follow football, so maybe I am missing something. But your Ray Guy analogy doesn’t hold water for me. Guy does/did something that no one else on the field does or is expected to do. Rivera is a pitcher, and just like Tom Seaver, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, etc, etc, etc, his job is to *get people out.*

      Which he did. Brilliantly.

      • Stephen says:

        Oh, and that comment was directed mainly to Geoff, if that wasn’t clear. The threading can be difficult to follow.

      • Geoff says:

        I’m not sure why you think I was being condescending. If you read the first paragraph of the Rivera entry, you’ll see that Joe seems to acknowledge the idea that he’s basically splitting the difference.

        Your argument is that Ray Guy is a specialist, while Rivera is a pitcher? Okay, great. According to WAR, Rivera is #74 among pitchers, right between Dave Steib and Tim Hudson. By JAWS, he’s tied with Tommy Bridges for #117 all-time, just behind Kenny Rogers, Jimmy Key, and Ron Guidry.

        The problem is you can’t have it both ways. The only way to even *think* about having him ranked in the top 100 is to view him as a specialist, whose job is to do something he’s uniquely qualified to do. because if you just view him as a pitcher, he’s not even remotely close to making this list. Rivera was fantastic at getting people out, but there’s only so much value you can have when your job is to get 200 outs per year.

  22. johnq11 says:

    I think what’s interesting in hindsight is how many good-great players those late 1960’s-early 1970’s Twins teams had and then never made it to a WS after 1965: Carew, Killebrew, Kaat, J. Perry, T. Oliva, B. Allison, D. Chance, C. Tovar, R. Perranoski, G. Nettles, L. Tiant, L. Hisle and B. Blyleven. I guess they never had those guys peak or playing at the same time.

    They also traded Nettles when he was very young for Tiant but then the just released Tiant outright? Anybody know the story about that? The Red Sox picked him up and then he had 6-7 big years with them. And then they put J. Kaat on waivers and he was selected by the Chi Sox and ended up having two great years with them. Imagine a 1974-75 rotation of Blyleven, Kaat and Tiant?

    Carew is an interesting player in that he played 1000+games at 2b and 1000+ at first base. That must be somewhat unique. Maybe Pete Rose did something like that but I can’t think of too many 2b/1b players with even 600-700+ games at either position.

    • Geoff says:

      I was thinking it was an interesting historical tidbit that the Twins had almost the exact same scenario play out with David Ortiz 32 years after they let Tiant go, but when I looked up I saw that it actually wasn’t quite the same. Tiant was released by the Twins during spring training 1971, after which he was signed by the Braves. After appearing in five games for Richmond, the Braves released him on May 15. He signed with the Sox 2 days later, pitched like crap for them the rest of the year (in AAA and the big leagues), then turned it on in ’72 and had a fantastic season.

    • Anon says:

      Now 2b but Ernie Banks was over 1000 at SS and 1B. I was thinking Jeff Kent but he only played 117 games at 1B. Rose was just under 1000 at 1B and right around 600-700 at 4 other positions – LF, RF, 2B, 3B. went down the list of leaders in games at 2B and the only other name that jumped out at me was Julio franco who cleared 500 at each position.

    • DM says:

      I agree that they had some really fine talent, but I think what happened is that the Orioles were just that much better (about 10 games a year better). Frank & Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell, Don Buford, a great rotation led by Palmer/Cuellar/McNally, strong bullpen led by Watt/Richert/Hall, world class defenders like Blair, Belanger, and Robinson…..they averaged 97 wins from ’66 to ’71. When the Twins had great years in ’69 and ’70, the Orioles outplayed them by 10 games and also swept them in the playoffs both years. Maybe the Twins should have fared better…..but that was a hell of an Orioles team during that time frame.

      • johnq11 says:


        Yeah, you’re right they got stuck having to to play those great Orioles teams in ’69 & ’70. I think what also hurt was that they were playing in an American League with 10 teams and no divisions from ’62-68 which was most of the portion of their peak.

        Overall, the Twins of the 1960’s early 70’s are kind of a forgotten team. I went back and checked and they actually had the 3rd best record in the majors from 1962-1970. Only the Orioles and the Giants had a better record.

