25 Greatest Players in Major League Baseball History
This list is written mostly in chronological order—according to the dates of players' careers—since it is not the intent of the author to crown MLB’s greatest player—and it only includes retired players. No statistics for post-season play are included in the totals, either. Also, most of the players included on this compilation have been inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame, though not all of them.
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1. Cy Young (1890 to 1911)
Won and Loss Record: 511 - 315
Complete Games: 749
Nickname: Cy, short for cyclone
Most baseball fans know that MLB’s Cy Young Award is named after Cy Young, the pitcher with the most lifetime victories (511) in MLB history. Of course, Young pitched during a time when starting pitchers often pitched complete games, even during both games of a doubleheader; some pitched more than 300 or 400 innings per season as well. Famously, Young threw so hard the ball put holes in fences, making them look as if they’d been hit by a cyclone. Notably, in 1903, during MLB’s first World Series, Young, pitching for the Boston Red Sox, threw the series’ first pitch; he also threw the first perfect game in American League history in 1904; and during that same year he pitched 25.1 innings without allowing a hit, still a MLB record.
2. Honus Wagner (1897 – 1917)
Batting average: .329
Stolen bases: 722
Nickname: The Flying Dutchman
One of the greatest hitting infielders ever, Honus Wagner, playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates, was an eight-time National League batting champion, a career record only matched by Tony Gwynn in 1997. Wagner played all infield positions and right field too. In 1900, maybe Wagner’s greatest season, he hit .381 (his highest seasonal average) with an OPS of 1.007, and hit 45 doubles, 22 triples and knocked in 100 runs (he knocked in 100 or more runs eight times). Famously, Wagner said, “I don’t make speeches; I just let my bat speak for me in the summertime.”
3. Walter Johnson (1907 – 1927)
Won and Loss Record: 417 – 279
Complete games: 531
Nickname: The Big Train
Walter Johnson is another starting pitcher with many incredible records that almost certainly will never be broken—unless robots start playing in MLB! He’s the only pitcher in MLB history to win over 400 games and strike out over 3,500 batters. His lifetime ERA is 2.17, even though he pitched over 5,900 innings, and he won over 20 games 12 times. His greatest season was 1913, when he won 36 games with 7 loses, pitched 346 innings, had an ERA of 1.14, and threw 11 shutouts. Notably, he won two MVP awards—and don’t forget his 34 saves! Astonishingly, Johnson pitched for seven years while throwing only a side-armed fastball, until he finally developed a curveball. On the down side, he lost 65 games because his team failed to score a run. And he was a good hitter, batting .433 in 1925.
4. Ty Cobb (1905 – 1928)
Hits: 4,191 hits
Batting average: .366
Runs scored: 2,246
Stolen bases: 892
Nickname: The Georgia Peach
Ty Cobb may not have had the best behavior of any MLB player. Pugnacious and profane, he once climbed into the stands and attacked a heckler—who was handicapped! But Cobb sure knew how to hit the ball, compiling a list of hitting records few MLB players can approach. He wasn’t just a contact hitter, either; he could hit home runs and knocked in 1,944 runs during a 24-year career. Cobb established 90 MLB records during his long career, one of which will probably never be broken—a lifetime batting average of .366! Notably, Cobb played 22 seasons for the Detroit Tigers, the last six of which as a player-manager. And often considered a racist, after Cobb’s career, he favored the integration of MLB in 1947, and his favorite black player was Willie Mays.
5. Babe Ruth (1914 – 1935)
Home runs: 714
Slugging percentage: .690
On-base plus slugging (OPS): 1.164
Nicknames: The Bambino and The Sultan of Swat
Often considered the greatest baseball player of all time because Babe Ruth could not only hit—he could pitch too! But his greatest baseball achievements pertain to his prowess as a slugging outfielder. Although his record for career home runs (714) has been surpassed by two players, his records for lifetime OPS, OPS+ (OPS adjusted for average) and slugging percentage, still stand. As for the Babe’s pitching, he won 94 games and won over 20 games in a season twice, with a career ERA of 2.28. Interestingly, since Babe Ruth began hitting an unusual number of home runs during the so-called dead-ball era, hitting 29 in 1919, the year 1920 initiated the present live-ball era. Certainly one of baseball’s most memorable characters, the name of Babe Ruth is synonymous with MLB.
