More than any other all-American sport, baseball has ties to some of the earliest years of the USA. This means baseball has no shortage of superstars to draw from, with the most famous becoming household names even if you’ve never seen a baseball game.
Here we’ll be going through the top ten baseball players, and not just of the season or the decade, but of all time. Like any good sport, baseball is a team effort, but we’re looking at the best individual baseball players over players that are valuable assets to their team. These stars are generally agreed upon but, as always, everyone’s ranking order will be different depending on your standards and which of their performance stats you think are more important. What’s really important is, these are the guys that are generally agreed to be the best of the best.
Before we get into the list, it’s best that we touch base and establish how we’re judging each player. Below we’ve written out our thought process when making this list, so even if you disagree you can understand how we ranked these stars.
Here are the stats we paid attention to when ranking these players, and we’ve also used this opportunity to address some other questions that you may have about the players we’ve chosen to feature in this list.
There’s only so much that numbers can capture about a player but, when you’re talking about the best, you’ll need to start taking measurements. The typical stats are useful, like the number of wins, hits, and home runs, though there are more in-depth numbers that the best analysts crunch. These are statistics like a player’s weighted on-base advantage, or their runs created, or their adjusted OPS or ERA. Fielding independent pitching is also a factor where appropriate, as wins above replacement.
These are all valid metrics by which to judge a player as established in sabermetrics, a field that seeks to objectively measure the performance of baseball players by looking at certain statistics during a player’s career. Check out the linked page to see a rundown of what sabermetrics is and why many analysts swear by it to critique baseball players.
When relevant, we’ll also bring in certain cultural factors and historical contexts that may have helped or hindered a player during their baseball career, but we have kept this to a minimum since we want to be as objective as possible.
As we’ve mentioned already, we’re looking at individual players. Talking about the best baseball teams, and the players that contribute to the greatness of those teams would be a different and much longer list than ours. There’s no doubt that teams benefited from having some of these greats among them, just as there’s no doubt some of the greats could only perform their best thanks to their unsung teammates who enabled them to shine, but we’re looking at the superstars who broke records and redefined the game.
Peak and Longevity
Greatness isn’t being a flash in the pan, the best players are those who are able to deliver consistent performances that make them worthy of being one of the top prospects around. That said, you don’t exactly hit superstar status by slowly but surely building a reliable record, either. It’s a marathon and not a sprint, for sure, but the truth is that you need both that sharp rise and that slow, consistent performance behind it to hit the greats’ levels.
It's a delicate balancing act, as you can imagine, and so many players like Sandy Koufax and Pete Rose have missed this list because their stats didn’t quite measure up. You can find many examples of players who had short but intense primes in their careers, as well as durable and consistent mainstays who have proven they definitely know what they’re doing, but it’s the ideal mix of both shocking highs and consistent performances that make a superstar.
Focus on the MLB
This article has a heavy focus on American baseball players and, more specifically, the Major League Baseball organization. When talking about the best players in any sport, there are always going to be exceptions that have stayed out of the spotlight for multiple reasons. There are a host of talented and famous baseball players all around the world, so why are we focusing on those who have reached Major League Baseball?
There are two main reasons. First, MLB is an American organization and, as mentioned, baseball is most popular in the United States. More American baseball players mean a higher percentage of the greats will be affiliated with American institutions, and the greats almost always find their way into the Major League.
The second is more practical, which is that sabermetrics has been applied to superstar MLB players more than international ones since there’s much more data available to analyze without having to worry about language barriers or non-standard methods of recording a player’s performance.
This inability to compare certain talent metrics is also why some players from the Negro Southern League and other similar Negro leagues from the segregation-era USA didn’t quite make it, but we can certainly give honorable mentions to players like Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige who reached the MLB during their challenging careers. You can find more information about why Negro leagues shied away from MLB integration, and how this so-called “color line” was finally broken, in this Library of Congress piece about Jackie Robinson, the first player to break the line.