        If you take it a little longer say from 1962-1979, the Twins actually had the 6th best record in baseball. That something on first glance that you wouldn’t think was the case if you grew up during that time period. You wouldn’t think of the Twins as being one of the top 6 dominant regular season teams during the 60’s-70’s. Only the Orioles, Reds, Dodgers, Pirates and Yankees had a better record. The big difference is that those 5 teams all won multiple WS championships and multiple League Pennants. The Twins by contrast didn’t win a WS and only won 1 league pennant and 2 divisions.

        One of the things they did really well was develop some good to great players during that time period: Carew, Killebrew, Oliva, Blyleven, Katt, B. Allison, G. Nettles, C. Tovar, D. Goltz, C. Pasqual, S. Braun, J. Hall, Z. Versalles, D. Boswell, R. Dempsey, B. Wynegar, L. Bostock, R. Rollins, J. Merritt, E. Soderholm, B. Campbell, and T. Hall.

        The only big contributors they got from the outside during that time period were: J. Perry, L. Hisle, D. Chance, R. Smalley, E. Battey and L. Cardenas.

        The worst thing they did during that time period was release Tiant outright and put J. Kaat on waivers in the early 70’s when they still had many productive years to pitch. Then they had to trade Nettles to acquire Tiant so that was just a disaster move.

        They could have had two of the best position players in baseball during the 1970’s with Carew and Nettles. Add Blyleven to mix and you have one of the best pitchers in the baseball during the 70’s.

        They traded R. Dempsey to the Yankees for nothing. They traded J. Perry for nothing when he still had some decent years left.

        They traded B. Blyleven for R. Smalley with some other ancillary players.

        Then they let Bostock and Carew leave via free agency at the end of that run.

        • DM says:


          Thanks for posting. I started paying attention to baseball late ’60’s/early ’70’s, and I have memories of watching playoff games with the Twins. They had many players I liked, especially Oliva and Killebrew, and I was rooting for them to beat the Orioles, but to no avail.

          I agree the Twins of that era had some pretty impressive talent. You got Hall of Famers with Killebrew, Carew, and Blyleven. Oliva was building a strong HOF case prior to the injuries, and he still has his supporters. I wouldn’t mind seeing him enshrined one day. There’s a lot of “black ink” on his bb-reference page, and he was a significant force in those days. Jim Kaat, of course, has a very good case for the HOF, and I think, someday, he’ll make it. Tiant passed through Minnesota pretty quickly, but he’s another HOF-caliber player.

          And, some of the others that had really good careers: Perry with over 200 wins, Nettles as one of the best defensive 3B ever and a pretty good power hitter to boot (although he of course didn’t spend much time with the Twins), Bob Allison Dean Chance with nice careers……yep, I really liked them.

          Thanks for the stroll down memory lane…

  23. Chris H says:

    Other than the guys on my hometown Clevelands, I probably idolized Rod Carew more than any other player. He just seemed like a magician, or so Herb Score would describe him. I’d be listening to a late night game from the coast, it would be 1:20 in the morning and Herb would say “Here’s that man again,” and I’d know that Carew was going to dunk one into right field and put the game away. I should have hated him, but all I could do is admire.

    So I’m perfectly glad to see him show up here instead of someone else, maybe even someone more deserving. The stories about him are great. And in a way, he is a player perfectly suited to the writing of this series. As Rod Carew had bat control, Joe Poz is displaying some of the best writing control I’ve ever seen in my life. Seriously, the sentences and paragraphs in this series are E.B. White good – simple and clear declarative sentences laid out in a row, and all of a sudden I find I’m smiling ear to ear or on the edge of tears. Thanks again, Joe.


  24. astros fan says:

    “He struck out 91 times his rookie year, another 71 his second,*”

    Never saw anything to go along with the asterisk.

    Quietly enjoying this amazing series. I only wish there were less typos.

    • Geoff says:


      I mean, if the best sportswriter in America is going to give us tons of awesome content for free, the least he can do is hire an editor to make sure we never have any typos.

      I really hope you were joking.

    • Geoff says:

      Oh, and it’s “fewer” typos.

  25. tombando says:

    Always loved watching this guy play….fun to see Cecil Cooper doing the same stance, but of course w/ much more power to show for it. Pair of graceful players you don’t hear enough about now.

