Hey, look! It’s Rob Neyer writing about baseball things on the internet! What a terrific place, the internet.
This conveniently underlined link directs us – author and reader – to Neyer’s input on a question posed in Craig Wright’s newsletter regarding baseball’s Mount Rushmore. It is a posed question that will exist, unsettled, in my mind for the rest of time.
I agree, reader, that “Mount Rushmore of…” conversations are inherently silly and unsolvable. I know they exist in a completely gray space where nothing is absolutely right and nothing is absolutely wrong, and where there is no standardization of criteria. But this one is fun!
So here they are, the four baseball players who most deserve to have their likenesses carved into the side of a mountain:
In 1908, at age 34, Honus Wagner hit .354/.415/.542 and led his league in hits, doubles, triples, total bases, RBI, stolen bases, batting average, OBP, slugging percentage, OPS, and OPS+. According to Baseball-Reference, it is tied for the 11th greatest single season in baseball history. If we remove seasons by players named Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds, it becomes the fourth best. He was nearly as dominant in 1907 and 1909. B-R’s explanation of Wins Above Replacement says an 8+ WAR season is MVP-caliber. Honus had 7 such seasons, and three more of 7+ WAR. The Flying Dutchman was arguably* the best batsman of the dead ball era, and he’s the greatest shortstop in history. He was also pretty good at posing for pictures, a certain one of which is pretty expensive.
*This is arguable because of Tyrus Raymond Cobb, who isn’t included in my imaginary mountain sculpture because of things best summarized by the time he beat up a disabled fan for calling his mother half-black.
When we discuss complete players in baseball, we’re usually talking about someone who provides value at the plate, on the bases, and in the field. It is assumed, in these discussions, that a player who meets these qualifications is not also an excellent pitcher. In 1916, playing for the Boston Red Sox, Babe Ruth threw 323 innings and won 23 games on the mound. He led the American League with a 158 ERA+ that year, and followed it with a 24 win season in 1917. In 1918, he led the league in home runs with 11(!) and went 13-7 as a pitcher. After being traded to the Yankees, he quit pitching and went on to post a career .342/.474/.690 batting line and hit 714 home runs. Babe Ruth sees our modern definition of a complete player, laughs, and then eats a dozen hot dogs. In the 14 seasons between 1918 and 1931, Ruth failed to lead the league in home runs only twice. One of those times was in 1922, a season in which he was handed a suspension by commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis for playing in barnstorming games after winning the World Series. In 1925, the other season, Ruth played in only 98 games due to a stomach ache which led American reporters to suggest he was eating too much, and European reports to suggest he had died. In those 98 games, he hit 25 home runs. As a team, the Chicago White Sox hit 38.
Willie Mays won the Rookie of the Year award in 1951, which was an amazing year for Mays’ Giants and for rookies. The Giants won the National League pennant on Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’round the World,” and Mays’ Rookie of the Year counterpart from the AL was Mickey Mantle. Mays hit a respectable .274/.356/.472 that season, but it wasn’t until 1954, after missing nearly two full seasons due to military service, that Mays became a legend. He hit .345/.411/.667, and the Giants swept the Indians in the World Series. In Game 1 of that series, Mays made a defensive play that has its own Wikipedia page. The 1954 season also began a streak in which Mays posted an OPS+ greater than 1.000 in four of five seasons, and from 1954 to 1966, he finished lower than 6th in MVP voting only once.
Mays is considered by probably everyone to be one of the six or seven greatest players ever, but the creator of this non-existing monument found his inclusion difficult. Willie gets the nod over Ted Williams for a few reasons:
- The rock-sculpturation of Teddy Ballgame’s face would make 75% of baseball’s Mount Rushmore a commemoration of white dudes who, mostly, didn’t play against black players. The author thinks this would be, for lack of a better word, shitty.
- Before winning the Rookie of the Year award, Mays spent more than two seasons playing in the Negro Leagues. There are several players from these leagues – Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Pop Lloyd – who have strong cases for Rushmore busts of their own. The Negro Leagues must be represented, somehow, on a fictional row of a heads carved into a mountain. With Mays, they are.
- Williams was an incredible hitter. He might have been the greatest hitter baseball has ever seen. But, as a fielder and baserunner, he was less impressive. Mays was an incredible hitter, but he was also incredible on the basepaths and in the field . Per FanGraphs’ BsR, he was the 62nd best baserunner ever. As a defenseman, he was more than half as good as Andruw Jones.
Maddux is included because:
- Just as it would be unfair to leave contributors from the Negro Leagues or 19th century off the mountain, it would be unfair to exclude pitchers.
- Baseball didn’t stop existing after Willie Mays.
- Greg Maddux was really, really, really good.
Maddux won 355 games and four Cy Young awards, mostly playing for the most dominant regular season team of the 1990s. Those things are impressive, but it isn’t terribly difficult to win a lot of games on a perennial first-place team, and it isn’t terribly difficult to win a lot of awards when you’re winning a lot of games. What is more impressive was how great Maddux was while winning those games. He was remarkably efficient (there’s even a statistic named after him), walking less than one batter per nine innings in four seasons. He never had crazy strikeout numbers, but he led both leagues in K/BB ratio three times. In his best seasons, Maddux struck out more than 20% of the batters he faced, and walked less than 3%. Between 1988 and 2006, Maddux pitched 200 or more innings in every year except 2002, when he threw only 199.1. In the last two years of his career, 2007-08, he pitched 198 and 194 innings, respectively. An excellent pitcher can only be excellent when he’s able to pitch, and Greg Maddux was nearly always excellent and nearly always able to pitch. So, his efficiency has been immortalized as a stat, he was deceivingly good at striking batters out, unbelievably good at getting them out, and near perfectly durable. Amazing. The most amazing thing about Greg Maddux, though, was ability to avoid the long ball. He pitched from 1986 to 2008, an era when home run totals were notoriously high. It wasn’t until 2004 that Maddux gave up more than one home run per nine innings. For his career, his HR/9 total was 0.63. In 1994, that number was 0.18. The second lowest mark among qualifed pitchers belonged to Paul Wagner. It was 0.53. We’ll end this praise fest with two items:
- Greg Maddux’s 1995 season: 209. 2 IP, 19 W, 2 L, 1.63 ERA, 181 K, 23 BB, 8 HR allowed, 260 ERA+, 9.7 WAR.
- “The Greatness of Greg Maddux,” by Dave Cameron
Aaaaand that’s it. Of note: These players are not the four greatest players ever. They are, instead, the four players who most represent greatness and collectively present the biggest slice of the whole Major League Baseball pie. It is a very small slice, of course, because the actual Mount Rushmore is not 400 sculpted heads.
Now, my fiance’s list:
Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Billy Mays, Coco Crisp.