For international players, you can find a hall of fame as far east as Japan, so there’s no shortage of great players that didn’t quite make this list if you go looking for them. Japan in particular has its own baseball culture that was fostered after the acquisition of three Japanese players into the San Francisco Giants in 1964, the most notable among them being Masanori Murakami.
Which Stars Are Eligible?
Since we just mentioned the segregated leagues, it’s worth detailing which stars are eligible so that there’s no confusion. Across baseball’s history, there have been three main issues that could be disqualifying factors today, steroid use, amphetamine use, and segregation. We’ve already covered how comparing segregated leagues with MLB superstars is a difficult task, and even when players from the Negro leagues hit the MLB, they rarely ranked in a top 10 list.
The problem with performance-enhancing drugs is that it is a rabbit hole. When making any judgments on players from different time periods, it’s inevitable that there is a factor in their personal life that contributes to their success, often one that can be unavailable or even shunned by the modern players. This means that a blanket approach is usually the best, where we can celebrate each player within their own historical context instead of picking and choosing based on drug abstinence.
We’re going by the metrics here, so if a player is one of the best in a time when most baseball players were on steroids, then they’re going on the list. It would be unfair to not include them since steroids weren’t a prohibited substance in the MLB when some players were taking them. That said, we will absolutely tell you if performance-enhancing drugs are confirmed to have been involved in a player’s record.
With all that covered, you hopefully now understand what we’re looking for in these superstars, so even if you find yourself disagreeing with our breakdown, you can understand and appreciate how we came to our different conclusions.
10 OF THE BEST BASEBALL PLAYERS OF ALL TIME
10. MICKEY MANTLE
Here we’ve got Mickey Mantle, also called The Commerce Comet or, more simply, The Mick. Over his career with the New York Yankees, Mickey Mantle played as a center and a right fielder as well as a first baseman, and he’s remembered as being arguably the greatest switch hitter in the entirety of baseball history. This is a lofty claim, but he is on this list for a reason. Mantle was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974 and then to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team in 1999, four years after his death in 1995.
So, what makes Mantle so special? Well, he was notoriously offensive as a center fielder, which is a good start when trying to put on a memorable performance, but he also has the sabermetrics to back his place up. Over his career, Mantle nursed a 17.5 walk percentage and hit 536 home runs over his career, 290 of them being blasted.
By the end of his career, he achieved three Wins Above Replacement campaigns that hit double digits. He also got three MVP trophies, and no, they weren’t related to those three WAR campaigns, so we know he was a consistent team player as well as being an impressive slugger in his own right.
So, why is he at the top (which is to say, the bottom) of our list? Well, Mantle failed in 17.3% of his plate appearances in a time when that was much more of an embarrassment. In 1961, he only had a 10.5 rWAR and in 1962 he had a 5.9 rWAR, diminished due to defense. Despite this, in 1961 Mantle was second in MVP votes but, in ’61 with that diminished rWAR? He won.
Other metrics show some failings throughout his career, mainly his shortcomings with a baseball glove, but it cannot be denied that his presence and ability to deliver rousing performances brought him to superstardom, which is half the battle when trying to edge your way into the annals of baseball history, not that Mantle himself knew at the time. In the end, he registered On-base Plus Slugging Plus (OPS+) of 172, 72 whole points above the league average.
If you’re still not sold on his place at this list, consider this: he played a lot of his career with a torn ACL.
9. LOU GEHRIG
You’ve heard of this guy, and sadly so much for his achievements with baseball. Let’s get Lou Gehrig’s personal and professional history out of the way before getting into sabermetrics. He mainly played as a first baseman, but he quickly became renowned for his abilities as a hitter. This earned him the nickname of “The Iron Horse.”
If his name recognition in mainstream society hasn’t tipped you off, Lou Gehrig raised such awareness around ALS with his swift and untimely death that most people only know ALS as Lou Gehrig’s Disease to this day.
