Rating the Greatest Baseball Players of All Time

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Saturday, August 10, 2013
 
In our fourth installment we will be looking at the voting in the 1950s.  After some lurching back and forth about defining the Hall, it was during this era that the Hall really came into its own, and became a respected institution.  We have some very smart votes during this time period, with just a few  hiccups.

In the 1951 BBWAA vote, Mel Ott and Jimmie Foxx were elected as a very strong class.  In 1952 Harry Heilmann and Paul Waner got the call.  In 1953 the BBWAA selected Dizzy Dean and Al Simmons.  You could argue with Dean's election due to his short career, but he excelled at the "fame" part.  Here we see the BBWAA doing a solid job of moving people through the ballot and generally selecting deserving candidates.

In 1953 we also have the first voting by the new Veterans Committee.  As usual with a new electorate, there is a desire to stake out their own territory.  The VC selected the first umpires for Cooperstown, choosing NL veteran Bill Klem and AL arbiter Tommy Connolly.  They also chose as "executives" Harry Wright, from the very beginnings of baseball, and Ed Barrow, arguably the first "general manager" as we understand the term today.  They also picked old-time players Chief Bender and Bobby Wallace, both marginal selections, but they were trying.

In 1954 the BBWAA selected Rabbit Maranville, Bill Terry, and Bill Dickey.  In the weird logic of the voters, they bypassed Joe DiMaggio and Hank Greenberg in doing so.  1955 brought a bonanza of four choices:  DiMaggio, Ted Lyons, Dazzy Vance, and Gabby Hartnett.  The VC selected the deserving Home Run Baker and the questionable Ray Schalk.  In 1956, Hank Greenberg and Joe Cronin were elected by the BBWAA.  The BBWAA, having done such good work, promptly decided to go to every-other-year voting.

On one level, it was reasonable to do this.  The voters had done a great job of working through the backlog of good candidates, and the war had thinned out the candidate list through that era, an effect felt in the results.  However, that war effect was washing out, an outcome the BBWAA did not foresee.  They probably should have, with the Jackie Robinson/Willie Mays era underway, and other big stars like Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks were emerging.  Those guys would change the shape of things in the very short run.

What was decided was that the VC would fill in the BBWAA off-years.  In 1957 the VC selected player Sam Crawford and manager Joe McCarthy.  With the 1958 BBWAA ballot, no one was elected.  154 men received votes, including the still-active Warren Spahn.  Only Max Carey reached 50%, and he was at 51%.  So, it was over the the VC for 1959.  They chose Zack Wheat.  Back to the BBWAA for 1960 for...nobody.  Edd Roush topped the list at 54%.  In fairness, they were not looking at many spectacular candidates.  In a less complimentary analysis, the voting was a mess.  In 1960, Lefty Grove got six votes.  Grove had been elected in 1947.  Possibly those six voters had intended to vote for Lefty Gomez and either spelled it wrong, or illegibly, or made a typo.  Still, six votes for a guy already elected.  The best guys actually awaiting election were likely shortstops Arky Vaughan and Luke Appling.  They should have been obvious, perhaps, but the best of the rest were arguable candidates like Johnny Mize, Goose Goslin, and Red Faber.  No one was blowing the doors off the place.  That would change.


 
When last we left the Hall voting, the baseball writers (BBWAA) charged with doing the voting had elected 12 players to Cooperstown's museum, while various committees of voters had elected seven early executives (including the first president of the NL and AL, respectively), two managers (the redoubtable John McGraw and Connie Mack, even though Mack was still active), and three 19th century players, all in time for the Hall's opening in 1939.  Following the special election in 1939 of Lou Gehrig, after he was diagnosed with the fatal disease that still bears his name, they declared it a job well done and did not vote again until 1942, a three-year gap.  It is there we pick up our story in this third essay.

The 1942 vote saw Rogers Hornsby elected with 78% of the vote.  Since Hornsby's last big league play had been in 1937, five years before, some would think it was his first time on the ballot, but this is not the case.  This was the fifth time Hornsby had been named, on each ballot taken so far.  In these early days, there was not always a hard-and-fast rule about not voting for active players, though that was now widely observed, and no five-year waiting period.  At any rate, Hornsby was an obvious selection and still got just 78%.

