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The Greatest Players in Baseball History

Pitcher Baseball

Baseball history is loaded with supremely talented players who dominated their time and place in the game. These athletes are legends of the sport and can be found on plaques in the Hall of Fame, in their home stadiums where their numbers are retired, and throughout the record books. This article is meant to celebrate the careers and give an overview of fifteen of the all-time best.

More than any other sport, baseball works to preserve their traditions and limit changes to the rulebooks in an effort to keep past achievements relevant and comparable to the modern players. Babe Ruth’s 714 career home runs are every bit as impressive in 2018 as they were when he retired in 1935.

This is why the Hall of Fame voters take their job so seriously and punish cheaters so vigorously, especially players from the so-called “Steroid Era.” They don’t honor their inflated statistics that skew the perception of what’s possible after such a long history of the game.

In this article, you will find fifteen of the greatest players ever to step foot in a ballpark. Sure, some may dispute why certain players were included here over others, and that’s always one of the shortcomings of lists, but nobody will argue against any of these men’s legendary status. So, let’s look at some of the all-time greats, their career stats and significant accomplishments, as well as some stories of their playing days.

Babe Ruth

Year of Hall of Fame Induction: 1936

Playing Career: 1914 – 1935

Career Stats:

  • Batting Average: .342
  • Home Runs: 714
  • Hits: 2,873
  • RBIs: 2,213
  • Win-Loss Record: 94 – 46
  • ERA: 2.28

Honors:

  • (7) World Series Titles
  • (2) All-Star Appearances
  • (1) American League MVP Award
  • Major League Baseball All-Century Team
  • Major League Baseball All-Time Team

No matter whose list of the all-time greats you look at, Babe Ruth is bound to be in the top spot. The Sultan of Swat spent stretches of his career both as a pitcher and as an outfielder, excelling at both. When he was traded from the Red Sox to the New York Yankees in 1920, the move altered the course of MLB history.

As a slugger for the Yankees, the Babe led New York to four World Series championships and seven American League pennants. As the years continued to pile on without Boston winning another title, their lousy luck became known as the “curse of the Bambino.” They would go 86 years before ever breaking the curse, while the Bronx Bombers have amassed an MLB record 27 World Series titles.

Looking back at Ruth’s career numbers, he’s impressive by today’s standards, but he’s genuinely mind-blowing when compared to his contemporaries. Between the years of 1918 and 1931, he hit 602 home runs, while nobody else in baseball hit even 300. In 1920, when he hit 54 homers, he was the only player ever to reach 20. It’s almost hard to fathom how far ahead of his peers Babe Ruth was during his prime.

Not only was he far-and-away the best baseball player of his era, but he’s also an enduring cultural icon in North America. Ask anyone who Babe Ruth is, and they’ll be able to tell you he was one of the greatest baseball players who ever lived. He’s even got a candy bar named after him.

Willie Mays

Year of Hall of Fame Induction: 1979

Playing Career: 1951 – 1973

Career Stats:

  • Batting Average: .302
  • Home Runs: 660
  • Hits: 3,283
  • RBIs: 1,903

Honors:

  • (1) World Series Title
  • (24) All-Star Appearances
  • (2) National League MVP Awards
  • 1951 NL Rookie of the Year
  • (12) Gold Glove Awards
  • 1971 Roberto Clemente Award
  • Major League Baseball All-Century Team
  • Major League Baseball All-Time Team

Willie Mays spent the majority of his career playing for the Giants, first in New York and then in San Francisco after the club moved. He played center field and is most celebrated for his career longevity and mastery of all facets of the game. In fact, analytics experts have dubbed him the best all-around player in baseball history.

He’s one of only five National League players to record eight straight 100-RBI seasons. Mays ended his career with 660 home runs, good for fifth all-time, and ranked third at the time of his retirement. Furthermore, Willie Mays earned twelve Gold Gloves and is tied for the most All-Star Game appearances at 24. His many honors are a credit to his elite contact, power, and defensive skill.