6. Rogers Hornsby (1915 – 1937)
Batting average: .358
MVP Awards: 2
Nickname: The Rajah
One of the greatest power-hitting infielders of all time, Rogers Hornsby's hitting records are legendary. His lifetime batting average of .358 is second only to that of Ty Cobb’s .366; he won two Triple Crowns and batted over .400 three times; and he won seven batting titles. Moreover, in 1922, he hit over 40 home runs and batted over .400, which no other hitter has ever done. Perhaps Hornsby’s greatest season, 1924, he batted .424—the highest live-ball era seasonal batting average ever; he also had an OPS of 1.203 and an OPS+ of 222. Notably, Hornsby, one of the fastest men in baseball in 1927, had 30 inside-the-park homers. Incidentally, Hornsby was a straight-laced guy who didn’t smoke, drink or go to the movies—but he did like to bet on the horses.
7. Lou Gehrig (1923 – 1939)
Batting average: .340
Home runs: 493
MVP Awards: 2
Nickname: The Iron Horse
The end of Lou Gehrig’s career is one of the saddest stories in the history of MLB. At the age of 36 he contracted Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, an incurable disease and had to retire, ending his streak of 2,130 consecutive games, a record that stood for 56 years until broken in 1995. Tragically, Gehrig died two years later. Gehrig’s MLB career records are very impressive: an OPS of 1.080, one-time Triple Crown winner (1934), 23 grand slams and 13 times he knocked in over 100 runs per season; in fact, in 1931 he knocked in 184, second on the all-time list behind Hack Wilson’s 191. Astonishingly, during Gehrig’s streak of consecutive games played, he was hit in the head twice by pitched balls and sustained several fractures over the years, yet kept playing through every injury!
8. Roy Campanella (1948 – 1957)
MVP Awards: 3
Home runs: 242
All-Star games: 8
Batting average: .276
There aren’t many catchers who are also sluggers, but Roy Campanella was one of those. In 1953, one of his MVP winning seasons, he hit 41 home runs, knocked in 142 runs (a franchise record), batted .312, scored 103 runs and had an OPS of 1.006. Also a fine defensive catcher, Campanella threw out 57 per cent of the runners who tried to steal a base on him, a record for MLB catchers. Interestingly, entering MLB in 1948, Campanella was one of MLB’s first black players. Sadly, though, Campanella was paralyzed in an automobile accident in January 1958 and never played baseball again. Nevertheless, he stayed active in the Dodgers’ organization and appeared on TV a few times.
9. Ted Williams (1939 – 1960)
On-base percentage: .482
Batting average: .344
Home runs: 521
Nicknames: The Splendid Splinter, Teddy Ballgame and The Kid
Often considered the greatest left-handed hitter of all time—even though he lost over three years for military service—perhaps Williams’ greatest hitting achievement is batting .406 in 1941, the last time any MLB hitter has batted over .400 for a season. Williams was also selected to the All-Star team 19 times was a two-time winner of the American League’s MVP Award; he also hit for the Triple Crown two times. His lifetime on-base-percentage of .482 is a record that’s still unbroken. Notably, Williams’ goal was for people to point at him and say, “There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived.” And, incidentally, Williams nearly always took the first pitch.
10. Stan Musial (1941 – 1963)
Batting average: .331
MVP Awards: 3
Nickname: Stan the Man
Certainly one of MLB’s greatest all-around hitters, Stan Musial played 22 seasons for the St. Louis Cardinals, helping them win three World Series in the 1940s and was selected to the All-Star team 24 times, an MLB record at the time. Musial achieved numerous National League or MLB career records—runs (1,949), at bats (10,972) and total bases (6,134)—though all were subsequently eclipsed by great players such as Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Barry Bonds. In 1948, perhaps Musial’s best season, he batted .376 with an OPS of 1.152 and an OPS+ of 200. Interestingly, Musial was never ejected from a game and liked playing the harmonica.
