Baseball’s Greatest Players II: First Basemen

This is the second in a series of articles dealing with baseball’s greatest players, position by position, culminating in an overall list of the greatest ever. For the most part, they will be top-ten type lists — though they may be shorter (if there aren’t enough “great” players) or longer (if there is a logjam of “great” players).

lou gehrigI will say if the player is in the Hall of Fame, list any major awards the player won and provide their key stats. All stats and awards were obtained from Baseball Reference. A couple of notes about the stats — they will include their total offensive numbers, not just stats for their main position (for example, Yogi Berra’s stats include his batting stats when he played left field and first base); any stats in italics mean they were the leader in that category out of the players in the list and players will be listed for the position they are most known for (for example, Pete Rose played the most games in the outfield as a whole, but he played the most games there in left , so he will be included there, however, Ernie Banks, though he played the most games at first, is recognized as a shortstop because that is where he had his best seasons). At the end, I will then describe any reasoning behind my choices regarding their actual ranking.

Only two caveats to my lists:

The players have to actually be retired. They cannot be unsigned players who haven’t officially retired yet (i.e. Pedro, Bonds, Clemens etc).

Sorry, but no Negro League players will be on these lists unless they had long-term MLB service (any records or stats from the Negro Leagues are “questionable” at best due to the record keeping: i.e. Josh Gibson’s HR totals).
We covered the greatest catchers last time, so this time it’s the first basemen’s turn. What makes a great first baseman? Defense? How about hitting power? It really depends on the era the player was a part of. Early on, defense in a first baseman was key, but over time, teams started looking for more and more offensive production leading to today’s game in which a balance of power, the ability to get on base and a decent glove is coveted but hard to find.

There have been some truly great first basemen in baseball’s history as you’ll see. On to the rankings:

1.    Lou Gehrig: HOF – 2 MVPs (and 6 other top-5 finishes), 7 time All-Star, 1 Major League Batting Triple Crown, 2164 games, .340 batting average, .447 OBP, .632 Slugging %, 493 HRs, 1995 RBIs, 2721 Hits, 1888 Runs, 1508 BBs and 790 Ks.
Jimmie Foxx

2.    Jimmie Foxx: HOF – 3 MVPs (and 1 other top-5 finish), 9 time All-Star, 1 American League Batting Triple Crown, 2317 games, .325 batting average, .428 OBP, .609 Slugging %, 534 HRs, 1922 RBIs, 2646 Hits, 1751 Runs, 1452 BBs and 1311 Ks.

3.    Hank Greenberg: HOF – 2 MVPs (and 2 other top-5 finishes), 4 time All-Star, 1394 games, .313 batting average, .412 OBP, .605 Slugging %, 331 HRs, 1276 RBIs, 1628 Hits, 1051 Runs, 852 BBs and 844 Ks.

4.    Harmon Killebrew: HOF – 1 MVP (and 5 other top-5 finishes), 11 time All-Star, 2435 games, .256 batting average, .376 OBP, .509 Slugging %, 573 HRs, 1584 RBIs, 2086 Hits, 1283 Runs, 1559 BBs and 1699 Ks.

5.    Willie McCovey: HOF – 1 MVP (and 1 other top-5 finish), 1 ROY, 6 time All-Star, 2588 games, .270 batting average, .374 OBP, .515 Slugging %, 521 HRs, 1555 RBIs, 2211 Hits, 1229 Runs, 1345 BBs and 1550 Ks.

6.    Eddie Murray: HOF – 6 top-5 MVP finishes, 1 ROY, 8 time All-Star, 3 Gold Gloves, 3 Silver Sluggers, 3026 games, .287 batting average, .359 OBP, .476 Slugging %, 504 HRs, 1917 RBIs, 3255 Hits, 1627 Runs, 1333 BBs and 1516 Ks.

7.    Johnny Mize: HOF – 4 top-5 MVP finishes, 10 time All-Star, 1884 games, .312 batting average, .397 OBP, .562 Slugging %, 359 HRs, 1337 RBIs, 2011 Hits, 1118 Runs, 856 BBs and 524 Ks.

8.    Mark McGwire: 3 top-5 MVP finishes, 1 ROY, 12 time All-Star, 1 Gold Glove, 3 Silver Sluggers, 1874 games, .263 batting average, .394 OBP, .588 Slugging %, 583 HRs, 1414 RBIs, 1626 Hits, 1167 Runs, 1317 BBs and 1596 Ks.

Honorable Mention: Jeff Bagwell, Roger Connor, Steve Garvey, Mark Grace, Keith Hernandez, Don Mattingly, George Sisler

Will/may be on this list someday: Todd Helton, Albert Pujols, Frank Thomas and Jim Thome

What more can be said about Lou Gehrig that hasn’t been said over the last sixty years? Can you imagine the stats he would have put up if he didn’t get sick? He was on pace for almost 700 home runs, 4000 hits and 2500 RBIs. He easily would have put himself into discussion of “greatest baseball player ever”.

Jimmie Foxx was a tremendous player as well. He falls just short in key categories in comparison to Lou Gehrig even though he played longer. Like Gehrig, Foxx was a consistent Triple Crown threat.

Hank Greenberg will always have a big question surrounding his career; what kind of numbers could he have put up if he didn’t miss time serving in the military? He missed most of five seasons due to serving in the military. Hard to play the “what if” game, but in Hank’s case, the what-ifs results in him being just behind Gehrig and Foxx.

AlbertPujolsHRThe remaining people on the list were either too “one dimensional” as players or had short careers and could almost be put into any order depending on personal preference. Killebrew, McCovey and McGwire had high HR totals, but low batting averages. Eddie Murray was close to being a “compiler” due to his longevity. Mize just didn’t play long enough due to military service as well (although it was only two years, compared to almost five for Greenberg) and because of that his numbers fall short in some categories to be moved higher.

So, what do you think? Do you have a problem with the order? Did I leave someone off? If so, let me know. Don’t just say “you left off so-and-so” — give me a good explanation of why they belong and where in the order they belong. If you present a good enough case, I just might add them to the list.

An update to the greatest catchers list: Added Ernie Lombardi and Gabby Hartnett to the Honorable Mention list based on suggestions/comments of the readers.

Submitted 5/18/2009

— Comment from the Original Posting

I must be losing my mind…I seem to remember a first baseman who, when he retired from baseball, held more Major League and National League records than anyone who’d ever played the game; yet, he’s not on your list of greatest first basemen. Is my recollection of Stan Musial only a figment of my imagination? Am I losing it?

Do you really believe Mark McGwire was a better first baseman than Musial? Compare Musial’s triples to McGwire; how about strikeouts? batting average? In 1948 Musial was one home run shy of winning the Triple Crown; how close did McGwire get to winning that award?

No, I’m not a McGwire hater. No I do not think he should be banished from the HOF for alleged PED use. On the other hand, I don’t think he’s a HOF’er, but, then in my opinion neither is Drysdale, Dean, Ruizzto (sic): and no Ron Santo is not a candidate either, or Ken Boyer whose stats are equal to or greater than Santo’s.

~~Doug

*Response*

Musial was a left fielder for my purposes (most games played at the position). He is in the HOF as a LF and played 1890 games in the OF, 375 of which at LF. While he played more games at 1st than LF, he played more games in the OF than 1st and most of his awards came in the OF. And Musial will be listed as 2nd best LF behind only Ted Williams.

~~Rich

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