Advanced statistics suggest that the Say Hey Kid provided more defensive value at his center field position than any other player in history besides Andruw Jones. His most outstanding highlight is a testament to this fact; his over-the-shoulder chase-down catch is played in MLB clips regularly to this day. Mays retired in 1973 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame the first ballot in which he was eligible, in 1979.

Ted Williams

Year of Hall of Fame Induction: 1966

Playing Career: 1939 – 1960

Career Stats:

  • Batting Average: .344
  • Home Runs: 521
  • Hits: 2,654
  • RBIs: 1,839

Honors:

  • (2) American League MVP Awards
  • (2) Triple Crowns
  • (19) All-Star Appearances
  • Major League Baseball All-Century Team
  • Major League Baseball All-Time Team

Ted Williams is a first-ballot Hall of Famer and one of the best hitters to ever step in the batter’s box. The superstar left fielder spent the entirety of his career with the Boston Red Sox, including the 1941 campaign that saw him record a .406 batting average. He’s the last Major League Baseball player to average over .400 for the season since.

The Red Sox icon finished his career with a .482 on-base percentage, a record which still stands today. Over his nineteen-year career, he made the All-Star game every single season, despite being considered below average on defense in the left field. Besides his absurd on-base percentage, Williams also smashed 521 home runs. Twice, Ted Williams earned the American League Most Valuable Player honors, which is the same number of times he won the Triple Crown as well.

Williams had to step away from the game between 1942 – 1946 to serve in the US Navy and the Marine Corps during the Second World War. Had he not forfeited three of his prime playing years, Teddy Ballgame most likely would have surpassed 3,000 hits with ease, and possibly 600 home runs considering he was the AL home run leader in 1941, 1942, 1947, and 1949, the years before and after his service.

Hank Aaron

Year of Hall of Fame Induction: 1982

Playing Career: 1954 – 1976

Career Stats:

  • Batting Average: .305
  • Home Runs: 755
  • Hits: 3,771
  • RBIs: 2,297

Honors:

  • (1) World Series Title
  • (25) All-Star Appearances
  • (1) National League MVP Award
  • (3) Gold Glove Awards
  • Major League Baseball All-Century Team

Hammerin’ Hank Aaron is one of the most decorated sluggers the game of baseball has ever known. He spent the majority of his career playing right field, where he won three Gold Gloves between 1958 and 1960. His most shining achievement is recording 755 home runs, a record that stood until 2007. While Barry Bonds eventually surpassed Aaron’s total, many feel the record is now tainted due to the controversy surrounding Bonds’ late career and the evidence that he used performance-enhancing drugs to achieve this feat.

The Hammer still holds the record for most All-Star game selections at 25, although he only played in 24, putting him in a three-way tie for that statistic. He’s also still in the lead for Major League Baseball records such as most career runs batted in (2,297), extra-base hits (1,477), and total bases (6,856). Aaron is also in the top five for career runs with 2,174, and hits, amassing 3,771. When Aaron retired, he owned the top spot in the standings for most of the career power-hitting statistics.

The Hall of Famer from Mobile, Alabama, played for only two teams: the Atlanta Braves (who were the Milwaukee Braves for some of his career) and the Milwaukee Brewers. Both franchises have retired his number 44 jersey. When Hank Aaron retired, he was the last MLB player who also spent part of their career in the Negro Leagues.

Cy Young

Year of Hall of Fame Induction: 1937

Playing Career: 1890 – 1911

Career Stats:

  • Win-Loss Record: 511 – 316
  • ERA: 2.63
  • Strikeouts: 2,803

Honors:

  • (1) World Series Title
  • (1) Triple Crown
  • (3) No-Hitters Thrown
  • (1) Perfect Game Thrown
  • Major League Baseball All-Century Team

Cy Young was such an incredible pitcher that several of the other all-time greats on this list have received an award given for excellence in pitching that was named after him. Every year, the Cy Young Award is given to the season’s best pitcher. The legendary righty played for five teams over the course of a 22-year professional baseball career.