    Craig Kusick sells Yugos now doesn’t he?

  26. steveb says:

    Re: Tiant/Twins

    When the Twins traded for Tiant he was coming off a bad season. He always pitched winter ball, but after his great 1968 season the Indians ordered him not to pitch in the offseason. When the 1969 season began his arm wasn’t in shape and he began the season pitching very poorly, losing his first 7 decisions and carrying a 7.29 ERA after his first 9 starts. He began pitching better in June and battled back to an 8-10 record, though he never got back his great fastball. The Indians were awful that season, and Tiant went 1-10 in the closing months despite pitching about the same as in midseason. There were five no-decisions that the Indians won where Tiant kept them the game close but didn’t get the W.

    So after that disappointing season the Indians traded him to the Twins. He pitched well for the Twins for a while and then hurt his shoulder. The Twins released him during spring training in 1971 thinking he was finished. The Braves then signed him, and though Tiant didn’t make the cut he was assigned to their Richmond farm team and was released when his 30-day contract was up. The Red Sox signed him two days later. It was with the Red Sox that Tiant began incorporating all of the unusual pitching mannerisms that he became famous for. He did have a few tricks that he was using as early as 1968, like turning his back to home plate and a nasty hesitation pitch. But Luis took it to a whole new level with different arm angles and assorted junkball pitches in order to further frustrate the batters.

  27. James says:

    I remember going to Yankee stadium in 1976 or 1977 to see the Yanks play the Twins. Late in the game we snuck down to the 5th row on the 1st base side. Some of the Yankee fans fans were riding Carew because he had make the switch to first, saying he was all washed up. Once they move you to first, you all all washed up. Carew, who was hitting his normal .330 or so, had a huge smile on his face and was laughing along.

    The fans were right, he was out of the league in another 8 or 9 seasons.

  28. Herb Smith says:

    The Tony Gwynn/Wade Boggs of my youth.

    Drank 32 Cokes every game (as per Sports Illustrated.).

  29. DM says:

    Here’s my stupid observation of the day….

    The Rod Carew post is probably one of the few in history that generated comments that ultimately mentioned both Fred Gwynne and Tony Gwynn. That has to make anyone smile….

  30. Geoff says:

    “(I)s it the athletes themselves who are better, or is it just the performances and the results?”

    I’m no evolutionary biologist, but it seems unlikely to me that we’ve evolved in any significant way over the last 100 years. In other words, I don’t think baby Mike Trout was different from baby Mickey Mantle in terms of baseball talent, at least not in any fundamental way. The improvement over time is due entirely to coaching, nutrition, equipment, exercise, and competition (which forces athletes to push themselves to new levels). I have no doubt that if Mantle was born in 1990 he’d be one of the best players in baseball right now. Heck, he’d probably have a much better career because he wouldn’t have tripped over a drain pipe and torn his ACL, or if he had torn his ACL it would have been repaired properly and he’d have been back on the field at 100% less than a year later. His off-the-field issues likely would have been dealt with in much more aggressive fashion, too.

  31. wogggs says:


    Thanks for clearing up the controversy concerning the Hanukkah Song…

  32. Bryce says:

    I was lucky enough to be at the 1977 Jersey Day game against the Chicago White Sox, dressed all in ugly black. I believe that was around the time he first went over .400. This was back in the days when lots of us kept baseball scores – even if by radio only. That Jersey Day game was memorable for the hammered guy who climbed the foul pole out in left. What a year to be a Carew and Twins fan!

  33. RW says:

    I wish there were more hitters like Rod Carew these days. Played the game the way it should be played.

  34. Bruce Miller says:

    I just met Sam Cummando, the Bronx baseball coach, and former professional baseball scout, who discovered Rod Carew. Initially was skeptical about his story -( just a little) until he showed me the personal notes from Carew thanking Mr. Cummando for all he did for him, and Mr. Cummando’s wife recounting meeting this poor skinny Dominican kid who the Cummandos would have over to their house for dinner numerous times. Mr & Mrs. Cummando are exceedingly nice people. I urged him to record an oral history of his life and experiences – fascinating ! You should interview him. What a shame that baseball scouts, just like professional athletes, from that era, made so little money compared to current salaries.

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