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Eric’s 25 Most Important People in Baseball History

branch rickeyGraham Womack of Baseball: Past and Present has a cool project going on: The 25 Most Important People in Baseball History. I thought I’d share my ballot as a way to encourage others to vote.

Well, there’s 18,000+ players, several hundred managers, all kinds of execs, writers, even fans to choose from, and I needed to choose twenty-five. Graham doesn’t define “Most Important” for us:

Babe Ruth“most important” is a deliberately subjective term and I’m interested to see what direction people go with it.

For me, it’s about impact. Lasting impact. For me, there are three names that stand above all others, and that any baseball fan should know: Babe Ruth, Branch Rickey, and Jackie Robinson. Without them, major league baseball as we know it today simply would not exist or would be limping toward its death. Ruth who ushered in the modern mode of play, an offensive-minded game with greater mass appeal. Rickey who is the pivot man in at least three of modern baseball’s most important innovations—the farm system, the use of analytical statistics, and equal opportunity for all races—and who played a role in expansion by his attempt to organize the Continental League. And, of course, Robinson, whose success cemented the status of African Americans (and all other peoples of color) in sports, transcending the game and pointing us toward the civil rights era.

jackie robinsonAfter that to understand the lasting impact a person has on the game, we can look at some of the major themes of baseball’s history. These are the major story arcs since the 1840s. They continue to unwind themselves today. The flashpoints among them constitute game-changing moments. So as we sift through the games’ most important people, they should have some kind of prominent role in short- or long-term movements that have brought us to the present day.

  • Team-building/managing strategies
    Harry Wright was the first manager and was the first great team architect. These roles would eventually split apart in the 1930s and 1940s and have continued to speed away from each other since then.
  • Capital vs. labor
    Monte Ward
    did more than fashion a HoME-worthy career. A smart, smart man, he obtained a legal degree in 1885 from Yale and become an organizer of the Brotherhood of Baseball Players. As its president, he led the player revolt against the reserve clause that resulted in the formation of the Player’s League. That league’s brief existence hastened the downfall of the American Association and left the NL weakened to the degree that a decade later Ban Johnson could form the AL. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s moment was brief but profound. In 1921, he wrote the opinion that granted baseball its legal monopoly. Its antitrust exemption has proven an excellent tool in reaping profits in all kinds of ways and is a lynchpin in MLB’s operations. Of course, the exemption also paved the way for fifty more years of indentured servitude for players. Marvin Miller led the players out of that and into the free agent era. In so doing, he turned baseball’s salary structure and competitive landscape over, leading to the game’s most profitable decades. But first came the courageous stand of Curt Flood. The Flood case ultimately allowed Miller to devise the strategy that led to Peter Seitz’s decision to overturn the reserve clause. That decision is similar to Holmes’ in its far-reaching impact on how the game is operated today.
  • Race and ethnicity
    Rube Foster
    was the Negro Leagues. The brains behind its success and its acknowledged national leader. The Negro Leagues are vitally important to the story of race in baseball, but as a pipeline of talent, they also fed the likes of Robinson, Mays, Aaron, Banks, Doby, Paige, and many others into the league. Foster’s leadership led the way.
  • Equipment, safety, and injury prevention
    Roger Bresnahan
    invented shin guards, improved the catcher’s mask, and introduced other equipment innovations. The ability of catchers today to play as much as they do is a direct result of his inventiveness. We get to see more of them, and they have longer, more productive careers thanks to the Duke of Tralee. When you think about it, his ideas, mocked in his day but quickly adopted, have had a positive effect on 13 percent of all big league players (probably 2,000 or more men), and at the end of their careers, his catching brethren don’t have to have hands that look like your 90 year-old grampa’s. In terms of seeing more of our most talented players, Frank Jobe’s Tommy John surgery has given us the chance to witness hundreds of thousands more innings from players whose careers would have been over in yesteryear.
  • Organization and professionalization
    William Hulbert
    reorganized baseball from a chaotic, player-partnership into an effective, corporately owned, and stable financial structure. This is one of baseball’s and sports’ most important innovations. When Hulbert died shortly thereafter, Al Spalding saw to the game’s care and feeding, held it together after the Brotherhood revolt, and was the power behind the league for decades—and, of course, a publisher of annual baseball guides and the most important producer of baseball equipment in the game’s early decades. Finally, Ban Johnson is the man responsible for our modern two-league structure, and whose insistence on a clean and family-friendly product helped clean out hooliganism from the game.
  • Rules of play
    You probably don’t know Doc Adams’ name, but John Thorn’s book Baseball in the Garden of Eden can tell you all about him. Big takeaway: Adams was there at the beginning, working out the rules, helping to organize the Knickerbocker Club, then leading the National Association of Base Ball Players—the first national-scope league-like entity.
  • The influence of gambling
    Kennesaw Mountain Landis
    —you might not like his position on race, but he got rid of the corruption that threatened to topple the sport and created a clean backdrop for Ruth’s meteoric rise. He actually did restore faith and hope to the game.
  • Coverage, analysis, and documentation of the game
    Henry Chadwick
    created the box score, popularized the game with his Beadle Dime Base-Ball guides, and derived ERA and batting average. Not bad. The Hall of Fame’s J.G. Taylor Spink award signals Spink’s importance to the game. The owner-editor of the Sporting News (“Baseball’s Bible”) from 1914–1962, he was a mover and shaker in his own right who figured in numerous important episodes in the game’s history, including the settling of the Federal League war. Bill James, of course, ignited the sabermetric revolution that has changed the game both on and off the field. Sean Forman has gone far beyond anyone’s dreams in making baseball-reference.com the source of stats, enabling all kinds of research to be done in minutes that was impossible as recently as the 1990s or that would take years to accomplish. That level of access has ultimately allowed non-baseball people to enter the game’s front offices and make sweeping changes in the way the industry operates.
  • Growth and Expansion
    Walter O’Malley
    led the move to sunny California. His decision decentralized baseball as a primarily Eastern Time Zone phenomenon and allowed the game to grow in other regions. The move has ultimately led to several expansions and booming popularity. I hate to say it, but the man who canceled the World Series, Bud Selig, belongs on this list. This is not a vote for whom I like or respect the most; it’s a vote for who has had the most impact. Revenue sharing, sports-drug testing, playoff expansion, instant replay, and interleague play—like ‘em or hate ‘em they are here to stay and represent important facets of today’s game.

