The baseball season is about to begin. Anybody turned on yet? I'm not. Still, the game fascinates me. It was fun to play. And it's statistics-driven, which leads to endless discussion material. I proposed such a discussion some time back, and I'm repeating it here with some updating. Sometimes the best baseball moments happen when there's no game on.
The assignment today is to "name the all-time American and National League teams." And here goes, AL first, then NL. Remember, these are by league, and that can produce some casualties as you will see... as well as eternal debate! It's beautiful.
1B: Lou Gehrig
The erudite Iron Horse set a record for consecutive games, and his 493 homers likely would have ballooned into the mid-500s had his last several seasons not been tragically robbed by a hideous disease. It's not like he didn't have competition, with Jimmie Foxx slugging 534 homers as his contemporary. But Gehrig actually outslugged the great Foxx .632 to .609 and outhit him .340 to .325 in an amazing duel of first basemen from the position's golden age, now diminished by the advent of the DH. Steroids rear their ugly head when Mark McGwire comes into the discussion, but except for his home run totals a little scrutiny shows he's not quite in these guys' class anyway.
2B: Napoleon Lajoie
No one else is close (despite the fact that you may never have heard of Nap), not even Charlie Gehringer or Eddie Collins. Considered the AL's top player by far in its early days, Nap was the interleague peer of Honus Wagner. Batted .339 lifetime, hit .422 in 1901 (still the AL record), and considered the most graceful second baseman of his day, during which time infielding was roughly twice as important as it is now, and gloves were the size of mittens. He was so feared, he was once walked intentionally with the bases loaded --- and that's deep in the Dead Ball Era!
3B: Wade Boggs
The position that has the fewest entries in baseball's HOF. Amazingly void of huge names to pick from. Brooks Robinson is the legendary fielder, but sports a .267 lifetime average. George Brett's run at .400 rings a bell, but he played on a carpet and played too long, finishing with a diminished .305 average. Alex Rodriguez has power numbers but is dogged by the Roid monster, and besides, he's played half his career at SS, not at 3rd. So who's left? 5-time batting champion, HOF inductee and .328 lifetime hitter Wade Boggs. Dominant hitter of his time. Better than we thought at his position, in retrospect.
SS: Derek Jeter
Alex Rodriguez qualifies for this spot, and his power numbers dwarf Jeter's. So how do you pick Jeter? Well, first his .313 average tops Rodriguez' .301, and second, A-Rod was moved to third to keep Jeter at shortstop. Plus, Jeter is a legendary winner and team leader. Else, only HOF Joe Cronin really threatens here, but his lifetime .301 is the same as A-Rod's. Gee Nomar, this coulda been yours. Maybe. Jeter is the all-time MLB hits leader at SS. Honus Wagner still has a few more, but played several other positions (and played them all in the National League).
C: Mickey Cochrane
A recent buzz was for Pudge Rodriguez. A quick look at his stats will confirm he's not really in the running. Plus there's that Roid thing. Carlton Fisk was good, but not for this bar. The Yankees have had some of the best, Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey to name their two top entries. Both caught for big winners, and that's a plus when you control the pitching staff. But Cochrane had it all. Caught three pennant winners in Philly (the Athletics squad that dominated Ruth's Yankees) and three more in Detroit as player-manager, winning three Series overall. Caught one of the best staffs ever seen in Philly. Considering his success in Detroit, odds are he had a lot to do with it.
RF: Babe Ruth
There's no point in even justifying the outfield positions, especially this one. The converted ace lefty pitcher from Boston's 3-in-4-years Series winners transformed the game single-handedly in George Gershwin's Manhattan by hitting home runs at a pace not seen before or since, steroids or no steroids. A .342 lifetime average isn't bad either. A lifetime .690 slugging average, .711 with the Yankees? Is that even possible? His HR total projects to 923 if you assume he would have hit for his Yankee average had he played his first six seasons in the Live Ball Era as an outfielder. Never mind the fact that the balls he hit out were far less 'live' than those used today.