It’s clear to see how the tragedy of Lou Gehrig’s life contributed to his superstardom, but did he have the metrics to back it up?
He racked up 493 home runs in his relatively short career in baseball, boasting a .340 batting average, a .447 on-base average, and a .632 slugging average. 29 of those home runs were scored in his final season in the stadium, where he hit a .295 batting average and a .523 slugging percentage. Over his short career, he had 2,130 consecutive games tucked under his belt, and part of his greatness is from wondering what he’d have gone on to achieve had he not died so young.
8. TY COBB
Ty Cobb was an outfielder who, while scoring ahead of Gehrig on our list, drew the short straw in the nickname game after he came to be known as “The Georgia Peach.” Unfortunately, the most standout details of Cobb’s personal life would come about after his death in 1961. It’s a source of controversy, but it’s claimed that he would sharpen his spikes so that he could hurt opponents when he slid, and that he had a racist streak that was even uncommon for the time in which he lived.
In the interest of impartiality, most of these claims surfaced after his death and without evidence, a point which could lend itself towards smears when the man wasn’t around to defend himself. It’s not likely the truth will come to light, and it isn’t our position to come down on any side, so we’ll settle for honoring his playing record and leave his personal life to trivia bloggers.
As far as his metrics and accolades are concerned, how does the first-ever Baseball Hall of Famer sound? He also received an uncharacteristically high percentage of the votes at 98.2%, which was 222 out of 226 at the time, a record that wouldn’t be beaten until 1992. He also had the highest batting average in MLB history with a .366 score, as well as second in triples with 295 and fourth in his stolen bases count at 897. How couldn’t we feature him on this list?
Yes, the Georgia Peach did quite well for himself in the stadium. He stayed consistent with his quality performances, too, starting with a .240 batting average spread across 41 games. When all was said and done, he never dropped below .316 despite having an admirable career of 23 seasons. As of the 2019 season, he still has other records in his name like the most batting titles at 12, and the records he did lose, like most career hits or runs, he held for about 50 years before losing.
7. WALTER JOHNSON
Walter Johnson, otherwise known as “Barney” or “The Big Train,” played for the Washington Senators from 1907 to 1927, and mostly as a right-handed pitcher. He was good enough to become a coach for the Senators following his retirement from the game and later managed the Cleveland Indians in the ‘30s. There are other superstar pitchers out there who might have made this list, but Walter Johnson’s longevity edged out the competition and secured him as number seven on our list.
So, what about his metrics? As of 1919, Johnson had an Earned Run Average (ERA) of 1.65, backed up by a Fielding Independent Pitching score of 1.86. Up to this point, Johnson has secured 297 victories for the Washington Senators, making him one of their aces. That ERA crept up by the end of his career. After tackling 320 innings, it hit 1.90 until his streak finally ended with a 2.21 after seven straight seasons. His final ERA+ sat at a 147.
Walter Johnson is so old school that he won the MVP award back when it was still called the Chalmers Award, and he won it twice. He’s also one of the only pitchers to rack up 300 strikeouts in just one season. He remains second in wins with 417 and fourth in his number of games completed at 531. What he is the first and only player to do, however, is finish over 100 shutouts, making him the all-time career leader for that.
6. STAN MUSIAL
Stan Musial is next up, an outfielder and first baseman for mostly saw action with the St. Louis Cardinals, where he sported the nickname “Stan the Man.” An interesting part of his life, which also factors into his metrics, is the fact that he enlisted in the US Navy in 1945, where he worked in a Ship Repair Unit Team in Hawaii to retrieve damaged ships. That kind of placement left him with plenty of downtime where he solidified his skills as a power hitter. As you can imagine, the Hawaii area was abuzz after the events of 1941, and so he tried focusing on home runs to please the crowds that would form whenever the military men would play.
He was honorably discharged in 1946, where he went right back into baseball and was later given the Navy Memorial’s Lone Sailor Award in 2007.
