A couple of weeks ago, in association with Graham Womack’s work over at Baseball Past and Present, Eric shared with you his 25 most important people in baseball history. And today I have my chance. But first, I love Womack’s idea here. It’s fun. It starts conversations. And that’s exactly why so many of us love the game.
In his post, Eric said that Womack’s deliberately subjective term “most important” meant “lasting impact” for him. I completely concur. Yet Eric and I have pretty different lists. Mine is peppered with more players than his. His contains more pioneers, shall we say. On one hand, without these pioneers, we might not have the game we have today. On the other, it’s not incredibly easy to say that people many fans haven’t heard of have had such a lasting impact. These points are debatable. These lists are so debatable. And that’s why they’re great.
Eric puts three men at the top – Babe Ruth, Branch Rickey, and Jackie Robinson. I’d have just two men there – Ruth and Rickey. Don’t misunderstand. Robinson is huge. Robinson is critically important. But I believe there’s a bit of distance between him and the top two. I’ll get to that distance in a moment.
#1 Babe Ruth: He is baseball. Without him, home runs wouldn’t have taken on the life they did. The Yankees wouldn’t have been the Yankees. Hell, baseball wouldn’t be baseball.
#2 Branch Rickey: Add his role in baseball’s integration, plus his role in the establishment of farm systems, plus his role in the establishment of spring training, plus his role the use of statistical analysis, and you have the most important non-player in baseball history.
#3 Henry Chadwick: Surprising and disappointing many, I’m not going with Jackie here. Chadwick created the box score! If you grew up a baseball fan, you grew up pouring through box scores. Even if you don’t know Chadwick, you’ve looked at his work thousands and thousands of times. More than any non-player in baseball’s early days, he helped to popularize the game.
#4 Kenesaw Mountain Landis: I had a very tough call between him and Chadwick. On one hand, were it not for the strong first Commissioner of the game, I don’t know if we’d have a game today. On the other, were it not for love of statistics, I wouldn’t be writing this. Since it’s my list, I’m going with what’s important to me. But without Landis, the game could have lost all credibility at the hands of gamblers. It’s possible he saved the game from extinction.
#5 Jackie Robinson: In most baseball circles it’s sacrilege to suggest that baseball could have gone on without the great #42. Robinson debuted on April 15, 1947. Larry Doby played in the majors less than two months later. Were it not for Robinson, some would say, Doby wouldn’t have existed when he did. And perhaps that true. But I think that the repulsive practice of barring black players from the game was going to end with or without Robinson, probably in 1947 or 1948. Robinson might have been the perfect first player, but I’m not convinced that he’s the only person who could have played that role.
#6 Marvin Miller: For generations of baseball players, he’s the most important ever. Were it not for his leadership, players might still be tied to their teams for life. And they might still be making a pittance relative to the owners. Okay, they’re still making a pittance, but it’s a bigger pittance.
#7 Stephen C. Clark: This is, perhaps, a selfish choice. Clark is the founder of the Baseball Hall of Fame. That’s the reason for this blog and the thing I treasure most about the game.
#8 Bill James: More selfishness? Before Bill James, I didn’t read. I knew how and all; I just didn’t. James made reading fun for me. He made statistics fun for me. Were it not for Bill James, it’s possible I wouldn’t have attended college, and today I’m a college professor. Hmm, maybe he should be higher on my list.
#9 Harry Wright: This is the level at which things get dicey for me. Wright put together the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, baseball’s first fully professional team. He made baseball a business. And he also introduced on-field innovations like backing up plays.
#10 Monte Ward: He was a Hall-level player and was the leader in the construction of the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, the game’s first labor union. He also formed the Players’ League, a rival major league.
#11 Pete Rose: A baseball pariah and mass autograph signer today, Rose was once the game’s greatest asset. He’s one of the most important players on one of the most important teams ever. Oh yeah, and most hits in history. Plus, through Rose we can talk gambling and Hall exclusion. Those things are important to me.
#12 Peter Seitz: I chose Seitz for this list rather than Oliver Wendell Holmes. Seitz was the arbitrator who overturned baseball’s reserve clause, a decision that ushered in free agency. While Holmes did write the decision that basically said baseball was a game rather than a business, allowing it to exist as a monopoly, he wasn’t the only Supreme Court justice involved in that decision. And since he wasn’t Chief Justice, it’s quite possible the decision to take the case was someone else’s. After Seitz’s decision, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally became free. And ballplayers began to earn their fair share of the game’s profits.
#13 J.G. Taylor Spink: Spink followed Chadwick in promoting the game to the masses through The Sporting News. If baseball weren’t brought to the people by that “Bible of baseball”, it wouldn’t be the game it is today.
#14 Barry Bonds: Let the controversy begin! Like it or not, he’s the game’s all-time leader in its most treasured stat. And he’s an incredibly important figure in the telling of the game’s steroid story.
#15 Roger Bresnahan: He invented and improved on so much of a catcher’s equipment that the term “tools of ignorance” applied much less after his time than before it. Eric’s words here are eloquent. “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)…”
#16 Ed Barrow: It’s possible the Yankees never would have become the Yankees without him. Of course, my favorite thing about him is that he managed the Red Sox to the 1918 World Series title.
#17 Frank Robinson: All-time great player, MVP in both leagues, triple crown, and first African American manager ever. I like putting players on this list more than many would. Robinson makes it as a player, a manager, a pioneer, an executive, and an icon.
#18 Frank Jobe: I think they should call it “Frank Jobe surgery”. Tommy John didn’t do much, really. Jobe did. And millions of fans have him to thank for putting their favorite pitchers back together.
#19 Ted Williams: It’s possible he understood hitting as well as anyone ever has. Through Williams, one can tell the story of .400, military service by MLB players, and even recognition of Negro League players by the Hall of Fame.
#20 Frankie Frisch: The Giant and Cardinal has four World Series rings and a Hall of Fame plaque. But the reason he makes this list is the leadership of the Hall’s Veterans Committee during a time they polluted the Coop with cronies and some pretty undeserving players. You can’t tell the story of the Hall without discussion of Frisch.
#21 Curt Flood: Flood is lower on this list than some might suggest. But when he challenged baseball’s reserve clause, he lost his case. He’s on the list because he got the ball rolling though, and there might not be a 10/5 rule without Flood.
#22 Sean Forman: If Bill James ushered in the analytics revolution, it’s Forman’s baseballreference.com that has made it possible. People who understand statistics and mathematics now often understand the game better than baseball insiders. Partly because of Forman, front offices are littered with brainiacs and not grizzled old baseball men.
#23 Cal Ripken Jr.: The man who topped Lou Gehrig’s iron man streak also helped baseball through one of its darkest times, the cancellation of the 1994 World Series due to labor strife. Ripken was a positive and popular player, someone who the fans could look up to as a beacon of excellence when so many others disappointed.
#24 Hank Aaron: Aaron makes my list because of homers, Ruth, race, Bonds, and his ambassadorship to the game. The story of the game can’t be told very well without Aaron.
#25: Abraham G. Mills: And the story of the game wouldn’t be the story of the game without Mills, the guy who led the commission that ridiculously credited Abner Doubleday as the founder of the game. For so many to believe something so wrong for so long makes Mills quite important in my estimation.
That’s my list. What’s yours? Vote here. Voting closes at Sunday at 8 p.m. Pacific Time.