CF: Ty Cobb
Love him or hate him, the snarly Georgia Peach is the all-time BA leader by leaps and bounds, leaving even the great Rogers Hornsby's .358 average nine points behind. Want a rough life story? His father was shot and killed by his mother, accidentally it is claimed, just before he joined Detroit. He was bitter and shattered, and dedicated his career to his father. He was the all-time steals leader too until Brock eclipsed him in 1977. It's doubtful anyone will ever hit .367 lifetime again. As in very, very doubtful. Conflicting sources give his lifetime BA against Walter Johnson at either .335 or .366, this despite the fact that after his first at-bat against the Big Train, Cobb asserted he thought Johnson had pulled a gun and fired a bullet at him.
LF: Ted Williams
Despite losing five of his best years to military service in two wars, The Kid still managed to pop 521 homers and hit .344 lifetime. Clearly the best post-Ruth hitter, he slugged .634. His two seasons prior to WWII resulted in a .406 BA and then a Triple Crown. He won another and missed a third by a few hundredths of a percentage point. What would he have done if his career had never been interrupted? Twice? Dogged during his career by hostile sportswriters and comparisons to Joe DiMaggio, Williams' star has risen to its proper place in recent times.
LHP: Lefty Grove
Originating from that great Connie Mack team of the early Depression, Grove led the AL in Ks seven years straight, led in wins four times, and led in ERA a stunning nine. Nobody comes close. That's all you need to say. So obvious there's nothing to write. Sorry Whitey.
RHP: Walter Johnson
The Senator great beats Roger Clemens hands-down with or without the Roid stigma. 417 wins and a lifetime 2.17 ERA. Of course, the definition of greatness is Cy Young with 511 wins, but he actually earned the majority of them in the National League... hence Johnson gets the nod. The Big Train with the estimated 100mph fastball was the most respected pitcher of his time, and perhaps of any time, despite having had to share the stage with guys like Young, Grover Cleveland Alexander and Christy Mathewson, among others.
RP: Mariano Rivera
Yet another relatively recent specialty position for consideration, just a bit older than DH. Still, it's not like Rivera has diluted competition. Names like Wilhelm, Radatz, Gossage, Lyle, Eckersley... zillions of them by now... nip at his heels. But he won and won on the big stage. The 'saves', which have become a popcorn stat as their bar has been lowered, don't even matter.
DH: David Ortiz
Years ago this might have been called 'PH' (pinch hitter). There are only really two front-runners, both of whom, oddly enough, have the nickname 'Papi'. In another era, they would have been put on first base like Boog Powell. There are Roid questions. But the DH category is so recent and so parallels the steroid era that we'll never know how many of these guys did or didn't do them. There's no digging into the past for a clean hero. David Ortiz slugged the Red Sox to two Series wins with his clutch power. Edgar Martinez' .312 lifetime average beats Ortiz' .285, but Ortiz' power numbers are much better... 401 homers to date... and he's still playing. Maybe.
MGR: Casey Stengel
Here's one for debate. Miller Huggins? Joe Torre? Joe McCarthy? Lou Boudreau? Connie Mack? Dick Williams? Earl Weaver? All great choices. But when he was with the Yankees, Stengel won five consecutive World Series. The next year his team won 102 games (best in his tenure) and finished 9 games behind the Cleveland Indians. What can you do? Soon he'd won two more. Ten pennants in twelve years during that run. His rambling rants only garnish his reputation.