He had a really long life, dying only in 2013 at the age of 92. Some of his accomplishments, in both baseball and as a citizen that served in the Navy, are documented here in this transcript of when a bridge was named after him.
So, what good did all that navy practice get Stan? He scored 475 home runs left-handed, not counting the ones he pulled off during his military service, of course.
He had 725 doubles, meaning he sits pretty at number three for the MLB’s all-time doubles rankings, and he hit with a .331 batting average, a .559 slugging percentage, and a .417 on-base percentage. Many have speculated that he would have ranked even higher if he hadn’t missed the 1945 season by joining the US Navy, but we can’t fault a man for serving.
He returned with a vengeance in 1948, however, with an increased .376 batting average, .702 slugging percentage, and a .450 on-base percentage. This ‘48 season saw him hit 39 home runs and achieve a Win Above Replacement of 11.1. Before that season’s MVP campaign, he was far shy of twenty long balls and, picking up the slack, he would score ten in one great prime.
5. TED WILLIAMS
Ted Williams played baseball as a left fielder for the Boston Red Sox and would later become a baseball manager. Ted collected many nicknames, like “Teddy Ballgame,” “The Kid,” and “The Splendid Splinter.” Like Musial, his baseball career was interrupted for service in both World War II and the Korean War, in both the Navy and the Marine Corps. He was angered at this draft into the Korean War and, when he was leaving Fenway Park had a “Ted Williams Day” celebration where they showered him with gifts from wounded veterans and a book containing 400,000 fan signatures, singing Auld Lang Syne to his farewell. Williams died in 2002 of cardiac arrest, and two of his children decided to have his remains cryonically frozen. This conflicted with some will information that his eldest daughter had, sparking a legal battle and increased awareness of the field of cryonics.
Before we get into some metrics, it should be said that Ted Williams is often mentioned alongside Babe Ruth as one of the most competent hitters in the game.
Babe Ruth himself was reported to have acknowledged this in Fenway Park, 1943, where he told Williams, “you remind me a lot of myself. I love to hit. You’re one of the most natural ballplayers I’ve ever seen. And if my record is broken, I hope you’re the one to do it.”
The most comprehensive reporting of this is from Williams’ biography, though we have photographic evidence that the meeting did take place. In total batting average, Ted Williams eclipses Ruth with a .344, and he has the best on-base percentage of .482. He had a 20.6 walk rate elite, impressive even nowadays, and it’s widely thought that if he hadn’t been interrupted to go to war, he’d have exceeded 3,000 hits with 600 of them being home runs. His season rates stayed consistently above a .315 batting average and he finished his career with a 1960 performance of .316 batting average, .645 slugging percentage, and a .451 on-base percentage. He won two MVP awards in ’46 and ’49, before landing a coveted Hall of Fame recognition in ’66.
4. WILLIE MAYS
Willie Mays, or “The Say Hey Kid,” is a center fielder for the New York, and later San Francisco, Giants. Mays got his start in the Negro leagues before being scouted for Minor, and eventually Major, leagues. Like many baseball stars at the time, Mays was also called to serve in the Korean War in 1952 and ’53. His time was well-spent, however, since he may have missed upwards of 266 games because of his service, but his peaceful station at Fort Eustis meant he had ample time to practice.
Mays is renowned as being the best well-rounded player, a great representation of what an on-paper perfect player would be. His combination of power, contact, and defense when playing saw talent scouts vying for him very early in his career, making advancement inevitable. In the total rankings, Mays racked up 660 home runs and a .302 batting average, as well as a 156 OPS+.
He performed consistently well after returning to the stadium in 1954, only dropping the ball in 1967 where he still finished with an OPS+ value of 124. He played 2,992 games in total, though his later games for the New York Mets couldn’t hold a candle to his performances when he was a younger and stronger man, there’s no use in holding a man accountable for aging.
