Baseball’s 100 Most Important People, Part 5

Continuing from yesterday (http://goo.gl/asOj79), in today’s installment we provide biographies for those ranked from 21 through 40. Tomorrow, 41 through 60. To revisit the full list from 1 to 100, go back to the launch of this series, at: http://goo.gl/5171CX.

Baseball’s 100 Most Important People

Alan Schwarz and John Thorn

21. BUD SELIG

Commissioner Bud Selig

Commissioner Bud Selig

Allan H. Selig grew up watching the minor league Milwaukee Brewers; at 35 he became owner of a major league team and named it the Brewers; and at 58 he became overseer of every team in baseball. Selig led a group of dissatisfied owners that forced the ouster of baseball commissioner Fay Vincent in September 1992, then replaced Vincent on an interim basis. After nearly six years of “searching” for a permanent commissioner, the owners unanimously elected Selig.

Selig’s Brewers won just one pennant in his 28 years in charge, but his fellow owners valued him nonetheless. With the collective bargaining agreement due to expire in 1994, he rallied the owners behind a proposal calling for revenue-sharing and a salary cap—a concept the players union flatly rejected. On August 12, with Tony Gwynn chasing .400 and the New York Yankees and Montreal Expos having dream seasons, play was suspended. A month later, to the shock of fans worldwide, Selig announced the cancellation of the World Series.

After the strike, baseball tried new directions: another round of playoffs, interleague play, limited revenue sharing, and more expansion. As the game slowly returned to 1994 levels of popularity, the governance of baseball became centralized in the commissioner’s office. The jobs of both league presidents—positions that predated the role of commissioner in Organized Baseball—were essentially eradicated.

In the first days of the 21st century the owners gave Selig even more control. Though not as flamboyant in the exercise of his office, he is, simply, the most powerful commissioner since Landis.

22. JIM BOUTON

Jim Bouton

Jim Bouton

With the exception of two years with the New York Yankees in 1963 and 1964, Jim Bouton’s career as a pitcher consisted primarily of comeback tries. His greatest success actually came when he wrote Ball Four, a revealing book about what players in the national pastime said, did, and thought.

Bouton’s sometimes hilarious, often disturbing, stories of the sexism and childish high jinks typical of major leaguers shocked the baseball establishment. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn said that the book was “detrimental to baseball.” Mickey Mantle vowed he would never appear in an Old Timers game with Bouton. (The Yankees did not invite Bouton to one until 1998.)

In a sense, Bouton’s book was a sequel to the two books written in the 1960s by another bullpen habitué, Jim Brosnan: The Long Season and Pennant Race. Those books certainly upset the baseball establishment, but Ball Four leapt well beyond that. Tales of players taking amphetamines (greenies, in the parlance of the day), taking the field while hung over, and ogling young women were scattered throughout Bouton’s reminiscences of the 1969 season, as he tried to mount a comeback as a knuckleballer with the expansion Seattle Pilots.

Bouton’s irreverence was disarming: “I’ve been tempted to say into a microphone that I feel I won tonight because I don’t believe in God.” Or, “Lots of people look up to Billy Martin. That’s because he just knocked them down.” The close of the book became his most famous quote: “You spend a good part of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out it was the other way all the time.”

23. CANDY CUMMINGS

Candy Cummings plaque.

Candy Cummings plaque.

William “Candy” Cummings is the probable inventor of the curveball, and thus the chief nemesis of every man who has ever picked up a bat. His place on this list is secured not only through his own real accomplishments but also in praise of other, not-so-famous men: Elmer Stricklett, spitball; Russ Ford, emery ball; George Blaeholder, slider, and so on.

Thirty years after his retirement, Cummings described how the Big Idea came to him. “It was in the 1860s that I discovered the curve ball, and strange to say, it was the idle throwing of half a clam shell that gave birth to such an idea. As I watched the shells sail through their irregular course, the theory developed in my mind that I might apply it in baseball…. I was laughed at by scientific men and experts, but I finally proved to them that the stunt could be done, and for a long time I was known as the ‘boy wonder.’ “

While it may never be proven conclusively that Cummings invented the curve, his claim was backed by such 19th-century notables as George Wright, Albert Spalding and Cap Anson.