That’s another twenty to add to Ruth, Rickey, and Robinson for twenty-three total. Two more.

A lesser theme in baseball’s history is the ascendency of the Yankees. While Ruth accounts for much of it on the field, much of the rest can probably be laid at Ed Barrow’s feet. Barrow first built the twice-champion Red Sox of the late 1910s. Then, moving to the Bronx after the 1920 season, he took advantage of Sox owner Harry Frazee’s debt problems to build the Yankee roster into a perennial winner, thus starting The Evil Empire. Barrow continued on into the 1940s, overseeing the DiMaggio/Gehrig era as well, so this wasn’t a one-time thing. The Yankees are the game’s most loved and most hated team, and they occupy a special place in history thanks to Barrow.

Another team builder had a different kind of perennial influence. Ned Hanlon built the 1890s Baltimore Orioles and Brooklyn Superbas into a two-part syndicate dynasty. But as Bill James points out in his Guide to Baseball Managers the players on those teams went on to influence the game like no other team. John McGraw managed 33 years in the majors, Wilbert Robinson nineteen, and Hughie Jennings sixteen. Fielder Jones skippered for ten seasons, Joe Kelley for five seasons, and Bad Bill Dahlen for four. Jack Dunn became famous as the manager of the minor league Baltimore Orioles of the teens and twenties…the team that sold Lefty Grove and numerous other players to the majors. Hanlon also managed Miller Huggins for two years. All those guys exerted influence over subsequent generations of outstanding managers, including Stengel, Lopez, and Durocher. You can trace Joe Torre, Tony LaRussa, and virtually any great contemporary manager’s lineage back to Ned Hanlon’s Orioles.

Here’s my final ballot. After the big three, there’s any number of orders we could settle on. I’m looking for far-reaching, long-lasting, high-impact contributions. Your mileage may vary.

1. Branch Rickey
2. Babe Ruth
3. Jackie Robinson

I could have put Ruth first for creating interest at a time when the game’s gambling problems came to light. But the sheer number and breadth of Rickey’s innovations tipped the scales in his direction.

4. Kennesaw Mountain Landis
5. Walter O’Malley
6. Henry Chadwick

I’m pretty sure these are the next three. I put Landis first because rooting out gambling’s influence and restoring the integrity of any given game was far more important to the survival of the game than anything anyone below him could have accomplished. O’Malley is next because of the extreme importance of his vision and its affect on expansion. Chadwick was “Father Baseball” for a reason.

7. Doc Adams
8. William Hulbert
9. Ban Johnson
10. Marvin Miller
11. Bill James

Another tough group. As a founder of the game, I give Adams precedence and Hulbert’s corporate-ownership innovation is absolutely huge. Johnson and Miller could be swapped, but Johnson’s impact is still felt more than 100 years later, while Miller’s is more recent. James’ is more recent yet and just as widespread as Miller’s.