11. Yogi Berra (1946 – 1963, 1965)
Home runs: 358
MVP Awards: 3
Shutouts caught: 173
Yogi Berra played on some of the best New York Yankee teams ever, appearing in 18 World Series, winning 13, as a player, coach or manager. Short of stature, Berra was nevertheless a power hitter and great defensive catcher. Perhaps Berra’s greatest year was 1954, when he won the MVP Award, while batting .307, with 22 homers and 125 RBIs. He batted .285 for a 19-year career, not bad for a catcher. Notably, he was the catcher in Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. Berra was also known for his malapropisms: “A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore,” and “Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours.” Yogi was a pleasant guy too; announcer Joe Garagiola Sr. said if everyone was like Yogi, there’d be no wars.
12. Sandy Koufax (1955 – 1966)
Cy Young Awards: 3
Often considered one of the greatest left-handed pitchers of all time, Sandy Koufax, even though he had a relatively short career of only 12 seasons, compiled some excellent achievements. He pitched 40 shutouts, 137 complete games and won pitching’s Triple Crown three times—1963, 1965 and 1966. Perhaps his greatest season was 1963, when he won both the Cy Young Award and the MVP Award, his record 25 and 5 with an ERA of 1.88. Keep in mind that one of his four no-hitters was a perfect game; also keep in mind that he was a two-pitch pitcher—a fastball and a curve ball, but both were often unhittable. Sadly, Koufax’s career ended at the age of 30 because of an elbow injury that probably required Tommy John surgery but, unfortunately, it hadn’t been invented yet!
13. Mickey Mantle (1951 – 1968)
Home runs: 536
MVP Awards: 3
Nicknames: The Mick
Often regarded as the greatest switch hitter of all time, Mickey Mantle had a superb combination of hitting for average, awesome power, defense and base stealing prowess. In 1956, Mantle had one of the greatest seasons for any hitter in MLB history, as he won the coveted Triple Crown, with 52 home runs, 130 RBIs, a batting average of .353, in addition to an OPS of 1.169 and an OPS+ of 210. Notably, Mantle hit over .300 ten times and also played in 12 World Series, all of which with the New York Yankees, winning seven championships and hitting 18 homers, the last of which an MLB record. Astonishingly, as a 19-year-old rookie, Mantle injured his knee by tearing the anterior cruciate ligament, which was never repaired properly, yet he still had a stellar career!
14. Willie Mays (1951 – 1973)
Home runs: 660
MVP Awards: 2
Batting average: .302
Nickname: The Say Hey Kid
Often considered the greatest five-tool player of all time—if not the greatest offensive player of all time—Willie Mays was third on the all-time home run list when he retired, having hit 660 homers and had eight 100-RBI seasons in a row. Mays also played sensational defense, winning 12 Gold Glove Awards and had tremendous speed, swiping 338 bases. Notably, Mays was selected to the All-Star team 24 times. Mays played in the Negro leagues until he was signed by the New York Giants for $4,000, not bad money in 1951. Notably, Mays lost nearly two entire seasons for military service during the Korean War. One may wonder what his career totals would have been without playing ball for the US Army!
15. Hank Aaron (1954 – 1976)
Home runs: 755
Total bases: 6,866
Nickname: Hammerin’ Hank
Perhaps Hank Aaron’s greatest achievement was breaking Babe Ruth’s career home run record of 714 by hitting 755. In order to break one of MLB’s most hallowed records, Aaron hit 30 or more home runs for 15 seasons! Of course, only Barry Bonds has more career homers (762). But Aaron has other career records that may never be broken: 2,297 RBIs, 1,477 extra base hits and 6,856 total bases. Aaron also has the record for times selected to the All-Star team: 25. Interestingly, Aaron began his MLB career at the age of 20 in 1954; but when 15 in 1949 he tried out for the Brooklyn Dodgers yet, unbelievably—didn’t make the team. Just imagine what his career records would have been if he had become a Dodger five years earlier!