The 5-foot 9-inch, 120-pound stringbean used his newly invented pitch to work his way up from semipro teams in Brooklyn to five ballclubs in the National Association and the National League from 1872 to 1877. He led the NA in ERA, shutouts, and innings pitched in 1873, and he won 35 games in 1875.

If only his NL totals of 21‑22 are counted, he is, along with Rollie Fingers and Leroy “Satchel” Paige, one of only three Hall of Fame pitchers with losing major league won-lost records. But for all three, the story is greater than the stats.

24. SATCHEL PAIGE

Satchel Paige, 1953.

Satchel Paige, 1953.

Baseball historians may debate whether Satchel Paige was the finest pitcher of all time. There is certainly no question that he was the most quoted. With observations such as “Never look back; something may be gaining on you” he has made his mark on Bartlett’s as well as Total Baseball.

Paige was born in Mobile, Alabama, the seventh of 11 children. The official date is 1906, but 1903 and 1908 have also been suggested. He got his nickname from toting bags at the Mobile railroad station at the age of 7.

He signed on with a local black semipro team, the Mobile Tigers, in 1924, then moved onto Chatanooga. Soon he was a celebrity in the world of southern black baseball. He had his own roadster, played guitar with Louis Armstrong’s orchestra, and supped with Jelly Roll Morton.

In 1931 Paige went north to one of the finest black teams around, Gus Greenlee’s Pittsburgh Crawfords. With the Crawfords, Paige teamed with Josh Gibson to form one of baseball’s most impressive batteries. His Kansas City Monarchs of 1939 to 1942 may be mentioned alongside the Yankees of 1936-39 for greatest team ever.

In 1946 Branch Rickey broke baseball’s color barrier when he signed Jackie Robinson. “Somehow I’d always figured it would be me,” said Paige. When the 1948 season opened he was still on the Monarchs’ roster. Then Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck decided to give the 42-year-old a chance. “Everybody told me he was through,” said Veeck. “That was understandable. They thought he was human.” Satch pitched a shutout in his second start, drew 200,000 fans to his first three starts, and compiled a 6-1 record.

In 1952 Paige was 12-10 for the Browns. He barnstormed in 1954 and rejoined the Monarchs in 1955. In 1956 he signed up again with Veeck, who was operating the Miami Marlins in the International League. He finished the year 11-4 with a 1.86 ERA.

In 1965 Charles Finley brought him back to the big leagues for one more game in Kansas City, and at the presumed age of 59 he pitched three shutout innings against the Boston Red Sox.

25. WILLIE MAYS

Willie Mays, 1956.

Willie Mays, 1956.

The most exciting and best player of the 1960s, Mays raced around the bases or into deepest center field, his hat flying off behind him. “The only man who could have caught that ball,” one announcer said, “just hit it.” Willie Mays embodied The Joy of Baseball. In the history of the game, there may have been better outfielders, players with better arms, batters with higher averages and more homers, and faster runners who stole more bases. But no one could do all those things at his skill level, and so any discussion of “baseball’s greatest player” must include Willie Mays.

Mays signed his first professional contract at age 17, with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro National League. Sold to the New York Giants in 1950, he reached the big club and became Rookie of the Year in the mad pennant rush of the following year. Called into the service after only 34 games in 1952, he did not return until 1954. When he did come back, he lit up New York like a Roman candle. He led all National League hitters that year with a .345 average and 13 triples. He tied for third in home runs, with 41, drove in 110 runs, and scored 119. The Giants won the pennant by five games and swept the Indians in the World Series, thanks in part to “the Catch,” perhaps the game’s most famous highlight clip. Harry Hooper, who played next to Tris Speaker in the Red Sox outfield for six years, said that Mays was the best outfielder ever … and Speaker had been everyone’s choice for greatest outfielder till Mays came along.

And did we mention that he hit 660 home runs? That he won MVP Awards eleven years apart, one in New York, the other in San Francisco? That upon his return to New York in 1973 he hit a home run to win his first game as a Met?

One testimony to Mays’ legacy is the number of today’s superstars who wear his uniform No. 24 as a tribute. They have included Willie’s godson Barry Bonds (while at Pittsburgh), Ken Griffey Jr., and Rickey Henderson.

26.NAP LAJOIE

Nap Lajoie, 1908.

Nap Lajoie, 1908.

When fans debate the question of who was baseball’s best player in the first decade of the 20th century, the names most often mentioned are Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie. Fellow Hall of Famer Kid Nichols called Lajoie “the hardest hitter I ever pitched to.”

