Willie Mays turned 80 this year, and Mickey Mantle would have turned 80 last month, and that tells you that 1931 was one heck of a baseball year. I don’t know anything at all about wine, but for as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by the concept of good and bad years for wine. I admit my fascination is mostly built from scenes in movies where snooty rich men try to impress women (and end up annoying the heck out of everyone) by ordering a bottle of wine from 1961 rather than 1962.Thing is, if we look back on baseball vintages, we see that there really is a big difference between different years. Look at 1931:January 31, 1931: Ernie Banks was born in Dallas, Texas.May 6, 1931: Willie Mays was born in Westfield, Alabama.October 13, 1931: Eddie Mathews was born in Texarkana, TexasOctober 20, 1931: Mickey Mantle was born in Spavinaw, OklahomaOctober 23, 1931: Jim Bunning was born in Southgate, KentuckyWhat a year. And how about that 11-day span in October, 1931? How rare is it to have three Hall of Famers born within 11 days of each other? Think of this: Not a single Hall of Fame baseball player was born in 1932 OR 1933.I would say that 1931 is the greatest birth year in baseball history, the best vintage. You could certainly argue for 1887 when Walter Johnson and Pete Alexander were born. Babe Ruth alone made 1895 a great year, and a handful of men born in 1903, led by Lou Gehrig and Cool Papa Bell, are in the Hall of Fame. Satchel Paige may or may not have been born in 1906. Hank Greenberg and Josh Gibson, among others, were born in 1911. Ted Williams and Bob Feller, among others, were born in 1918. And so on.But I think a year that gives us Mantle and Mays — not to mention Mr. Cub, one of the great third basemen ever and a U.S. Senator — is pretty close to unbeatable.Of, course, this led me to wonder about MY birth year — 1967. The best baseball player born in my birth year was probably John Smoltz. I guess Trevor Hoffman would be in the mix. Omar Vizquel was probably the best every day player born in my year, though Kenny Lofton and Robin Ventura would be nominees. In other words, no, it’s not a particularly great vintage. I mean, it’s certainly not bad — Smoltz was a dominant pitcher at different times, Vizquel a wonderful player whose barehanded plays are among my favorite memories of the era — but it ain’t Mantle and Mays. A baseball bottle of wine in my year of birth would probably be on holiday sale in the wine section of Kroger for $9.99.And looking at THAT led me to go through the past 80 years, find the best players born each year, and give the baseball vintage a grade. Go ahead and look for your birth year — it’s my thanks to you on this Thanksgiving. And, yes, beyond that, I definitely will think of turning this idea somehow into greeting cards that will make me a bajillionaire.**Why would I want to become a bajillionaire? I think it goes without saying: So I could sit around the house all day eating Fritos and wearing this.1931Best player: Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle.Other nominees: Ernie Banks, Eddie Mathews, Ken Boyer, Jim Bunning.Vintage grade: A+Comment: Best birth year in baseball history.1932.Best player: Maury WillsOther nominees: Woodie Held, Johnny Podres, Ron KlineVintage grade: F+Comment: There are no Fs, but this was a dry year.1933Best player: Rocky ColavitoOther nominees: Billy O’Dell, Herb Score.Vintage grade: DComment: This year desperately needed Herb Score to become an all-time great. He seemed well on his way before getting hit in the face with the Gil McDougald line drive. He struggled to recover and suffered subsequent arm troubles. The vintage never recovered either.1934Best player: Hank AaronOther nominees: Roberto Clemente, Al Kaline, Luis Aparicio, Roger Maris.Vintage grade: AComment: In some ways 