Greatest Players to Wear #1-10

The final installment of this series of posts comes a bit late, no thanks to some nasty illnesses I’ve been dealing with.  I hope you will go read the previous four posts, if this is the first you’ve noticed.  I’m covering every number from 1-50.  The idea came to me while watching MLB Network do the same – and, because I disagreed vehemently on some of their choices!  So, we continue our countdown with . . .

#10 – Six teams have retired the number ten.  Four of them are HOFers, but two of them only wore the number for a portion of their career (Andre Dawson, for example, only wore the #10 as a part of the Expos, and Sparky Anderson only wore #10 as the manager of the Reds).  The other two HOFers are guys that, upon further investigation, probably don’t deserve to be in the Hall.  Both of them were voted in by the veterans committee, because the writers were wise enough to look at their careers objectively.  Phil Rizzuto and Ron Santo may have had nice careers, but they weren’t all-time great players.  Santo led the league in walks 4 times, and OBP twice, won 5 Gold Gloves, and appeared in 9 All-Star games in 15 seasons.  His 342 career home runs are decent, but a career average of just .277 and OPS of .826 aren’t really HOF numbers.  The highest he ever reached on the HOF ballot with the writers was 43.1% – a long way from the 75% needed.  Rizzuto makes even less sense to have in the Hall.  Yes, he was on 7 World Series championship teams, but are we really going to just put a guy in the Hall because he was in the right place at the right time?  It’s not like his career .246 postseason average was doing them a lot of good in those World Series’.  He never led the league in any significant offensive category (career .273 batter with just 563 rbi, and 149 stolen bases), and wasn’t exactly a star fielder with his .968 fielding percentage (the only year he didn’t have double-digit errors was his final season when he only played in 30 games – and he had 20+ errors 7 times!).  The baseball writers never supported him with more than 38.4% of the vote – barely more than half what is needed!  When the veterans voted him in in ’94 (18 years after his last eligible year on the normal ballot), it was clearly a case of their memories having built him up to be bigger than he was.  Okay, so enough ranting about that.  Let’s focus on the winner – Lefty Grove.  Grove won exactly 300 games while pitching 17 seasons split almost exactly down the middle between the Philadelphia Athletics and Boston Red Sox from ’25-’41.  He led the league in wins 4 times (and won 20+ games 8 seasons), ERA 9 times, strikeouts each of his first 7 seasons in the league, and WHIP 5 times.  He won the MVP in ’31 when he won 31 games (at the age of 31 – weird coincidence) and lost just 4, with a 2.06 ERA, 175 K’s, and 1.08 WHIP. Grove’s numbers are clearly those of a deserving HOFer.

#9 – Wow, there are some big names at this number.  Names that even the most casual baseball fan is going to know – Roger Maris, Reggie Jackson.  But, Maris isn’t in the Hall, because outside of the ’60 & ’61 seasons, his career was pretty mediocre.  And, Jackson wore the number 9 only with the A’s for 8 seasons, out of his 21 (see #44 for more info on Reggie).  Enos Slaughter (HOF outfielder for the Cardinals in the ’40’s & ’50’s) would have had around 3,000 hits had he not lost 3 seasons to the war.  And, Bill Mazeroski (HOF 2B for the Pirates from ’56-’72) was renowned for his glove work, winning 8 Gold Gloves.  But, the one name that stands head-and-shoulders above the rest here is Ted Williams.  Simply put, I think Williams was the greatest pure hitter to ever play the game.  While all of the attention of that era was put on Joe DiMaggio (mainly because he played for the Yankees in New York City), Williams consistently outperformed DiMaggio in almost every offensive category.  It’s a shame Williams had the sour relationship he did with both the press and Boston fans, or else he might have won 5 MVP’s instead of just 2.  Because, if you look at the 3 seasons he finished 2nd, his numbers were considerably better than the winner.  Just chew on these numbers for a bit:  521 career home runs (could have been over 600 without losing 3 seasons to the war, putting him in the top 5 all-time), 1,839 rbi (could have been over 2,200 without the war, putting him in the top 3 all-time), holds the all-time record for career OBP at .482 (thanks in part to ranking 4th all-time in walks, which could have been 2nd all-time only to Bonds, without the war), is 7th on the all-time batting average list with a .344 average, 2,654 career hits (could have been around 3,200 without the war, putting him in the top 15), led the league in OPS 10 times, went to 17 All-Star games in 19 seasons, and only struck out an average of 41 times per season he played full-time.  No one else in the history of the game has put up that kind of combination of power, plate discipline, batting average, and on-base percentage.  