One of the best second basemen of all time and, by all accounts, the most graceful, Lajoie was also one of the most successful right-handed hitters. An established star with the NL Phillies, where he’d hit .378 in 1899, he jumped to Connie Mack’s AL Philadelphia A’s in 1901. The presence of Lajoie, Cy Young, and a few others helped legitimize the AL as a major league. Lajoie’s .426 is still the highest batting average achieved since the 19th century.

The following year an injunction by the Phillies, who claimed that Lajoie had breached a contract with them, prevented him from playing in the state of Pennsylvania. This forced A’s manager Connie Mack and AL president Ban Johnson to shift Lajoie to the struggling Cleveland franchise, where he spent the bulk of his career. (When the team played the A’s in Pahiladelphia in 1902, Lajoie did not accompany them.)

Lajoie was an instant sensation with Cleveland, so much so that the team was named after him—the Cleveland Naps—when he commenced to manage the club in 1905. Lajoie hit over .300 in 16 of his 21 seasons and finished with 3,242 hits

for a .338 average. The controversy over the 1910 race to the batting championship—during which he trailed Ty Cobb going into the final day of the season, then overtook him through some dubious collusion, then saw the AL award the title to Cobb, then have two of Cobb’s hits removed after both Cobb and Lajoie were long dead—is detailed in “The History of Major League Baseball Statistics,” by John Thorn and Pete Palmer, in this volume.

It’s difficult to argue Nap Lajoie’s place among baseball’s greats: his records speak volumes, and he was immensely popular. As Tommy Leach said, “Even when the son of a gun was blocking you off the base, he was smiling and kidding with you.” Lajoie was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1937.

27. BARRY BONDS

Barry Bonds.

Barry Bonds.

Barry Bonds was one of the best players in the 1990s both defensively and offensively. He captured a Gold Glove in every season of the 1990s except two. He missed winning four consecutive MVPs in 1990-93 by the slimmest of margins. The Sporting News named him the player of the decade. But Bonds was only beginning.

After finishing second to teammate Jeff Kent in the 2000 MVP race, he took the next three while shattering the game’s elite batting records: home runs (73 in 2001), slugging (.863, also that year), on-base average (.582 in 2002), walks, (177 in 2001, 198 in 2003), and OPS (1.381 in 2002), and park-adjusted OPS (275 in 2002). Oh, and he hit .370 in 2002 to lead the league at the age of 38. When naming the greatest player of all time, he may be mentioned with Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and his godfather, Willie Mays.

San Francisco drafted Bonds out of high school in San Mateo, California, but when the Giants offered $70,000 instead of the $75,000 he wanted, Bonds wound up at Arizona State University. The Pittsburgh Pirates made him the sixth overall pick in the 1985 draft and they installed him in their outfield a year later.

He did not develop quickly with the Pirates. From 1986 to 1989 he did not exceed 59 RBIs and batted higher than .261 only once. The Pirates tried to trade Bonds when his contract demands exceeded his production, but other teams shied away because of his moodiness. The Bucs held on to Bonds; in 1990 they were glad they did.

In 1993 Bonds returned to his hometown San Francisco. He batted .336 with 46 home runs, and he became the first player to lead the league in on-base percentage and slugging percentage since Mike Schmidt in 1981.

Seemingly driven to become better and better, Bonds took on an intensive workout schedule after 1996. The result was another 40 home runs and his seventh Silver Slugger Award in 1997. Like Hank Aaron in his later years, not only did Bonds show no sign of slipping, but his power, bat speed, and mental approach to the game reached new zeniths. He is the Babe Ruth our era, and the story of his enduring legacy to the game is yet to be written.

28. HARRY & GEORGE WRIGHT

Wrights at center, 1878.

Wrights at center, 1878.

Baseball’s Wright Brothers are as illustrious in their chosen field as Orville and Wilbur were in theirs. Harry Wright, born in England, was saluted on his death in 1895 by legendary baseball writer and promoter Henry Chadwick as “the father of professional base ball playing.” George, twelve years younger, was born in New York, to which the family, led by their cricket-professional father, had emigrated in the late 1830s. He was simply the greatest player of his day, a national hero with the Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869-70, managed by brother Harry.

