Examining the strength and weakness of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, Christy Mathewson and Grover Alexander or Bob Feller and Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver and Greg Maddux, the list goes on.
We can’t help but compare great players from the past to those currently playing or from different generations.
“You can’t compare players from different generations,” Bob Feller said in 1994. “The players were different, the game was different, the ballparks were different, the equipment was different, the social times were different. You can’t compare Babe Ruth to Hank Aaron. They faced different pitchers and played on different teams. They can’t be fairly compared to one another. The best way to rate them is say that they both were one of the greatest players of their time.”
Feller’s assessment is correct, but it takes away the fun these comparisons are intended to be. Ten different people can’t agree on the best way to tie a shoe much less rank the top 10 players at each position in major league history.
The players ranked in this book are major league players only, and I can say with certainty that my selections are correct. But in the same breath, I cannot deny that the opinions of other fans and writers are also correct.
Writing a book on ranking the greatest big league players was a project I never thought I would be able to accomplish, but with the encouragement of the many outstanding writers I have worked with during my career, it is a goal I can now mark off my bucket list.
I learned the love of the game through my Dad, John Kuenster—who was a baseball writer for the Chicago Daily News in the 1950s and 1960s as well as the long time editor of Baseball Digest—and my brothers Jim and Kevin. We often had lunches, dinners and family gatherings where the topic of conversation frequently directed towards who the best players were in major league baseball.
The idea for this book came from such debates and long conversations with my dad during our travel times to and from work. We put these thoughts into print in Baseball Digest when the major league game came to a work stoppage in 1994. During the strike, that lasted 232 days and forced the cancellation of 948 games in 1994-95, we believed Baseball Digest needed a series to keep our readers’ interest, and what better way than to rate the greatest players in history by position—a job I anticipated would take long hours digging up information, facts and figures on the game’s most gifted players.
The rankings of these major leaguers changed during the 20 years I first started making selections, but the timing of creating the chapters for this book in 1994 gave me the opportunity to talk with and interview some great baseball personalities who have since passed—Al Lopez, Bob Feller, Stan Musial, Lou Boudreau, Andy Pafko, Ron Santo, Harry Caray and Harry Kalas.
These men and and other former players, coaches, and announcers gave me great insight in the talents of the many major league stars discussed in this bound collection of pages.
Along with the accomplishments and statistics used to determine which players would make my cut, I also used other factors to determine my rankings. These factors included whether the player had an impact on the game, did he have an influence on the winning performance of his club and were these players a major contributor to their team and the game by being a dominant and productive player.
Grading players by position had another obstacle to overcome. At what position do I rank some of these men who played different positions during their time in the majors? Ernie Banks played more games in the big leagues as a first baseman than as a shortstop, but Banks was a dominant player at short, becoming the first player at that position to club 40 homers in a season and the first to win consecutive league MVP honors—so it was an easy choice to rank Banks among the shortstops. Rod Carew is in the Hall of Fame as a second baseman, Paul Molitor as a third baseman, Harmon Killebrew as a first basemen and Craig Biggio accomplished most of his feats as a second baseman, but they are rated among the best multi-position players because of their versatility as big league stars.
After listing the top 10 players at each position, I included a group of Honorable Mentions players who deserved consideration in these rankings for their contributions to the game.
Also, the changes that have been made in the baseball record books due to the use, or alleged use, of steroids by some players cause complications in how to rate such cheaters. I mention these players, who put up Hall of Fame type, but unreliable, statistics—but have been ignored by voters for entrance into the Cooperstown museum, by casting them among the Dishonorable Mentions.