1934 was every bit as good a year as 1931 — Aaron, Clemente, Kaline, what a vintage. But there was no great pitching this year; the best pitcher born in 1934 was probably Camilo Pascual.1935Best player: Frank RobinsonOther nominees: Bob Gibson, Sandy KoufaxVintage grade: B+Comment: I didn’t really know what to do with best player this year. Frank Robinson probably provided the most value, which is why I picked him, but Gibson and Koufax were both so dominant and so iconic. There aren’t many great pitching birth years. This year or 1944 are probably the best pitching years of the last 80 years when it comes to dominant pitches … well, 966 was awfully good too.1936Best player: Harmon KillebrewOther nominees: Frank Howard, Bill Mazeroski, Don Drysdale.Vintage grade: B-Comment: Good power year with Killer and Frank Howard.1937Best player: Brooks RobinsonOther nominees: Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda, Mike Cuellar.Vintage grade: C+Comment: This will give you an idea about how separate the leagues used to be. Juan Marichal started 457 games, threw more than 3,500 innings and faced more than 14,000 batters in his remarkable career. Brooks Robinson played in 2,896 games, came to plate almost 12,000 times and faced more than 650 different pitchers. Robinson and Marichal were born the same year. They played at precisely the same time. They never faced each other.1938Best player: Willie McCoveyOther nominees: Billy Williams, Tony Oliva, Gaylord Perry, Jim Kaat.Vintage grade: BComment: Heck of a year for sweet-swinging left-handed hitters, eh? Here’s one for you: Willie McCovey hit home runs off 12 different Hall of Famer pitchers and was obviously one of the greatest home run hitters in baseball history. But, stunningly, he never hit one in 35 plate appearances off Robin Roberts, who was famous for allowing home runs — he is one of only two pitchers in baseball history to give up more than 500 home runs over a career.* How strange is that? But it gets even stranger: McCovey did hit .452 with THREE TRIPLES off Roberts.*The other is Jamie Moyer who, old as he is, never faced. McCovey.1939Best player: Carl YastrzemskiOther nominees: Lou Brock, Phil Niekro, Rico Carty, Milt Pappas.Vintage Grade: BComment: Two 3,000-hit guys … I include Carty because he was one of my favorite players when I was growing up and he’s also the only National Leaguer between Musial and Gwynn to hit better than .365 in a season. Yeah, that’s kind of a made-up stat but, as mentioned, he was one of my favorite players growing up.1940Best player: Willie StargellOther nominees: Ron Santo, Joe Torre, Luis Tiant, Mickey Lolich.Vintage grade: C+Comment: A year for Hall of Fame snubs … Torre will get in soon enough, I suspect.1941Best player: Pete RoseOther nominees: Bill Freehan, Boog Powell, Tim McCarver, Wilbur Wood.Vintage grade: CComment: And no Hall of Famers in this vintage yet. I am on record saying I think Pete Rose should be on the Hall of Fame ballot, but I honestly don’t think that will ever happen and even if it does I don’t see any emerging scenario for Pete Rose to get into the Hall of Fame.1942Best player: Ferguson JenkinsOther nominees: Dick Allen, Jimmy Wynn, Tony Perez, Jerry Koosman.Vintage grade: C-Comment: First year on the list where a pitcher was a pretty clear choice as best player.1943Best player: Joe MorganOther nominees: Roy White, Tommy John, Rico Petrocelli, John Hiller, Mike Marshall.Vintage grade: D+Comment: Mike Marshall pitched in ONE HUNDRED AND SIX GAMES in 1974. That is all.1944Best player: Tom SeaverOther nominees: Steve Carlton, Graig Nettles, Sal Bando, Joe Niekro, Denny McClain.Vintage grade: BComment: Ten different pitchers born in 1944 won 100-plus games in the big leagues. I suspected that was a record. Turns out, it is not. But with Seaver and Carlton, this