Saturday, June 03, 2006

Greatest Baseball Player Of All

You can’t pick a greatest football player of all time. In football your body has to fit your very specialized position. That is why Joe Montana is the greatest quarterback of all time, but he wouldn’t last one snap as a defensive tackle. Similarly, Jerry Rice is the greatest wide receiver, and Ronnie Lott is the greatest (fill in defensive back position). Bill Walsh is the greatest coach.

Now that we’ve got those out of the way…In football you play offense, or you play defense. The only baseball positions that are remotely similar to football's specialization are the twin American League abominations, pitchers who don’t bat, and hitters who don't field. Now if I could figure out a way to gripe about professional basketball stars not being called for traveling with the ball, I think I will have covered most of my major sports soapbox items.

Which brings me to the greatest baseball player of all time. I’m going to go way out on a limb and declare – it’s a tie! A tie between Babe Ruth and Willie Mays. Babe Ruth is by far the dominant baseball player of all time. Until Barry Bonds hit home run number 715, the Babe had been either first or second in total home runs for 85 years. The only reason the Babe is not still the greatest home run hitter of all time is that he had five very good years pitching for the Red Sox before his powerful hitting forced the issue, and he was made an outfielder to have his bat in the lineup every day. During Babe Ruth’s first five years with the Red Sox, he had roughly 1500 fewer at bats than he would have had as an every day player. For his career, the Babe hit a home run every 11.8 times at bat. In an extra 1500 at bats, at that rate he would have hit another 127 home runs, for a career total of 841, or 86 more that Hank Aaron. Cut his production rate in half, and he still would have hit another 63 for a career total of 777, still 22 more than Aaron.

Babe Ruth was not only a home run hitter, he also hit for a career .342 batting average, the 7th best of all time. The man barely ahead of him, in 6th place, is Ted Williams. For another comparison, singles hitter Pete Rose had a .303 lifetime average, just ahead of power hitter Willie Mays .302.

How good a pitcher was the Babe? Lifetime he had 94 wins against 46 losses, a 0.671 win/loss record which is the 12th best for all time. His lifetime earned run average (ERA) was 2.28, the 15th best of all time. He was undefeated in three pitching starts in two World Series for the Red Sox. The Babe was a workhorse pitcher. In two seasons, 1916 and 1917, he was at the top in the American League for games started and innings pitched. In 1918 and 1919, he led the league in home runs each year while still pitching.

I picked Willie Mays for the lowest position possible on the best ever list, tied for first with the Babe. There is no way Willie could ever be second to anyone. When I evaluated the Babe, I had to go to the statistics pages, and old news reports. But I didn’t have to do that to size up Willie. I saw him play.

The first time was on television, the World Series of 1954 against the Cleveland Indians. Brother Ron and I were home from Point Arena Elementary School for lunch. The school grounds started only twenty-five yards across School Street (Highway 1) from our house, so it was not a challenge to be home for lunch every day. We had just bought our first television set, a Packard-Bell black and white set. We got one channel, the NBC station channel 4 (KRON) from San Francisco. It was rumored there were two other television stations, CBS channel 5 (KPIX) and ABC channel 7 (KGO). We sometimes could see just enough on Channel 5 to get interested in a show, but we couldn’t see it well enough to understand what happened.

My late first wife Marilynn, who lived eight miles south of Point Arena, told me that they got all three channels crystal clear. I confirmed that, beginning in 1958, when we started going steady, and I spent many hours watching shows on her family’s TV sets – for the New Year's Day bowl games we would set three TV sets side by side, so we could watch all the games – that no one in Point Arena (except Dutch Schrock, whose rhombic antenna was strung between four sixteen-foot poles on an acre of pasture land) ever saw.

Please excuse the historical digression. Mom, Ron and I sat down on the couch in the living room to eat our lunches and watch the World Series. Almost immediately we saw a prodigious smash to center field off the bat of Vic Wertz, and Willie Mays racing back after it. We saw the catch, the spinning stop and throw back to the infield, and agreed among ourselves that Willie had made a pretty good play. It wasn’t until we heard and read the commentary of experienced sports reporters that we realized just how great Willie’s play had been.

Later, when the Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958, we finally got Mom to go with us for our first trip to San Francisco. Since we moved to Point Arena if 1949, Mom had never gone south on Highway 1 past Stewarts Point, a distance of about 25 miles. We saw the Giants lose 4-3 to the Chicago Cubs in Seals Stadium on a late home run by Lee Walls. During the next four years, I saw Willie play several times at Seals Stadium, and later in Candlestick Park, and I spent many happy hours “watching” the games on my transistor radio. I never saw Willie playing more clearly than when I listened to the games on the radio.

I guess when I say Willie tied the Babe for the greatest ever, I should add a few statistics. One is that Willie spent most of his career playing half of his games each season in Candlestick Park, one of the most unfriendly parks in the majors to right handed power hitters, and yet his home runs to at-bats ratio of 16.5 is only 0.1 behind Hank Aaron’s 16.4, and Aaron played in two of the most homer friendly parks in the majors, County Stadium, Milwaukee, and Fulton County Stadium, Atlanta. Willie also lost almost two full seasons in 1952 and 1953, during the prime of his athletic abilities, when he was drafted into the Army.

Of course, even if Willie hadn’t been one of the greatest hitters in baseball, he would still have been on the field because of his outstanding defensive skills. He was awarded twelve Golden Gloves, but even the Golden Gloves don’t tell the story of how good he was. Almost every year that he patrolled center field, the Giants flanked him with hard-hitting defensive liabilities: Leon Wagner, Willie Kirkland, Orlando Cepeda or Willie McCovey. Depending on whether Orlando or Willie played first base, the other got left field. So Willie covered his territory, and most of theirs.

Sometimes Willie played so shallow that he might have been mistaken for an infielder. During pre-game warm ups Willie would often play around at shortstop, and he looked better taking the grounders and making the throws than most of the Giant’s real shortstops. With his cannon arm, and encyclopedic knowledge of opposing batters, he probably would have been a great pitcher, too.

Willie’s head for baseball reminds me of Joe Montana’s head for football. I have no idea what either of their IQ’s are, and it makes no difference, because when they were on the field, they had more “game smarts” by far than any other player out there with them. Willie was really fast, too. He stole 338 bases, and could have doubled or tripled his total if he wanted. But almost every steal he made was a brilliant strategic move. Willie batted third most of his career, and if he had stolen bases indiscriminately, he would have taken the bats out of the hands of good power hitters like the aforementioned Cepeda, McCovey, and others. So to me it seemed that Willie stole bases when it was the most exciting and daring thing to do, and when it could turn a game upside down in the Giant’s favor. He would drive infielders and pitchers to distraction with his antics on the basepaths, and then when he was making a play in the outfield he could fake a runner to stop before he should, or keep running when he should have stopped.

So there you have it. You can take it to the bank. One of the fundamental truths of this and of preceding and subsequent generations has been established. Willie and the Babe, forever number one.

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