I am a former sports editor and currently serve as a historian with the Society of American Baseball Research and manage a valet operation.
The Five Most Influential Players in Major League Baseball History
Everyone has those moments where they remember exactly where they were, what they were doing, and who they were with when they heard the news or saw it happen. While most of those moments represent times when there was a shift in society or a major tragedy, it's not uncommon for a sports fan to associate those same feelings after championships or other individual moments of greatness. The beauty of baseball is that those monumental moments are different for every fan. Sure, I can remember standing in my living room and watching Mark McGwire's record-breaking 62nd home run barely skid over the left field wall in 1998, and I'm sure you also remember where you were if you witnessed that monumental home run. But I also remember blankly staring out the car window after hearing the devastating news on the radio that Bartolo Colon had been traded by the Cleveland Indians in 2002. Chances are, you don't even know the details of that trade, let alone remember where you were when you heard about it. Likewise, you probably remember the intimate details of a moment that seems trivial to me.
There are some baseball players, however, who have transcended a simple "Where were you when…" moment, and become staples of history whose influence will last for generations. Many fans, especially African-Americans, can still remember where they were when Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's modern color barrier in 1947, but even those of us who weren't alive then can appreciate the value that moment has given to the past 70 years of baseball history—and to American society. Much the same, if you're reading this, you were not a witness to the Gettysburg Address, but you know who Abraham Lincoln is and some of the moments closely associated with him. But how about Millard Fillmore, the 13th President of the United States of America? You've probably heard the name, but I'm guessing that you're like me and don't know anything about what he accomplished while in office. Baseball, like politics, has its Abraham Lincolns and its Millard Fillmores, and I'm here to discuss the Abraham Lincolns—those players in the upper echelon who have transcended time with their influence on America's Pastime.
Dozens of players were candidates for this list of the most influential players in Major League Baseball history, but I've narrowed it down to the top five of all-time and a handful of honorable-mention selections. Only the most impactful players are included on this list, so while Branch Rickey was a trailblazing executive and Kennesaw Mountain Landis was an influential commissioner, they won't be discussed here. So without further ado, let's count down the five most influential Major League baseball players of all-time.
5. Roberto Clemente
Not only was Roberto Clemente one of the greatest outfielders to ever play Major League Baseball, he was also a great humanitarian at a time when it wasn't commonplace that those with the most fame committed time to charitable endeavors. Clemente was killed in an airplane crash while flying with supplies to Nicaragua's capital city of Managua, which had been impacted by a severe earthquake on Dec. 23, 1972. That, however, is not the entire story of Clemente's humanitarian legacy—or of his impact on baseball.
Clemente was well-known among Latin Americans as the first superstar from the Caribbean, and he used his fame to foster the growth of baseball in the region. Numerous Latin stars followed in Clemente's path, with players like Luis Aparicio, Rod Carew, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, and Tony Pérez building Hall of Fame careers during or shortly after Clemente's career, which spanned from 1955–72 and left him with exactly 3,000 hits. Latin players continue to be some of the best in baseball, with current stars such as Jose Altuve, Nelson Cruz, Jose Berrios, Carlos Correa, and Miguel Cabrera among the game's elite.
Today, MLB annually awards the Roberto Clemente Award to the player who "best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement, and the individual's contribution to his team." The award was introduced in 1971, but was rebranded as the Roberto Clemente Award in 1973.
4. Alex Rodriguez
Prior to Alex Rodriguez signing a 10-year, $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers in 2001, salaries in baseball were escalating. No player, however, has racked up the riches like Rodriguez. When he left the Seattle Mariners to join the Rangers on December 11, 2000, he signed a pact worth more than double any contract ever signed in baseball history (the previous record came just two days earlier when Mike Hampton signed a $121 million deal with the Colorado Rockies, which proved to be one of the worst signings in baseball history). Rodriguez no longer owns the honor of having the richest contract in baseball history (that now deservedly goes to Mike Trout, who signed a 12-year extension with the Los Angeles Angels for $435 million before the 2019 season), but Rodriguez did receive two of the largest contracts ever. He was traded to the New York Yankees in 2004, and with three years left on the original deal, Rodriguez opted out and signed a 10-year, $275 million contract with the Yankees.
Big money was undoubtedly going to come to MLB players, but Rodriguez really expedited the process. The average of annual value of his original contract—$25.2 million—exceeded the 2000 total payrolls of three small-market clubs, and came at a time when the league minimum salary was $200,000 and the average salary was $2.14 million. The total amount owed was more than former Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks had paid for the franchise in 1998. Some in baseball decried paying a player more than some franchises were worth, while others worried about how escalating salaries would impact the game in the long-term.