Harry Wright instituted dozens of innovations, including the backup system, whereby fielders back up each other and pitchers back up bases; pregame batting practice; hand signals; the double steal and the hidden-ball trick, and more. The Cincinnati Enquirer said of Wright, “He is a baseball Edison. He eats base ball, breathes base ball, thinks base ball, and incorporates base ball in his prayers.” All his life he fought to make the occupation of professional baseball player a respectable trade for grown men.

While serving as a cricket professional in Cincinnati, Harry was invited to form a baseball club that would reflect glory on the Queen City. He recruited outstanding players from the east, principal among these—and the highest paid—being his brother George, who led the Red Stockings on their undefeated national tour of 1869 by hitting over .600 with 57 home runs. His talents at the plate, however, were secondary to his fielding. In 1911, when Honus Wagner was at the height of his career playing the same position as Wright, the New York Journal’s Sam Crane called Wright “the best shortstop ever.”

But George was equally important to the development of the game off the field, starting a sporting-goods house in Boston with teammate Charlie Gould that evolved into the great Wright & Ditson firm, which in turn consolidated with that of fellow pioneer ballplayers Al Reach and Albert Spalding.

Though Harry’s contribution may be more important than that of George, the younger brother made it to the Hall of Fame in 1937, sixteen years ahead of the elder.

29. TY COBB

Ty Cobb.

Ty Cobb.

In 1936 Cobb was the first man elected to Cooperstown, mostly by voters who grew up in his era. Babe Ruth was second. The majority of today’s critics would reverse the order and maybe drop Cobb a few more pegs besides. The reason, of course, is that the modern game, with its emphasis on home runs, has evolved in a Ruthian rather than a Cobbian direction.

After all these years, he’s still first in batting average (.366). He collected 12 AL batting titles in 13 years, hit over .400 three times, led in steals six times, and in runs five times. In other words, he was the best at the things he tried to be best at. Cobb epitomized the dead-ball era, which is to say, baseball before the sluggers took over.

He was no home run hitter, managing only 118 in 24 seasons. But for most of

those seasons, going for homers against a misshapen, sodden ball was a losing proposition. Still, in 1925 he hit three homers in one game, and two in the next, just showing off.

Considering all that, it’s a bit disconcerting to find a few modernists working overtime to chisel Cobb down to a so-so level. Essentially, the argument is that modern players are bigger, faster, better trained, and face more difficult challenges. None of the old-timers could make it big today, they say. Cobb might hit .260.

We believe a “modern” Cobb would have the same advantages in diet, training, and baseball experiences the other moderns have. He’d be bigger, faster, and better trained. He might not hit .366—though we shouldn’t bet against it—but he’d be right up there showing other moderns his heels.

Now, if the critics want to stomp on Cobb, they can attack his personality. “The Georgia Peach” was mean, vindictive, selfish, vain, a bully, a racist, paranoid, cruel, and hot-tempered. But it was just because of those nasty attributes that Cobb would have found a way to win in any age.

30. TED WILLIAMS

Ted Williams ca 1939.

Ted Williams ca 1939.

Until Barry Bonds’ most recent years, either Williams or Babe Ruth was the greatest hitter of all time, and you could probably cover the difference with an ant’s umbrella. Despite losing nearly five seasons in two wars, Williams put together a statistical record that would stand against anyone’s.

Here are the career figures: .344 batting average, 521 home runs, 1,798 runs, 1,839 RBIs, 2,019 walks, and a .634 slugging average. His on-base percentage is the highest all-time (Ruth is next) and his slugging percentage is second, to Ruth. And there is the .406 batting average in 1941, the All-Star Game home runs, and the home run in his final at bat.

Now that he is gone, the knights of the keyboard (Ted’s memorably derisive term for sportswriters) recall his heroics and his frailties and try to assign him his place in the history of baseball. Even in death Ted resists categorization: Was he our last classic American hero, in the style of John Wayne (who once said to Ted, “I only play the hero; you live it”)? Did he live the life he wanted, his way, without regret? How did he transform himself from Terrible Ted, the pincushion of the Boston scribes, to become patron saint of the game and paterfamilias to the stars of the 1990s? Did Ted mellow in his later years, or did he remain the same, always True North, while our compass needles slowly swung around to him?

One thing seems certain: Williams will get better every year in our memories.

31. WALTER JOHNSON

Walter Johnson, ca 1911.

Walter Johnson, ca 1911.

