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The Greatest Living Ballplayer: Continued

Mar 17, 2011, 6:16 AM EDT

New York Yankees Hall of Fame catcher Berra watches players during a workout at the team's spring training camp

Yesterday’s post about the Greatest Living Ballplayer for each team struck a nerve. Lots of folks around the Internets linked it and talked about, which doesn’t happen a lot with my stuff. Indeed, I tend to think that people mostly read what I write and either nod politely or roll their eyes and then move on without comment for fear that I’ll just be a jerk and argue about it. It’s not an unreasonable fear.

Larry Granillo has a great followup at Baseball Prospectus this morning, asking who held the title of Greatest Living Ballplayer — overall — at any given point since 1900.  I don’t think I disagree with any of his choices, including the decision to not name Joe DiMaggio — the man whose handlers more or less invented the title — Greatest Living Ballplayer at any given time.  Because he wasn’t.

And you all had some great followups in the very long comment thread following my post. Highlights:

  • There was a ton of dissent on the Yankees, with very few people buying Derek Jeter as GLB. I realized this as soon as I hit “post” yesterday, and hastily added Yogi Berra’s name, though intellectual honesty prevented me from taking off Jeter’s seeing as though I had already published the thing. If I had a do-over I name Berra, no questions asked. Many of you, however, were pro-Mariano Rivera. This seems a bit nuts to me in that I don’t see how a closer can be the guy who carries the team banner — and that’s part of this I think — but I guess I get it.
  • Many dead people — Eddie Matthews, Willie Stargell, Kirby Puckett, etc. — were suggested for the title of Greatest Living Ballplayer. I can’t decide if this is a function of people simply having lives and not following baseball news as closely as I do or if it’s some audacious statement about the sheer power of certain players. I’d like to believe it’s the latter.
  • Someone noted that Ted Williams really does complicate this list.  I mean, really, if I’m wrong and cryogenics is legit, I’m going to have an awful lot to answer for when The Splendid Splinter is walking among us again.  Of course, given that they only froze his head, it’s an open question whether he’d still be the Greatest Living Ballplayer or merely Baseball’s Greatlest Living Baseball Mind.
  • Much disagreement on my choice of Nolan Ryan for the Rangers given his relatively short tenure in a Texas uniform.  Very good point on that. I guess I fell for Nolan Ryan the cultural phenomenon as opposed to Nolan Ryan the Rangers pitcher.  And many people think that he should have been the choice for the Angels instead.
  • The Indians choices of Belle and Manny drew criticism. Some said I was sleeping on Jim Thome, who played there longer and had more overall career value. Maybe, but I also think it’s reached a point where he’s excelled for so many other teams for so long that he fails the homogeneity test. Another person mentioned Kenny Lofton. Unlike Thome, yeah, I did just whiff on him (though I probably wouldn’t pick him).  My overlooking of Lofton, I think, may be a precursor to what will happen when he’s Hall of Fame eligible. He’s way more valuable than anyone ever gives him credit for. Yet we so often give him short shrift. I’m not proud of this.
  • Many disagreed with my statement that Cal Ripken was the easiest choice, pointing to the continued Earthly existence of Brooks Robinson and Jim Palmer. Noted. I still think I pick Cal — there is a fame and personality aspect to all of this that, while I don’t want to overstate, seems important — but those guys are way closer than I considered yesterday.
  • Speaking of Orioles, Frank Robinson’s name came up.  He’s like a lot of players of more recent vintage such as Roberto Alomar in that he played and excelled for a couple of teams. Which, somewhat perversely, harms your chances on this list. In my view Robinson falls just short of making it for the Reds and the Orioles and that’s just how it goes.
  • Speaking of the Reds, almost no one agrees with me on Joe Morgan, including Rob Neyer (who himself is in the conversation for Greatest Living Baseball Blogger). The beef: not enough time in a Reds uniform for Little Joe.  I think I have to agree. Neyer likes Rose. Bench gets the nod from most people. He probably gets it from me if for no other reason than I don’t want to encourage the Pete Rose lobby, which consist of a lot of frightening people.
  • People did not like that I called Todd Helton “the most boring Greatest Living Ballplayer for any team.”  To which I’d ask: who’s more boring on that list than Helton? He played football. So what? He has occasionally sported some interesting though not terribly original facial hair. Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a slam on Helton. Lots of people are boring. Al Kaline has held the title of GLB for the Tigers for 50 years and he’s boring. I may be the most boring baseball writer there is. It’s OK to be boring. Maybe Helton has a rich life away from the diamond of which I’m simply not aware, but c’mon, where’s the flavor with this guy?
  • Finally, many people think I should have named Larry Walker for the Rockies instead of Helton. That’s an interesting idea. Probably a good one too. Indeed, mentions of Helton and Carl Crawford and stuff make me wonder if the rule Granillo made for his Baseball Prospectus list — no active players can hold the title — isn’t a good one.  That would be hard for the Rays and a few other young teams, but there is a lot of merit until waiting until a guy is retired to bestow the honor. I mean, the whole idea of GLB was so that Joe DiMaggio could be announced that way when he walked onto the field or up to a lectern for some promotional event or public speaking engagement.  Can’t really do that as an active player.

