I enjoyed Allan Barra’s Yogi Berra: The Eternal Yankee so much when I happened upon it recently that I looked around for other books by the same author. I was amazed to discover that one of these had long been sitting on my bookshelf: Brushbacks and Knockdowns, a collection of essays. Then, as I started browsing, it all came back. I really didn’t fancy the essays because so many of them… well, they address subjects that the typical sports fan would bite on, but they just don’t draw me in. The discussion of “the greatest ballplayer of all time” is one of these. Odd, isn’t it? Why does that kind of debate irritate me so much?
It isn’t the barrages of stats that get heaved back and forth, or not just those. I could say—and I do say—of McGwire and Sosa and Bonds that their surpassing Roger Maris’s 61 home runs is a phenomenon of the steroids era and has little value after adjustment for cheating. That’s my opinion; others have another. So we argue back and forth about just what percentage of homer output steroid usage might have accounted for as the millennium turned over; and we also bandy about that Roger played in Ruth’s Yankee Stadium of the friendly right-field porch, and that pitchers weren’t throwing that hard in the Sixties or that well in the expansion year of 1961. Back and forth, back and forth… a never-ending dispute, and also one which really doesn’t get at what needles me.
This might get us closer. McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds were all represented as superheroes in the popular media to a degree that Maris—or even Mays or Mantle—couldn’t approach. The sluggers of our time have agents, advisors, brokers… and probably personal trainers and private chefs. They harvest fabulously lucrative contracts and are veritable commodities: nobody would dare undermine their health as they go about courting “immortality”. Maris lived at time when owners could ship a fielder who made one hapless play in a World Series to deepest, darkest Kansas (as happened to Norm Siebern), when obtaining a good salary required putting your entire career on the line, when endorsements amounted to a few hundred bucks for slapping Aqua Velva on your face, and when pressure could drive a man almost to suicide without the public’s ever catching a hint of it.
The late Nineties were not the early Sixties: no, not in terms of pitching prowess and field design… but also not socially or culturally. The sabermetricians may be able to adjust for the former—but how does anyone adjust for the latter? How do you compare an era when a man’s wife might take the kids and leave him if he gets traded one more time to an era when the gossip columns celebrate how many girls a guy has on the sidelines? How do you adjust for psychological impact when society at one stage considers the journeyman shortstop a ne’er-do-well husband and at another considers the wife who skips as deserting the ideal provider? How would you factor in stress related to racial prejudice in the Fifties? How about the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that must have messed with many a World War II veteran (e.g., the chain-smoking Gil Hodges), but which hadn’t even been given a name in the Forties?
Okay, so forget about the “mental”… though you can’t and shouldn’t, but say that you could. Say (as many have said to me) that the greatest player ever simply has to be drawn from our era, because our guys are in so much better shape physically. But doesn’t that just beg the question? Is a Pujols or a Trout the greatest player because he’s the best fed and best conditioned? What kind of player would either have been in an era of poorer diet and no science of weight training whatever? If distance to the home park’s pull-side porch calls for an adjustment, then why doesn’t the “unfair” advantage of superior dietary and kinesiological guidance call for one?
How good would Cody Bellinger or Max Scherzer be if he had to ride a train all night to reach the next series? How would such supermen make out if they had to sleep in a downtown hotel with paper-thin walls and no air conditioning?
At some point, you’re simply left with what you see on the field. You have to start and end there when adjustments and corrections always open the door to more adjustments and corrections. And if the “eye test” is the ultimate test… well, how do we apply it to performers we’ve never seen and can now never see? Those who saw him in the midst of all his peers claimed that Oscar Charleston was the greatest thing ever to emerge from the Negro Leagues. How can we say here and now that he wasn’t the greatest ballplayer ever?
