An Introduction to the Legends of Baseball
| Hank Aaron
| Yogi Berra
| Ty Cobb
| Joe DiMaggio
Lou Gehrig | Rogers Hornsby | Mickey Mantle | Willie Mays | Stan Musial | Cal Ripken Jr
Jackie Robinson | Pete Rose | Babe Ruth | Ted Williams | Cy Young | The Baseball Hall of Fame
Baseball is America's national pastime and because it is so beloved by the USA, the best players become national icons and bigger than the sport itself. There have been dozens of these, but only a handful can stand the test of time, through infamy or greatness or both. There are hundreds of greats of baseball, but legends are on another level. A player that can stand the test of time through generations may become a baseball legend.
Note that this entry does not cover the Lexington Legends, a minor league team in Kentucky, USA.
What Makes Them Legends?
Unfortunately, being a legend of baseball is not entirely based on talent, though that is certainly the most important single factor. Being talented ensures two important things for a player that can ensure his position as a legend-
- He can attract crowds - bringing popularity and name recognition.
- He can get the best contracts with the best teams and stay on that team - ensuring longevity as a player (as long as he still attracts crowds in his later years when he might not be quite as great) and is likely to bring good affiliations for the player. An excellent example of this being the New York Yankees, who made legends of Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Lou Gehrig, Yogi Berra, Babe Ruth and more.
Being extra-talented leads to almost all of the factors required to transform a baseball player into a legend.
Name Recognition is one of the most important virtues of being a legend of baseball. Almost everyone in the United States has heard of Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle, but only the people who know baseball will recognise less modern, but similarly great talents such as Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson. With increased media coverage most great modern players earn name recognition quicker and easier than players from the turn of the century.
It's also useful to have a good nickname or an interesting real name. Yogi Berra is an example of a great nickname, because people generally remember a name such as Yogi (he also had the personality to go with it). His nickname was also immortalised by the cartoon character 'Yogi Bear' who kept the name recognised by the public1. But that was more or less an accident. Some nicknames were useful for name recognition, to shorten a long name and some were just for fun. Regardless, almost all great major leaguers have had nicknames, such as:
- Willie Mays - 'Say Hey Kid'
- Ty Cobb - 'The Georgia Peach'
- George Herman Ruth - 'Babe' Ruth
- Lou Gehrig - 'The Iron Horse'
- Cal Ripken - 'The New Iron Horse'
- Denton True Young - 'Cy' (Cyclone) Young
- Johannes Peter Wagner - 'Honus' Wagner
- Joe DiMaggio - 'The Yankee Clipper' or 'Joltin' Joe'
- Pete Rose - 'Charlie Hustle'
- Sanford Braun - 'Sandy' Koufax
- Stan Musial - 'Stan the Man'
- Reggie Jackson - 'Mr October'2
- Ted Williams - 'The Splendid Splinter'
- Joe Jackson - 'Shoeless' Joe
Records are something to be remembered by, even if they're broken. Some players' only real claim to fame is a record, in fact Cal Ripken might hardly be known if not for his record of 2,632 consecutive games played. It beat out Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games played, but Gehrig is still well known for that. Babe Ruth is known for his 60 homers in one season (if only for reporters constantly comparing home run records). The most important records in baseball are generally considered to be3:
Most Home Runs in One Season - Currently held by Barry Bonds at 73
Most Career Home Runs - Currently held by Hank Aaron at 755
Highest Career Batting Average - Currently held by Ty Cobb at .366
Most Consecutive Games Played - Currently held by Cal Ripken at 2,632
Most Career Hits - Currently held by Pete Rose at 4,256
Most Stolen Bases in One Season - Currently held by Rickey Henderson at 130
Most Career Stolen Bases - Currently held by Rickey Henderson at 1,270
Most Games won (by a pitcher) - Currently held by Cy Young at 511
Fortunately for the aspiring baseball player, there are still plenty of records to contest. Even some of the worst players hold or have held records in baseball. There are four major areas for records to be held in - hitting, baserunning, pitching and fielding - which each hold dozens and dozens of unimportant records. There are many other records that fall outside of this, such as most consecutive games played, most MVP awards won or most World Series appearances. Each position on the field has a number of potential records for it. Any player has a chance to hold a record at some point, even if only accidentally.
