The Best Players in San Francisco Giants History
Who Are the Greatest San Francisco Giants Players of All Time?
With a 137-year history, the San Francisco Giants' story is littered with some of the greatest names in the history of Major League Baseball. The Giants can claim four of the 27 players who have 500 career home runs, as well as one of the inaugural members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. That doesn’t even count most of the 56 Hall of Fame players who have donned a Giants jersey or many of the players who make up the 264 All-Star game appearances by Giants.
The franchise was born as the New York Gothams in 1883, but two years later, they became the New York Giants. That moniker would stick, but the team moved west to San Francisco in 1958. The Giants won five World Series championships between 1905–1954, but wouldn’t again reign supreme in baseball until the 2010s, when they had an even-year championship trend with titles in 2010, ‘12, and ‘14. In total, the Giants have appeared in the postseason 26 times, and have won the National League pennant 23 times. The franchise has an all-time record of 11,165-9,687-163, and its .535 winning percentage is second only to the New York Yankees in Major League history.
Selection Criteria for This List
Determining the best players from 137 years of Giants history wasn't the easiest of tasks, but I've narrowed it down to the top five and also included some honorable-mention selections. Even with that, many deserving players had to be left out of this article. The criteria used to develop this list included:
- Legacy Honors (Hall of Fame, retired number, etc.)
- Single-Season Honors (MVP, All-Star, etc.)
- On-Field Success (league leader, playoff appearances, records, etc.)
- Longevity (years with the Giants, percentage of career with the Giants, etc.)
Only games played with the Giants are factored into this list, so while Hall of Famer Duke Snider would be a great choice on a list about the Los Angeles Dodgers, his 91 games in San Francisco won’t make the cut here. Now, without further ado, let's count down the top five players in San Francisco Giants history! Feel free to chime in with your thoughts on these selections in the comments.
5. Willie McCovey (1959–73, 1977–80)
A slugging first baseman, Willie McCovey was somewhat overlooked throughout his career. He played his first 15 seasons and his last four seasons in San Francisco, establishing himself as one of the best power hitters in baseball. A true pull hitter, McCovey viciously attacked right field at Candlestick Park, so much so that the right-field area at the new Giants stadium is known as McCovey's Cove. He swatted 231 home runs at Candlestick Park, the most of any player in history, and of his 521 career home runs, 469 of them came with the Giants. McCovey was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1986, when he picked up 81.4 percent of the vote on his first ballot.
McCovey was exciting from the start, going 4 for 4 in his Major League debut on his way to winning National League Rookie of the Year honors. By 1969, he was one of the most feared hitters in the National League, and in that season, he posted career-highs for home runs (45) and RBI (126) to win Most Valuable Player honors. After the 1973 season, McCovey was traded to the San Diego Padres, But he returned to the Giants on a non-guaranteed contract in 1977. He promptly won Comeback Player of the Year that season, then smashed his 500th career homer in 1978. Two years later, he became the second player in history—joining Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer Ted Williams—as players to hit a home run in four different decades.
4. Mel Ott (1926-47)
For many years, Mel Ott was the most dangerous offensive force the Giants had ever rostered. Ott was the first player from the National League to become a member of the 500-home run club, finishing his career with 511 and holding the league record until Willie Mays overtook him in the 1960s. He was much more than a power hitter, however, as he led the league in walks six times, finished his career with .414 on-base percentage, and fell just short of 3,000 career hits. His 1,860 RBI remain a franchise record. Ott was a 12-time All-Star, led the league in home runs six times, and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1951, when he captured 87.2 percent of the vote on his third ballot.
Ott debuted at age 17, and by his fourth season, he had already displayed prodigious power by swatting 42 home runs and 151 RBI—both career-highs. That came amidst an 18-year stretch from 1924–45 in which Ott led the Giants in home runs, the longest such streak for any player with any single team in Major League history. In 13 of the 14 seasons between 1930–42, Ott played in at least 138 games, and he made every All-Star game between 1934–44. In 1933, Ott won his lone World Series championship, and he had a pair of home runs to help the Giants defeat the Washington Senators in five games. He played in two more World Series and added a home run in each.
3. Christy Mathewson (1900–16)
Though he pitched in the dead-ball era, the pitching contributions of Christy Mathewson will never be forgotten. He became a charter member of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936, when he was selected on 90.7 percent of ballots. That cemented his legacy after a legendary 17-year career that was spent entirely with the New York Giants (save for one start with the Cincinnati Reds in 1916). Mathewson twice won the pitching Triple Crown (1905 and ‘08), and he pitched two no-hitters in his career. He won at least 20 games in 12 straight season from 1903–14, including a career-high 37 victories in 1908, and he also led the league four times in that stretch. Mathewson also has five single-season strikeout and earned-run average crowns to his credit. His 11 shutouts from 1908 are a single-season team record, and that season is one of four in which he led the league in that category.
Mathewson was perhaps at his best during the 1905 World Series. In the span of six days, Mathewson hurled three complete-game shutouts to win Games 1, 3, and 5 to propel the New York Giants over the Philadelphia Athletics. He appeared in eight more World Series games between 1911–13, but the Giants lost each year. He was 5-5 all-time in the World Series, but had a minuscule 0.97 ERA (half of the 22 runs he allowed were unearned) and 48 strikeouts. Mathewson holds numerous career franchise records that likely will never be broken, including games started (551), innings pitched (4,779⅔), complete games (434), shutouts (79), earned-run average (2.12), wins (372), and losses (188). He also holds the team record for career strikeouts (2,504).
