Nobody better than the Babe

When I'm asked about the greatest baseball players in major league history, there are nine names that always work their way into the conversation. In chronological order, they are:

Honus Wagner
Ty Cobb
Babe Ruth
Ted Williams
Stan Musial
Mickey Mantle
Willie Mays
Henry Aaron
Barry Bonds

Four of these players can be "matched," because they have contemporaries who played the same position: Williams with Musial, Mantle with Mays. If we're trying to eliminate competitors for the top spot, this is a good place to start.

As I've written many times before, Stan Musial is one of my favorites. I never saw him play, of course, but I've been reading and hearing stories about him for as long as I can remember, and the baseball that Stan signed for my grandfather is probably the only piece of memorabilia that I truly care about. That said, I just don't see any way to rate Musial even with Ted Williams.

Even if one assumes that the National League was superior to the American League in the 1950s -- true, I think -- it's hard to imagine the difference was great enough to push Musial past Williams. Stan was a better baserunner than Ted, a better fielder, and easier to manage. But in the 1940s, Williams was the best hitter in the world ... and you know, he wasn't too shabby in the 1950s, either.

Mantle vs. Mays isn't as clear-cut. As Bill James wrote in his most recent book, "I have Mantle rated higher than anyone else does, but just a little bit higher ... my argument would be that there has been too much talk about Mantle's drinking and too little about the impact of his career on base percentage, .421."

Agreed. And if you could have one of them for only one season, you probably would want Mantle. But Mays was a better center fielder, he was faster on the bases, and he was a lot better at staying out of the doctor's office. Make no mistake, Mantle was incredibly talented. But Mays was very nearly as talented ... and he played nearly 600 more games than Mantle.

Removing Mantle and Musial leaves seven players vying for the top spot. Here they are again, along with
Bill James' Win Shares, career and per 154 games:

WinShares WS/154
Wagner 655 36
Cobb 722 37
Ruth 756 47
Williams 555 37
Mays 642 33
Aaron 643 30
Bonds 611 37

I've listed them (for now) in chronological order, because the time in which a player played does impact our evaluation. In a nutshell, it's likely that the quality of play in the major leagues has steadily improved since the National League was formed in 1876, and it follows that it's become steadily more difficult to dominate the competition. I'm not suggesting the trend line is absolutely straight, but it's fairly obvious that it was easier to pile up big numbers, relative to the competition, in Ty Cobb's era than in Henry Aaron's.

Now, looking at those numbers in the chart, a couple of things might pop out ...

  • Babe Ruth was awesome (yes, he was), and

  • Ted Williams is getting screwed (yes, he is).

    Williams' Win Shares per 154 games are right up there with anybody except Ruth, but he's way behind in career Win Shares. Why? Because he served his country in not one, but two wars. And I don't think it's fair to hold that against him.

    Year 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54
    Actual 42 46 0 0 0 49 44 39 40 19 34 1 9 29
    42 46 40 40 40 49 44 39 40 19 34 25 25 29

    That bottom line includes my Win Shares adjustments for the five years in which Williams spent most or all of his time flying airplanes for his country. I was somewhat conservative, because 1) we should try to account for the possibility of injury, and 2) I think we should always be conservative when we do things like this. Still, adding 160 Win Shares to Williams' career total does wonders.

    A similar adjustment helps Willie Mays, though not nearly as much. He spent most of the 1952 season, and all of 1953, in the army, and so I assigned him 60 Win Shares for those seasons (he earned 19 as a rookie in 1951 and 40 in 1954).

    Now I'm going to run the same chart from above, but with the "adjustments" for Williams and Mays, and listing everybody in descending order of career Win Shares ...

    WinShares WS/154
    Ruth 756 47
    Cobb 722 37
    Williams 715 37
    Mays 702 33
    Wagner 655 36
    Aaron 643 30
    Bonds 611 37

    That changes things a bit, doesn't it? Williams moves into a dead heat with Cobb, and Mays separates himself from Wagner and Aaron.

    Nobody can catch Ruth, though. He still has more career Win Shares than anybody else, and he kills the competition in Win Shares per season.

    I should mention that Ruth's WS/154 are artificially high because he spent the first part of his career as a pitcher, and a pitcher will pick up more Win Shares per game (for the obvious reason that a pitcher has a huge impact on any game he starts). If we account for that, Ruth would still have something like 45 Win Shares per season.

    You know that Ruth was a great hitter. How good a pitcher was he? From 1915 through 1919, Ruth went 68-40 with ERAs nearly as good as his winning percentages. Absent injury, he'd have been a Hall of Fame pitcher. Absent pitching, his home-run record probably never would have been broken by Hank Aaron. You can talk about the timeline adjustment and you can say Ruth was fat. But you can't say he wasn't the greatest player who ever lived.

    Here, then, is how I rank the nine greatest players ever:

    1. Ruth
    2. Mays
    3. Williams
    4. Wagner
    5. Cobb
    6. Bonds
    7. Aaron
    8. Musial
    9. Mantle

    There is a big problem with this list: There are nine players, and eight of them are outfielders (Wagner being the only exception). This is consistent with Conventional Wisdom, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's right. Why do outfielders fare so well? Two obvious reasons: Outfielders tend to last longer, and they tend to hit better. If you want more infielders, though, I heartily endorse Joe Morgan, Eddie Collins and Mike Schmidt (and don't be shy about moving Wagner, a shortstop for most of his career, up a slot or two).

    There also aren't any pitchers (Ruth notwithstanding); if you want a pitcher on that list, feel free to drop Walter Johnson somewhere between Bonds and Mantle. And speaking of Bonds, he deserves a couple of bullet points ...

  • Obviously, he can still move up on the list. Assuming he plays three more seasons and is moderately healthy, Bonds is going to finish with more (actual) Win Shares than every player but Ruth and Cobb. Combine his career numbers with his per/154 numbers, and it's not hard to argue that he'll deserve to be ranked among the top three or four players ever. And that's before we make any sort of timeline adjustment.

  • The mere mention of Barry Bonds in this article will, I know, elicit a great deal of e-mail from readers who think that instead of moving Bonds up the list because he's not through yet, he should be moved down the list because of his (alleged) "creative use of modern pharmaceuticals."

    I don't know what to do with that, though. You can't really accuse Bonds of cheating, because A) we don't know what, if anything, he's been doing, and B) the "rules" are not clear. You can't really accuse Bonds of doing things that other players aren't doing, because we know other players are doing things. Which isn't to say it shouldn't be a part of the discussion; I just don't know which part, exactly.

    It's very difficult to rate an active player, and for now I'm comfortable saying only that Bonds is one of the game's 10 greatest players ever. As for where exactly he belongs in that group, we'll have to sort that out later.

    Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-authored with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.