Revisiting the Four Greatest Living: Are They Really the Greatest?
I’ll admit that I’m a sappy sentimentalist when it comes to seeing baseball’s old timers. Who could forget Ted Williams’ appearance at the 1999 All Star Game? And so I was looking forward to Major League Baseball’s presentation at this year’s All-Star Game of the Four Greatest Living Baseball players. Initially I thought, “Great, we get to see Joe D. and Teddy Ballgame, and maybe Stan the Man and Bob Feller.”
Then it struck me. Damn. It’s sad to realize how many of the immortals have passed away in the not-too-distant past–proving that the immortals are, indeed, mortal and that our youth is rapidly sliding away.
The title of “Greatest Living” used to be universally bestowed on Joe DiMaggio. I’m not really sure that he was, but it was just that he insisted on being addressed as that and, well, people loved to see him; loved the persona; loved the era he played in; loved the luscious blond chick he married and, yeah, there were all those World Series titles.
But all those guys are gone. So, now its time for the next generation.
Since there seemed to be a little controversy with the four selected by the fan vote (Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench and Sandy Koufax), I thought it would be good to discuss the merits of each and whether or not they truly deserved the honor. I should note that I don’t really care that much about pure stats–don’t give me WAR and OBP/OPS, my ADHD/OCD can’t handle it. When considering baseball greatness, I prefer to be like that guy who testified in Washington a while back about pornography–I can’t define it, but I know what it looks like when I see it.
* I should also note that I prefer to ignore the accomplishments of anyone who needed steroids to accumulate their baseball resume.
First, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays: You’ve gotta be kidding me, right?
Moving on to the next one: Johnny Bench.
I’ll admit, I was a bit surprised to see Bench make it. Not that I don’t totally agree with the selection. I do, I just thought that it was my little secret. Bench was so good, so young–he hit 45 home runs, 148 RBIs and won an MVP award at 23 years of age–that I always felt that people took him for granted after, say, 1972.
People forget the four World Series, two titles; the two MVPs, and the fact that he led the entire major leagues in RBIs for the decade of the 1970s. And he deservedly won all those Gold Gloves. Guys wouldn’t even try to steal on Bench after the first few years.
Think about all of the positions on a baseball field. At any spot, you can get a good argument regarding who was the absolute best. Any position, that is, except for catcher. There is no argument.
Very little discussion even.
Again, excluding any alleged steroid-users, there is really no one close. Bench was so much better than any other catcher, both offensively and defensively, there is nothing to add.
Berra? Yeah, he won lots of World Series titles–which are, as you know, important–but no one would seriously say Berra was as good as Bench.
Carlton Fisk? Fisk was a very good catcher–so good someone could write a book about him and it would probably be a very good book and a great choice for that baseball lover on your Christmas list–but he wasn’t really close to Bench.
What about the other Hall of Fame catchers? Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane, Gary Carter? Nuh-uh.
Ray Schalk for crying out loud? Sorry.
There’s no one. Bench deserves it. He was that good.
This is where I had a problem and after much thought, I just can’t agree with Koufax belonging in the group. Sure, Sandy is the trendy choice. He had the charisma, the aura, the class and he’s maintained it. You will never see him hawking everything he ever owned to the memorabilia leaches, trying to squeeze out that last buck.
And he meant much more to so many people than just a baseball player. I get it; Yom Kippur and all that. Heck, he was John Wayne in a yarmulke. But that doesn’t make him one of the top four living baseball players.
Sure, from 1962 to 1966 he was as good as anyone could ever hope to be as a pitcher. But that’s my problem: no matter how good he was, it was only for five years. We’ll go ahead and give him 1961, when he was 18-13 with a 3.52 ERA. But that’s only six years. And that’s it. His career ended with a 165-87 record.
Okay, at his peak, Koufax was transcendent; absolutely dominating in a way that was both artistic and beautiful. But if we accept him only for those few years, then we are forced to accept this: at his peak, Denny McLain won 31 games, at his peak, Steve Carlton won 27 games with a miserable Phillies team that only won 59 total, at his peak, Ken Griffey, Jr. was nearly Willie Mays with his hat on backwards, and at their peaks Rod Carew and George Brett nearly hit .400.
We can’t just take guys at their peak–it’s not fair to anyone who ever grew old and feeble–like all of us.
But that’s really the thing we love about Koufax–he never got old. Like JFK, Elvis and Secretariat, we were never forced to witness those sad, awkward moments when age robs our heroes of everything once held dear. Koufax alone walked away when he was absolutely on top.
But does that make him better than everyone else? No. It just means that we were spared the sad spectacle of the 8 win-13 loss seasons and ERAs north of 4.00, the begging and crying for just one, or maybe two, more chances to show that he could still play. Had Koufax stuck around, those things would have been inevitable. We know that he pitched in constant pain those last few years and, I’m pretty sure, medical science has taught us that that’s not a good thing. So he would have broken down eventually. But he didn’t. He left the game and so, even now, Koufax’ left arm remains an eternal flame, forever 30 years old, showering lightening bolts on hapless would-be hitters.