ranks as one of the great pitcher vintages ever.1945Best player: Rod CarewOther nominees: Reggie Smith, Davey Lopes, Don Sutton, Jim Palmer.Vintage Grade: B+Comment: Rod Carew had an astonishing 164 games where he hit three or more singles. As you might guess only Pete Rose (187) had more. Over the last 25 years, the hitters with most three single games are exactly who you might expect:1. Ichiro Suzuki (132)2. Derek Jeter (122)3. Tony Gwynn (110)4. Luis Castillo (109)5. Ivan Rodriguez (97)1946Best player: Reggie JacksonOther nominees: Bobby Bonds, Larry Dierker, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers.Vintage Grade: C+Comment: Three more Hall of Famers — and it’s interesting that all there played a huge role in the Oakland A’s dominance of the early 1970s.1947Best player: Johnny Bench or Nolan RyanOther nominees: Carlton Fisk, Darrell Evans, Thurman Munson, Steve Stone.Vintage Grade: AComment: What a great year for catchers. I think the best player is a toss-up — one of the greatest catchers in baseball history and perhaps the most remarkable pitcher of all time. Most people would probably go with Ryan.1948Best player: Ron Cey or Steve GarveyOther nominees: Toby Harrah, George Foster, Dave Concepcion, Charlie Hough.Vintage Grade: D-Comment: As mentioned, there are no Fs … but this one is a bit too close close. A few good players, but no great ones. I had no idea who to put as best player, so I decided to put the two Dodgers teammates up there and let LA fans choose between them. Concepcion also has a case.1949Best player: Mike SchmidtOther nominees: Bobby Grich, Ted Simmons, Rick Reuschel, Steve Rogers, Vida Blue.Vintage Grade: B-Comment: An underrated year — Grich, Simmons and even Reuschel have Hall of Fame cases. Vida Blue was well on his way to the Hall before his career was derailed.1950Best player: Ron GuidryOther nominees: Brian Downing, Doug DeCinces, Frank White, Duane Kuiper, Jon Matlack, J.R. Richard.Vintage Grade: DComment: A grand year for minor stars — TWELVE pitchers born in 1950 went on to win 100 games — though I like to think of it as the year of the Kuip.1951Best player: Bert BlylevenOther nominees: Dwight Evans, Buddy Bell, Dave Winfield, Dave Parker, Goose Gossage.Vintage grade: BComment: Three Hall of Famers, and you might not have knowns that Dewey and Buddy both have higher career WARs than Dave Winfield.1952Best player: Fred LynnOther nominees: Darrell Porter, Roy Smalley, John Denny, Mike Krukow.Vintage grade: D-Comment: An astonishingly poor vintage, there really aren’t even any “could have beens” in this group except for Lynn, who would be in the Hall of Fame, I think, had he played his entire career in Boston.1953Best player: George BrettOther nominees: Jim Rice, Keith Hernandez, Bruce Sutter, Dan Quisenberry, Frank Tanana.Vintage grade: A-Comment: After a slugging few years, things pick up considerably — three Hall of Famers. This year produced the two dominant closers of the early 1980s in Sutter and Quiz.1954Best player: Ozzie SmithOther nominees: Gary Carter, Willie Randolph, Andre Dawson, Dennis Eckersley, John Tudor.Vintage grade: AComment: An excellent year — four Hall of Famers and Randolph has a real HOF case. You could certainly put Carter above Ozzie on the list if you like.1955Best player: Robin YountOther nominees: Jack Clark, Chet Lemon, Willie Wilson, Dennis Martinez, Jack Morris.Vintage grade: C+Comment: Here’s a little fun fact for you: Yount won two MVPs. He did not finish in the Top 10 in the MVP balloting any other year.1956Best player: Eddie MurrayOther nominees: Paul Molitor, Dale Murphy, Bob Welch, Rick Sutcliffe.Vintage grade: B-Comment: We have now gone five years without a Hall of Fame starting pitcher being born.1957Best player: Lou WhitakerOther nominees: Brett Butler, Kirk Gibson, Dave Stieb, Lee Smith, Doug