He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1979, and the Hall of Fame accolades didn’t stop there, being inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, the California Hall of Fame by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the African-American Ethnic Sports Hall of Fame in 2010. Unlike many of the players we’ve covered on this list so far, Mays is alive and kicking at 89 years of age, as of the writing of this article. In fact, he’s still involved with fundraising for his charity, the Say Hey Foundation, which promotes youth baseball and has invested into the Birmingham community he got his start in.
3. HANK AARON
Henry Aaron, also known as Hank or, less officially, “Hammer” or “Hammerin’ Hank,” has a lot of similarities to Willie Mays in how his career progressed. He appeared in the Negro American League briefly until appearing on the MLB scene, playing with the Indianapolis Clowns for the first part of his career, where the team faced overt racism from diners and other businesses. There he had a .366 batting average across 26 Negro league games before being snapped up by the Boston Braves. At the time, he also had a proposition for the New York Giants which, if he had accepted, would have placed him in the same team as Willie Mays. If his nicknames didn’t tip you off, Hank wasn’t known for being balanced like Mays, instead of packing an impressive 755 home runs into his baseball career. After hitting the Major league, Hank would be followed by his younger brother Tommie Aaron.
Hank had a career .305 batting average and a 155 OPS+, and he’s the only player to achieve a strikeout percentage below 10.0 from the twenty or so players ever to exceed 534 long balls. He only just hit beneath the 10.0 cap though, at 9.9. His longevity as a player is largely the reason, he’s made it so far up this list. It’s difficult to be a power hitter who can consistently deliver, and as his career went on Hank’s tally of home runs would decrease. His tally would plateau at 47, lowering to 24 between 1955 and 1973.
Despite this, he would prove to be a popular player, finishing third on the National League MVP 1957 ballot not once, or twice, or three times, but six times. Hank had a career .305 batting average and a 155 OPS+, and he’s the only player to achieve a strikeout percentage below 10.0 from the twenty or so players ever to exceed 534 long balls. He only just hit beneath the 10.0 cap though, at 9.9. His longevity as a player is largely the reason, he’s made it so far up this list. It’s difficult to be a power hitter who can consistently deliver, and as his career went on Hank’s tally of home runs would decrease. His tally would plateau at 47, lowering to 24 between 1955 and 1973. Despite this, he would prove to be a popular player, finishing third on the National League MVP 1957 ballot not once, or twice, or three times, but six times.
He represented the National League for twenty-five years, playing as an elite slugger the entire time. Hank Aaron is still alive today at 86 years old and is known to go to Cleveland Browns games while in disguise, so he doesn’t get recognized.
2. BARRY BONDS
Barry Bonds is one of the younger members of this list, having been born in 1964 and still alive and healthy today at 56. He’s known for his time with the Pittsburgh Pirates and the San Francisco Giants, where he played a total of 22 seasons as mostly a left fielder. He’s a polarizing figure in baseball, and you’ll see why soon, but for now, let’s dig into his metrics.
Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s record by hitting 73 home runs in 2001 alone, a record that would then get broken the next year… by himself. His home run tally sagged to 46 but he finished the season with a .370 batting average, a .799 slugging percentage, and a .582 on-base percentage. Pitchers walked him almost 200 times, a number he’d exceed in 2004 with 232. At his best season, he has an adjusted OPS+ of 268. So, what’s the problem?
The problem is that Bonds’ career isn’t untarnished, since he has been implicated in baseball’s steroids scandal. He was indicted on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice during the BALCO investigations, but the charges were all dropped or overturned. Bonds became eligible for the National Hall of Fame in 2013, hitting 60% of the required 75% of positive votes in 2020, the 8th of his 10 years of eligibility. Voters have been reluctant to accept him because of his involvement with the steroid scandal.
An argument against this is that he was a great baseball player before he became the terrific slugger that he ended his career as, which was to some evidence that he only used performance-enhancing drugs in the last years of his career as he got older.
