Baseball’s VIPs

Ban Johnson

Ban Johnson

A couple of posts back, the one on Judge Landis, I made the comment that he was one of the most important people ever in MLB. Well, that led some of my friends to send me emails asking who I considered the 10 most important people ever in the sport. As you know, I’m sort of a glutton for sticking my foot squarely into my mouth, so I decided to publicly respond to them.

First, let me be clear that “most important” has nothing to do with “best player”. Almost all of these people listed below and little or no actual playing time in the big leagues. So don’t be asking, “Where’s Gehrig?” or “Where’s Wagner?” or about other players. They may be terrific players but they aren’t as important in the grand scheme of things as the people I’m about to mention. As you read through the list, you’ll realize I’m big into origins.

Here are my 10 most important listed in alphabetical order:

1. Mel Allen–I suppose any announcer could have gone in here except for a couple of  points. Most of us get our games through the filter of someone in a booth at the stadium keeping us up on what’s going on, so a play-by-play man is not an unreasonable choice for a position on this list. I pick Allen for two specific reasons. First, he announced for the Yankees for years and thus became the primary voice many people heard. Second, when TV decided to add a second camera to games, Allen is supposed to be the guy who suggested adding the second camera in center field, thus showing the pitcher throwing to the batter in something like close up (the previous camera angle was high up behind home plate). It’s become the single most common angle from which most people see a game on television.

2. Alexander Cartwright–Cartwright is here to represent an entire group of people, the pioneers who invented the game as we know it. Somebody had to start putting the rules of the game into a form that became acceptable. It is possible that people like Duncan Curry or Daniel Adams, or William Wheaton should be here in his place. Cartwright certainly did not invent baseball, but was apparently prominent in one of the many attempts to codify the game. As the Hall of Fame has placed him in its midst, he’ll do for this spot, but I’m not certain he’s the best candidate.

3. Henry Chadwick–You a stat guy? Care about the statistics of the game? Well, Chadwick invented the box score and a number of the statistics we still use to determine the quality of play on the diamond. As the first prominent sports reporter his articles helped to popularize the game. Put those two things together and you have someone who belongs on this list.

4. William Hulbert–I don’t like Hulbert. As a human being he is crass, bigoted, vain, parsimonious. But he founded the National League and thus came up with a way to make baseball profitable enough for people to want to become owners and thus establish a stable (sort of) league that flourishes today.

5. Ban Johnson–Founder and first President of the American League. Was de facto lord of baseball until the arrival of the man below.

6. Kennesaw M. Landis–First and most powerful Baseball Commissioner. Ran baseball with an iron fist. Cleaned up the game after the Black Sox nearly wrecked it. He opposed integration, but supported the more lively ball and the farm system (and besides isn’t he what a Commissioner ought to look like?)

7. Marvin Miller–the Lincoln of MLB. When he took over the Player’s Association it was a joke. When he left the union it was a co-partner with the clubs. Whether you like free agency or not, Miller figured out how to free the players from baseball slavery and change the economics and the dynamics of the game. Of all the people on this list, he’s the only one not in the Hall of Fame (Allen is on the writers plaque).

8. Branch Rickey–changed the game twice. He invented both the farm system and brought integration to MLB. He is  arguably the most influential baseball man of the 20th Century.

9. Jackie Robinson–In 1884 Toledo had a black ballplayer. That lasted one year. John McGraw and others had tried to integrate the game and had failed. With Robinson baseball truly does become a game for all Americans.

10. Babe Ruth–in a game in trouble, Ruth takes over and changes forever the way it is played. With the emphasis on the home run over bunting and base stealing we get the game as it’s been played (plus or minus a rule or two) since 1920.

And Honorable Mention to people like John Montgomery Ward (first union), Fleet Walker (who was the first black player), Jim Creighton (apparently the first professional), Lip Pike (who made professionalism acceptable), Harry Wright (who made the modern manager’s job what it is today), Bill Veeck (who made the ballpark experience so much fun), and a host of others, some of which you may decide should be in the list of 10.


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7 Responses to “Baseball’s VIPs”

  1. Gary Trujillo Says:

    What about Bud Selig? Just kidding. This is a great list and it’s hard for me to disagree with any of these choices. Thanks for sharing.

  2. glenrussellslater Says:

    V, I’ve got just two questions for you. Where’s Gehrig? Where’s Wagner?

    Just kidding.

    This is excellent, V. Great research and entertainingly presented. (I sound like a movie critic).

    I learned a lot from your post. I had actually never heard of this guy Hulbert before. I don’t know why. I just never came across the name before, and I enjoy baseball history quite a bit, which is one of the reasons that I value your blog.

    I think that your choices are excellent. May I add a few of my own?

    Larry McPhail. Larry McPhail was a difficult person, to be sure, and was not particularly well-liked. But he did introduce night baseball into the major leagues, and he did dispel the myth among owners that radio coverage of games would cut down on attendance. So he was a pioneer in two major ways, and definitely one of the most people in baseball history. By the way, if you want to read a great (and entertaining) book about baseball that mentions McPhail a lot, I highly recommend “The Lords Of Baseball”, by Harold Parrott. Parrott wrote for the Brooklyn Eagle, and was later the Brooklyn Dodgers’ traveling secretary. This book is wryly written. A real snappy book.

    Red Barber. Here was not only a great announcer (my father loved him, even though he was a Yankee fan who also liked Mel Allen), but he was also a factor in Jackie Robinson being accepted by Brooklyn fans. (Brooklyn wasn’t all that liberal, believe me, V. Brooklynites weren’t Philadelphians, but they didn’t initially greet Jackie with open arms, either. I read in his book “The Broadcasters” that when Robinson was brought up from Montreal in ’47, Barber wondered and wondered about the best way to present Robinson on the radio. Should he mention that he was black and make a big deal out of that? He decided, at the end, to just announce his baseball doings as he would any other player. Thus, I feel that he was influential in Robinson being accepted in Brooklyn and, ultimately, around the National League in general, and, again, ultimately led to opening gates for other black players.

    I can’t think of any others at the moment, but in my opinion, those are two more VIP’s that were highly influential and might have gone on the list, as well.

    Nice post.


    • verdun2 Says:

      I have no problem with either. McPhail, Veeck, or Col. Ruppert could all make a list like mine. I seriously considered both Barber and Scully, but went with Allen because of the center field camera. I can’t imagine watching a TV game without that camera.
      Thanks for reading.

      • glenrussellslater Says:

        I like the behind-the-plate shot much better. It gives the viewer a feeling of having the pitch thrown to him. You can really see that fastball explode.

        And you get a better view. That’s why the umpire stands behind the catcher, rather than behind the pitcher.

        This is just my opinion. I just feel that the behind the pitcher shot is a more distant feeling and doesn’t bring a viewer into the game nearly as much as the behind-the-plate shot.


  3. William Miller Says:

    Lindsey Nelson. He proved that no matter how awful your sport coat, you could still hold down a job for several decades.
    (Actually, I kind of liked Lindsey Nelson.)

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