Jones.Vintage grade: D-Comment: Whitaker should have received a lot more Hall of Fame consideration but still it’s an unimpressive vintage. Six straight years without a Hall of Fame starting pitcher.1958Best player: Rickey HendersonOther nominees: Wade Boggs, Alan Trammell, Julio Franco, Orel Hershiser, Bruce Hurst.Vintage grade: B+Comment: Two first-ballot Hall of Famers — along with Trammell, who I think should be getting a lot more consideration — saves another soft pitching vintage. Seven straight years.1959Best player: Tim Raines or Ryne SandbergOther nominees: Harold Baines, George Bell, Tony Phillips, Mike Morgan, Oil Can Boyd,Vintage grade: C+Comment: I know most people would just put Sandberg as best player instinctively, but I believe Raines was very bit as good or better over a career.1960Best player: Cal RipkenOther nominees: Tony Gwynn, Kirby Puckett, Andy Van Slyke, Joe Carter, Mark Langston, Frank Viola, Fernando ValenzuelaVintage grade: A-Comment: Lots of good players led by the iconic player of the time, but we’re now at nine straight years without a Hall of Fame starting pitcher.1961Best player: Don MattinglyOther nominees: Andres Galarraga, John Kruk, Jimmy Key, Kevin GrossVintage grade: F+Comment: I think this and 1932 are the two worst vintages of the last 80 years. Mattingly was a fabulous player, but his career was short. And he’s by far the best player in the class. We have now gone 10 straight years without a Hall of Fame starting pitcher … but we’re about to enter a golden age of starting pitchers.1962Best player: Roger ClemensOther nominees: Darryl Strawberry, Wally Joyner, Eric Davis, Kevin Mitchell, Chuck Finley, Jamie Moyer.Vintage grade: C+Comment: We’ve reached a time where Hall of Fame caliber players — like Clemens — are not yet on the ballot. Nobody knows what will happen when Clemens reaches the ballot, but on paper and on the field he has a case as the greatest pitcher of all time. The hitting class was filled with promised and ended in disappointment.1963Best player: Randy JohnsonOther nominees: Edgar Martinez, Mark McGwire, Fred McGriff, Lenny Dykstra, David Cone.Vintage grade: BComment: Some great hitting and the Big Unit. And you have a financial scandal to boot. Here’s a year that tells the story of our times.1964Best player: Barry BondsOther nominees: Barry Larkin, Rafael Palmeiro, Will Clark, Jose Canseco, Bret Saberhagen, Dwight Gooden.Vintage grade: A-Comment: We are now seeing the Selig Era come into focus.1965Best player: Craig BiggioOther nominees: Matt Williams, Steve Finley, Kevin Brown, Al Leiter.Vintage grade: DComment: I don’t think I realized that Biggio was 2 1/2 years older than Bagwell. I always pegged them as the same age.1966Best player: Greg MadduxOther nominees: Tom Glavine, Larry Walker, David Justice, Albert Belle, Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield.Vintage grade: A-Comment: It’s like the Braves of the 1990s simply held the rights to 1966 and 1967 babies.1967Best player: John SmoltzOther nominees: Kenny Lofton, Robin Ventura, Omar Vizquel, Trevor Hoffman, Kevin Appier, Jim Abbott.Vintage grade: BComment: My year.1968Best player: Frank Thomas or Jeff BagwellOther nominees: Robbie Alomar, Gary Sheffield, Sammy Sosa, Jeff Kent, Mike Piazza, John Olerud, Bernie Williams, Mike Mussina.Vintage Grade: AComment: An amazing year — there are EIGHT offensive players with a WAR of 50 or higher, and eight pitchers after Mussina who won at least 100 games.1969Best player: Ken Griffey or Mariano RiveraOther nominees: Juan Gonzalez, Jose Valentin, Alex Fernandez, Troy Percival.Vintage Grade: B+Comment: Two of the most beloved and celebrated players of the time … and put together they don’t have as many MVPs as Juan Gonzalez.1970Best player: Jim ThomeOther nominees: Jim Edmonds, Javy Lopez, Wilson Alvarez, Jon