Which four players should be on the baseball Mount Rushmore?
If you’re a fan of baseball’s grand and wonderful history, a) next time I see you, we should have plenty to talk about, and b) in the meantime, I’ve got a suggestion if you’re willing to pony up just a few paltry shekels per month: Craig Wright’s subscriber-only newsletter, which is the best deal in baseball.
In his latest, Wright addresses a recently popular question: If there were a baseball Mount Rushmore, which four players’ likenesses would be carved into Black Hills granite?
Which isn’t to say Craig answers that question. Not yet, anyway. Rather, he uses the occasion to argue that Ted Williams has been getting short shrift in these discussions. "In a conglomeration of the polls I’ve found for a major league Mount Rushmore," Craig writes, "the top choices in order are Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson (for reasons beyond his play), Willie Mays, and Ted Williams. Ted was a distant 4th. Willie had almost twice as many votes as Ted, who was left off nearly three-quarter of the ballots."
I’m actually surprised that Williams does that well; I would have guessed that Hank Aaron would come in fourth (or maybe Walter Johnson, if there’s room up there for a moundsman). Because while Williams remains enormously famous today, he’s not considered a particularly well-rounded player. He’s considered just a hitter; sure, maybe the greatest hitter ever, but still just a hitter. Granted, for a long time the Babe was just a hitter, too. But in his early prime he could do some things, and before that he was one of the American League’s best pitchers.
But Craig Wright argues that Williams doesn’t just belong on our baseball Rushmore, but that he’s got a better case than Mays. As Craig notes, there’s a perception that Williams played in the olden days, while Mays is a more modern player — but while it’s true that Williams reached the majors before World War II and Mays lasted into the 1970s, it’s also true that their careers overlapped for nearly a full decade. And Williams was an outstanding hitter throughout that decade. So it’s not like they were playing completely different games.
Craig makes a couple of other points in Williams’ favor. One, Williams gets gigged by Wins Above Replacement for playing left field, but he would look better if his managers had placed him in right field, a position for which he seems to have been decently enough equipped. And two — and here’s the part I found most interesting — Williams did not benefit from the lower level of play brought about by expansion in the early 1960s, as Mays (and the decade’s other top stars) did. Wright:
When folks talk about the various elements that made it easier or harder to excel in this era or that one, they often overlook the impact of the early years of the first expansion (1961 in the AL and 1962 in the NL).
Over those two seasons the number of major league teams expanded 25% — the most of any expansion – and the rules for the expansion were the least generous ever offered to expansion teams. Very little talent initially transferred to the expansion teams. For a few years there, an unusually large amount of playing time went to players who were not really major league caliber. The impact of expansion does tend to balance out, and it happens a lot faster than most suspect, but it still doesn’t happen overnight, and it took longer in that first expansion era than any other.
The performance of a lot of established stars got a relative boost in those years. Hank Aaron’s best season is 1963. Frank Robinson’s best season is 1962. The greatest non-steroid season of the last 57 years was Mickey Mantle’s in 1961. Brooks Robinson has his two best seasons in 1962 and 1964. In 1962 the 41-year-old Stan Musial had his best season in several years, and given that Warren Spahn was 41 and 42 in the first two expansion years, he did amazingly well. Don Drysdale’s top two seasons are 1964-65. The best 4-year run of both Juan Marichal’s and Sandy Koufax’s careers is 1963-66. The best 4-year run in the careers of Whitey Ford and Willie Mays are the first 4 seasons of expansion in their respective leagues. It is worth remembering that Ted Williams never played a day in any expansion era.
That is worth remembering. Or just knowing in the first place. I’d never actually thought of it before. On the other hand, I do believe that Williams’ American League in the middle and late 1950s was substantially inferior to Mays’ National League, simply because the National League had substantially more of the best black players. Then again, the difference in quality between the leagues is probably more relevant when discussing pitchers; there weren’t many black pitchers in either league, so there wasn’t any particularly special advantage to being an American League hitter in those years. Well, except it was a lot easier to be an All-Star in the American League. Especially if you were an outfielder.*
* Imagine you’re an outfielder in the National League in the early ’60s, and you’re not Willie Mays or Frank Robinson or Hank Aaron or Roberto Clemente — How many All-Star Games are you going to start?
I don’t believe that Craig Wright has actually provided his baseball Rushmore. But considering his past writing, I would expect see Honus Wagner up there. Along with Ruth and (it seems) Ted Williams. Of course, your choices will be almost purely a matter of taste. Unless we agree on a set of statistical criteria, everything depends on what you’re trying to do with your Rushmore. You want the most famous players? The best players, career value? The best players, peak value? The players who defined their particular eras?
Well, this is my baseball Rushmore and I want it all. Before I begin to work through that, here’s a ridiculously long list of legitimate candidates:
And if you want to throw Greg Maddux or Roger Clemens or Mariano Rivera in there, I won’t say you’re nuts. This is why we can basically spend the next few years talking about this, if you want. But today I’ve got … oh, looks like another eight minutes.
What I’m looking for are great players who also represented their era as well as anyone. Sure, having Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays on your Rushmore is perfectly reasonable. But you’re basically saying that baseball in the ’50s is almost all that matters, since those three were all in the majors from 1951 through 1957. I want a bigger spread on my Rushmore.
I’m going to start with Honus Wagner, who was just as good as Cobb (if not quite as famous) and played for a few years in the 19th Century. Next up is Babe Ruth, for all the obvious reasons. Our next one is tricky, though. I understand the impulse to memorialize Jackie Robinson, but I’m going with Satchel Paige instead. Paige wasn’t the first black major leaguers in the 20th century, and he wasn’t as great in the majors as Jackie. But Satchel spent a lot more time in "outsider baseball" than Jackie, his professional career spanned roughly 40 years, and he was one hell of a player.
So that’s three guys, and we’ve got room for just one more. This is the ridiculous thing about this little parlor game. When Mount Rushmore was carved, there had been so few great US Presidents that nobody really minded when Teddy Roosevelt got the fourth slot. Even today, if they wanted to add a fifth dead white guy to the collection, can you imagine the political fight? I don’t know … everybody seems to like Ike these days. The Greatest Generation and all that. But it would be easy to come up with five baseball guys. Six baseball guys. A dozen. Which might be why this exercise is endless. Choosing only four is essentially impossible; even if you come up with your perfect four today, you’ll come up with a different quartet next week.
This week, I’m going with Wagner, Ruth, Paige, and Calvin Edward Ripken, Jr. I can’t even say why, exactly. Except that Ripken’s one of the three or four greatest shortstops ever and he symbolizes, for me anyway, baseball in the 1980s and ’90s. No, that’s not quite it. Rather, Ripken symbolizes the best of baseball in the 1980s and ’90s.