#8 – I knew we would get to some numbers that had longer lists, and tougher choices, but this is unbelievable.  This number has been retired by 6 different teams, in honor of seven different Hall of Fame players – 3 of whom, interestingly, are catchers.  And, we’ll start there with our honorable mentions.  Bill Dickey (a native of Searcy, AR – a random fact for those of you who know me) was the catcher for 7 World Series Championship teams.  And, unlike Rizzuto (see above), he was a major contributor to those teams, with a career .313 avg. and .868 OPS, batting right behind Lou Gehrig most of his career.  Dickey also went to 11 All-Star games in his 17 seasons, and finished in the top 10 in MVP voting 5 times.  Dickey was elected to the HOF just 8 years after he retired.  Another great catcher, Gary Carter, had his #8 retired by the Expos (now Nationals) in 2003.  Carter was one of the best power-hitting catchers of all time (finished 6th all-time in career home runs as a catcher & won 5 Silver Sluggers), and also won 3 Gold Gloves.  He appeared in 11 All-Star games, and finished 6th or higher in the MVP voting 4 times, including a 2nd-place finish in 1980, and a 3rd-place finish in ’86, when he was an integral part of the World Series champion Mets.  Joe Morgan had his #8 retired by the Cincinnati Reds in 1998.  He was a first-ballot HOFer, as he was a part of the Big Red Machine as he helped Cincinnati to two World Series titles.  He appeared in 10 All-Star games, won 5 Gold Gloves, and 2 MVP’s.  Even with all those accolades, though, he’s only the 5th best to wear this number, in my opinion.  Next honorable mention goes to Willie Stargell.  He was the heart and soul of the Pittsburgh Pirate teams that won 2 World Series in ’71 and ’79.  He won the MVP award in ’79, and finished in the top 3 three more times (and probably should have won it in ’73, considering he led the league in doubles, home runs, rbi’s, slugging and OPS).  His career was HOF worthy for a shorter period of time than some (after the age of 33, he only hit more than 25 home runs twice, and appeared in just one more All-Star game), but in his prime he was one of the most feared hitters in the game. So, we’re down to our final 3.  Our second runner-up goes to . . . Carl Yastrzemski.  Yaz was a first-ballot HOFer, and received one of the highest percentages of votes in history (94.6%).  He was the last player in baseball history to win the Triple Crown, which he accomplished in ’67, the same year he won the MVP as a part of a Red Sox team that lost one of only two World Series’ he was ever able to participate in.  Yaz appeared in an incredible 18 All-Star games, won 7 Gold Gloves, and finished in the top 10 in MVP voting 3 more times aside from the year he won.  Yet, I think he’s still overshadowed by our runner-up – Yogi Berra.  Despite having a reputation more for memorable quotes than anything else, he might just be the best all-around catcher of all time.  On great Yankees teams that included the likes of Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, it was Berra who led the team 7 consecutive seasons in RBI’s, and it was Berra who won 3 MVP awards.  As a player, coach or manager, Berra appeared in 21 World Series, accumulating 10 World Series rings!   And, it was Berra, who will always be remembered for leaping into the arms of teammate Don Larsen, after Larsen threw the first, and only, perfect game in postseason history during the 1956 World Series.  But, as impressive as Berra’s career was, I still think the greatest to ever wear the number 8 is . . . Cal Ripken, Jr.  Everyone knows about the 2,632 consecutive games played (over 500 more than anyone else in history, stretching over 17 seasons).  But, he was so much more than just an everyday player.  He appeared in 19 consecutive All-Star games.  He won Rookie of the Year in ’82, and followed that up quickly in ’83 with the first of two MVP awards – and made his only World Series appearance, helping the Orioles to defeat the Phillies.  Ripken also received the highest vote percentage of any position player in baseball history when he was elected to the HOF his first time on the ballot in 2007 (98.5% – third all-time behind Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan).  It’s unfortunate that Ripken played on so many bad teams in Baltimore, but it’s also impressive that he stuck it out in the era of free agency with a team that only made the playoffs 3 times in his 21-season career.  