2. Barry Bonds (1993–2007)
If it weren't for steroid speculation, Barry Bonds would be on everyone’s short list of players to be considered as the greatest Major Leaguer of all time. In addition to being the career (762) and single-season (73) home run leader, Bonds also was a premier hitter (.298), had good speed (514 steals), and played well defensively (8 Gold Gloves). The majority of those numbers were piled up during his 15 seasons with the San Francisco Giants, who signed him in 1993 after he became a superstar with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Bonds was named the National League Most Valuable Player in his first season with the Giants, then added four straight MVP honors from 2001–04. He was an 12-time All-Star with San Francisco, and hit at least 30 home runs in each of his first 12 seasons with the Giants. He’s not yet a Hall of Famer, as the steroid rumors have kept him below the 75-percent voting threshold in his first seven tries, though many argue he was a Hall of Fame-caliber player before it’s suspected he began using performance-enhancing drugs.
The son of a former Major League star (Bobby Bonds) and the God son of one of the finest ever to play the game (Willie Mays), baseball was a way of life for Barry Bonds from the time he was old enough to throw and hit. After seven seasons with the Pirates, Bonds signed a record six-year contract worth $43.75 million to join the Giants, where both his father and Mays had played significant portions of their careers. He blossomed into one of the fiercest sluggers in all of baseball, but was always overshadowed by other power hitters. That was until 2001, when he clobbered 73 home runs to set a new all-time record, and while he was already keen at drawing walks, pitchers took an extra effort to pitch around him after that. Bonds had 249 intentional walks over the next three seasons—including an absurd 120 in 2004. Prior to Bonds, the single-season record for intentional walks was 45 (Willie McCovey in 1969), and the 688 intentional walks during his career more than double the next-closest total (Albert Pujols, 311).
1. Willie Mays (1951–52, 1954–72)
Arguably the most well-rounded player to ever play the game, Willie Mays is the greatest Giants player of all time. The "Say Hey Kid" spent all but his final season and a half with the Giants, and was a legend the entire time. He and fellow Hall of Famer, Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals, are tied for the most All-Star game appearances of all-time by a National League player (24), and Mays was superb in those selections (.307 average, 8 extra-base hits, and all-time record 6 stolen bases). A rare five-tool player, Mays hit .302 for his career, swatted 660 home runs, stole 338 bases, won 12 straight Gold Gloves from 1957–68, and had a strong outfield arm that earned 188 assists from center field. He easily went into the Hall of Fame after receiving 94.7 percent of the vote on his first ballot in 1979.
Mays opened his career with a bang for the New York Giants, earning his career hit with a home run off of Hall of Famer, Warren Spahn, and winning National League Rookie of the Year honors. He missed most of the 1952 season and all of ‘53 after getting drafted into the Army, but returned to be named Most Valuable Player in 1954 after hitting .345 with 41 home runs. In the World Series that season, Mays made a miraculous defensive catch against the Cleveland Indians in a career-defining play that helped push the Giants to a four-game sweep and the only championship of Mays’ career. The next season, he became the first black player to hit 50 home runs in a season (51), but he wouldn’t break that threshold again until 1965 (52), representing the longest stretch between 50-plus home run seasons in Major League history. In 1965, he also won the second MVP trophy of his career.
Mays was traded to the New York Mets in 1972, and received a nice homecoming from the fans there who had rooted for the New York Giants before they relocated to San Francisco in 1958. With the Giants, Mays holds numerous career records, including games (2,857), hits (3,187), doubles (504), home runs (646), and runs (2,011). Only eight players in Major League history have scored 2,000 runs. Mays was the first player to ever record 3,000 hits and 600 home runs in his career, and he and Hank Aaron (Braves) are the only two to ever accomplish those numbers with the same team.
The following are a handful of players who left an indelible mark on the San Francisco Giants, but fell just outside of the top five of all time.
Carl Hubbell (1928–43)
A two-time Most Valuable Player of the National League, "King" Carl Hubbell is one of the finest pitchers in the history of the Giants franchise. He spent his entire career with the New York Giants, making nine All-Star teams along the way, and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1947, when he gained 87 percent of the vote on his third ballot. The screwball-throwing hurler picked up three earned-run average titles in his career, including a career-low 1.66 mark in his MVP season of 1933. That season, the Giants won the only World Series title of Hubbell's career. His greatest individual feat, however, was when he struck out five straight future Hall of Famers (Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin) in the 1934 All-Star game, which is still regarded as one of the greatest moments in the history of the Midsummer Classic.
Juan Marichal (1960–73)
While he isn't the most remembered pitcher from the 1960s, no one won more games in that decade than Juan Marichal. The high-kicking Dominican hurler picked up 191 wins in his first 10 seasons with the San Francisco Giants, made eight All-Star games in that time, but never picked up any major awards. Still, he was remembered as a Hall of Famer, getting inducted in 1983, with 83.7 percent of the vote on his third ballot. Marichal was a 10-time All-Star overall, and finished with an impressive overall record of 238–140 for the Giants, including a 2.84 earned-run average and 2,281 strikeouts. Known as an intimidating pitcher, Marichal is perhaps best known for his role in a famous brawl with John Roseboro, who attempted to hit Marichal with his bat after getting hit by a pitch. Marichal also is remembered for firing a complete-game shutout against the Milwaukee Braves that lasted 16 innings.
Bill Terry (1923–36)
No National League player has hit .400 in a season since Bill Terry closed the 1930 season with a .401 average. The eagle-eyed first baseman hit .341 for his career, setting a franchise record that may never be broken. Terry's offensive exploits were permanently stamped into baseball history in 1954, when he entered the Hall of Fame after receiving 77.4 percent of the vote on his 14th ballot. Terry played in the first three All-Star games (1933–35) and won a World Series title in '33—which was also his first full season as a player-manager. In his career, he had 373 doubles, 112 triples, 154 home runs, and 1,078 RBI. He retired as a player in 1936, but continued managing until 1941.
© 2020 Andrew Harner