To this day, Young holds numerous pitching records. He is currently the Major League Baseball record holder for career wins (511), total innings pitched (7,356), games started (815), complete games thrown (749), and consecutive hitless innings (25 1/3). Cy also owns the record for most losses with 311, a testament to his longevity more so than a blemish on his career. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1937 as part of the second class ever after narrowly missing out on the first ballot to join the inaugural entrants.

The Ohio native was also the first pitcher to throw a perfect game in baseball’s modern era. Additionally, on five different occasions, Young won at least thirty games in a season. This is an accomplishment that can never be beaten. In fact, most of his records and achievements are untouchable now that pitching rotations, relievers, and a pitch counts exist.

Ty Cobb

Year of Hall of Fame Induction: 1936

Playing Career: 1905 – 1928

Career Stats:

  • Batting Average: .367
  • Home Runs: 117
  • Hits: 4,191
  • RBIs: 1,938

Honors:

  • (1) American League MVP Award
  • (1) Triple Crown
  • Major League Baseball All-Century Team

Ty Cobb is one of the more controversial all-time baseball greats. There are no controversies or scandals surrounding his actual performance in games; it’s just that he was widely disliked and has been accused of being a virulent racist. In fact, when he died, only three baseball-related associates attended his funeral. Reputation aside, though, Cobb did put together quite the impressive resume on the field.

The Hall of Fame center fielder was a career .367 batter with 4,191 hits and 1,938 RBIs. His career .367 average is still the highest recorded, as is his record-setting twelve American League batting titles. He also stole 892 bases, another MLB record that stood until 1977. Of those stolen bases, 54 of them were for taking home, a record amount to this day.

At the time of Cobb’s retirement, he held the records for career hits, runs, games played, at-bats, and stolen bases. Most of these marks stood for over 50 years before finally being surpassed. The Atlanta native was also the youngest athlete ever to record 2,000 runs and 4,000 hits. Today, there is a sizable college scholarship fund bearing his name given each year to students in Georgia.

Honus Wagner

Year of Hall of Fame Induction: 1936

Playing Career: 1897 – 1917

Career Stats:

  • Batting Average: .329
  • Home Runs: 101
  • Hits: 3,430
  • RBIs: 1,732
  • Stolen Bases: 722

Honors:

  • (1) World Series Title
  • Major League Baseball All-Century Team
  • Major League Baseball All-Time Team

Honus Wagner played shortstop, primarily for the Pittsburgh Pirates, in baseball’s early days. While playing in what’s come to be known as the “dead ball era,” Wagner won eight National League batting titles. While most fans consider Ty Cobb the best player during this era, many historians consider Honus to be better all-around. In fact, many still call The Flying Dutchman the greatest shortstop ever to take the diamond.

While his playing career is undoubtedly a source of his fame, Wagner may best be known for the incredibly rare baseball card portraying his image. Only 57 copies were ever released to the public between 1909 and 1911, and the remaining copies fetch massive prices when available at auctions. The legendary relic known as the T206 Honus Wagner baseball card sold most recently for over $3.12 million.

The all-time-great shortstop is one of only ten players to steal over 700 bases successfully. Some of his hitting numbers would fall short of all-time status in the modern era, but adjusted for the dead ball period that he played in, he’s considered a top-tier hitter. Either way, he’s in the top ten for career hits with 3,420, making him a Hall of Famer on anybody’s ballot.

Stan Musial

Year of Hall of Fame Induction: 1969

Playing Career: 1941 – 1963

Career Stats:

  • Batting Average: .331
  • Home Runs: 475
  • Hits: 3,630
  • RBIs: 1,951

Honors:

  • (3) World Series Titles
  • (24) All-Star Appearances
  • (3) National League MVP Awards
  • Major League Baseball All-Century Team

Stan Musial is one of Major League Baseball’s all-time greats and a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He spent his entire career with the St. Louis Cardinals, where he played outfielder and first base. Musial was known for how consistent his hitting was, with an equal number of 1,815 hits both at home and on the road.