The only other players above 50% in voting were Frank Chance and Rube Waddell, both at 58%.  72 players drew votes, and while Hornsby was most qualified guys like Frankie Frisch and Mickey Cochrane did not draw enough votes to be elected, and several 19th century players drew votes but not enough for enshrinement.  By this time, most of the voters had not seen these old-timers, and the memory of guys like Ed Delahanty and Kid Nichols had faded.

And again, the next vote was scheduled for three years down the road, in 1945.  This was THE moment for the "small Hall" argument.  Cooperstown was never more exclusive than it was at this point.  If you believe in a Hall only for the greatest of the great, this was that moment in history.  All was about to change.

Commissioner Landis died in 1944, and they quickly arranged a committee meeting to elect him to the Hall.  It followed precedent, with both first league presidents already with plaques.  And a crossroads had been reached.

Without realizing it, the Hall had reached a tipping point.  For only the very best, or a wider membership?  With World War II drawing to a close, the museum officials were realizing more visitors would come if players were inducted.  A broader Hall made better business sense.  But, with every-third-year voting and a backlog of candidates, the BBWAA was having a hard time electing anyone.  The 1945 vote came and...no one reached 75%.  Frank Chance was closest at 73%, coming seven votes short of election.  Rube Waddell, Ed Walsh, Johnny Evers, Roger Bresnahan, Miller Huggins, and Mickey Cochrane, in order, got at least 50%.  95 players, including the still-active (but off at war) Joe DiMaggio received at least one vote.  Voting was a mess.

So, an "old-timers committee" was formed to vote on 19th century players, and they voted in a cartload, ten names in all:  Wilbert Robinson, a 19th century player but elected mostly for his managing, and nine players:  Roger Bresnahan, Dan Brouthers, Fred Clarke, Jimmy Collins, Ed Delahanty, Hugh Duffy, Hughie Jennings, King Kelly, and "Orator" Jim O'Rourke.  They ranged from the great to the very good, but none of these guys was a BAD choice.  However, not all of them were up to the established standard.  And electing Bresnahan as a 19th century guy was stretching the definition of the term a bit, though he did start his career in 1897.

That eased the backlog a bit.  Bresnahan had been fifth in the BBWAA voting, Collins 8th, Delahanty 9th, and the others had also received some votes.  Also, the BBWAA decided to go back to yearly ballots.  So they took a vote again in 1947, and promptly elected nobody.  Frank Chance was again tops, this time with 71%.  A total of 76 guys received votes.  So they decided to have a runoff vote, and vote again on the top 20 guys...only it was 21 because of a tie for 20th.  This time, Chance got only 57% of the vote, so no one was elected again.

The situation was becoming untenable, with gridlock settling in for the ballot.  Even Lefty Grove and Charlie Gehringer couldn't break through to get elected.  There was an impasse between the "wait your turn" school, which wanted to see the guys getting the most votes already get elected first, versus those (a minority at this time) who wanted to elect the newer, more qualified guys.  As a result, no one was getting elected.

What happened now was what has historically happened:  a committee was selected to break the backlog of no one getting elected, and they elected to many, changing the standards of the Hall.  Eleven more were added to the Hall.  Chance and poem-mates Joe Tinker and Johnny Evers, who had collected at the top of the voting lists, were all elected, as were pitcher/executive Clark Griffith, plus Jesse Burkett, Jack Chesbro, Tommy McCarthy, Joe McGinnity, Eddie Plank, Rube Waddell, and Ed Walsh.  This group included some of the weakest inductees of all time, particulary McCarthy and Chesbro.  The "small Hall" argument was effectively rendered moot forever in one fell swoop.  However, it did clear the decks for the ballot.

The decks were cleared so effectively that four players were elected by the BBWAA in 1947.  Carl Hubbell, Frankie Frisch, Mickey Cochrane, and Lefty Grove all got the required 75%, and Pie Traynor fell just short.  Charlie Gehringer, Rabbit Maranville, Dizzy Dean, and Herb Pennock also got at least 50%.  Only 39 players received votes, so the casting of ballots was much tighter.  That's how people get elected.

The number of voters was also down.  In 1947 only 161 cast ballots, down from a high of 274 in 1939.  For the 1948 vote that number went down to a new low, 121.  That remains the fewest number of ballots ever cast by the BBWAA in a Hall election.  They also elected a weak class, Herb Pennock and Pie Traynor.  No one else reached 50%, even though there were many better-qualified candidates.  Pennock posted a career 106 ERA+. Traynor a 107 OPS+.  In the meantime, the ballot included Al Simmons, Charlie Gehringer, Paul Waner, Jimmie Foxx, and others.