But if Koufax doesn’t deserve it, then who does? What are our other choices?
If we are going to give Koufax credit for essentially a 6-year career, we should look at the numbers Maddux put up in his phenomenal run of 7 years. From 1992 through 1998, he was 127-53 with ERAs that ranged from 1.56 to 2.36.
This certainly compares favorably to Koufax’ run from 1961-66 in which he was 129-47 with ERAs from 1.73-3.52 (if we throw out his high of 3.52 in 1961, the next highest was 2.54).
After those years, Maddux didn’t walk away from the game. He pitched for a long time and finished with 355 career wins. That certainly should be a feather in his cap.
But the major black eye for Maddux was his well-documented postseason foibles, and they were considerable. He was 2-3 in World Series play, albeit with an ERA of 2.09. We could accept his plea of lack of run support, but then his NLCS stats were even worse: 4-8, 3.67. This wasn’t just one bad game, it was enough to be a pattern. We would like to think that if we have a stud ace, if we throw him in the biggest game of the year, we will win. But we certainly didn’t with Maddux.
Ricky could get on base and score runs better than any man who ever played the game other than possibly Ty Cobb. Ricky scored 2295 runs in his career, which is pretty good no matter how you look at it.
But all those vagabond-for-hire years really detract from Ricky’s legacy. Ricky went from Oakland to New York to Oakland to Toronto to Oakland to San Diego to Anaheim to Oakland (Ricky really liked it there, but not enough to stay long) to New York to San Diego to Boston . . . .
Also, you always got the feeling that Ricky was in it just a little bit too much for himself; the kind of guy who never even knew the name of most of his teammates. But, to quote George Costanza, “Was that wrong?”
If I was a Phillies fan, I think I would take exception to the fact that Schmidt has been universally overlooked for what he accomplished. The guy was great. A gold glover and a great power hitter. And he compiled his home run totals in years where 38 home runs were, well, 38 home runs and not just the mid-season total of a jacked-up middle infielder like in the 1990s and early 2000s.
I have no explanation for why Schmidt is not at least in the discussion for Top Four Living. He is certainly in my discussion.
Jeter could have been the avant-garde choice, what with all the schmaltz laid on him during his year-long lovefest in AL parks not long ago. I’m actually surprised he didn’t get much support. He kept his nose clean for a long time, piled up some great career numbers and was an admirable face of the franchise. But while he was very good for a long time, for many years he was not even the best at his position in his league. He’s certainly a first-ballot Hall of Fame guy, but I don’t think he’s Top Four material. Maybe some day, but a few guys need to pass on first.
Like Maddux, if we want to compare apples to apples and pitchers to pitchers, Seaver would probably have been a better choice than Koufax. Seaver had some years that were close to those of Koufax–and remember Seaver pitched in an era that was a bit less kind for pitchers. And Seaver did it for much longer. He was very popular in The City which, although I disagree, seems to mean more to some people than being popular somewhere in the Heartland.
Ken Griffey, Jr.
If only he had never grown up. At 31, Griffey deserved to be on anyone’s short list for all-time greatest. But then we were forced to watch the painful, surly, injury-plagued mediocrity that was his Cincinnati career. He’s a definite first-ballot HOF guy, but again, not quite Top Four. Some day, but not yet.
This brings me to my choice to replace Koufax:
Robinson had the misfortune of playing at the same time, and being overshadowed by, Aaron and Mays. And then Clemente became the darling of the public in the early 1970s, just when Robinson was making the World Series a yearly habit. But that shouldn’t take away from Robinson. He was great; people forget just how great. And I’m not sure why.
He could do everything on a baseball field exceptionally other than throw, the result of a minor league arm injury. He played great defense, hit for average, power and could steal a base. Hustle? The only difference between Robinson and Pete Rose is that “Frankie Hustle” didn’t quite have a ring to it.
Most players from the ’50s and ’60s will name Frank Robinson as the most competitive player they ever saw. He was a team player who raised his teammates to another level. He played in 6 World Series, won 2. His first-inning home run in the 1966 classic off a snarling, nasty Don Drysdale, set the tone for the surprise Baltimore sweep in the Series.
Maybe the fact that Robinson hit only 586 home runs in his career is held against him. The number 586, which put him at a solid fourth on the All-Time list for years behind Aaron, Ruth and Mays, seems so ordinary now–bypassed by a bevy of bulked-up roid boys; 586 is almost quaint, a relic of the seventies, like leisure suits, disco and platform heels.
But its really a shame that Robinson’s contributions have been marginalized. He certainly deserves better.
Doug Wilson is the author of biographies of Mark Fidrych, Brooks Robinson and the recently released, Pudge: The Biography of Carlton Fisk. Visit him at Doug Wilson’s Baseball Bookshelf.