12. J.G. Taylor Spink
13. Rube Foster
14. Harry Wright

We’re getting into a place where everyone’s slot is up for debate. The Sporting News was almost an arm of Major League Baseball and affected its fanbase deeply. Foster’s role as a league architect trumps Wright’s as a team architect.

15. Peter Seitz
16. Al Spalding
17. Monte Ward

Ward turned the game upside down for a year, Spalding held it together for a decade, but Seitz has had the greatest total impact of the three. I ding him a little for being a one-trick pony, but it’s one hell of a trick.

18. Ed Barrow
19. Bud Selig
20. Roger Bresnahan
21. Ned Hanlon
22. Sean Forman
23. Curt Flood
24. Frank Jobe
25. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Among this final group of eight, we really are drawing straws. Barrow’s success laid the groundwork for almost 100 years of Yankee success. Selig has made numerous, though dubious, innovations…and helped to rob a lot of taxpayers of their money. I thought about putting him last simply because of his friendships with Jeffrey Loria and the Wilpons. Bresnahan has helped catchers for more than 100 years. Hanlon’s reach has been incredibly deep, though of course diluted over time. Forman’s reach is still growing. Flood and Jobe could be anywhere in this group, but Holmes I’m solid on for #25 because of the one-trick thing but also because I’m skeptical about the positive value of the anti-trust exemption.

There are some notable omissions. For example, I only have two men on this list for their playing careers. No Dickey Pearce nor Hank Aaron. I don’t have John McGraw or Connie Mack or Joe McCarthy or Joe Torre or Tony LaRussa on this list. No Bill Veeck or Billy Beane. Maybe I could have considered HOK architects or Hillerich & Bradsby. Negatory on George Wright, Al Reach, Everett Mills. Nor Fred Lieb or Ring Larnder.

There’s one other guy I didn’t touch on that I thought a lot about and is worth a mention.

I’m not entirely sure who had the most impact on bullpens, but their evolution is also a key theme in baseball history. Bill James suggests that McGraw rolled out the first relief specialist, Doc Crandall, but McGraw didn’t really follow up that innovation. Joe McCarthy was the first manager to split his moundsmen into starters and relievers. Herman Franks in 1979 announced that Bruce Sutter would only pitch in save situations. Although the Cubs canned Franks a year later, this innovation has had startling implications. Before this, relief aces could enter in any inning with any score when the manager felt it necessary. Other bullpen roles were therefore only vaguely defined. The sharp redefinition of the ace into the closer created a cascading effect. As closers threw fewer innings in save situations, managers needed a set-up man for the eighth inning. Since most late-inning relievers were righties, skippers soon found they also needed a lefty specialist to get that one big out in the seventh or eighth, enter the LOOGY (lefty one-out guy). Since then bullpens have become increasingly hierarchical, and include seventh-inning specialists and even the ROOGY. All of this spilled out of Franks’ decision to limit Sutter to save situations. Franks was not great, he wasn’t even a good manager. But his impact is still reverberating through baseball today as we see twelve, thirteen, and even fourteen-man pitching staffs.

This has been a fun exercise. Make your own ballot and vote!

—Eric

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Discussion

3 thoughts on “Eric’s 25 Most Important People in Baseball History

  1. Interesting list. Did one of these for Womack also. Mine had differences, but wasn’t better.
    Thanks for sharing.
    v

    Posted by verdun2 | October 17, 2014, 8:33 am
    • Hard to say better/worse because we may all have different ideas of what “Most Important” means. Miller and I do, and we tend to do a lot of agreeing on the big stuff. Our lists are hardly duplicates (though they share many names). And after all, there are inescapable names that probably should appear on every ballot. After that, as long as one’s list is internally consistent and the criteria explicit and defensible, it’s hard to say someone’s ballot is better than another.

      On the other hand, if someone tries to sell me on a ballot with Pat Putnam, Dave Boros, and Judge Fuchs on it, I’m calling it trolling….

      Actually, an interesting list would be Baseball’s 25 Most Damaging People. Cap Anson might be on that list. Eddie Cicotte, Chick Gandil, Hal Chase, and someone among Arnold Rothstein, Abe Atell, and Sport Sullivan. Someone who hates Matt Williams and Mike Matheney’s managing could make arguments for Herman Franks and/or Jerome Holtzman. We might think of Fidel Castro as on this list. Depending on one’s point of view, Bud Selig, Bowie Kuhn, Judge Landis, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. could be there. Or Jeffrey Loria. Victor Conte and Anthony Bosch? Adolph Hitler? Lots of choices.

      Posted by eric | October 17, 2014, 7:10 pm

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