Johnson is high up on everyone’s list of nominees as the greatest pitcher of all time. His statistics alone are staggering. Working for a Washington team that finished in the second division in 10 of his 21 seasons, he nevertheless won 417 games (second only to Cy Young), threw an all-time record 110 shutouts, and compiled a 2.17 ERA, the seventh-best career mark. He won more 1-0 games—and lost more—than any other man. Simply to state his 1913 numbers is enough to give you a shiver: 36-7, 11 shoutouts, 1.14 ERA, and, in 346 innings, 243 strikeouts against 38 walks.

He did nearly all of this with a fabled fastball, thrown with an easy sidearm motion. It came in straight as string, but the hitters couldn’t get around on it. Only late in his career did Johnson bother to develop a curve. For years his 3,509 strikeouts was considered an unbreakable record, but a more free-swinging age has changed that; even though he has been surpassed by several latter-day pitchers, with more surely to come, Johnson still may be the greatest strikeout artist ever.

Johnson finally made it to the World Series in 1924 at the age of 36. The old man was 23-7 and led the league in his usual categories: wins, ERA, strikeouts, and shutouts. He lost his first two starts, despite having an entire nation wishing for “Old Barney” to make up for all the tough years with a World Series win. (The sweetly conflated nickname linked his speed with that of auto-race king Barney Oldfield.) And then in Game 7, he came on in relief to pitch the final four frames of a miraculous twelfth-inning Senators victory.

If he wasn’t the greatest pitcher ever, you’d want him to be. In 1936 he was one of the first five players elected to the Hall of Fame.

32. BRUCE SUTTER

Bruce Sutter.

Bruce Sutter.

The first practitioner of what came to be called “the pitch of the 1980s,” the split-finger fastball, Bruce Sutter was for nine years the dominant closer in the National League. He was a Cy Young Award winner—only the second reliever to be so honored—a four-time winner of the Fireman of the Year Award, and the man who set the current trend of one-inning closers.

Sutter was blessed with exceptionally large hands—his fingers were “a full joint longer than normal,” according to historian Martin Quigley—and a limber wrist that enabled him to throw the pitch harder. Sutter’s splitter was much more deceiving to batters because it spun quickly enough to look like a fastball.

Sutter notched 27 saves in 1978 for the fifth-place Cubs, and in 1979 he won the Cy Young Award when he spun a 2.23 ERA to accompany his 37 saves. After the season he applied for salary arbitration, one of the first stars to do so. Sutter asked for $700,000; the Cubs offered half that. The arbitrator, required to choose one figure or the other, went with Sutter. The decision sent shock waves throughout major league baseball. As a result a player with a handful of experience could compare his stats to someone with a proven portfolio, even someone who had signed a rich free-agent contract. Richard Wagner, conservative owner of the Reds, called the Sutter decision “an atom bomb for our industry.”

After he led the league in saves again in 1980 and was chosen for the All-Star Game for the fourth straight year, Whitey Herzog and the Cardinals went after him. Sutter won Game 2 and saved Games 3 and 7 of the 1982 World Series against the Brewers to give St. Louis its first world championship since 1967.

Sutter finished up with the Braves, finally succumbing to the long series of injuries that had marked his career even before he hit the majors.

33. EARL WEAVER

Earl Weaver

Earl Weaver

Weaver presided over the Orioles’ dynasty of the 1970s, leading them to six division titles, four pennants and a world championship. His winning percentage of .583 ranks in the top 10 all-time. Although it was said his teams relied on “pitching and the three-run homer” to win, Weaver was actually a highly innovative manager. He schooled his players in fundamentals, pioneered the use of computer charts, extended the use of platooning, and even wrote a training manual used by the entire Orioles organization. Always open to new ideas, his motto became the title of his autobiography: It’s What You

Learn After You Know It All That Counts.

He never got past Double A as a minor-league second baseman, but once he moved to managing he found his way to major leagues in 1968. Although Jim Palmer cracked, “The only thing Earl knows about pitching is that he couldn’t hit it,” he and coach George Bamberger produced 20-game winners 22 times, with six Cy Young Awards mixed in. Several pitchers, including Mike Cuellar, Steve Stone and Mike Torrez came from other organizations to achieve their best seasons with the Orioles.

Weaver was known for his rages against umpires. He was ejected from 91 games during his career. Once he was booted from both ends of a doubleheader.