16. Pete Rose (1963 – 1986)
Batting average: .303
Batting titles: 3
Nickname: Charlie Hustle
Another marathon man in the annals of MLB, Pete Rose may not have impressed all the time but his list of career records compiled over 23 seasons is spectacular. All MLB records, Rose played in 3,562 games with 15,890 put-outs, 14,063 at-bats, 3,215 singles, 10,328 outs and, of course, 4,256 hits, breaking Ty Cobb’s record, which many people thought would never be broken. Rose was also elected to 17 All-Star teams and was a major star for the so-called Big Red Machine in the 1970s; and Rose managed the Cincinnati Reds from 1984 to 1989. Unfortunately, Rose is another player with a checkered past; he has been banned from Baseball’s Hall of Fame for betting on games in which he managed.
17. Nolan Ryan (1966 to 1993)
Won and Loss Record: 324 – 292
Batting average against: .204
Nickname: The Ryan Express
Nolan Ryan had a 27-year career, starting at age 19 and ending at 46, and he played in four different decades, just one year shy of five decades, retiring in 1999. His pitching records are very impressive, though he never won a Cy Young Award or threw a perfect game, and he won over 20 games in a season only twice. Nevertheless, even when well into his forties, he still consistently threw the baseball over 100 mph and also had a devastating 12–6 curveball. Perhaps his great dominance can be expressed by this stat: he threw 7 no-hitters, 12 one-hitters and 18 two-hitters. And his only flaw was a lack of control; he walked 2,795 batters, an MLB record.
18. Cal Ripken Jr. (1981 – 2001)
Consecutive games played: 2,632
Home runs: 431
Nickname: The Iron Man
Cal Ripken could play some ball—and then some! On September 6, 1995 he broke one of baseball’s seemingly unbreakable achievements: Lou Gehrig’s record of playing in 2,130 consecutive games, often considered one of baseball’s most memorable moments. Ripken is also considered one of MLB’s greatest hitting shortstops; while playing at that position he whacked 345 home runs and won eight Silver Slugger Awards. Also considered a great defensive shortstop and third baseman, he won two Gold Glove Awards. Ripken also won the AL MVP Award in 1983 and 1991; and he was selected to the AL All-Star team 19 times. Notably, since Ripken’s retirement, he has purchased three minor league baseball teams.
19. Ricky Henderson (1979 – 2003)
Stolen bases: 1,406
Home runs: 297
Nickname: The Man of Steal
Comprising a spectacular combination of speed, onbase percentage and power, Ricky Henderson is often called the greatest leadoff hitter of all time. At any rate, he’s the greatest base stealer ever, having swiped 1,406, way more than Lou Brock’s record of 938. Playing in MLB for 25 seasons, Henderson has other impressive career records: 2,295 runs and, not surprisingly, 335 times caught stealing; and he had 2,190 walks, including seven seasons with more than 100. Henderson also won an MVP Award in 1990. Notably, he was one of only a few position players to bat right handed while throwing left handed, and has been the most successful one to do so. Henderson was also one of baseball’s most eccentric characters and often compared to Yogi Berra.
20. Roger Clemens (1984 – 2007)
Won and Loss Record: 354 - 184
Cy Young Awards: 7
MVP Award: 1
Nickname: The Rocket
Roger Clemens has been a controversial figure in MLB. He was one of the most intimidating starting pitchers in MLB history—twice striking out 20 batters in a game. He threw an upper 90s mph fastball and a hard-breaking slider and splitter; he also often hit batters and had a surly, combative attitude. Moreover, he became enmeshed in the anabolic steroids scandal of the 2000s, but it was never proven he’d ever taken such drugs. Be that as it may, Clemens pitching records are off-the-charts awesome: seven Cy Young Awards; 118 complete games; 46 shutouts; won 20 or more games six times; and he’s the only pitcher in MLB history to win more than 350 games and strike out over 4,500 batters.
