The Judge

A couple of weeks ago my wife and I were watching Ken Burns’ documentary on Jackie Robinson. When we were done she turned to me and the following conversation (more or less) took place:

She: Is he the most important player ever?

Me: Let me think about it.

Ultimately all that led me to thoughts about the Most Important Baseball Guys. And sorry, ladies, but it is all guys, Effa Manley, Helena Robeson, and the All-American Girls baseball ladies not withstanding (not to mention Marge Schott). So I put together, just for my wife, my list of the 10 MIBGs and you know you’re about to be let in on it, don’t you?

First, the usual caveats. This is a list of the MOST IMPORTANT baseball people, not the BEST PLAYERS. There is a difference. I’m looking here for people whose contribution is so important that it cannot be overlooked when detailing the history of the game. Also, I’ve done something like this before years back and I’m cleaning up that list because it included groups (like the Knickerbockers or the Atlantic) and that’s not what I’m looking for. As we really don’t know who “invented” baseball, the origins guy, whoever he is, can’t be on this list and the earliest teams are not a substitute for him.

So here’s my list. I reserve the right to declare, in a week or two, that it is utterly stupid and that this post doesn’t really exist.

Here’s my list of the 10 MIBGs in baseball history. First a list of seven non-playing contributors (in alphabetical order):

1. Ed Barrow invented the Yankees. OK, I know Colonel Ruppert owned the team and coined the name, but when Ruppert brought Barrow to the Yanks, he changed the fortunes of the team. As the team secretary (we’d call him the general manager today), Barrow was a knowledgeable baseball man who’d been instrumental in making the Red Sox a power (he’d managed the 1918 team to World Series title). Barrow went out and collected a number of players like Babe Ruth, Joe Dugan, and added new guys like Lou Gehrig and created a juggernaut that, by the time Barrow retired in 1946 his charges had won 14 pennants and 10 World Series’.

2. Do you like baseball statistics? Do you study them and quote them and use them to bolster your arguments? Then you owe a great debt to Henry Chadwick. A 19th Century sportswriter, Chadwick was the first to systematize baseball statistics. He invented the box score and came up with a number of other statistics that are still in use. New stats may have made some of Chadwick’s work obsolescent, but the guys who came up with them owe a debt to Chadwick.

3. William Hulbert invented the modern league system in 1876 when he founded the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs (baseball was two words in 1876). The key word here is “Clubs.” Hulbert’s system put the clubs, not the players, in charge of the league. It created labor problems, it gave us owners who were first-rate jerks (including Hulbert himself), but it worked. It stabilized professional baseball and served as the model for all American team sport leagues (whatever sport) created since.

4. Byron Bancroft “Ban” Johnson founded the American League. After a quarter century of leagues coming and going, ultimately destroyed or absorbed by the National League, Johnson created a league that was stable enough to challenge the NL for players and gate receipts. After a short “baseball war,” the American League emerged as the equal and rival of the more established league, an equality and rivalry that remain today.

5. Kennesaw Mountain Landis was the first commissioner of baseball and, arguably the most powerful person in the history of the game. Coming into office with a lifetime contract he was able to clean up the sport in the wake of the Black Sox Scandal and to rule the game with an iron fist. He kept Branch Rickey from cornering the market for new players by opening up the farm system for other teams. That made it possible for teams to be more competitive. At the same time he was a staunch segregationist and almost single-handedly kept baseball from integrating until after his death (I never said these were all nice, enlightened guys).

6. If you are opposed to wage slavery and think people ought to be paid what they’re worth and what the market will bear, you have to tip your ball cap to Marvin Miller. Head of the Player’s Union, Miller revolutionized baseball by destroying the reserve clause (admittedly he had help) and opening up salaries. This led to more movement of players and thus more chances for teams to compete as the best players were no longer locked up forever.

