The latest tranche of greats found in #MLBRank includes a trio of the all-time greatest second basemen ever: Rogers Hornsby, Joe Morgan and Jackie Robinson. It might be a slight surprise for some of you to see Jackie in that company, but let's get into the legacies of each in what makes for a tough ranking between the three of them.
Rogers Hornsby's case can effectively be boiled down to the 10-year stretch of extraordinary performance he put up at the outset of the live ball era starting in 1920. Through 1929, Hornsby hit .382/.460/.637 with 770 extra-base hits while winning seven batting titles. If you like WAR, he's No. 1 there as well. It's a case for all-time dominance that rests on the unquestioning assumption that what you see on the page is all you need to know, because very few of us alive today saw him play in his prime.
And while the same factors are in play with Hornsby that are also the case with Lou Gehrig or Honus Wagner -- playing in small, unintegrated leagues with poor competitive balance -- on their face the numbers are unimpeachable. If you want a case built on reading a stat line and going no further, Hornsby is your guy, even if it means skipping over a few criticisms of his indifferent defense or a personality that contributed to teams' readiness to ditch him in the back half of his career, at a time when free agency didn't exist.
But if you like numbers, Rogers Hornsby provides. He's the statistical choice.
Joe Morgan's case is a variation on that theme. He's the greatest second baseman in the history of the game since the game was fully integrated. He ranks fourth all-time in WAR among second basemen behind Hornsby, Nap Lajoie and Eddie Collins, fourth behind them in peak WAR, fourth behind them in Jay Jaffe's JAWS metric blending peak and career value.
He's second all time among second basemen in stolen bases and first in walks. Evaluations of his defense rate him among the greats. In "The Historical Baseball Abstract," Bill James referred to him as the best percentage player in baseball history, citing his defense, base stealing and walk rate, while ranking him the best second baseman in the game's history. With Johnny Bench, Tony Perez and Pete Rose, he was a part of the offensive quartet that made the Big Red Machine one of the greatest teams of all time, winning back-to-back MVP awards in 1975-1976. He's the analytical choice, and all other things aside, he'd be my guy, but for one thing.
Second base is where Jackie Robinson played most of the time. Take a step back from the numbers, because this isn't that kind of argument. It can't be, because Robinson played just 10 years, far too few to rack up the counting stats that might flesh out a career in this kind of conversation.
As fans, we ask of athletes what they ask of themselves: Greatness, at its simplest. To rise to every challenge their sport presents them with. To be excellent. And in the broadest of broad strokes, how many baseball players faced the challenge Jackie did, breaking baseball's color line? Who could conceivably have done it better? I know I've upset some of you with my disinclination to hallow the great numerical accumulators of the game's pre-integration era, but in part that's because, of all the things ever done on a diamond with a stick and a ball, there is no one thing greater than what Jackie Robinson did, for the game or for history.
Jackie doesn't have the numbers. He was asked to do something more important, and he delivered. It's why he belongs in a conversation about who the greatest American athlete of the 20th century might be, in the company of Ali, Jordan, Jackie Joyner-Kersee or Jesse Owens. It's a conversation that doesn't include Hornsby or Morgan, not to slight them in the least.
If you want to tell the story of baseball, you can tell it without mentioning a great many of the great players we've talked about in #MLBRank. But you cannot tell that story without Jackie Robinson. And if you were going to reduce the game to one team, one starting nine, the people who should be the imperishable example on some field of dreams, one of those nine men has to be Jackie Robinson.
At this level of greatness within the game, there are no wrong answers. But in this trio, Jackie Robinson is conscience's choice, and it's the credit of the game that it gave him to us, not the other way around.