Thanks for all the feedback, folks. It was one of the more fun things I’ve written and talked about in a while.

  1. writtenbyross - Mar 17, 2011 at 7:00 AM

    As an Indians fan, I’d have to say Manny. Thome’s a close 2nd but I think he’s the Tribe’s most obvious choice for participating in the steroids era (see his size on his rookie card compared to his size in his prime, it’s Bonds-esque), so he loses some ground on that. Belle wasn’t great for long enough and he wasn’t all that well liked for a good chunk of the time he was liked. Lofton… I agree Craig, he’s probably better than given credit but I wouldn’t consider him great. Manny, despite his personality, is truly great when it comes to baseball.

    • Reflex - Mar 17, 2011 at 8:41 AM

      Uh, how can you call out Thome for your personal suspicion that he cheated, but instead elevate Manny who was actually, you know, caught cheating? Manny used steroids and its a fact and he was suspended for it. Thome was never even suspected except by people like you who seem unaware that its normal for kids in their early to mid-20’s to fill out(should see pics of me at 20 vs pics of me at 26, guess I was roiding, eh?).

      Seriously, you penalize Thome for your personal suspicions but are in favor of Manny, a roider who was caught?

      • spindervish - Mar 17, 2011 at 2:17 PM

        It is not a fact that Manny Ramirez used steroids. It is a fact that he was suspended for a drug violation, and the drug in question is widely believed (or possibly confirmed, I’m not sure) to have been human chorionic gonadotropin, which is in fact not an anabolic steroid. Yes, it’s a common drug used for post-cycle therapy, which certainly seems to imply that Manny may have taken steroids at some point, but that’s just speculation, not fact.

        In the future you may want to educate yourself a little bit before you go calling people out and throwing around your “facts.”

      • jwbiii - Mar 17, 2011 at 4:16 PM

        “Ramirez becomes the highest profile player to be suspended during active play. League suspends Ramirez for hGC (human chorionic gonadotropin), a female fertility drug. He claimed that his positive test is a result of medication received from a doctor for a personal medical issue. Ramirez is found to have elevated testosterone levels when tested during Spring Training. The elevated levels of testosterone leads to an investigation by the league which then discovers that Ramirez has been using hGC, a substance known to be used by serial steroid users to kick-start the body’s natural testosterone products after a steroid cycle. The suspension is, therefore, a “non-analytical positive”; a suspension based upon evidence, not a failed drug test. While hGC is a banned substance due to its coupled use with anibolic steroids, players can request a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) for hGC, something Ramirez did not do.”
        Maury Brown,

      • Reflex - Mar 17, 2011 at 6:41 PM

        I’m not going to split hairs. He was suspended for using a drug that was against the drug policy. The drug in question is typically used by roiders. He did not get a medical exemption for that drug. Chances are very high it was being used as part of a steroid program.

        Its enough for me. It may or may not be enough for you. Either way though, my point still stands: The original poster is willing to tar Thome’s career, a career that has *never* had any evidence of PED use, and in the same post elevate Ramirez above him, despite the fact that there is plenty of evidence that he was not clean.