The listing compiled leaves out plenty of guys who ought to be in there someplace. Alex Rodriguez at short (or even third, where he could displace Boggs?). Brooks Robinson, who many will argue displaces them both. Joe Cronin at short. Eddie Collins and Charlie Gehringer at second... maybe even Rod Carew, who actually played more at first. Bill Dickey and Yogi at catcher. Cy Young on the mound --- his 511 wins will never be equaled, but he got more of them in the National League. The definitive pitcher of all time gets short shrift in the AL pantheon. The outfield? Please. Al Simmons? Tris Speaker? Mickey Mantle? Reggie Jackson? Al Kaline? Joe Jackson? That's to name only an inadequate few. Manager? Joe McCarthy won more games than Stengel. Connie Mack managed the A's for 50 years. Joe Torre turned a bunch of 'who dats' into a dynasty. Sorry guys. And if I could remember all the other deserving entrants I forgot to mention, well... then I wouldn't have forgotten them, would I?
Ok, so we did the American League. Despite Boston's near 80-year stint in the National League, I must admit I don't recall the Braves until they were in Milwaukee. Still, I heard of it (the National League, that is) a few times, and here's my shot at their all-time roster.
1B: Albert Pujols
In perhaps the one infield glove position not owned by the NL (ironically, since the AL moved many sluggers to DH), the Senior Circuit still has plenty of candidates. None of them appear to match Albert, who's gone to Anaheim but managed to hit 445 homers at .328 while in St. Louis. It's likely he'll embellish his at least his totals in his remaining years.
2B: Rogers Hornsby
The Senior Circuit has had many magnificent second basemen, but for similar reasons to those governing Babe Ruth's right field dominance in the AL, the Rajah owns this spot. As with Ruth, the statistics are almost too good to be believed. He hit .358 lifetime. He hit 301 homers. He player-managed a World Series champion. He slugged .577 (.756 one year). His BA/HR/RBI totals from 1920 through 1925 read .370/9/94, .397/21/126, .401/42/152, .384/17/83, .424/25/94 and .403/39/143. Two of those years produced Triple Crowns. In an age (and a league) dominated by great infielders, he shines like a supernova.
SS: Honus Wagner
Who else could it be? The Flying Dutchman ('Deutschman' would be more accurate) was the acknowledged star of his day. Ty Cobb called him the best. Second man admitted into the HOF in 1936 by vote (Cobb was first, Wagner and Ruth tied for second). Magnificent fielder. Eight batting titles. Five stolen base titles. He eliminates the debate over whether Ernie Banks should be considered a shortstop (as I consider him) or a first baseman (where he played more games). Ozzie Smith and a number of other luminaries from all eras must pay homage also. He's not just a picture on a baseball card.
3B: Pie Traynor
Most say Mike Schmidt, but the rugged slugger from Dayton has competition. Eddie Mathews hit nearly as many homers and had a better average. Pie Traynor could out-field both (and maybe anybody else) and hit .320 lifetime. All are in the HOF. Schmidt led the NL in homers 8 times and in RBIs 4 times. He was MVP 3 times (so was Mathews). But Eddie wasn't the fielder Schmidt was, as Schmidt's 10 Gold Gloves attest. So why not Schmidt? Well, Traynor was the acknowledged best fielding third baseman in NL history, and despite his lack of home run power and his failure to win a single batting honor, Pie drove in over 100 runs seven times. That's power enough, and let's face it, .320 is .320 and is worlds better than .267. The kicker on fielding is that despite his Gold Gloves, Schmidt played third base on a carpet, like George Brett in the AL.
RF: Hank Aaron
Hammerin' Hank never hit home runs at the pace of Babe Ruth, but he sure was consistent --- to the degree that he ultimately surpassed Ruth's unsurpassable record of 714. Continually overshadowed in his playing days by Willie Mays, Aaron proved more durable though nearly as stubborn in admitting his days of glory were behind him. His .305 average would have been a tad more impressive had he foregone his last few seasons. Amazingly, he led the league in homers only 4 times, and never with more than 44. But from 1955 through 1973 he never hit fewer than 24 --- and usually hit a lot more.