7. Twice Wesley Branch Rickey revolutionized the game. A mediocre catcher and manager, he became team secretary for the St. Louis Browns in 1913, moved to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1919 and invented the farm system. This may have been deadly to a free minor league system, but it bound players to an organization in such a way that the best players were able to hone their skills in a team system, that emphasized working together, melding groups of players into a unit that knew each other and to at least some extent learned how to play together. It assured Major League teams of a constant supply of quality players (provided the scouts, owners, and executives knew what they were doing). In 1942 he moved to Brooklyn where he again revolutionized the game by integrating the Major Leagues in 1947. This action helped truly nationalize the game and was a major step in the civil rights movement of the 1940s through the 1960s.

And now two transcendent players:

8. Jack Roosevelt Robinson was not the first black man to play in the Major Leagues. There is evidence that William Edward White who played one game with Providence in 1879 was black. Moses Fleetwood Walker and his brother Welday, both of which played for Toledo (a big league club) in 1884 certainly were black. But none of them stuck. All were out of the major leagues within a year and the so-call “Gentlemen’s Agreement” re-segregated baseball until 1947, when Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was an excellent player, a leader, and a person who could not be ignored as either a man or a player. His arrival opened up the game for an entire group of players who had been excluded for 60 years.

9. George Herman “Babe” Ruth revolutionized the game by introducing power as a central element of baseball. His feats were legendary, some were even true, but he became a household name unlike any other in the game and arguably in American sport. “Ruthian” still describes a larger than life feat in sports. He didn’t save baseball in the early 1920s (Landis did), but he made it popular again and became the centerpiece of the Yankees Dynasty that has been at the heart of baseball since 1921.

All of which brings me to the tenth guy. I thought about a lot of people, Al Spalding and Happy Chandler, Harry Wright, John Montgomery Ward, and Vin Scully, William Rufus Wheaton and Duncan Curry, Daniel Adams and Jim Creighton. All are important in American baseball history and I sort of hate to leave any of them off, but I’ve only got one place left and it belongs to

10. Andrew “Rube” Foster. Foster was an excellent pitcher in the rough and tumble black leagues of the early 20th century. By 1904 he was in Philadelphia and moved in 1907 to Chicago. Still a terrific pitcher, he became a manager and team owner of the American Giants. In 1920 he moved to form the first stable black league, the Negro National League. It was later joined by the Eastern Colored League. These leagues, led by Foster’s NNL, gave form and order to much of black baseball and made it possible for players to coalesce around specific teams. There was still a lot of barnstorming and player movement, but order was coming to what had been an essentially disorganized group. It made it possible for the black press to more easily highlight the black players and it popularized the game. Foster was confined to a mental institution in 1926 and died in 1930. The Great Depression killed the NNL, but the idea remained and a new NNL was formed in the 1930s. It joined the Negro American League in creating a stable playing system for black baseball until the Major Leagues were willing to integrate.

So that’s my list and my present to you on opening day. Feel free to disagree (I know many of you will). Now “Play Ball.”



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9 Responses to “MIBGs”

  1. glenrussellslater Says:

    Surely, you weren’t really thinking of putting Vin Scully on this list, V. That’s just personal preference and not “importance.” I’d counter with Red Barber or Mel Allen or Bob Murphy or some other announcers who I, personally, think were the best at their craft, and who I prefer.

    Without a doubt, I agree with you on Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, Babe Ruth (I think that Ruth “saved” the game more than Commissioner Landis ever could).

    So here’s my list. Again, subject to change. And, just like you, I’ll probably change my mind within a week!

    (not in any particular order. It’s hard enough to make a list like this, but to put them in any order is next to impossible.)

    1. Jackie Robinson (for obvious reasons)

    2. Branch Rickey (for the same reasons you already stated, V.)

    3. Babe Ruth (I already explained my reasoning for choosing him. He re-invigorated the game after the bummer of the aftermath of the 1919 World Series)

    4. Maury Wills (brought back the stolen base into the game at a time when the prevailing wisdom was to sit back and wait for the long ball, which is DULL!)