#7 – At last, an easy choice.  Honorable mention here goes to Ivan Rodriguez, who will undoubtedly be elected to the HOF when he becomes eligible.  14 All-Star games, 13 Gold Gloves, and an MVP award makes him one of the best catchers of all time.  But, there’s only one clear choice here – Mickey Mantle.  It’s a name that so many already know, but just in case you’ve forgotten . . . 536 home runs; 8th highest career OPS (among non-PHD users), won the Triple Crown in ’56 batting .353 with 52 home runs and 130 rbi; won 3 MVP’s (and finished in the top 5 six more times!); appeared in 16 All-Star games; and led the league in runs 5 times, home runs 4 times, walks 5 times, OBP 3 times, slugging 4 times, and OPS 6 times.  Like I said – an easy choice.

#6 – Six teams have retired this number.  But, that being said, this is actually a very easy choice.  No offense to Johnny Pesky (an All-Star infielder for the Red Sox and Tigers – most remembered today for having “Pesky’s Pole” at Fenway named after him), Tony Oliva (the All-Star rightfielder for the Twins in the ’60’s & ’70’s who won ROY in ’64), Steve Garvey (the All-Star first-baseman for the Dodgers in the ’70’s & ’80’s, who won the MVP in ’74), or Bobby Cox (the future HOFer that has the 4th most wins all-time as a manager, but only 1 World Series championship and 5 NL pennants in 29 seasons to show for it – don’t even get me started on how over-rated I think Cox is), but these guys just don’t hold a candle to the two HOFers that have had their #6 retired.  Our runner-up is Al Kaline.  In 22 seasons with the Detroit Tigers, Kaline appeared in 15 All-Star games, won an incredible 10 Gold Gloves, and helped lead them to a World Series title in ’68.  More accolades may have been bestowed on Kaline had he not been playing in the shadow of some of the greatest Yankees teams of all time. But, there’s no overshadowing the accomplishments of our winner – Stan Musial.  Musial’s career numbers are littered with league-leading stats: in 22 seasons with the Cardinals, he led the league in runs 5 times, hits 6 times (4th on the all-time list with 3,630), doubles 8 times, triples 5 times, RBI’s twice, batting average 7 times (a career .331 avg.), OBP 6 times, slugging pct. 6 times, and OPS 7 times.  He won 3 MVP’s, and finished 2nd 4 more times, plus 6 more top-10 finishes!  After 20 appearances in the All-Star game, and 3 World Series titles, it’s no wonder Musial was a first-ballot HOFer in 1969.  