As I begin the home stretch of this ramble, I wish take it in still another direction. Since we’ve been reduced to such subjectivity in our judgments, then… well, why not admit that I personally may admire a kind of play that you value less? Maybe my “great” isn’t yours. I risk sacrilege when I write that Mike Trout impresses me primarily as a really, really big human being. I don’t particularly like his hitting style, which seems to me to leave a couple of holes almost as huge as he is—yet which doesn’t hurt him because, as Tom Verducci (without detectable irony) observed shortly before another Trout homer in Arlington a few days ago, umpires won’t call high-inside strikes on him. So we’re left with a Titan carrying a kid’s bat who has his own little zone around the knees….
More sacrilege: I’m not even a devoted adorer of Ted Williams. Any hitter whose reaction to being radically shifted is to drive the ball through or over the shift doesn’t seem to me to be using all the resources that a Ty Cobb or an Eddie Collins deployed. So the WAR geeks prove that Teddy’s bat won more ballgames than Ty’s… yeah, okay. I won’t cycle back to the “attendant circumstances” species of argument which could explain so much of that (the Pesky Pole, the absence of sharp pitching after World War II, etc). Indeed, I could just double down on my Mike Trout response; for Williams (so the anecdotes run) seems to have been conceded a shrunken strike zone by many veteran umpires.
And Babe Ruth, probably much the most popular candidate in the “best ever” sweepstakes? Why, he was the greatest home-run hitter for generations and a superior left-handed pitcher! Okay… but he wasn’t both at once: he didn’t pitch and slug concurrently throughout his career. Maybe Ichiro would have been a star closer as well as a batting champ if he’d been allowed to indulge his mound ambitions as Shohei Ohtani has been. Mickey Mantle, we hear from those who warmed up with him, had a killer knuckleball.
And the Bambino’s mighty blasts? It’s been said that Cy Williams (another, and an earlier, Williams who was radically shifted) could have equaled them if he had flourished in the days on the lively ball. Cobb hit three homers in a single game one afternoon just to show that he could.
I guess where I’m going with this is here: the best ballplayers ever to me are those who play the brand of baseball I most admire. Yes, that’s subjective—but what have I been demonstrating about other measures if not that their objectivity is illusory? Why cannot our answer to “greatest ballplayer ever” be the best who played what we happen to consider great ball? I’ve already betrayed my preference for a guy who can hit to all fields—and I’d like him to concentrate on doing this all the time, winning every battle that he possibly can against every pitcher in any situation. He’s always bearing down, even when his team is suffering an eight-run deficit. I once read a remark of Henry Aaron’s where the Hammer admitted to guessing—to guessing all afternoon, perhaps: looking at two called third strikes before finally getting his pitch halfway through the game. That remark disappointed me. Why would you be hunting a certain pitch with two strikes? I know it’s Hank Aaron, but… but why wouldn’t you just be making contact? That’s what my kind of player would be doing: Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker… Roberto Clemente, Tony Oliva… Tim Raines, Tony Gwynn. Speaker had the advantage over Cobb of having revolutionized his defensive position: he would even creep in from his shallow center-field spot and pick runners off second base on occasion. Clemente likewise staked his claim to being one of the greatest right fielders ever. And Tim Raines on the base paths… well, you could make it Rickey Henderson and I wouldn’t object, but I had a special fondness for Timmy because he was a switch hitter.
Maybe, in fact, I bear a grudge against the Hendersons and the Bondses and the Harpers for being showboats. I want my all-time best player to hate losing, to be in the game at every moment… but also to hate vainglorious or humiliating displays. That may very well be why I have to dig into baseball’s past for my superman. The showboating in today’s game repels me.
So… the greatest player ever? Don’t know, don’t care: not if you expect an “objective” answer out of me. My favorite players are my nominees for best player. I love them because of all they brought to the field, and not what they bring to a spread-sheet.
As for Willie and Mickey, Mr. Barra—no, I didn’t forget about them. I scarcely felt the need to mention their names. I was trying to be a bit original. But yes, definitely Willie and Mickey. And Yogi, too. All of them were the best.