In 1949, the second-smallest BBWAA electorate ever (153) elected no one.  Charlie Gehringer led the voting at 67%.  They tried the top 20 runoff again, and this time Gehringer got in with 85% of the 187 ballots.  Not sure why more voted in the runoff, or how that worked, but someone did get elected even if it took them two tries.  The old-timers committee met again and elected Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown and Kid Nichols.  Brown had just died in 1948, though Nichols was still alive.  This continued the Hall's fascination with death that remains to this day.

In 1950 the BBWAA elected no one.  This time they did not have a runoff.  Mel Ott got the most votes with 69%, and also over 50% were Bill Terry, Jimmie Foxx, Paul Waner, Al Simmons, Harry Heilmann, and Dizzy Dean.  What to do?  We'll see what happens in our next installment.


Wednesday, August 07, 2013
 
Part 2:  The Voting Begins.

Bill James calls the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum "a self-defining institution that has failed to define itself."  This is true, although the Hall has tried, and tried, and tried.  The first vote was scheduled for 1936, with the rule that 75% of voters must choose a great for him to gain election, They also added rules limiting voters to listing no more than ten names, and split the ballot into two parts, for 20th century players and for 19th century players.  A smaller group was commissioned to be this "Veterans' Committee."  There was no listing of who was eligible, just these divisions and the instructions to send in those ballots.

And they voted.  Boy, did they vote.  They voted for guys who had just retired, guys who were already dead, and guys who were still active.  Lou Gehrig, still playing first base every day for the Yankees, the 1936 AL leader in home runs, and the 1934 Triple Crown winner, got 51 votes.  He would win the 1936 AL MVP award.  Babe Ruth, who had retired midseason 1935, got enough votes to be elected.  Mickey Cochrane, also still active, got even more votes than Gehrig.  Jimmie Foxx, Pie Traynor, Frankie Frisch, Lefty Grove, Al Simmons, all still active, all got votes.  Hal Chase, thrown out of baseball for gambling, got votes.  Shoeless Joe Jackson, banned from baseball in the Black Sox scandal, got votes.  A total of 47 players got at least one vote in the regular balloting.

With all that, it may be a bit of a surprise they actually agreed on anyone.  They did, and quite well, with five players passing the 75% milestone to become the famous first class: Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson.  Cobb was on the ballot of 222 of the 226 who cast their votes.  Ruth and Wagner each got 215 mentions, Mathewson 205, Johnson 189.  Nap Lajoie got 65% support, Tris Speaker 59%.  Cy Young got 49%, his support divided between the 20th century and 19th century ballots.

Young was fourth on the Veteran ballot, where no one polled at 75% on the 78 ballots cast.  57 different players drew votes here, spreading out the support too thin to settle on one, with Cap Anson and Buck Ewing drawing the most support at 50%.  That group would have to wait for things to sort themselves out.  Still, even with a messy process the BBWAA did manage to get five very highly qualified members into the Hall their first time out.  It was as good an outcome as they could have dreamed.  Success!

So, the next year, they went at it again.  This time, they agreed not to vote for players still active.  With the five most obvious choices off the board, the votes became even more spread.  The number of ballots declined to 201, but the number of players receiving votes went up to 113, including such luminaries as Red Dooin, Bugs Raymond, Shano Collins, and Marty Bergen.  But again, the results were good, as three men received the requisite 75%; Nap Lajoie, Tris Speaker, and Cy Young.  In addition, Pete Alexander, Eddie Collins, Willie Keeler, and George Sisler all drew more than 50% support, giving the voting for the next session a focus: that has always been a point for the Hall voting.

The Veterans' vote changed focus from 19th century players to pioneers of the game.  One committee selected John McGraw as a manager, the first field general to be selected, and the "Centennial Commission" chose Morgan Bulkeley, the first National League president; Ban Johnson, the first American League president; Connie Mack, still active as a manager but a manager since the beginning of the AL; and George Wright, the top player on the original acknowledged professional team, the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, as well as a manager and player in the early days of the National League.