    5. Bill Veeck (Brought color and fun to the game; his irreverence really spiced things up!)

    6. Curt Flood/Marvin Miller (Can’t have one without the other, in my opinion.)

    7. Lee MacPhail (First front office man to realize the need for radio to spread the game’s popularity when he hired Red Barber to do the Reds games.)

    8. A.B. “Happy” Chandler (for reasons that are related to the integration of baseball)

    I can’t decide on the others at the moment, so my list is going to be the Top 8 MIBGs rather than the Top 10.


    • verdun2 Says:

      Certainly not a bad list. If I agreed with it entirely, it would look like mine, but still not a bad list. My greatest quibble would be with Wills. I’m not sure that Luis Aparicio didn’t start the stolen base revolution which Wills then popularized. Chandler, as you read, was someone I considered and Veeck certainly isn’t a bad choice.

      • glenrussellslater Says:

        Yeah, because Veeck was the greatest promoter of baseball, (along with MacPhail), and that’s important.

        As far as Aparicio is concerned, yep, you’ve got a good point. But what about the manager who LET him run. Al Lopez. He not only was bold enough to LET the White Sox run during a time when baseball was getting fairly stagnant with the “waiting for the long ball” attitude, but he was not afraid to let them FAIL, as well. He guided the 1959 Go Go Sox, a team that definitely popularized the running game, and let’s not forget that there were other running factors on the Go Go Sox, as well. Jim Landis is often overlooked as a base burglar. And Lopez took chances. When Minoso came back in 1960, he wasn’t afraid to let him run and FAIL; Minoso had a not-so-great stolen bases/caught stealing ratio. Yet, Lopez was not afraid to let him run. And many other White Sox players tried and failed as well, because Lopez wasn’t afraid to take chances.

        Therefore, I am going to put Al Lopez (particularly while he was the manager of the White Sox) as number 9 on my list. Here goes:

        9. Al Lopez

        I’m thinking of a few possibilities for number 10, but I haven’t decided yet. It’s not easy!

        V, what how do you feel about my selection of Al Lopez as number 9 on my list for MIBG’s?


      • verdun2 Says:

        My only problem with Lopez is that he never won. He finished second a gillion times and when he finished 1st on two occasions, he lost the World Series (to the Giants in ’54 and the Dodgers in ’59). If I were going for a manager I probably would go with Harry Wright, Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel, or John McGraw over Lopez.

  2. glenrussellslater Says:

    V, I’m surprised and disappointed that no one else put their two cents in on this. I would have liked to have seen what others feel about this, particularly Steve Myers and WK. At any rate,V, I’m curious as to how you feel about my choices. How do YOU feel about my choices? Pros and cons, etc.?


  3. glenrussellslater Says:

    With the addition of Al Lopez on my list of MIBG’s, naturally I’m taking Maury Wills off my list. Therefore, there are still only eight on my list so far. You got me thinking about Maury Wills and Luis Aparicio, and you provided a cogent argument about Aparicio. However, FURTHER than that, I realize that the decision to LET him, and other White Sox baserunners run (and taking chances) was really the ultimate decision of Al Lopez as manager. Aparicio, the underrated Jim Landis, both of whom had excellent stolen base/caught stealing ratios, as well as those Chisox players who had rather LOUSY stolen base/caught stealing ratios.

    V, I’d like to know what your opinion is, then, of Al Lopez as a revolutionary force in baseball, at least in terms of running and taking chances during a time when no other manager really was willing to do so.


  4. Steve Myers Says:

    v, this is very interesting and informative and Glen, I simply don’t know enough history to come up with a list of 10, but I appreciate you thinking I do. The only one I might add and this is a very biased choice is Lou Perini since he got the whole relocation thing going.

  5. Gary Trujillo Says:

    I can’t say I disagree with anyone on this list. Great post.

  6. wkkortas Says:

    If you have Chadwick here, you have to have Bill James, even if they are running as an entry.

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