Mega-contracts have been known to handcuff a team to an aging player who doesn't produce. This limits that team's ability to sign other players and often puts a franchise into perpetual rebuilding modes. A prime example of this came when the Detroit Tigers signed 31-year-old Miguel Cabrera to an eight-year, $248 million contract extension in 2014. Only a few seasons into the pact, Cabrera began to deal with injuries and the Tigers found themselves among the worst teams in all of baseball. So while the expansion of money available to players from the multi-billion pie of revenue is a good thing, there are definitely plenty of negatives to consider. Leave it A-Rod to start a controversy.
3. Curt Flood
Those players who have signed mega-deals, however, should take a moment or two to thank Curt Flood for taking a stand against the Reserve Clause in 1969. After the outfielder was traded from the St Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies, Flood petitioned Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, stating in a brief letter that he shouldn't be treated as a piece of property. The Reserve Clause prevented free player movement from team to team—only an owner facilitating a trade or releasing a player would allow him to change teams. This is what Flood had to say about the practice:
Dear Mr. Kuhn:
After 12 years in the Major Leagues, I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States.
It is my desire to play baseball in 1970, and I am capable of playing. I have received a contract from the Philadelphia club, but I believe I have the right to consider offers from other clubs before making any decisions. I, therefore, request that you make known to all the major league clubs my feelings in this matter, and advise them of my availability for the 1970 season.
Kuhn denied Flood's request three days later, so Flood sued the league within weeks. The court battle was long and rose to the Supreme Court, where the justices ruled 5-3 in favor of Major League Baseball. While Flood's stand effectively ended his career, it opened opportunities for future players to earn their fair share of what's become a multi-billion dollar money machine. It wasn't until 1975 that the Reserve Clause was toppled by Marvin Miller, then the head of the Players Union, but from there, salaries began to rise as teams were able to bid on the services of the best players. By 1980, Nolan Ryan had become the first player to earn an annual salary of $1 million.
On the flip side, free agency has all but eliminated loyalty to a franchise. Most of the brightest stars chase down the top dollar in free agency rather than staying with a franchise their entire career. Because teams know this, the smaller markets often trade away their best players before they enter free agency. That way, the team at least gets a return on an investment it is unable to sign long-term, but from the perspective of the fan, it is a frustrating system that often signals another rebuild.
2. Babe Ruth
In the wake of the 1919 Black Sox World Series scandal, baseball needed a savior. Who better than a hot-dog eating, beer-chugging slugger who would come to be known as the greatest to ever play the game? George Herman "Babe" Ruth of the New York Yankees was just what baseball needed as the sport entered the 1920s trying to outrun the biggest scandal in the sport's history. It was proven that during the 1919 World Series, multiple members of the Chicago White Sox had agreed to lose games on purpose in exchange for money from gamblers, tarnishing the legacy of baseball as a pure sport. A couple of months after that World Series, Ruth was sold by the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees in one of the worst transactions in sports history, though it may also have saved baseball. Because Ruth was so charismatic and enjoyed mingling with fans, he became a larger-than-life figure in the biggest city in the world—healing the game and a society that was coming out of the stigma of World War I.
Ruth's greatest impact on baseball, however, was his penchant for hitting home runs. Before 1920, home runs were rare, with only a handful of players hitting more than 20 in a season (even Frank "Home Run" Baker wasn't much of a home run hitter by Ruth's standards after Baker hit just 96 from 1908–22). And not only did Ruth hit home runs, he hit long home runs that delighted fans like never before. Ruth hit 54 home runs in 1920 and 59 more in 1921, helping boost attendance around the league and forever changing the small-ball approach to baseball. By the end of his career, Ruth hit 714 home runs—demolishing the old record of 138, which was set by Roger Connor in 1897—and had ushered in the "live ball" era.
Ruth was—and in many ways—still is an American icon. His chubby face is recognizable to non-sports fans, and his name is one of the most recognized among historical figures. In World War II, the Japanese reportedly would slander Babe Ruth's name as a way to intimidate American soldiers. Memorabilia and autographs from his playing days are extremely popular among high-end collectors and museums, and often fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction. He'll never be forgotten in the annals of baseball, nor will he ever stop being relevant in discussions about the greatest athletes who ever lived.
1. Jackie Robinson
It took a special player to break Major League Baseball's modern color barrier, and Jackie Robinson was the perfect candidate to do so in 1947. A scrappy player with a military background, Robinson was hand-selected by Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey to become the player who would be the first African-American in modern baseball. It was no easy task for Robinson, who received death threats and had opposing players protest against his presence on the field, but through it all, he built himself up to be an upstanding, humble superstar who changed the game of baseball—and American society—forever.