Musial amassed 3,630 career hits over the course of his 22-season career, with a .331 batting average. The lefty set numerous National League records throughout his playing days, including for career hits, RBIs, games played, runs scored, at-bats, and doubles. Stan the Man also won seven NL batting titles, three National League MVPs, and played in 24 All-Star Games.

After Stan Musial’s second World Series title, he enlisted in the Navy, costing him one full season of his prime. His number 6 jersey was retired by the St. Louis Cardinals, and he was inducted into the franchise’s Hall of Fame as well. With his consistent play over the course of his career, both home and away, he’s a fitting inclusion on the MLB’s All-Century Team.

Mickey Mantle

Year of Hall of Fame Induction: 1974

Playing Career: 1951 – 1968

Career Stats:

  • Batting Average: .298
  • Home Runs: 536
  • Hits: 2,415
  • RBIs: 1,509

Honors:

  • (7) World Series Titles
  • (20) All-Star Appearances
  • (3) American League MVP Awards
  • (1) Gold Glove Award
  • (1) Triple Crown
  • Major League Baseball All-Century Team

Mickey Mantle may have been the most extraordinary natural baseball player in the history of the sport. He drank too much, partied too hard, and injured his knee, making it impossible to realize all of his potential, yet he’s still one of the top players ever regardless. Mantle spent his entire career with the New York Yankees, where he won seven World Series titles.

Mickey was a switch hitter that’s considered one of the most significant offensive threats to ever play center field. He was lethal from both sides of the plate with the ability to connect consistently, batting for both average and power. When he did get all of a pitch, Mantle was acclaimed for the distance he’d smash his homers.

Additionally, Mickey Mantle owns several World Series records. The Yankee slugger hit 18 home runs on the biggest stage to go along with 42 runs, 40 RBIs, 26 extra-base hits, and 123 total bases, all series records. The three-time MVP is also the last Triple Crown winner to lead the entire majors in home runs, RBIs, and average, which he accomplished in 1956.

Pete Rose

Year of Hall of Fame Induction: N/A (Banned for Life)

Playing Career: 1963 -1986

Career Stats:

  • Batting Average: .303
  • Home Runs: 160
  • Hits: 4,256
  • RBIs: 1,314

Honors:

  • (3) World Series Titles
  • (17) All-Star Appearances
  • (1) National League MVP Award
  • 1963 National League Rookie of the Year
  • 1975 World Series MVP
  • (2) Gold Glove Awards
  • (1) Silver Slugger Award
  • 1976 Roberto Clemente Award Winner
  • Major League Baseball All-Century Team

Pete Rose is a legendary baseball player who’s best known for his years with the Cincinnati Reds, particularly their Big Red Machine squads of the 1970s. While his career statistics are easily impressive enough to name him a top player of all time, his 1989 ban from the game has barred him from Hall of Fame induction. While managing the Reds, after his playing career, he was accused of betting on baseball games, which led to his eventual ban.

To this day, Rose owns the all-time Major League Baseball record for total hits with 4,256 over his career. He’s also a 17-time All-Star, making the game at five different positions, which has never been done before or since. His two Gold Gloves were earned for his work as an outfielder. One of his most memorable All-Star Game moments came when he ran over Ray Fosse at home plate to score the game-winning run.

Charlie Hustle won a total of three World Series titles, earning the series MVP award in 1975. While he’s barred from baseball and the official Hall of Fame, Rose was inducted into the Cincinnati Reds’ Hall and had his number 14 jersey retired. He still appeals to Major League Baseball, asking for reinstatement so that he may be included on the Hall of Fame ballot. Thus far, he hasn’t had any luck.

Lou Gehrig

Year of Hall of Fame Induction: 1939

Playing Career: 1923 – 1939

Career Stats:

  • Batting Average: .340
  • Home Runs: 493
  • Hits: 2,721
  • RBIs: 1,995

Honors:

  • (6) World Series Titles
  • (7) All-Star Appearances
  • (2) American League MVP Awards
  • (1) Triple Crown
  • Major League Baseball All-Century Team
  • Major League Baseball All-Time Team

Lou Gehrig is another legendary New York Yankees player who spent the entirety of his career in the Bronx. The native New Yorker played first base for seventeen seasons, earning the nickname “the Iron Horse” due to his durability and hitting ability. As a member of both the MLB’s All-Century and All-Time Teams, Gehrig is widely considered the best first baseman of all time.