Breaking a record sometimes creates a huge buzz and elevates a player into the public consciousness. When Pete Rose beat Ty Cobb's hit record a street was named after him. When Cal Ripken beat Lou Gehrig's record of consecutive games played, it was ranked as the most memorable moment of baseball by Mastercard. When Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire competed for the season home run record, it was one of baseball's most popular modern moments and McGuire and Sosa became household names across the nation. Often, breaking an old record attracts much more attention than when the original record was set.
Longevity can be an important factor in someone standing out from the crowd. Some players can last several decades at the top, and many of the best players have played through three decades. Being a top player for a long time also makes a person more likely to set important career records. Pete Rose lasted far past his prime to set the record for most hits.
However, most players slow down and stop performing as well when they get older, so longevity comes at a risk to a person's dignity (and often his health). Great players like Willie Mays and Joe DiMaggio ended their careers embarrassingly. There are, as always, exceptions to the rule. Ted Williams and Cal Ripken were still strong players at over forty years old, though noticeably reduced in their power.
Some players are unable to achieve a long major league career because they become a major leaguer too late in life. Jackie Robinson is perhaps the best example of this, joining the Brooklyn Dodgers at age 28, which was past his prime. If a player is intending on setting career records it can take a full twenty years to do so, and the player should join the major leagues in their early twenties, if possible.
Doing something important for the first time is difficult to achieve, but will almost instantly secure your fame. Jackie Robinson is credited with toppling the race barrier in Major League Baseball, which made sure that he would become a legend. On July 19, 1909 Neal Ball performed the first unassisted triple play, which has only been done 11 times after him. Most important things have been done for the first time, however, and it isn't a likely path to be immortality for modern baseball players.
Getting a fatal disease and retiring would not be a popular choice, but it left Lou Gehrig on a high note. Perhaps the most famous moment in baseball was when he announced his retirement at Lou Gehrig day in Yankee Stadium and returned to the dugout in tears. He had contracted Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, now often called Lou Gehrig's disease.
The Hall of Fame is the surest indication that a player is considered great. Once you've been inducted, it ensures that you will (at the very least) be remembered by visitors to Cooperstown, New York. As long as you are a great player, you will be in the Hall of Fame. Of course, there are two notable exceptions to this...
There are two great players who are more than eligible to be inducted into the Hall of Fame but have not been and probably never will be. Pete Rose has been banned from baseball and the Hall of Fame for allegedly gambling on his own team. Shoeless Joe Jackson was banned from baseball and the Hall of Fame for his alleged involvement in the 1919 Chicago White Sox team 'fixing' a game for gambling purposes. They will be remembered because they are exceptions though, and they were exceptional players.
Popularity is important to becoming a legend, but being unpopular will not necessarily ruin a person's chances. A great player like Ty Cobb managed to become a legend despite being uniformly hated by most Major Leaguers and most of the public. This was because no one could ignore how great Ty Cobb was. However, he almost certainly would be even better known if he had had a less anti-social personality. On the other hand, Babe Ruth, who was playing around the same time was much more popular and was considered by the public to be a better player, despite many baseball experts thinking that Cobb was better.
Popularity probably shouldn't affect a player's chances of awards and honours in baseball (though Ted Williams' disputes with the Boston press cost him at least one Most Valuable Player award) and he may still attract crowds, but an unpopular player is less likely to be remembered after they die if they're anything less than magnificent4.
Image plays a key part in the popularity of a player. The public generally likes players like Babe Ruth or Ted Williams who donate large amounts of money and time to good causes5. Williams was also a war veteran from World War II and the Korean War, both of which he was drafted for while he was playing baseball. Both of these players had dark sides (Babe Ruth led a life of adultery and gluttony while Ted Williams was very rude to the press and sometimes to the crowd) but the public wasn't as exposed to those features of their personality as modern fans would be. Because of this, they were more popular with the public and as such are remembered today.
Who Are the Best?
The short answer is that no one knows. There are too many variables and grounds for comparison to determine who are the definitive 'best-ever'. Everyone has their own opinion of the top ten best players ever. Sporting News, sometimes called the 'Baseball Bible' published their list of the best players ever - their selection for the top ten was:
- Babe Ruth
- Willie Mays
- Ty Cobb
- Walter Johnson
- Hank Aaron
- Lou Gehrig
- Christy Mathewson
- Ted Williams
- Rogers Hornsby
- Stan Musial
These ten appear often on the lists of the ten best, but the order is interchangeable. It all depends on the way you research it. One person that goes up and down the list with no pattern is Ty Cobb. Some consider him the best player of all time, but some don't even put him on the top ten. The Society for American Baseball Research's list is a good example of a list that ranks Cobb in a lower position -
- Babe Ruth
- Lou Gehrig
- Ted Williams
- Hank Aaron
- Stan Musial
- Joe DiMaggio
- Ty Cobb
- Willie Mays
- Rogers Hornsby
- Honus Wagner
Thus two of the most professional Baseball historical groups come up with completely different decisions, but many of the same players. There are only a few certainties in these and other lists - Babe Ruth will be in the top ten (often floating around first place), there are few pitchers on the list and Rogers Hornsby will be near the foot of the list, often continued on into the top 20.
