Saturday, September 27, 2014

The 25 Most Influential People in Baseball History

Graham Womack, who runs the annual "50 Best Players Not in the Hall of Fame" poll over at his site, Baseball Past & Present, is running a new poll.  He's calling it, "The 25 Most Influential People in Baseball History."  This is my ballot, which I ranked in order, although that wasn't necessary for the purposes of the "assignment."
1.  Jackie Robinson - In my opinion, Robinson is the player who has most transcended baseball.  Not the greatest player of all-time, but in the top 50 (higher if you love a good peak).  Definitely brave beyond all reason, and a remarkable historical figure.  I couldn't have put anyone else here.
2.  Babe Ruth - The only other person one could have reasonably put ahead of Robinson, in my estimation.  Again, if "transcends baseball" is the highest compliment a figure can achieve in baseball, Ruth is the only one other than Robinson to do that.  "Ruthian" is an adjective normal, non-baseball-loving people use, for goodness sakes!  Inarguably the greatest hitter of his time, and probably any other.
3.  Cap Anson - The man who made Jackie Robinson necessary.  Yeah, he was a great player.  But his legacy, ultimately, is the color barrier.  And, though it was a terrible, awful, no-good, very bad thing, it had a HUGE impact, costing the rest of us the joy of seeing a bunch of great players play in the same league.
4.  Henry Chadwick - Inventor of the box score, he shaped how we understand the game.  We owe him a debt.
5.  Bill James - He made us re-think how we understand the game.  He's a pompous ass, but a delightful one.  His writing makes me laugh, makes me think, makes me angry, and is a constant delight.  And that's beyond his contributions to baseball statistics, which are unmatched since Chadwick.  My personal favorite.
6.  Curt Flood - There are a lot of people who have opinions of what Curt Flood did.  Popularly, lately, I think you see more and more people saying that Flood took a bad course of action in challenging the reserve clause.  I disagree.  His and Marvin Miller's campaign to make baseball's labor laws fairer are the greatest victory in baseball since Jackie Robinson's first game.  I only regret I felt I couldn't put both Miller and Flood on the list, and I thought Flood deserved the nod.
7.  Bud Selig - Love him, hate him, whatever.  He's done more to shape baseball than any other commissioner, he's overseen the greatest financial growth in the history of the game, and he's brought baseball successfully into the 21st century, in spite of people claiming its death.  Any opinion on Selig is valid, but he's DEFINITELY been influential.
8.  Charlie Comiskey - A fantastically divisive owner, maybe more than Charlie Finley or George Steinbrenner.  I thought I only had room for one, and Comiskey was my choice.
9.  Hank Aaron - The hero who broke Babe Ruth's home run record with grace.  A true American hero, and the man who every Milwaukee boy is brought up to believe was and is the game's greatest ambassador.  Thanks for all you've done, Hank!
10.  Buck O'Neil - The man who made the Negro Leagues live.  He carried on the legacy when others would not; he made the Negro League museum in Kansas City a reality, and a memorial to all the brilliant and wonderful men who deserve to be honored and remembered.  Although he's not remembered in Cooperstown himself, he got a bunch of other men there, too.  There's perhaps been no better person in the history of the Greatest Game.
11.  Joe Jackson - Can you tell the story of baseball without Shoeless Joe?  The 1919 Black Sox represent a crucial moment in baseball history, and Shoeless Joe makes us think about innocence and guilt.  He is perhaps the last American icon who is well-remembered in spite of being illiterate.  Less than a hundred years have passed, but Shoeless Joe represents an America of a different millennium.  A wonderful ballplayer, and a representative of the one of the great stains on baseball's history.
12.  Cal Ripken, Jr. - The man who saved baseball.  Baseball's Iron Man.  An icon in Baltimore.  Legend.  Though he doesn't have the cachet of a Robinson or Ruth, he's perhaps the man next on the list of those who have actually transcended the game and entrenched themselves in the American imagination.
13.  Hank Greenberg - The Jackie Robinson of Jews.  He did it in a climate in which antisemitism was growing in America and abroad, and he carried the weight of a whole group of people with aplomb.  Like Jackie, a true hero.
14.  Roberto Clemente - Perhaps the Jackie Robinson of Latinos.  Though there were certainly great Latin-American players before Clemente, he captured the imagination like no other.  The arm, the clutch hitting, the humanitarianism.  You can't not love Clemente.  Plus, the subject of a great rant in City Slickers, the non-baseball movie with perhaps the most baseball references of any.
15.  Jose Canseco - The man who blew the lid on the "steroid era."  A great player in his own right and baseball's first 40-40 man, Canseco became more famous for his book after his career was over.  Though no one will mistake him for a great human being, the culture of baseball in 2014 owes more to Jose Canseco than nearly anyone else in history.
16.  Pete Rose - Like Joe Jackson, Rose was a man who left baseball in disgrace.  Nonetheless, the story of baseball is impossible to tell without the story of Pete Rose.  Like so many others, a flawed man whose flaws proved to be both his salvation on the field, and his downfall at his retirement.
17.  Satchel Paige - Was Satchel Paige the greatest pitcher to ever play the game?  I'm inclined to think "yes," but the aforementioned Cap Anson prevented me from answering the question with any certainty.  Undoubtedly, Paige was the game's greatest showman, and it's almost certain that no one before or since has pitched nearly as much as he.
18.  Ted Williams - The stories of Williams as a player alone would be enough to get him on this list:  the last .400 hitter, the home run in the final at bat, The Science of Hitting.  Heck - when I even think of watching him in his wheelchair, sitting and talking hitting with Tony Gwynn at the 1999 All-Star Game, I still get chills (seriously - it happened three times while I typed this sentence).  But more than anything else, what gets him to rank this high (and perhaps he should be higher) is that he used his Hall of Fame induction speech not to rip the media that ripped him, not to prop up himself or his accomplishments, but to ensure that there would be Negro League players in the Hallowed Halls of Cooperstown.  A great advocate.
19.  Ty Cobb - Once revered as the game's greatest player (and hitter), Cobb was like none other.  Still the owner of the game's highest-ever average, he also set hits and steals records in his day.  Though the game has changed, and though cultural mores make many of Cobb's views (particularly on race) look wrongheaded, he would've surely been a great ballplayer in any generation.
20.  Cy Young - The only man who truly succeeded in the days of the closer mound, the farther mound, the pre-1900 game and the post-1900 game; and all he got for it was 511 wins and an award named after him.
21.  Lou Gehrig - The Iron Horse.  How many baseball players get a biopic that's beloved 50+ years later?  Just Gehrig, so far.
22.  Yogi Berra - The most quotable of baseball's legends, Berra has remained as significant a figure in his post-playing life as he was as a player - and his playing legacy was only as a 3-time MVP and the lynchpin to the greatest dynasty the game has ever known.
23.  Joe DiMaggio - 56.
24.  Willie Mays - I thought about putting Barry Bonds here, I really did.  But his godfather may deserve it even more.  Was there ever a player better than Mays?  Many don't think so; I can't say they're wrong.
25.  Mike Trout - Yes, this is the controversial choice.  He's of course being picked for what I think he will do, but I'm also picking him for the fact that he's represented, for two years, the "advanced stats" vs. "old-time stats" debate.  And no matter what stats you love, he's the best player in baseball today.  I can't believe I've been spoiled enough to live through Barry Bonds' offensive explosion of the early 2000s, the blissful dominance of Prince Albert, and the rise of young Mike Trout.  I can't wait to see what he has in store for us.

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