1. BABE RUTH
You probably saw this coming, and he has already been mentioned as one of the greats in this article when we were talking about Ted Williams, but it can only be Babe Ruth who takes the number one spot for the best baseball player of all time. Nicknamed “The Bambino” and “The Sultan of Swat.” There is a reason for the hype that surrounded Babe Ruth and still surrounds his legacy to this day. He’s one of the greatest sportsmen in American culture, and because of that, he’s known internationally as one of the names that come to mind whenever someone thinks of baseball. He was around for the inception of the Baseball Hall of Fame, too, is one of the five inaugural members alongside some familiar names like Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson.
Otherwise, his personal life was humble for a man who has achieved such a high status.
He had a testy relationship with Lou Gehrig, mainly from a misunderstanding involving female family members, but they reconciled at Yankee Stadium after Gehrig’s retirement in 1939. As mentioned, he was also a fan of Ted Williams and had hoped that if somebody beat his records, it would be Ted.
So, what made Babe Ruth’s career so great? He started with the Boston Red Sox in 1914 as a left-handed pitcher, a far cry from the slugging fame he’d gain later. Following the start of World War I where many baseball players were drafted, Ruth saw an opportunity to get another position on the team. In 1919, he hit 29 home runs in a season, breaking Ned Williamson’s record. He was promptly sold to the New York Yankees for $100,000, the largest sum ever paid for a baseball player. This purchase seemed to be well worth it, however, when he hit 54 home runs in 1920 when no one around him could exceed 20.
In the next decades that followed, Ruth would send 602 balls long where everyone else struggled to hit 300. In the earliest days of modern baseball, Babe Ruth made a name for himself by doing everything more than the average player, and it paid off in dividends. He joined the Boston Braves in 1935 and, when all was said and done, he had 714 home runs to his name. According to multiple sites that calculate sabermetrics, they have him at a .342 batting average, a .474 on-base percentage, and a .690 slugging percentage. He consistently ranks first for WAR and OPS+. He also has a 2.28 ERA across 1,221.1 innings.
There’s a debate with fans over whether Ruth would ever have made a list if he had stayed a pitcher and his manager not been talked into letting him bat. He’s certainly not the most well-rounded player, we’ve already covered Willie Mays, but Ruth was the right man with the right swing at the right time, and his groundbreaking performances inspired many of the players who would take their place at lower positions on this list.
And that’s all she wrote, using sabermetrics and some attention paid to their cultural significance, we’ve ranked ten of the best baseball players of all time. Or at least, for now of all time, but we don’t doubt there’ll be a space set aside to remember all of these men for as long as the sport is played. We’re already seeing modern superstars like Mike Trout, who the sabermetrician communities are all keeping a watchful eye on, emerge as a possible contender for any one of these top ten spots, so who do you think has to watch their back?
Either way, we’ve demonstrated that even when primarily basing your decision off of metrics, you’ll end up with a wide variety of players in your top player list, from heavy hitters like Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and, quite controversially, Barry Bonds, to more versatile players like Mickey Mantle, Walter Johnson, and Willie Mays.
Whether you agree with the rankings or not, it’s interesting to see how each player’s environment may have contributed to their records. Between all of these men’s careers, we have a map of the 20th Century and all of the struggles each generation of players had to face up against. Players like Hank and Mays had to start out in separate Negro leagues and still faced racism after entering the Major leagues, while others had to deal with the outbreak of war.
Mays, like Ted Williams and Stan Musial, and some who didn’t make this list like Joe DiMaggio and Jackie Robinson, were drafted into either World War II or the Korean War and lost valuable seasons that could have seen them hit the top three spots if they had not been interrupted. Others, like Lou Gehrig, had their careers tragically cut short altogether, with many sabermetricians arguing that Gehrig could have rivaled Ruth himself if he had maintained a consistent performance over a long career, and longer lifetime.
Sabermetricians are no strangers to those kinds of what-if games, but we’ll have to respect the metrics as they stand and remember each man’s contribution to the sport for what it was, for better or worse.
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