But these are just the thoughts of two organisations. Why not share your thoughts of the best players in the Conversations below...
Honours and Awards
For almost every record there is to set, there's an award for the person who set it. Baseball celebrates its players well with prestigious awards and honours. Most of the legends receive multiple awards during their career and are still regularly honoured afterwards.
The League Most Valuable Player Award is awarded to one player from each league every year. The player is pronounced the best from that league, as voted by the Baseball Writers Association of America. It was started in 1931 when the Chalmers automobile company decided to sponsor an MVP award instead of a batting title award.
The Cy Young Award. Named after one of the best pitchers in Major League history, the Cy Young award is the MVP award for pitchers, who rarely win the League MVP itself. It began when baseball Commissioner Ford Frick had an idea for an annual MVP award for the best pitchers in baseball. In 1956, the year after Cy Young died, the idea was approved and named after him. The winners are voted for annually by the Baseball Writers Association of America.
The Triple Crown is not strictly an award or an honour. It's more of an individual accomplishment that is only occasionally achieved. There are two types of Triple Crown - the Batters Triple Crown and the Pitchers Triple Crown. In order to win the batter's Triple Crown, a hitter has to lead or tie his league in RBI, home runs and batting average. In order for a pitcher to win the Triple Crown, he has to lead or tie his league in wins, strikeouts and earned run average.
A Gold Glove is given each year to the best player in his position in each league. So one player in the league can win the centerfielder's Gold Glove or the first baseman's Gold Glove, etc.
The best players of each year are voted to play in the All Star Game. In it, a team of the best players of the American League play the best players in the National League for no particular reason6. Being voted onto the All Star Team means that you're one of the best in your league7.
The Rookie of the Year Award is given to the best first season player from each league. Most legends have received this award in their rookie season.
The most common honour for a hitter is rather subtle and occurs during game play. It is of course the Intentional Walk in which the pitcher avoids letting the hitter get a home run by intentionally throwing four pitches outside the strike zone, letting the hitter 'walk' to first base instead of possibly slugging his way past it. It assures the hitter that he is a powerful batter and considered so dangerous that the pitcher shouldn't attempt to let him hit. Casey Stengel once said:
I was such a dangerous hitter I even got intentional walks during batting practice.
Two dynasties in particular have produced a number of great moments, teams and legends for baseball.
The Yankee Dynasty
The Yankee Dynasty has produced 33 Hall of Famers8 and have won an incredible 26 World Series games (and lost 12). They have had some of the finest baseball players ever to field a diamond. The 1927 Yankees are widely considered the finest group of players ever and earned the nickname 'Murderer's Row'. They included such greats as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Bob Meusel, Earle Combs, Mark Koenig and Joe Dugan. This was also the year that Babe Ruth hit his career high of 60 homers.
Since then, the Yankees have consistently had some one of the best players in baseball on their roster. They have produced a number of legends and stars:
- Joe DiMaggio
- Mickey Mantle
- Lou Gehrig
- Yogi Berra
- Babe Ruth
- Reggie Jackson
- Roger Maris
- Don Mattingly
- Paul O'Neill
- Joe Pepitone
The Big Red Machine
During their strongest period, the Cincinnati Reds were nicknamed the 'Big Red Machine'. Technically, their strongest period was when they were the only professional baseball team playing against amateur teams, but, in fairness, the Big Red Machine era is considered as their strongest time. It was during the mid-1960s, the 1970s and the 1980s, starting from about 1965.
Through the 'farm' system of training players for major league play in minor league teams associated with the Reds, the Big Red Machine was fuelled by such great players as pitcher Jim Maloney, Pete Rose, Tony Perez, Johnny Bench and Gary Nolan. The Machine hiccoughed through a horrible 1971 season, but cruised through the rest of the '70s. Many great players went through the Big Red Machine and it is still remembered as one of the best baseball teams ever.