In 1938 262 BBWAA members cast their ballots, with voting up again.  The larger poll numbers diluted votes, and only one player reached 75%, Pete Alexander at 81%.  George Sisler, Willie Keeler, Eddie Collins, Rube Waddell, Frank Chance, and Ed Delahanty all reached the 50% plateau.  120 players drew at least one vote.  The Centennial Commission selected two "pioneers," Alexander Cartwright, one of the early players and rule-setters of the game; and Henry Chadwick, a newspaperman who did much to popularize the game and set up consistent rules.

One more vote remained before the opening of the Hall, and 274 members of the BBWAA participated, electing George Sisler, Eddie Collins, and Willie Keeler.  108 players received votes.  The Old Timers Committee returned to work, selecting 19th century players Cap Anson, Buck Ewing, and Old Hoss Radbourn, plus player/executives Al Spalding and Charles Comiskey.  Candy Cummings was also selected, presumably because he is sometimes (falsely) credited as inventor of the curveball.

So, Cooperstown had its first induction class, a solid cross-section of the greats and developers of the game.  There were plaques to show, there was memorabilia to peruse, there were greats to spice up the proceedings.  All was good.  Also in 1939 came word that Lou Gehrig had contracted a disease which would not only end his career, but would soon end his life.  The BBWAA gathered to hold a special vote, and elected Gehrig to the Hall in a special ballot.

With the new museum open, the BBWAA considered its business at a close.  They agreed to vote again, but three years hence.  The next vote would wait until 1942.


 
Part 1:  Introduction

The mistake that most people make when thinking about the past is that the way things are now is the way things have always been.  They ignore technology changes, attitude changes, all kinds of differences.  For this reason, history remains a mystery to many people; therefore, they are doomed to repeat it.

Biblical example:  there is a verse that is often translated to the effect of "through a mirror darkly."  It is from one of Paul's letters (epistles) in the New Testament.  "Now, we see through a glass, darkly; then, we shall see face to face." is how some translations read.  It refers to the difference between how we see God now, and how we will view Him in the afterlife.  But it makes little sense to us today, who are used to looking in our modern mirrors, which transmit images so well.  In the time Paul was writing, there was no such technology; the best mirrors were reflections off of water or the like.  Glass for windows and mirrors, like we have today, came about nearly 1000 years later.  Paul was making a comparison between seeing a reflection in a pool of water versus seeing something face to face.  Big difference.

Well, it's a jump from that to something as relatively unimportant as the Hall of Fame voting, but the comparison is there.  We think the rules of the voting, five years after players retire, various committee setups, have always been the same.  This is not the case.  The only consistent rule for the Hall has been the 75% supermajority needed for election.  Everything else, literally everything, has changed in over 75 years of voting.  Including having a vote every year.

To give credit where credit is due, there are two major sources for this research.  The first is the model for all of us who would do baseball research, Bill James, and his book on the Hall of Fame, alternatively titled "The Politics of Glory," or "Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame," depending on which edition you pick up.  It is an invaluable volume for understanding Cooperstown and how it came to be what it is.  The second is the invaluable on-line resource www.baseball-reference.com and its complete list of Hall of Fame voting results.

Through a variety of circumstances, baseball officially adopted Cooperstown as the birthplace of the game in spite of the provably false nature of the story.  It was expedient to accept it, and so it became the official story.  Then, the city fathers of Cooperstown got the idea to created a museum dedicated to baseball, including a "Hall of Fame" to honor the greatest players.  As it developed, the voting for the Hall would provide annual publicity for the museum, and annual induction ceremonies would provide a reason for people to visit the sleepy hamlet in central New York.  It was a perfect arrangement for what James has referred to as, "a museum conceived by an accountant."

To select the players for this Hall of Fame, the directors of the museum decided to poll those who had day-to-day contact with the game and the people who played it; the media.  Since there was no such thing as television, and radio was in its infancy and not regularly covering baseball games yet, that meant the most vibrant media of the time, the newspapers.  As it happened, those who covered the game had already gathered into a sort of trade guild, the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA).  This group had been deeply involved in the sport, and had been for many years, so they were as good a panel of experts as could be found.  The museum directors agreed with the BBWAA that the writers would conduct the vote, insisting only that to induct a player there must be a 75% agreement.  All other arrangements were left up to the writers themselves.

The opening of the museum was set for 1939, the supposed "centennial" of the Doubleday game in Cooperstown in 1839, when the young army officer was actually on duty rather than inventing baseball.  The voting began in 1936, so there would actually be members of it and plaques to view when the doors would open.  And so, in 1936, we truly begin our story, which will continue in the next installment.