The tributes for Mariano Rivera at the 2013 All-Star Game were quite moving. In his final year as a big leaguer, he got to stand alone on the field as players and spectators alike applauded him. And in a year that saw no standout performance in the game itself, Rivera was given the MVP trophy, almost as a send-off gift.
The fanfare will continue as Rivera makes his final journey around the major leagues. And why shouldn’t it? How often do we have a chance to see a player who is not only the best at his position today, but the best at his position of all time?
Who are the best baseball players ever at their respective positions? It is hard to compare era to era and the answers are always subjective. This take on it will also not be overly laden with statistical comparisons.
Mariano Rivera, greatest closer ever. He has the most career saves and his postseason accomplishments are off the charts.
Lefty Grove , greatest left-handed pitcher. Some might argue for Sandy Koufax, but if you take the five great Koufax years (1962-1966) and double them, you would then come close to Grove’s record. Grove led the AL in strikeouts seven straight years and won nine ERA titles in his career, the most ever.
Walter Johnson, greatest right-handed pitcher. Despite pitching for mostly lousy teams, Johnson amassed 417 wins, second only to Cy Young on the all-time list. “The Big Train’s” 110 shutouts are the most ever and he had 10 consecutive seasons of 20 or more victories.
John Bench, greatest catcher. Carlton Fisk, Yogi Berra, Bill Dickey and Ivan Rodriguez are worthy of a mention, but Bench edges them out. Bench was a superb defensive catcher, a great handler of pitching staffs, and he won ten Gold Gloves. He also won two MVP awards and was Rookie of the Year. It was no coincidence that “The Big Red Machine” teams that dominated the 1970s started just after he arrived.
Lou Gehrig, greatest first baseman. Before he started to yield to ALS, aka Lou Gehrig’s disease, “The Iron Horse” put up numbers and won championships at a rate that makes him a clear choice as the best first sacker in history. Gehrig had 13 consecutive seasons of at least 100 runs scored and 100 RBI. He set the grand slam mark of 23 and the most AL RBI at 184. He played on six championship teams with the Yankees and had the since-broken record of 2,130 consecutive games played before being struck with a fatal illness.
Rogers Hornsby, greatest second baseman. In terms of importance to the game, Jackie Robinson would own this category. But going by production on the field, it has to be “The Rajah.” Hornsby averaged over a .400 batting average for five seasons between 1921 and 1925. He won seven batting titles, including six in a row, and he had seven seasons where he compiled over 200 hits. He also won two Triple Crowns.
Honus Wagner, greatest shortstop. When baseball fans were tasked with selecting the all 20th century team, they chose Cal Ripken and Ozzie Smith for shortstop and overlooked Wagner. Fortunately writers were able to round out the squad and add him to the team. Wagner won eight batting titles, hit .300 or better for 17 straight seasons and had a lifetime average of .329. “The Flying Dutchman” was one of the original five members elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936.
Mike Schmidt, greatest third baseman. For whatever reason, this position has the fewest great players and the fewest players elected to the Hall of Fame (not counting the DH). Schmidt hit over 500 homeruns, won three MVP awards, was a 12-time All Star, won 10 Gold Gloves and was named “Sporting News” Player of the Decade for the 1980s.
David Ortiz, greatest designated hitter. This has been a category only since 1973. Edgar Martinez and Harold Baines were also very good DHs. This is almost a negative position because it often means you settled in as a DH and didn’t have a position on the field you could play very well.
Outfielders. There have been so many great outfielders that it is nearly impossible to choose one left, center and right fielder. Rather than doing that, we will just name six outfielders, not in any particular order. Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams and Stan Musial are the top six. Joe DiMaggio losing three prime years to military service probably keeps him off the list. It is also hard to leave Roberto Clemente and Mickey Mantle out, but we have to stop somewhere.
“National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum 2006 Yearbook”