Before Cal Ripken Jr., the Iron Horse’s 2,130 consecutive games played was a Major League Baseball record, considered to be unbreakable after standing for 56 years. He also owned the career record for grand slams for over 50 years before being broken by Alex Rodriguez. Lou Gehrig was a seven-time all-star, six-time World Series winner, and two-time American League MVP before his career was cut short.

After seeing his athletic performance begin to decline, Gehrig eventually took himself out of the lineup, ending his legendary streak. He learned that he was suffering from a neuromuscular disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, an incurable illness that ultimately took his life. The ailment has been referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s” disease ever since. The Hall of Famer’s “Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth” retirement speech is one of baseball’s iconic moments.

Barry Bonds

Year of Hall of Fame Induction: N/A (Unlikely due to steroid suspicions)

Playing Career: 1986 – 2007

Career Stats:

  • Batting Average: .298
  • Home Runs: 762
  • Hits: 2,935
  • RBIs: 1,996
  • Stolen Bases: 514

Honors:

  • (7) National League MVP Awards
  • (14) All-Star Appearances
  • (12) Silver Slugger Awards
  • (3) National League Hank Aaron Awards
  • (8) Gold Glove Awards

Barry Bonds is now a controversial figure in baseball due to the rumors of steroid usage that plagued the later years of his career. Despite breaking the all-time home run record, the single-season home run record, and the record for walks and intentional walks, he’s failed to get enough Hall of Fame votes in the first six years of his eligibility. He’s part of an entire generation of players struggling to garner the votes, despite their eye-popping numbers, because of their associations with performance-enhancing drugs.

Bonds began his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he established himself early on as a talented all-around player. In his earlier years, he was both an exceptional hitter and an outfielder. In fact, he won eight Gold Glove awards in the 1990s. In 1998, he became the only player ever to hit 400 home runs and steal 400 bases, an accomplishment that has never been repeated. He has since extended his totals to over 500 of each, while no other player has yet to reach 400.

Later in his career, Barry Bonds became the most dangerous hitter in baseball. Throughout the 2000s, he set records for walks, homers, and on-base percentage. In 2001, the Giants superstar crushed 73 home runs, a single-season record that still stands. Finally, in 2007, Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s career home runs record, ultimately ending the year with 762.

Roger Clemens

Year of Hall of Fame Induction: N/A (Unlikely due to steroid suspicions)

Playing Career: 1984 – 2007

Career Stats:

  • Win-Loss Record: 354 – 184
  • ERA: 3.12
  • Strikeouts: 4,672

Honors:

  • (2) World Series Titles
  • (11) All-Star Appearances
  • (7) Cy Young Awards
  • (1) American League MVP Award
  • (2) Triple Crowns
  • Major League Baseball All-Century Team

Roger Clemens was a dominant right-handed power pitcher whose best years came with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. He played 24 Major League Baseball seasons for five different franchises. His major league career began in Boston, where Roger played his first twelve seasons and arguably recorded a Hall of Fame resume by 1996. There, he made five all-star teams, won three Cy Young awards, became the American League MVP, and lead the MLB in wins twice.

After one season with the Blue Jays, Clemens was traded to the New York Yankees. In the Bronx, he became a two-time World Series champion, winning back-to-back titles in 1999 and 2000. While still in New York, the ace recorded his 4,000th strikeout and 300th win in the same game. He retired at the end of the 2003 season, but not for long.

Without missing a season, Clemens returned from his retirement in 2004 with the Houston Astros. In his first year with his new club, Roger won his seventh Cy Young award at the age of 42. After two years in Houston, he returned to the Yankees for one last season before hanging it up for good.

