March 28th was the start of our nation’s most beloved recreational holiday: Opening Day for MLB. This excitement for our national pastime led me to scour the internet for new interesting baseball articles and questions that could only get me ready for the season. I eventually found an old essay by sportswriter Dave Fleming on Bill James’s website in which he answered a question posed by Joe Posnanski. That question was which five players would you put in a hall of fame? Just five and that means some of the game’s greatest players will not be chosen.
I have a young cousin who is quickly becoming a Mets fan, to my amusement, and I began pondering who I would put in this Hall of Fame to showcase to his impressionable mind what ballplayers he should be aware of and maybe even emulate. I have come up with a list of my own. There are two rules to this. The players chosen should represent an era of the game in order to represent the game’s evolution to the modern day. Here they are and feel free to comment on them.
1. Babe Ruth
As a Yankee fan and as a baseball fan, it is an obligation to pick Babe Ruth. The guy changed the face of baseball that has yet to be outmatched. Sure, his records have been broken by Whitey Ford, Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Rickey Henderson, and many others. That does not wipe away Ruth’s achievements in his time. 714 has become a number cemented into American culture because what it represented; a poor, German boy rising from an orphanage to become the greatest American sports figure of all time by smacking dingers like it was nobody’s business. His career records are some of the longest reigning records the game has ever seen and he is still the all-time OPS leader. He hit above 1.250 OPS six times between 1920 to 1930 in an era that saw a major increase in the number of heavy hitters such as Lou Gehrig and Hack Wilson. It has also been agreed upon that Ruth would have made it into the Hall of Fame as a pitcher and this begs the question as to how many records Ruth would have set had he transitioned into a full-time hitter during his Red Sox career. Red Sox owner Harry Frazee’s infamous trade of his star slugger and pitcher to the Yankees was beginning of the end of the Red Sox dynasty and set the stage for Yankee dominance. It is hard to think of another player who could have that impact on two franchises where one would not win another world series for more than eighty years while the other has won 27 World Series. It also helps Ruth’s behavior could be construed as a portrait “the roaring twenties” time in which social values seemed to be broken down in favor of instant gratification.
2. Satchel Paige
Next is Satchel Paige. Why? Paige, I think, represents the Negro Leagues better than anyone else. This was a league in which many of the greatest legends played with only box scores and oral testimonies demonstrating that they existed. There are reliable records, but not to the same extent as white professional baseball. There is an awe of mystery and wonder that surrounds this league because of this lack of records. Paige himself was an enigma and a reminder of what white Americans had deliberately ignored. He frequently lied about his age, would make new pitches on the spot, and played all throughout the country in parks that have long since receded from our national consciousness. He was the oldest Negro Leaguer to be picked up by a major league team much to his personal indignation. He had always believed that he should have been the one to break the gentlemen’s agreement over black Americans playing baseball. He may have been right considering that he had been pitching since the 1920s. Paige possessed a sense of a comedic, yet serious individualistic attitude. He promoted himself as the best Negro Leagues pitcher and it was that attitude that caught people’s attention. Regardless of whether or not he actually was the best pitcher in the Negro Leagues (fellow Negro Leaguer Leon Day holds the record for the highest Hall of Fame winning percentage), Paige’s eventual debut into MLB when he was thirty-two years old (supposedly) gave fans a brief chance to see who they missed out because of segregation. Oh, and he was fifty-nine when he retired from professional baseball by throwing three scoreless innings and one hit as a Kanas City Athletic. Even Father Time could never keep Paige down for long.