#5 – Eight teams have retired this number.  And, six HOFers wore it, along with one definite future HOFer who has yet to have his number retired.  Let’s start there – Albert Pujols just turned 32 years old.  He has the 4th most home runs, all-time, through the season in which he was 31 years old; 2nd most doubles all-time; 6th most RBI, and 7th best career OPS.  Based on the slight downward trend his career has taken the last 3 seasons, I think it’s safe to assume Pujols has peaked and will see his numbers continue to decline as he approaches the age of 40.  That being said, he’ll still reach 500+ home runs with ease in 2013 (barring any unforeseen injury), and will have a good shot at 650+ by the time he retires, along with a reasonable shot at 2,000 RBI.  If his batting average continues to decline, it might be tough to keep it above .300 for his career – but, not impossible.  And, 3,000 hits is well within reach.  If he reaches 650 home runs, 2,000+ rbi, and 3,000+ hits, he will go down as one of the greatest to ever play the game, and will likely snatch the title as greatest to ever wear #5.  But, a lot has to happen between now and then, so we’ll stick with what we know for now.  Jeff Bagwell (All-Star first-baseman for the Astros in the ’90’s & ’00’s), Willard Hershberger (Reds catcher from ’38-’40 who is the only MLB player to commit suicide during the season), and Carl Barger (the first team president of the Florida/Miami Marlins, who died of an aneurysm before they played their first game) don’t make the first cut here.  The next cut eliminates Lou Boudreau (HOF SS for the Indians in the ’40’s & ’50’s who won an MVP in ’48, the same year he helped lead them to their last World Series championship), Brooks Robinson (probably the greatest fielding third-baseman in history, winning 16 Gold Gloves, 2 World Series championships, and an MVP in ’64), and George Brett (HOF first & third-baseman for the Royals from ’73-’93, who won 3 batting crowns, including a .390 average in 1980, when he also won an MVP, on his way to 3,154 hits).  So, that leaves us with three to choose from.  Our second runner-up is Johnny Bench.  Bench won Rookie of the Year in 1968, and followed that with MVP’s in ’70 & ’72.  He also won an unprecedented 10 consecutive Gold Gloves as the catcher for the Big Red Machine.  He was the anchor for a team that went to 4 World Series, and won 2 championships. Our two finalists had very similar careers – even more so than some might like to admit.  Both only played in parts of 13 seasons, due to the fact that they both served in World War II.  Both won multiple MVP awards.  Both won multiple World Series titles.  Both led the league in multiple categories on several occasions.  For objectivity’s sake, I’m going to show you just the numbers:  Player A: career .313 average, 1,628 hits, 331 home runs, 1,276 rbi, .412 OBP, .605 slugging (7th all-time), 1.017 OPS (7th all-time), 2 MVP’s, led the league in doubles twice (including 63 in ’34, the 4th most in history), home runs 3 times, RBI 3 times (including 183 in ’37, 3rd most all-time) – in a career that was interrupted by war and injury, allowing him only to play about 9.5 real seasons.  Player B:  career .325 average, 2,214 hits, 361 home runs, 1,537 rbi, .398 OBP, .579 slugging, .977 OPS, 3 MVP’s, led the league in triples once, home runs twice, RBI 2 times – in a career that was mostly injury-free, allowing him to play about 12.5 seasons.  Now, player B’s totals are a little better than player A in some categories.  But, considering he played 3 full seasons more, player B’s average season was a notch below player A.  Add to this the fact that player B benefited from playing for a team in New York that was consistently littered with several other Hall of Fame players, while the other played in Detroit where he was the primary focal point of the offense, and I’m inclined to give the nod here to player A.  If you haven’t figured it out already, I’m going to give just the slightest of edge here to Hank Greenberg, over Joe DiMaggio.  I know this will drive Yankees fans crazy – how can you possibly choose anyone over the guy that hit in 56 consecutive games, and was the centerfielder for 9 World Series champions??  But, like I said – their career numbers are so similar, and Greenberg didn’t benefit from playing on the teams DiMaggio did, and played essentially 3 fewer seasons.  Ultimately, I think this is a coin flip – but, I’ll take Greenberg, if for no other reason to cause some people to pull their hair out (you know who you are).  And, this is actually the only one among #’s 1-10 that I chose anyone different from MLB Network.

#4 – Another eight teams have retired this number, and it would appear to be an even tougher choice than #5, since all 8 are HOFers.  But, this is actually a pretty easy choice.  Joe Cronin (HOF SS for the Senators and Red Sox), Luke Appling (HOF SS for the White Sox, who won 2 batting crowns), Earl Weaver (HOF manager that led the Orioles to 4 AL pennants, and a World Series title), Paul Molitor (HOF infielder with the Brewers, Blue Jays & Twins, who had 3,319 hits), Ralph Kiner (HOF outfielder for the Pirates who led the league in home runs his first 7 consecutive seasons in baseball), Duke Snider (HOF centerfielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers who led them to 6 NL pennants and 2 World Series titles), and Mel Ott (HOF outfielder for the New York Giants who hit 511 home runs, and had 2,876 hits) all had excellent careers.  But, they all fall in line behind Lou Gehrig.  Gehrig is in the top 10 all-time in runs scored (1,888), RBI’s (1,995), on-base pct. (.447), slugging (.632), and OPS (1.080).  All while batting .340, with 493 career home runs, 1,508 walks (compared to just 790 strikeouts), and playing in a then-record 2,030 consecutive games, before he had to remove himself from the lineup with what turned out to be a disease that would eventually bear his name.  One of the most impressive careers of all time.  