CF: Willie Mays
The Say Hey Kid's legends have somewhat outstripped his performance, but he was a great player. He could hit, run, field, throw and slug. Amazingly, he never won an RBI title despite batting in over 100 runs ten times, won only 4 home run titles despite his prodigious total of 660, and won only one batting crown. His .302 average is frequently blamed on his refusal to quit, but a look at the books shows that it didn't have a huge effect... the fear was that he'd play until he dropped below .300. His only real competition in CF during his NL career was the great Duke Snider, but it wasn't all that close as it turned out.
LF: Stan Musial
Folks will complain that Barry Bonds is being left off this spot unfairly, but his reputed (and generally accepted) use of enhancers and his power-number inflation in the post-strike rabbit ball era give pause. Musial was ranked a shade below Ted Williams during a career in which he batted .331 and hit 475 home runs. How he managed to miss just one year (1945) due to WWII while Williams and others missed three remains a topic for conjecture. Nevertheless, Stan the Man won an amazing seven batting crowns and collected over 200 hits six times, playing always to admiring crowds.
C: Roy Campanella
A late-comer to the majors from the Negro leagues, Campanella's career was famously cut short in 1958 when he was paralyzed in a traffic accident. He did play until he was 35 though, and in ten seasons was voted MVP 3 times. Popular choice Johnny Bench played 17 years and was MVP twice. Bench is generally considered the better hitter, but a quick look at the stats verifies that Campy not only outhit him (.276 to .267) but also outslugged him (.500 to .476) and averaged 32 homers per 162 games to Johnny's 29. So it's not a sentimental choice.
LHP: Warren Spahn
Add Johnny Sain and Pray for Rain. The mighty Braves lefty won 363 games in his long career with an astonishing 382 complete games. He went 23-7 at age 42. Sandy Koufax was better over a short six-year span, but that's not enough. Once asked if pitching all those innings had been difficult, Spahn replied that sleeping in frozen tank tracks in France while shells exploded around you was difficult.
RHP: Christy Mathewson
Once again Cy Young, he of 511 wins (about half in each league) gets short shrift. The forgotten luminary of New York baseball whose still-shining light was eclipsed by Babe Ruth a few years after his retirement, the Christian Gentleman from Bucknell was a dominant figure. He won 373 games while losing 188, His ERA was 2.13. Matty was the unquestioned star of John McGraw's powerful Giants. He lost his life tragically in 1925 to tuberculosis which had entered his injured lungs while he was training Army troops in poison gas protection during WWI, and his pride and joy, his son, passed away 25 years later following a gas explosion. Matty was 45. Matty Jr. was but 43.
RP: Trevor Hoffman
The American League for some reason largely owns this category, but Hoffman is good on any list. The first to get 600 saves, only he and Mariano Rivera have reached 20 or more saves 15 times. Much of his career in San Diego went nationally unnoticed.
MGR: John McGraw
The feisty sparkplug of the notoriously dirty 1890s Baltimore Orioles moved into New York and took the reins of the mighty Giants for many years, propelling them to 10 pennants and 3 World Series titles. He is also known for chickening out of a challenge from Boston in 1904 to play the second Series ever in an era when it was informally done as there was no interleague agreement nor overseeing body. But Little Napoleon was the best at what he did, at least in the Senior Circuit. Maybe anywhere?
As with the AL there are plenty. "Where's Cy Young" rings loud. Ok, he won over 200 games in each league on his way to an incredible 511, but which league does he go into? Ernie Banks... how does he get left off SS? Well, he played more games at 1st base for one thing, but Honus Wagner makes it moot IMO. Bonds? He did much of his damage post-35, which raises the same eyebrows as Roger Clemens. Sparky Anderson? Walt Alston? Against McGraw? Nah. LaRussa? Manager or steroid dispenser? Bruce Sutter? Maybe. Schmidt? Tough one. Koufax? Carlton? Hubbell? Buncha others? All arguable. That's what it's all for, anyway.
So bring it! Somebody's gotta have an opinion on our oldest game.