Lieber.Vintage Grade: C-Comment: Thome is 110 strikeouts away from Reggie Jackson’s remarkable all-time mark of 2,597.1971Best player: Pedro MartinezOther nominees: Ivan Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Jorge Posada, Billy Wagner.Vintage Grade: BComment: With Justin Verlander winning the MVP this year, it’s fun to look back at Pedro’s 1999 and 2000 seasons and wonder how in the heck he didn’t win one of those years.1972Best player: Chipper JonesOther nominees: MannyBManny, Carlos Delgado, Shawn Green, Andy Pettitte.Vintage Grade: B-Comment: I’m really interested to see what will happen when Manny Ramirez becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame. A lot of people say, “he won’t get any support.” Other says, “He will get in within three years.” But truth is, nobody really knows what will happen.1973Best player: Ichiro SuzukiOther nominees: Todd Helton, Johnny Damon, Nomar Garciaparra, Bartolo Colon, Derek Lowe.Vintage Grade: CComment: I think it will be tough for Ichiro to get to 3,000 hits — he’s almost 600 short still and he’s 38 and was a well-below subpar hitter in 2010 — but the fact he’s even a POSSIBILITY for 3,000 hits despite starting in the big leagues at 28 tells you just what a hits machine he has been. He’ll got into the Hall of Fame first ballot. Damon, meanwhile, might get 3,000 hits and NOT get into the Hall of Fame.1974Best player: Derek JeterOther nominees: Bobby Abreu, Miguel Tejada, Kevin Millwood, Joe Nathan.Vintage Grade: B-Comment: Speaking of hit machines.1975Best player: Alex RodriguezOther nominees: Vlad Guerrero, Scott Rolen, David Ortiz, Torii Hunter. Tim Hudson, Chris Carpenter.Vintage grade: B+Comment: There’s a marvelous collection of third basemen — Ron Santo, Ken Boyer, Buddy Bell, Graig Nettles, Sal Bando, Darrell Evans, Robin Ventura, Ron Cey — who had terrific careers but aren’t in the Hall of Fame. It’s almost like third base could have it’s own “Hall of Very Good” wing. I think Rolen will probably be the best player in that wing.1976Best player: Lance BerkmanOther nominees: Troy Glaus, Michael Young, Javier Vazquez, Eric Gagne.Vintage grade: CComment: I think Michael Young has a much better chance of reaching 3,000 hits than, say, Alex Rodriguez has of breaking the home run record. In fact, I expect that if he stays in Texas, he probably will get to 3,000 hits.1977Best player: Roy HalladayOther nominees: Carlos Beltran, Andruw Jones, Roy Oswalt, Kerry Wood, A.J. Burnett.Vintage grade: B-Comment: The whole genesis of this project came from a sentence in the new Bill James Handbook, where he was talking about how Halladay and Wood were born in the same year and they were first round picks in the same draft but nobody — and I mean NOBODY — would have even thought of trading Wood in 1998 or 2000 or 2001. At that time, a trade like that would have been considered absolute madness — people might have rioted in the streets of Chicago. And yet, if the Cubs had made that trade they would have been making one of the greatest trades in baseball history. It just goes to show you how you never really know in baseball.1978Best player: Chase UtleyOther nominees: Jimmy Rollins, Victor Martinez, Barry Zito, Cliff Lee.Vintage grade: CComment: Utley is one of those players who is always turns out to be older than I remember. I guess the reason is I forget that Utley was a late bloomer … Even though he was a high first round pick in 2000, he did not play his first full season in the big leagues until he was 26. He will be 33 when the 2012 season begins. and injuries plus age make you wonder if he will ever again be a great player. I hope he is. but I suspect Cliff Lee might end up being on top of this list.1979Best player: Johan SantanaOther nominees: Adrian Beltre, Kevin Youkilis, Adam Dunn, Ryan Howard, Mark Buehrle, Brandon