A handful of black men had played professional baseball in the sport's early days, but for decades there was a gentlemen's agreement in place that said no blacks would be allowed in Major League Baseball. By the mid-1940s, Rickey had had enough and sent scouts to the Negro Leagues to find talent to bring to the Dodgers. He found Robinson with the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the most famous teams in the Negro Leagues, and signed him in 1945. After one season in the minor leagues with the Montreal Royals, Robinson made his Major League debut on April 15, 1947—one of the first major moments in the American Civil Rights Movement that lasted into the 1960s.
Robinson was embraced by most of his teammates and most of the National League, and other African-Americans soon joined Major League teams, including Larry Doby of the Cleveland Indians, who was the first black player in the American League when he debuted in 1947. Change took time, however, as it wasn't until 1959 that the Boston Red Sox became the last team in the league to integrate their roster. Nevertheless, Robinson's impact helped numerous Hall of Famers make the leap from the Negro Leagues to the Major Leagues, with players such as Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Ernie Banks all finding roster spots.
The integration of the Major Leagues, however, did cause the Negro Leagues to fizzle out, with the Negro American League hosting its last games in 1958. The final Negro Leagues All-Star Game was played in 1962, and by 1966, the Indianapolis Clowns was the only team left. Players such as Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, and Cool Papa Bell never did get their chance to play professionally, which is a shame because those who saw them play suggest they may have been some of the best players to ever live.
The following three players fell just outside of the top five on the list of most influential players in Major League Baseball history.
Cal Ripken Jr.
The 1994-95 Major League Baseball players' strike was one of the blackest eyes ever to hit the National Pastime. With the cancellation of the 1994 World Series and a late start to the 1995 season, it was unknown how baseball would recover. Cal Ripken Jr., however, was there on September 6, 1995, to save baseball. That was the night he played in his 2,131st consecutive game, breaking a record set by Lou Gehrig in 1939. Ripken even one-upped himself by smashing a memorable home run in the fourth inning. Once the game became official after the top of the fifth inning, Ripken received an uninterrupted 22-minute standing ovation that was captured live by ESPN. The great home run chase by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998 further brought baseball back into the mainstream, but had it not been for Ripken's record, there's no telling what the state of baseball may have been in 1998.
Still considered by some to be the true home run king, Hank Aaron endured racism and death threats throughout the early 1970s as he approached baseball's career home run record. A slugger whose career began in the Negro Leagues, Aaron became one of Major League Baseball's best players in the 1960s. He showed remarkable consistency in hitting and power, allowing him to rack up home runs at a record pace. When Aaron slugged his 715th home run on April 8, 1974, he became the first black player to hold a major baseball record, and he went on to retire with 755 home runs (Barry Bonds broke that record in 2007, but many place an asterisk next to that mark due to speculation that Bonds used steroids). Aaron has remained an ambassador to the game of baseball since his retirement, and has been involved with numerous causes that help in curbing racism.
While he wasn't the first player from Japan to play in the Major Leagues, Hideo Nomo was the first Japanese superstar in America and opened the door for many others to follow him across the Pacific Ocean. Nomo exploited a loophole in his Japanese contract to become a free agent and signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995 to become the first Japanese player in Major League Baseball since the unheralded Masanori Murakami played for the San Francisco Giants from 1964–65. His unorthodox delivery fooled American hitters and helped him become the National League Rookie of the Year and lead the league in strikeouts. "Nomomania" helped bring 56 other Japanese players to America, with players like Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Yu Darvish, and Masahiro Tanaka all becoming superstars.
Andrew Harner (author) from Ohio on January 02, 2020:
I thought about putting Messersmith into Flood's section. Probably an edit I will do down the road.
As for Rodriguez ... If money and mega-deals weren't such a big part of today's game, his contract wouldn't be as influential to me. Obviously, the money was coming, but with how big of a jump he made it take, that changed the way contracts were signed forever in my mind.
CJ Kelly from the PNW on January 02, 2020:
I would disagree that the A Rod contract, etc. was that influential. At the time, it was a big deal (both $$ and going to the Rangers), but I don't know if it changed anything. The shocking thing to me was signing with the Rangers. Even among Yankee fans, he's not well liked in terms of being an all time favorite. His whole career was awkward.
How about Andy Messersmith? Just a thought. He pulled one of the most brilliant moves ever with his "retirement."
James A Watkins from Chicago on December 29, 2019:
I enjoyed your article about my favorite sport, baseball. Well done.