Roger Clemens was named in the Mitchell Report as someone who tested positive for steroids in the past. He denied the claims and was eventually brought up on perjury charges that were ultimately thrown out after a mistrial. Regardless, the superstar pitcher has not been voted into the Hall of Fame as a result of his association with performance-enhancing drugs.

Joe DiMaggio

Year of Hall of Fame Induction: 1955

Playing Career: 1936 – 1951

Career Stats:

  • Batting Average: .325
  • Home Runs: 361
  • Hits: 2,214
  • RBIs: 1,537

Honors:

  • (9) World Series Titles
  • (13) All-Star Appearances
  • (3) American League MVP Awards
  • Major League Baseball All-Century Team

Joe DiMaggio played center field for the New York Yankees for thirteen seasons. During his relatively short career, DiMaggio’s Yankees won the American League pennant ten times and went on to capture nine World Series titles as well. He only experienced four seasons without winning the championship, making him one of baseball’s all-time winningest athletes.

In Joe’s rookie season in 1936, the slugger hit 29 home runs, a franchise record at the time. Perhaps the most impressive accomplishment attributed to the center fielder is DiMaggio’s legendary 56-game hitting streak. This record-setting streak still stands.

The Yankees legend has thirteen all-star appearances on his resume, one for every season he played. He won the American League MVP award on three separate occasions in 1939, 1941, and 1947, after returning from serving in the Air Force. Joe DiMaggio is also famous for having married Marilyn Monroe in 1954.

Greg Maddux

Year of Hall of Fame Induction: 2014

Playing Career: 1986 – 2008

Career Stats:

  • Win-Loss Record: 355 – 227
  • ERA: 3.16
  • Strikeouts: 3,371

Honors:

  • (1) World Series Title
  • (8) All-Star Appearances
  • (4) National League Cy Young Awards
  • (18) Gold Glove Awards

Greg Maddux is one of baseball’s greatest pitchers, known for his excellent control and longevity. His best years came as a member of the Atlanta Braves and Chicago Cubs. After winning his only World Series in 1995, as a member of the Braves, Maddux received his fourth consecutive Cy Young. At the time, this made him the only player ever to win four straight, although Randy Johnson eventually repeated the feat.

The Hall of Famer is the only pitcher in Major League Baseball history to win at least fifteen games in seventeen consecutive seasons. His long list of accomplishments also includes eighteen Gold Gloves, an MLB record. Furthermore, Maddux is the only pitcher with 300 wins and 3,000 strikeouts, while recording fewer than 1,000 walks.

No pitcher won more games in the 1990s than Greg Maddux. With 355 career wins, only one other pitcher has more victories since 1920: Warren Spahn. Otherwise, he’s the premier ace of the live-ball era. Maddux retired in 2008 and had his jersey retired by both the Braves and Cubs. In 2014, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame the first year he was eligible, receiving 97.2% of the vote.

In Conclusion

Major League Baseball has been the home of hundreds of incredible careers, spanning more than a century of history. Thanks to the consistency of the sport’s rules and regulations, baseball, more than any other competition, can compare players across many generations in an accurate way. Sure, there have been some changes and advancements that have impacted the game, but nothing that makes cross-generational comparisons obsolete.

The steroid era threatened to erase all of the old power-hitting statistics, but the reluctance of the Hall of Fame to induct steroid cheats and the stiff penalties eventually enacted have lessened the impact of that period somewhat. Now, the game is back to its pre-steroid days and thriving.

The players on this list would have been superstars no matter what decade in which they played. Athletes like Babe Ruth were so far ahead of their contemporaries that it’s hard even to imagine what their dominance looked like on a game-to-game basis. Perhaps the closest we’ve ever seen was Barry Bonds’ 2001 campaign that saw him launch 73 homers in a single season.

While you can always argue about who should be included in a “greatest of all time” list, especially with only fifteen spots, it’s undeniable that every athlete mentioned in this article was a unique generational talent. These men are responsible for some of the most impressive records and remarkable achievements baseball has ever seen. Old or young, banned from the Hall of Fame or not, their legacies will live on to inspire and influence up-and-coming players for years to come. They will always be integral parts of the overall story of Major League Baseball.