However, Weaver was so respected as a psychologist that some believe his tantrums were staged to arouse his team. Weaver was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1996.

34. JOE JACKSON

Joe jackson, Cleveland.

Joe Jackson, Cleveland.

One of the great natural hitters, Shoeless Joe averaged .356 for his career, the third best ever, using his favorite bat, “Black Betsy,” and a sweet swing that Babe Ruth even copied. Ironically it was Ruth’s popularity that helped fans forget the infamy that Jackson and his co-conspirators on the 1919 Chicago White Sox brought to baseball. Yet Jackson remains an important figure in baseball lore, linked in Baseball’s Hall of Shame with such names as Jim Devlin, Hal Chase and Pete Rose.

An illiterate millhand, Joe hit .408 as a Cleveland rookie in 1911. He finished second to Ty Cobb’s .420. The next year Joe hit .395 and finished second again to Cobb (.410). Except for 10 games in 1908-1909, Joe always hit .300. But a trade to the White Sox in 1915 threw him in with the proverbial bad company.

The White Sox were building a great team, but it was a team divided. Joe resented the club’s college-educated second baseman Eddie Collins and his cadre of followers. The other side, the ones who griped about the a low salaries owner Charles Comiskey paid, the ones who hung with the sharpies who looked for an edge, that side accepted Joe. They didn’t snicker at his lack of sophistication, or make fun of his Southern drawl.

Despite the division on the team, it won the 1917 pennant and World Series. In 1919 the Sox paraded to another pennant and were installed as heavy favorites over Cincinnati in the World Series. But eight men on the team had a different idea, including Jackson and even Buck Weaver, who knew of the fix but kept his knowledge to himself.

The story broke late in the 1920 season, while Jackson was hitting .382. The Black Sox were indicted in Chicago. Jackson admitted his guilt, but none of the players was convicted in court. There was no doubt of what they’d done, but the evidence, including confessions, mysteriously disappeared. No matter, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the baseball commissioner, banned the “Black Sox” from the game for life.

Jackson, as well as others in the group of “eight men out,” played outlaw ball under an assumed name.

35. WILLIAM G. BRAMHAM

William G. Bramham

William G. Bramham

Judge William G. Bramham, a lawyer from Durham, NC, was the third President of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the parent organization of minor league baseball. He served from 1932 through 1946. Bramham had been active in baseball for many years, having been president of the Piedmont, the Sally, the Virginia, and the Eastern North Carolina Leagues. When he was elected head of the NA during the
depths of the Depression, the minors were reeling and in need of strong leadership.

At the 1932 convention when Judge Bramham was elected, only five leagues stated their intention to operate the following season. Fourteen eventually operated in 1933, as Bramham brought to minor-league baseball the stability and strength it needed. He made certain that the fly-by-night operators were not allowed in the minors, and his strong positions and enforcement gave minor league baseball credibility.

By 1940, 44 leagues were operating, and minor-league baseball was thriving across the country. World War II brought a necessary reversal as players were called into national service, and in 1943 only 13 leagues were in operation. But Bramham continued to give the leadership that was necessary, and in 1946, less than a year after the war had ended, 41 leagues were back in operation. Bramham retired that winter and died the following summer but the policies he instituted helped shape the minors’ postwar boom that saw 59 leagues and 438 teams in 1949 with over 41 million in attendance.

In the 1930’s and 1940’s baseball was truly the “national pastime,” even with major-league baseball confined to 10 cities and played mostly in the Northeast quadrant of the United States. Minor-league baseball made the sport a national game, with teams in small towns in the South, in growing cities in the Midwest, and in major markets on the West Coast. Before radio, before television, bush-league baseball gave the sport its national identity. Men like Judge Bramham, Frank Shaughnessy of the International League, Joe Engel in Chattanooga and hundreds of forgotten local baseball operators showcased the sport and forged its imprint on the nation’s consciousness.

36. RAY CHAPMAN

Ray Chapman

Ray Chapman

On August 17, 1920, popular Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman stepped to the plate at New York’s Polo Grounds against the Yankees’ Carl Mays. As was his custom, Chapman crouched toward the plate. Catcher Muddy Ruel had trouble seeing the ball, which was headed straight at Chapman. One witness said Chapman seemed “hypnotized.” There was an “explosive sound” and the ball came bounding back at Mays, who fielded it and flipped it to first baseman Wally Pipp for what he thought was the inning’s first out. Pipp caught the ball and started to toss it around the infield, when suddenly he became aware something was wrong with Chapman.