        He can make a case that Manny was a better player. He can make a case that he thinks Thome was a juicer. There is not, however, a valid case to be made that Manny was a better player *because* Thome was a juicer. Manny was not clean, that nullifies any such argument immediatly.

      • spindervish - Mar 18, 2011 at 10:44 AM

        Yeah, I’ll certainly agree with you that the original poster’s comment was pretty stupid.

  2. phlockar - Mar 17, 2011 at 7:25 AM

    Barry Larkin should at the very least get a nod in the conversation for greatest Red still alive. The thumbs up I’ll get for that will come only from people that are in or from Cincinnati. Lark was born and bred here and played his entire career here. Outside of a little college stint in the state up north that most people from Ohio don’t speak of. I think eventually he’ll get in the HOF. Still no Bench though.

  3. woodenulykteneau - Mar 17, 2011 at 7:28 AM

    “there is a fame and personality aspect to all of this that, while I don’t want to overstate, seems important”

    Yet by considering style & appearance over talent & production, you have. But that’s okay. Some woman named Sophia Loren said something about sex appeal being 50% of what you have and 50% what people think you have. Not uncoincidentally, the GLB exercise is very much like girl-watching… the last one to walk by is the winner.

  4. yankeesfanlen - Mar 17, 2011 at 7:30 AM

    Yeah, that was fun yesterday, but I would have busted a major gut if I had seen that pre-Yogi version. As well, I stand by Yogi overall as GLB, to the dismay, and with respect to, Say-hey fans.
    And to get the morning started, Jeter and Mo, blessed as they are, are only the bottom 2/3 of the three GLBs currently in the room.

    • Reflex - Mar 17, 2011 at 8:48 AM

      Not dismay. Just amusement really. Yogi was awesome. Love the guy. One of the ten best to play the game ever. But Mays is in the conversation for the greatest player to ever play. Its pretty much Ruth or Mays no matter how you cut it(I’ve read convincing arguments either way, I personally lean Ruth if only because he could also pitch at a high level).

      Yogi is not in the conversation for the greatest to play the game. Nobody believes he was a better ballplayer than Mays, nobody considers him to even be the greatest Yankee ever(Ruth). And if he’s not in that conversation, then clearly he cannot be the greatest living ballplayer so long as Mays is alive.

      • uyf1950 - Mar 17, 2011 at 9:11 AM

        Reflex, this is one time that I agree with you. My heart and Yankee bias say go with Yogi but as I posted yesterday in all fairness the title belong to the “say hay kid” Willie Mays. I saw him play as a youngster and like I said excluding the last 3 or 4 years of his career there was none better.

      • Reflex - Mar 17, 2011 at 10:32 AM

        The thing is that I don’t think this is a diss at all on Yogi. He’s one of the all time best. His numbers were absolutely ridiculous for a corner outfielder, much less a catcher. Easily top ten in my book. Plus a great guy to boot.

        I think it just says a lot about how great Mays and Ruth were though, that someone with as amazing stats as Yogi still isn’t in the same class as those two.

      • BC - Mar 17, 2011 at 11:45 AM

        No, Berra is not the best ever to play the game, likely not in the top ten or fifteen. But he’s in the discussion for greatest catcher of all time with (in no particular order) Bench, Piazza, Cochrane, Carter and Dickey. (Yeah, I’m sure I left someone out). You could argue he’s #2 to Bench.

    • aburns77 - Mar 17, 2011 at 9:54 AM

      I am inclined to agree with you on Yogi being the greatest living Yankee, but greatest living ballplayer period is a little much. As much as I love and respect Jeter and Mo, Yogi with his ten rings and multiple MVPs is easily one of the top two catchers of all time, becoming one of the first to be able to be a force at the plate as well as behind it. That said I think its hard to say he’s the greatest living player because I can’t even say definitively he’s the greatest living catcher (Johnny Bench) right now. Mays excelled in all facets of the game despite playing in the cavernous candlestick park which if he played anywhere else would have easily hit over 700 home runs. Speaking of Bench, what about Johnny getting some love for greatest Red? I realize he’s not the hit king like Rose, but Bench arguably had a much higher offensive peak at a much more demanding defensive position than Rose.