3. Mickey Mantle
My third pick is Mickey Mantle. He was a better player than Willie Mays in his prime and he was more interesting than Mays ever was. Let me compare Mays’s career to Mantle’s. Thanks to the rise of sabermetrics, Mantle’s offensive numbers surpass Mays in important categories. Mantle’s on-base percentage is .421 which is better than Mays’s .384. Mantle’s Batting Average on Balls in Play otherwise known as BABIP is .318 which exceeds Mays’s .299. Mantle walked far more than Mays ever did with more than 250 walks against Mays’s total as well as a higher walk percentage. This is impressive considering the horrific injuries the Mick played throughout his career. Yes, Mays’s won twelve gold gloves, had more runs, had fewer strikeouts, had more home runs, had more RBIs, and more total bases, but Mantle retired six years earlier due to injuries. Had Mantle played the same amount as Mays and had avoided most of his major injuries I believe Mantle would have surpassed Mays in more categories. Simply put, Mantle was better at getting on base than Mays and if you are trying to win games you need a player who can do that.
Now onto what I meant that Mantle was more interesting than the beloved New York Giants outfielder. Mays seemed to drift away from his iconic status as he got older. He rarely spoke out on the issues surrounding America. In one embarrassing moment, when asked about his reluctance to be active in the civil rights movement he responded that he had integrated a country club in San Francisco. Mantle, on the other hand, became more inspirational than Mays. After his retirement, he confronted the demons that halted his development as a baseball player and as a father. He sobered up, spoke openly on how he “failed” the expectations out on him, and encouraged the youth of America to not follow in his footsteps.
He was Americana for better or worse. A blonde hair kid from Oklahoma named after baseball royalty who escaped the coal mines and child abuse is something a Hollywood writer could never come up with until The Natural. He played in New York City when it truly was the capital of baseball and he appeared in nearly every World Series from 1951 to 1964. Mantle, as well as Mays, seemed to almost challenge Ruth’s home run records especially in 1961. His decline and eventual retirement in 1969 came at the right time as well. The 1960’s in America saw massive upheavals from civil rights, Vietnam, economic woes, and violence in the streets. The country was striving towards more equality, but many were losing confidence in the nation’s long-held ideals. The Yankees reflected the public’s dissatisfaction with baby boomer values with their inability to diversify with minority players and to properly develop a farm system. The newly-born Mets would capture the hearts of New York fans by constantly outselling the Yankees in attendance and winning the World Series in, coincidentally, 1969. Mantle’s retirement in 1969 fits perfectly into this new chapter in American and Yankee history.
4. Rickey Henderson
Another Yankee enters the ring. Rickey Henderson is my no-brainer choice to represent the years after the Mantle/Mays era. It does make sense considering Henderson, at least to me, represents the change away from the mighty sluggers of the 1950s-1960s and to a time where baseball emphasized speed and strategy. It was also a time in which ballplayers were gaining more leverage against owners in terms of contracts and to promote themselves.
Firstly, Henderson was perfect for the misunderstood sports decades after what was perceived to be the “golden age of baseball.” Henderson first played for the A’s in 1979. This was only a few years after George Steinbrenner and Charles Oakley began playing with the new free-agent market to bolster their teams. Ballplayer salaries were rising to levels never imagined before and ballplayers had greater freedom to sign with other teams if their demands were not met. To many fans, ballplayers were becoming more removed from their idealized beliefs of what a ballplayer should be and many of their “heroes” seemed to be more focused on stats and money rather than winning. Of course, this sentiment is false, but Henderson was a poster child. He nearly always referred to himself in third-person. This attitude was what got him the wrath of baseball purists in his speech after he broke Lou Brock’s stolen base record. Fans and writers contested his assertion that he was “the greatest of all time;” ignorant of the fact that Rickey not only was correct but that Brock had encouraged Henderson throughout his career. Henderson always was on the move mostly by trades, so he never asserted himself in the hearts of fans. Again, the perception was that guys like Henderson cared little for the teams they were playing on.