#3 – Six teams have retired this number, 4 of whom are HOFers.  Harold Baines (White Sox) and Dale Murphy (Braves) had nice careers, but aren’t really HOF worthy.  And, even though Earl Averill (Indians), Bill Terry (Giants), and Harmon Killebrew (Twins) had excellent careers worthy of the Hall of Fame, is there really any need for discussion here?  Babe Ruth is the standard by which nearly every baseball player since his time has been measured.  Top 5 all-time in runs, home runs, rbi, walks, on-base pct., slugging, and OPS (the last two, of which, he’s the all-time leader).  He also has a career .342 batting average, and sports a career 2.28 ERA as a pitcher in 163 games – leading the league in 1916 with a 1.75 ERA, when he went 23-12, and struck out 170.  This may have been the easiest choice out of all 50!

#2 – Only four teams have retired this number – and they’re all HOFers.  But, I’m not giving the nod here to Charlie Gehringer (HOF 2B for Detroit with a career .320 avg. and 2,800+ hits), or Tommy Lasorda (HOF manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers who won 2 World Series titles), or Red Schoendienst (HOF 2B & OF for the Cardinals, Braves and Giants, who I’m not convinced belongs in the Hall with just 2,449 hits & 10 All-Star games in 19 seasons), or Nellie Fox (HOF 2B for the White Sox who won an MVP in ’59).  Even though all of these are already in the HOF, there’s clearly another player who has yet to be inducted that is the greatest to wear this number – Derek Jeter.  12 All-Star games, 5 Gold Gloves, Rookie of the Year, 3,088 hits (so far), a career .313 average, 7 AL pennants, and 5 World Series rings.  And, he’s got 3 more years before he turns 40. He’ll almost definitely climb into the top-5 in career hits before he’s done.  He’s the face of the Yankees for two decades.  This is a no-brainer.  

#1 – Well, we’ve reached the end at last.  Seven teams have retired the number 1.  Only four of them are HOFers, though, so that eliminates Billy Meyer (who managed the Pirates to their worst record in history in 1952 – guess they didn’t want anyone to ever be stuck with his number so they just retired it in ’54), Fred Hutchinson (who managed the Reds for 6 seasons, winning an NL pennant in ’61), and Billy Martin (the on-again-off-again manager of the Yankees, A’s, Tigers and Rangers, who won the World Series in New York in ’77, but was also a part of World Championship teams as an infielder in ’51, ’52, ’53 & ’56).  Richie Ashburn had a HOF career primarily with the Phillies from ’48-’59, but he only appeared in 5 All-Star games in 15 seasons, and never finished higher than 7th in MVP voting.  Bobby Doerr’s HOF career stretched over 14 seasons with the Boston Red Sox, where he went to 9 All-Star games as a second-baseman.  But, both Ashburn and Doerr weren’t elected into the HOF until the Veterans committee decided to do so long after their careers were over.  The same is true of Pee Wee Reese, but he appeared in 10 All-Star games at SS for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and was an important part of their teams that went to 7 World Series, and won it all in ’55.  That’s why he’s our runner-up.  But, while there’s no dominating offensive star among those that have worn this number, there’s one clear defensive star here – Ozzie Smith.  A first-ballot HOFer in 2002, the “Wizard of Oz” was a defensive mastermind at SS.  He won 13 consecutive Gold Gloves, and appeared in 15 All-Star games for the Cardinals from ’78-’96.  He also stole 580 bases (21st all-time) in spite of a mediocre .337 OBP (786th all-time).

Well, that’s it.  That’s the end of this list, but I’m sure it’s not the end of the debate.  What do you think?

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