“We need a doctor,” home plate umpire Tom Connolly shouted. “Is there a doctor in the house?” The Indians gathered around Chapman, who at first could not speak, as the Yankees team physician applied ice to his injury. After a few minutes Chapman was able to stand, to the immense relief of the crowd. With the assistance of two teammates Chapman began walking off the field toward the center field clubhouse. At second base he crumpled to the ground; he died 12 hours later at St. Lawrence Hospital.

Chapman’s unfortunate death eventually had far-reaching implications for baseball. Some baseball scholars feel that this incident had perhaps as much influence in sparking the batting revolution of the 1920s as did Babe Ruth and the introduction of the “lively ball.”

The spitball, shineball, and all other dubious pitches had been outlawed on February 9, 1920, six months before Chapman’s death. After Chapman died, balls hit into the stands stayed there, and umpires tossed out nicked or scuffed balls with greater frequency. In 1919 the National League went through 22,095 baseballs; in 1924 that figure had grown to 54,030. Batters now got to swing at baseballs that were more visible and less apt to “sail.” Batting averages rose accordingly.

37. NOLAN RYAN

Nolan Ryan.

Nolan Ryan.

The all-time strikeout leader, with 5,714, Nolan Ryan hurled a record seven no-hitters during his remarkable 27-year career. A physical marvel, he was still throwing fastballs more than 90 miles per hour in his final year, at age 46.

Ryan made two appearances with the Mets in 1966, and despite his great promise he was only 29-38 through the 1971 season. Then he was traded to the California Angels along with three other players for Jim Fregosi.

In eight years with the Angels, Ryan led the league in strikeouts seven times, five times recording more than 300. In 1973 he fanned a major-league record 383 and pitched two no-hitters. He went on to throw two more as an Angel, tying Sandy Koufax for the career record … but Ryan’s career was barely at the halfway point. In November 1979 the Astros signed the free agent to a $4.5 million, four-year contract, making him the game’s first million-dollar man.

In his first six years with Houston he harnessed his stuff, reducing both his strikeouts and his walks, and suddenly became a winning pitcher. He pitched a record fifth no-hitter against the Dodgers.

Ryan led the league in strikeouts again in 1988 despite missing the last two weeks of the season because of a hamstring injury. After the season the Astros offered him a contract with a 20-percent salary cut. On December 7, 1988, Ryan signed as a free agent with the Texas Rangers. In Arlington Ryan went from great pitcher to baseball legend.

In his first season with the Rangers, the 42-year-old Ryan led the majors in strikeouts and ranked among AL leaders in innings, ERA, and wins. He pitched a pair of one-hit complete games and carried five different no-hitters into the eighth inning or later, losing two in the ninth. On August 22 Ryan fanned Oakland’s Rickey Henderson for his 5,000th strikeout.

Ryan’s adherence to a grueling physical-fitness routine paid off in a career longer than any other power pitcher’s. In 1990, at age 43, he became the oldest pitcher to throw a no-hitter by beating Oakland, 5-0, on June 11. The following year, as the major leagues’ oldest player at age 44, Ryan pitched his seventh no-hitter.

38. HONUS WAGNER

Honus Wagner.

Honus Wagner.

If a knowledgeable baseball fan in 1920 had been asked to name Major League Baseball’s all-time All-Star team, the shortstop would undoubtedly have been Honus Wagner. Ask a knowledgeable fan today the same question and the shortstop would be the same (although Alex Rodriguez may yet supplant him if, after his trade to the Yankees, he resumes playing shortstop).

The reason for Wagner’s longevity as baseball’s best shortstop is simple. No other shortstop has ever combined offensive and defensive excellence the way he did; only Cal Ripken came close, and these two bookends of the 20th century cast the mold for the shortstop of the future.

Wagner broke into the big leagues in 1897. Primarily an outfielder and third baseman for the Louisville Colonels of the 12-team NL, Wagner came to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1900 in the largest trade in baseball history up to that time. Louisville owner Barney Dreyfuss, learning that his team was about to be dropped from the NL, sent fourteen players to Pittsburgh for $25,000 and four Pittsburgh players. Dreyfuss then purchased the Pittsburgh team. Traded to Pittsburgh along with Wagner were future Hall of Famers Fred Clarke and Rube Waddell.