  5. bkertz - Mar 17, 2011 at 7:40 AM

    Why is it that Musial is always mentioned to be among the greats, but it always stops there. Yes, he’s in the conversation but it seems he should be more than just a part of the conversation. I’d like to hear opinions as to why Musial is not THE greatest living player right now.

    • Craig Calcaterra - Mar 17, 2011 at 7:51 AM

      Well, because when you say “greatest” it means there can only be one. And for as much as everyone loves and appreciates Musial, I think most would agree that Mays was better by any number of measures (e.g. Mays has a clear cut advantage in WAR. He was a better base runner and had far, far more defensive value).

      That’s not a slight on Musial — he is in the inner part of the inner circle of all time greats — but Mays is probably one of the top three or four players to ever play the game depending on how you measure.

      • paperlions - Mar 17, 2011 at 8:02 AM

        Exactly. As a life-long Cardinal fan, seeing Musial be relatively ignored (compared to his greatness as a player and person) on a regular basis in the national discussion has always been annoying, but he was not as good as Mays, who is in the top 3 of all time IMO, whereas Stan is a bit farther down the list.

      • jwbiii - Mar 17, 2011 at 10:18 AM

        And Barry Bonds has a clear cut advantage over Mays in WAR, was an excellent base runner until his knees went, and if you you believe TZ, had more defensive value even though he played left field.

        “Many dead people — Eddie Matthews, Willie Stargell, Kirby Puckett, etc. — were suggested for the title of Greatest Living Ballplayer” because some posters aren’t bright enough to use baseball reference. Their screen names have been noted and the opinions expressed in their their future posts will be weighted accordingly.

      • spudchukar - Mar 17, 2011 at 12:06 PM

        Musial does get slighted these days but for all his greatness, including speed which usually goes unmentioned, (check out his triples) he is still a shade or two below Mays. What Mays could do that no other player has replicated is his ability to completely dominate a game. He wasn’t just a five-tool player. He was a five-tool player who exercised his gifts in a daring and overwhelming manner.

      • umrguy42 - Mar 17, 2011 at 2:23 PM

        Craig, all these things are true, but my Cardinals-fan heart wants to say that if Mays drops dead tomorrow, Stan the Man better be no worse than second on the updated list :p

        Also, I think in light of your mea culpa on Ripken, Musial ought to be the easiest choice out there (yes, even over Albert) :p

    • BC - Mar 17, 2011 at 11:46 AM

      Because Willie Mays is. QED

  6. cur68 - Mar 17, 2011 at 9:48 AM

    Did we ever stop to define ‘great’? That’s where the contention lies, really. Also, that’s where the fun lies. Everyone of us probably judges ‘great’ by different criteria. Sometimes by only slight differences in stats, sometimes by public opinion, sometimes by off field behavior. One of the most fun discussions ever on this site; I read every one of the posts and got absolutely nothing done yesterday. By my criteria, this was a ‘great’ subject. As for GLB? My opinion; Willie “Human Highlight Reel” Mays because he had it all.

  7. irreverendsara - Mar 17, 2011 at 9:50 AM

    In spite of being a former member of the Joe Charboneau Fan Club, I’m gonna have to go with Jim Thome as the greatest living ballplayer for the Indians. That’s the hat he’ll be wearing when he makes the Hall of Fame. Yeah, I said “when he makes the Hall of Fame.”

    • BC - Mar 17, 2011 at 11:48 AM

      Not Gaylord Perry?
      And here’s a relatively obscure one: Andre Thornton. Guy was a hitting machine.

    • Lukehart80 - Mar 17, 2011 at 12:38 PM

      As an Indians’ fan, I would go with Thome too. Lofton is very overlooked though, I’d put him ahead of Manny and Belle. It’s interesting that Omar hasn’t been mentioned (not much anyway), I expected a lot of his backers to push him for the Tribe. I’m glad that hasn’t happened.

  8. luckywi - Mar 17, 2011 at 10:37 AM

    Good column. I missed the original, but I have to wonder about people’s reading comprehension, when they think dead people are the Greatest Living Ballplayer. Good stuff.