21. Barry Bonds (1986 – 2007)
Home runs: 762
MVP awards: 7
Batting average: .298
Barry Bonds was certainly one of the greatest power hitters of all time, his prowess at such positively Ruthian, Maysian or was it Bondsian? Anyway, Bonds put up some mind-boggling career totals: an OPS of 1.051, 1,996 RBIs, 2,227 runs scored and won 12 Silver Slugger awards. Also a great defensive player—though his arm wasn’t the best—he won eight Gold Glove awards. Showing an outstanding combination of power and speed, Bonds is the only MLB player to hit over 500 home runs and steal over 500 bases. Perhaps his greatest season was 2001, when he hit 73 homers, knocked in 137, achieved an OPS of 1.379 and walked 177 times. Although his reputation was marred by his inclusion in the steroids scandal, Barry Bonds has little if anything to prove in MLB.
22. Randy Johnson (1988 – 2009)
Won and Loss Record: 303 - 166
Cy Young Awards: 5
Nickname: The Big Unit
A hard-throwing southpaw who could regularly throw a baseball 100 mph—and also happened to be the tallest player in MLB history at 6 foot 10 inches—Randy Johnson was one of MLB’s most formidable pitchers. No wonder he struck out 4,875 batters, second only to Nolan Ryan on the all-time list! Johnson also threw a no-hitter in 1990 and a perfect game in 2004—at the age of 40, the oldest pitcher ever to do so. He also threw 100 complete games and 37 shutouts and won five Cy Young Awards, behind only Roger Clemens who won seven. He won the pitching’s Triple Crown in 2002, when his record was 24 and 5 with 334 strikeouts. Interestingly, in 1992, Johnson had trouble with his control until pitcher Nolan Ryan helped fine-tune Johnson’s delivery.
23. Ken Griffey Jr. (1989 – 2010)
Home runs: 630
Batting average: .284
Nickname: The Kid
Son of Ken Griffey Sr., another fine baseball player, Ken Griffey Jr. began his MLB career at 19, impressing everyone with his great all-around baseball ability. Over his 22-year career, Griffey Jr. won an MVP Award in 1997, hitting 56 homers and an OPS of 1.028; he also won seven Silver Slugger Awards and 10 Gold Gloves and was an All-Star 13 times. Even though Griffey Jr. hit 630 home runs, seventh on the all-time list, he probably would have hit many more if injuries hadn’t hampered his final five seasons. Notably, in 1993, he hit one of the longest home runs ever, the bat hitting the warehouse beyond the right field wall in Oriole Park at Camden Yards; he’s the only player ever to perform such a prodigious feat!
24. Mariano Rivera (1995 – 2013)
ERA adjusted for league average: 205
Nickname: The Sandman
Mariano Rivera had 652 career saves, the most in MLB history. He also finished 952 games, another MLB record. His lifetime ERA+ of 205 is also a record, and his lifetime WHIP was 1.000. If all of these records and achievements don’t make him the best closer in history, what would it take? Rivera played his entire career of 19 seasons with the New York Yankees (17 as their closer), helping them win five World Series. His record in the post-season is very impressive as well: 42 saves with a record of 8 and 1. Primarily using a cut fastball or “cutter” in his pitch repertoire, Mariano had Rivera-like stuff, closing out ballgames like no other in history!
25. Alex Rodriguez (1994 – 2016)
Home runs: 696
MVP Awards: 3
One of MLB’s best five-tool players, Alex Rodriguez piled up some remarkable career records; he hit more than 600 home runs, batted .295, knocked in over 2,000 runs, amassed over 3,000 hits, scored over 2,000 runs and stole over 300 bases, making him the only player in history to attain such lofty heights in offensive performance. He also won 10 Silver Slugger Awards, two Gold Gloves and three MVP Awards. Unfortunately, A-Rod admitted to using performance enhancing drugs and was suspended from MLB for the entire 2014 season. Perhaps negating his “juicing” somewhat, A-Rod has had a successful post-baseball career as an MLB analyst.
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© 2020 Kelley Marks