Playing right field, third base, second base, first base, and even pitching (he hurled three scoreless innings) during the 1900 season, Wagner won his first batting title and led the league in triples, doubles, and slugging average. Not until 1901, at age 27, did he become Pittsburgh’s regular shortstop. From 1900 through 1909 5’11”, 200-pound barrel of a man led the NL in hitting seven times and even led in stolen bases five times. He drove in six runs in the 1909 World Series against the Tigers of Ty Cobb, the first time two batting champions faced each other in a Series. Wagner hit .333, Cobb .231, and the Pirates sent Detroit down to their third consecutive Series defeat.

Among the legendary baseball names who called Wagner the greatest player ever were Ed Barrow, Sam Crawford, Bill Klem, John McGraw, and Branch Rickey.

39. ALEX RODRIGUEZ

Alex Rodriguez, 2004.

Alex Rodriguez, 2004.

If Ernie Banks spoke the first word on what a power-hitting shortstop might accomplish, Alex Rodriguez may have the final say. Banks hit 40-plus home runs in four consecutive seasons, from 1957 to 1960, between the ages of 26 and 29. At this writing, Rodriguez has reached the 40-mark in six consecutive seasons between ages 22 and 27, twice crossing the 50 barrier to go where no shortstop had gone before.

In a golden age of big, mobile, powerful shortstops who could flat-out hit, much of the talk in the mid-1990s centered on Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Jeter in the Northeast. However, Rodriguez was making a case for himself in the Northwest as the best of the lot. Having reached the majors with the Seattle Mariners at age 18 in 1993, he broke out in a big way in his first full season as a starter in 1996, scoring 141 runs, knocking in 123, and belting 54 doubles and 36 homers. He also led the league in batting with a .358 mark.

A six-year man and thus a free agent at the remarkably tender age of 25, Rodriguez signed a 10-year, $252-million deal with the Texas Rangers in 2001, making him the highest-paid player in the history of the game. And if any ballplayer was worth that much money, Alex Rodriguez proved he was that player, averaging over 50 home runs in his first three seasons as a Ranger and winning the 2003 AL MVP despite playing for a last-place club.

Following upon his stunning February 2004 trade to the New York Yankees, Rodriguez was slated to open the season at third base, with Derek Jeter staying in place at shortstop.

40. BILL JAMES

Bill James.

Bill James.

For the past 25 years, baseball has been in the throes of a statistics revolution. No one person was more responsible for this than Bill James, the most influential baseball writer of the 20th century.

His annual Baseball Abstract series, self-published out of his Kansas home from 1977-81 and by Ballantine from 1982-88, introduced hundreds of thousands of fans to the power of statistical analysis. From the Runs Created metric (which boiled down batters’ accomplishments into a far more meaningful number than RBIs) to his Pythagorean Method (which helped predict teams’ won-lost records from their runs scored and allowed) to whimsical devices like the Favorite Toy (which estimated the chances of young players reaching milestones such as 3,000 hits), James’s analysis pierced through baseball’s conventional wisdom and mapped out a new understanding of the sport. He also was a fantastic writer, funny and always irreverent.

A native Kansan, James wrote his first baseball articles for Baseball Digest in the mid-1970s but had so much to say that he decided to publish his own annual guide to the game. The project immediately consumed his every waking hour, particularly his minimum-wage shift as night watchman at the Stokely-Van Camp factory in Lawrence. “I’d spend five minutes an hour making sure the furnaces didn’t blow up,” he later recalled, “and 55 minutes working on my numbers.” The result was the 1977 Baseball Abstract – Featuring 18 Categories of Statistical Information That You Just Can’t Find Anywhere Else. The 68-page compendium sold 70 copies through mail order for $3.50 apiece.

Word of James’ brilliance spread, however, and after a 1981 Sports Illustrated profile launched him into prominence, Ballantine began publishing the Abstract nationally. It became a New York Times bestseller, at its peak selling 150,000 copies.

James had his largest influence after he stopped writing his Abstracts and moved on to more traditional books. Many kids who read him grew up to work in baseball, including general managers Jim Duquette (Mets), Billy Beane (A’s), Danny Evans (Dodgers), and Theo Epstein (Red Sox). It’s no coincidence that Epstein’s Red Sox hired James before the 2003 season as a Senior Advisor.

 

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