Webb.Vintage Grade: Inc.Comment: Now, we’re going to start putting “incomplete” on the vintages because we just don’t know. A nice combination of hitting and pitching, though I don’t know yet who the Hall of Famer is in this group. Are you as surprises as I am that Beltre, Howard, Dunn and Webb were all born in the same year? Quite a different ride for each of those guys.1980Best player: Albert PujolsOther nominees: Mark Teixeira, Matt Holliday, Jose Bautista, CC Sabathia, Dan Haren, Josh Beckett, Mark Prior.Vintage Grade: AComment: We don’t need an Incomplete on this one — you already have a guaranteed Hall of Famer (Albert), a pitcher who could win 300 (Sabathia), and Jose Bautista has emerged as perhaps the best player in the AL. Here’s another supposition: What if someone had told the Cubs in 2001 that they would be better off in the long run you would be better off if they traded Mark Prior for Dan Haren. They would have brought the guys out with the nets.1981Best player: TBDOther nominees: Josh Hamilton, Curtis Granderson, Justin Morneau, Carl Crawford, Carlos Zambrano, Jake Peavy, Adam Wainwright.Vintage Grade: Inc.Comment: Too early to make any real predictions here. Hamilton might have the best future, though Granderson was terrific in 2011.1982Best player: Adrian GonzalezOther nominees: David Wright, Robinson Cano, Adrian Gonzalez, Grady Sizemore, Ian Kinsler, Jered Weaver, K-Rod.Vintage Grade: IncComment: Again, it’s too early, but I’ll go to Adrian Gonzalez as the best player. Robbie Cano is an obvious consideration. Grady Sizemore looked like he was a candidate for best player in baseball … now, because of injuries, he seems five years older than everyone else on the list.1983Best player: TBDNominees: Miggy Cabrera, Joe Mauer, Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes, Dustin Pedroia, Ryan Braun, Joey Votto, Jacoby Ellsbury, Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels.Vintage Grade: Incomplete but excitingComment: Was waiting to get to this year — look at the players born in 1983. Obviously they won’t all keep playing at the amazing level they have shown but this really does have a chance to be the best vintage year since Mantle and Mays. You have incredible pitching just starting with Verlander, and absurdly great hitting with Miggy and Mauer and Pedroia and Braun and Votto and Ellsbury. An absolutely amazing class.1984Best player: Matt KempNominees: Troy Tulowitzki, Prince Fielder, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Jon Lester.Vintage grade: Inc.Comment: Not quite as great as 1983, but still exciting — I only put Kemp on the top because I thought he got jobbed for MVP. Truth is there are four or five guys already you could put in the Best Player slot. Baseball really has entered a brilliant new era of stars.1985Best player: TBDNominees: Evan Longoria, Carlos Gonzalez, Adam Jones, David Price, John DanksComment: The Rays might have the best hitter and pitcher in this vintage.1986Best player: Felix HernandezNominees: Pablo Sandoval, Andrew McCutchen, Matt Wieters, Jair Jurrjens, Yovani GallardoComment: Way too early to choose the best player, but I’ll put King Felix up there as an early leader.1987Best player: TBDNominees: Justin Upton, Alex Avila, Buster Posey, Daniel Hudson, Mat Latos, Jeremy Hellickson.Comment: I hope Buster Posey comes back from his injury the same as he was … one of my favorite players to watch.1988Best player: Clayton KershawNominees: Elvis Andrus, Trevor Cahill, Neftali FelizComment: Like with King Felix, I’ll put Kershaw at the top and see if any of the kids can knock him off the perch.1989Best player: TBDNominees: Mike Stanton, Jason Heyward, Eric Hosmer, Madison Bumgarner.Comment: From July 19 on, Eric Hosmer hit .325 and slugged .502. Is there anything better in baseball than a promising young player?