    • BC - Mar 17, 2011 at 2:06 PM

      No, it’s called having other things to do and being distracted. The only dead player I mentioned that was a “duh” was Puckett, that was just my brain going sdiusddfnbdofkdfhba. I had no idea Stargell and Matthews were doing the dirt dance, and had been for so long.

  9. nelsonsaint - Mar 17, 2011 at 11:12 AM

    have you ever seen todd helton and rory b bellows in the same room? maybe he’s not so boring after all…

  10. Chris Fiorentino - Mar 17, 2011 at 11:14 AM

    I believe that if you are going to name the Greatest Living Ballplayer, without using any type of disclaimers, then Barry Bonds would have to be the winner. I know his #’s are tainted by the whole steroids thing, but without that disclaimer, his #s are better than everyone except Babe Ruth. If Pujols keeps it up for another 5 or 6 years, he will surpass Bonds. But right now, I would have to say that the list is Bonds then Mays with Pujols fast on their tails.

    • cur68 - Mar 17, 2011 at 11:24 AM

      Yeah, once again, we need to define the term “Great” otherwise Bonds is definitely on the table.

    • BC - Mar 17, 2011 at 2:42 PM

      A-Rod’s not in the discussion? Again, setting the PED disclaimer aside.

      • cur68 - Mar 17, 2011 at 9:42 PM

        A-Rod? Sure he is. What disclaimer? Beyond being currently alive no other limits were set. His stats are pretty good.

      • Chris Fiorentino - Mar 18, 2011 at 9:05 AM

        I’m not a stat geek, nor do I aspire to be one. But I am definitely geekier than I used to be. Previously, I would have said “Yeah, A-Rod is in the discussion since he hits all those HRs.” But I have learned to give SOME of the other stats their due, and one stat that particularly appeals to me is OPS and OPS+. A-Rod career….958 OPS and 145 OPS+. Great, great numbers. Pujols career…1.050 OPS and 172 OPS+. These aren’t great…these are historically great. Pujols, if he continues his current production, will end up the greatest of all time. If he dips just a little bit, he will still be in the top 5. A-Rod, unless he turns it around from his last 3 years, which have been great, but not historically great, will not be in the discussion of greatest ever.

  11. BC - Mar 17, 2011 at 11:41 AM

    My suggesting dead people = Not reading obituaries + Missing a bunch of deaths in the late 90s and early 00s because I had a life then + Being at work and having limited time to surf the web to check on whether someone was doing the Dirt Dance + Collective effect of years of Ketel One.

  12. shawnuel - Mar 17, 2011 at 1:54 PM

    I would choose Bench over Rose for the Reds and one reason has been stated quite well already. Better OVERALL offensive production at a far more demanding position.

    Now, granted that Rose made himself into an adequate OF and 3B after Morgan moved him off 2B, but Bench is, arguably, the best defensive C in baseball history and a top 3 best offensive C of all time. To me, who was a big fan of the Big Red Machine (from age 5-18) from ’68-’81 until and a bit after the Mariners came to my region, Bench WAS the Cincinnati Reds. There were a lot of players to like on those teams, bit Bench distinguished himself with his on-field play and off-field demeanor. In the era when players were starting to belly-ache about salary, Bench was always as classy as could be in those negotiations.

    • BC - Mar 17, 2011 at 2:07 PM

      No argument from me. Bench and Carter (before they got old) were the two best defensive catchers I’ve ever seen, and Bench was many times better offensively.

  13. fdnymedic03 - Mar 18, 2011 at 9:30 AM

    The Greatest Living Ball Player,Hands down is the great Willie (the say hey kid) May’s…He’s the only one that should be mention!

  14. sparty99 - Mar 25, 2011 at 12:20 AM

    This is a nitpick, but Al Kaline was twice indicated as the greatest living Tiger since the day Cobb died in 1961. It doesn’t matter now, but the day Cobb died, that title probably transferred to Charlie Gehringer. At some point near the end of his career Kaline may well have surpassed Gehringer and he certainly holds the title today (although depending on the longevity required and continued career arc Miguel Cabrera may creep up in the not-too-distant future), but by no means did he grab the title in his 6th season in the majors.

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