The Best There Ever Was (1969 version)

1969 Baseball Centennial Stamp

All the way back in 1969, the powers-that-be in baseball recognized a good thing when they saw it. Someone reminded them that 1969 represented the centennial of the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first ever professional team. Without bothering to check and see if the Red Stockings really were the first professional team, baseball’s leadership declared 1969 the centennial of professional baseball. It caught on. There was even a stamp. They got the fans to vote on an all-time team for each franchise (which got pretty funny when brand new teams like the Mets and  Angels set their rosters). They also convened a committee of experts to determine two all-time teams: the greatest players ever and the greatest living players. I know you can’t wait for the results, so here they are:

Greatest players: infield (from 1st around to third)-Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Honus Wagner, Pie Traynor. Outfield-Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Ty Cobb. Catcher-Mickey Cochrane. Pitchers (one left, one right)-Lefty Grove, Walter Johnson. Manager-John J. McGraw. Best player ever-Babe Ruth.

Greatest living players: infield (from 1st to third again)-Stan Musial and George Sisler tied for 1st base, Charlie Gehringer, Joe Cronin, Pie Traynor. Outfield-Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Willie Mays. Catcher-Bill Dickey. Pitchers (again a left and a right)-Lefty Grove, Bob Feller. Manager-Casey Stengel. Best living player-Joe DiMaggio.

Take a minute and look over those lists. Not bad, right? OK, not great either, but not bad. A few comments from me are in order.

1. You could be on both lists. DiMaggio, Traynor, and Grove were all still alive and made both lists.

2. It shows you how baseball has changed in 40 years. There is no closer or designated hitter. Neither were major factors in 1969 (DH hadn’t even been invented yet), but both would be required if you were making similar lists today.

3. The lists were done before the explosion of the new Sabrmetric stats. The winners are all high average hitters (Cochrane and Dickey were 1-2 in batting  average among Hall of Fame catchers when the list was unveiled.). Power is optional depending on position. The pitchers are all high strikeout pitchers with good ERA’s for their time.

4. Both lists have problems. The all-time list isn’t bad. I might have opted for either Mantle or Mays or perhaps Aaron over DiMaggio. And Hornsby over Eddie Collins is in many ways a matter of taste. On the living list, I’m not sure how you end up with Musial and Sisler tying (that’s without reference to whether Musial should have been an outfielder). I can see Feller being replaced by Robin Roberts if that impressed people. But all in all neither is  a bad list. As something of an aside, let me remind you that in 1969 Hank Aaron was still toiling in something like obscurity (his MVP was over 10 years earlier) and very few people understood what they were seeing down in Atlanta. Both Mays and Mantle were universally acclaimed better ballplayers.

5. Obviously I’ve saved catcher and third base for last. These aren’t very good choices and the option of Traynor at third is just plain awful. Cochrane and Dickey aren’t bad. Both have some power and hit for high averages in high average eras. Both win a lot, both are considered good (but not great) handlers of pitchers, and Cochrane made a pretty fair manager. But somehow the name Yogi Berra simply got overlooked. Actually “somehow” is misleading. I think I know exactly why Berra was left off (and it had nothing to do with his mangling of the English language). Berra failed to hit .300 and both Cochrane and Dickey did. and remember this is a list ladened with .300 hitters. Traynor simply defies understanding. I’m told he was a heck of a third baseman. He also hit .300 with no power. I can name at least four third basemen who could have replaced him in 1969: Frank Baker, Jimmie Collins, Eddie Mathews, and Brooks Robinson (Mathews being my personal choice for the honor). I’m not even sure Traynor would be fifth on my list. There’s Stan Hack and George Kell. Heck, there’s even Harlond Clift who I might put above Traynor (not sure about Clift, but he’s certainly someone I’d look at). The Baker question is most intriguing. I understand that in a list heavy with .300 hitters why Mathews and Robinson aren’t going to make the list, but Baker hit .300, won home run titles (true, you didn’t have to hit many to win in 1911), and won a lot more pennants. Strange choice to pick Traynor. Apparently, Traynor, who was still alive, was honored to be chosen. I’m glad he got to hear how great he was, I just wish they’d picked someone else.

6. Consider how different the list would look today. In 1969 the following players had either not yet appeared on Major League rosters or were in the infant stages of their careers: Albert Pujols, Joe Morgan, Cal Ripken, Derek Jeter, George Brett, Mike Schmidt, Rickey Henderson, Greg Maddux, Steve Carlton, Johnny Bench, Mariano Rivera (to add a closer), Paul Molitor (to add a DH). Now I know none of these guys could make the 1969 roster, so leaving them off isn’t an issue. I just have the feeling that some of them would be on a new list.

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3 Responses to “The Best There Ever Was (1969 version)”

  1. Bill Miller Says:

    I remember collecting Topps baseball cards in ’76, and Pie Traynor was the All-Time third baseman. I’d never heard of him, but was too young to no any better, so I assumed the powers-that-be knew what they were doing. No I know better.
    You’re right. Terrible choice.
    Since ’69, we’ve been lucky to see so many great players. In addition to your list of modern stars, add Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey, Jr. and Frank Thomas.
    One has to wonder what these lists will look like in another 40 years, not that I’m likely to be around to witness these discussions.
    Good stuff,
    Bill

  2. Bill Miller Says:

    That was supposed to say, “Now I know better.”

  3. Sportsphd Says:

    Interesting. My oldest is 17 now, and you can put together quite a team just in his lifetime:

    Albert Pujols
    Roberto Alomar
    Alex Rodriguez
    Chipper Jones
    Ichiro
    Ken Griffey Jr
    Steroids loaded left fielder of your choice
    Mike Piazza
    Edgar Martinez

    A RH and LH of Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson and Mariano Rivera closing.

    A solid group just in the last two decades.

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