What exactly makes Henderson so special against the emergence of Whitey Ball and Billy Ball? In the words of Bill James, "Without exaggerating one inch, you could find fifty Hall of Famers who, all taken together, don't own as many records, and as many important records, as Rickey Henderson.” What does he mean by this? Is it that Henderson is the all-time runs scored king with 2,295 runs? Is it that he has more than 3,000 hits and walked 796 to start an inning? Is it that he is second on the all-time walks career list? Is it that he was caught stealing base ONLY 335 times when he stole 1,406 bases? Is it that he has the second-highest career power-speed number of 490.4 in baseball history? Is it that he set the Yankees’ franchise record of 326 stolen bases in four years while it took Derek Jeter sixteen years to even surpass the record? Is it more impressive that Henderson is not even in the top twenty players intentionally walked through their careers because he was that good at being a patient hitter? By age 25, he had three seasons with 100 walks and stole 100 bases; there has never been a player who has accomplished this. Do you know who is the career leaders for hits + walks + steals? Henderson, with 6651 total hits + walks + steals! Find me another player who has dominated the game in such a manner.
5. Barry Bonds
Hold that thought. There is one player who could make a good claim on that assertion. My final pick is Barry Bonds, the greatest offensive player who ever lived. It makes sense as he represents the modern age of baseball is defined by ludicrous contracts and abnormal increases in power hitting. Let me briefly cover the salary part. Bonds signed with Giants in 1993 for $43.75 million. That was the largest contract for any North American professional athlete at the time. The Pirates had been unable to satisfy Bonds’s wishes for a world championship and greater recognition for his talent. Bonds would later sign a $90 million dollar contract with the Giants in 2002. That amount was more than double than what he had received in 1993.
Now onto the abnormal power hitting phenomenon. I can hear fans begin to voice their concerns. He took steroids! So? It makes very little difference. You still need to hit the ball and taking drugs does not guarantee you will go to the Hall of Fame. Just ask Jose Canseco. It is also naïve to believe that an athlete would not take supplemental drugs to enhance his or her performance especially when our society promotes medication as the savior for all problems. All he did was hit homers and never won a championship! He did more than simply hit home runs and there have been great players who never won a World Series. Just ask Satchel Paige, Ted Williams, or Mike Mussina. He hurt baseball’s reputation! Well if that is true then the games Bonds played in would NOT have been sold out and baseball would forever be lambasted by the public for allowing him to play. That same criticism has been leveled throughout nearly every crisis MLB has faced from the Black Sox scandal to segregation. Baseball is still around. In addition, what could be considered a larger scandal than the Black Sox, but not as morally detrimental as segregation, was the collusion conspiracy of the ’80s. What was and has been the reaction by baseball fans to this horrendous conspiracy? Nothing. Bonds' actions are less impactful than these scandals that I have mentioned.
There are two Bonds. The pre-1999 Bonds and the post-1999 Bonds. When Bonds entered the big leagues in 1986 there were signs of the greatness that would mature. He was voted as the 6th rookie of the year, had an OBP of .330, and stole 36 bases while being caught only 7 times. It only got better from there. From 1986 to 1999, Bonds was in the MVP voting ballot for ten of those years and usually in the top five considerations. Ten years after his debut, Bonds accomplished a task that not even Mantle nor Mays ever did; steal forty bases and hit forty dingers. This should have capitulated the height of the greatest 90’s player. He was after all 32 years old, except that he did not dwindle away. Geoff Young of The Hardball Times website wrote about an interesting experiment where STATS 1997 Baseball Scoreboard used Bill James’s Brock6 system to predict the stats Bonds would compile from 1998 to 2008. Nearly every year, Bonds posted a higher OBP, a higher hits count, a higher RBI count, an HR count, and a higher walk count when he should have been declining. From 2001-2004, Bonds had an OPS over 1.250 in each of those seasons. Only Babe Ruth and Ted Williams have had seasons where they hit over the 1.250 OPS mark, but unlike Bonds, they did not have consecutive seasons doing so. I could go on with more feats of strengths that would make you think Hercules himself was a baseball player, but I’ve said my share. What makes me more inclined to change my rating on Bonds in the future is the allegations of domestic abuse.