The Major League Baseball all-star game is just an exhibition. But, it does provide fans with the chance to see the game’s biggest and brightest stars share the same stage for one night.
Thinking about what baseball’s current stars may accomplish and whether any will elevate to all-time great status left me reflecting on greats from the past. Particularly, those I never got to see play.
Since I’m in an introspective mood, I’d like to share the names of 10 players I wish I saw. In May, I did something similar with former Seattle Mariners.
As you’ll see, the list is personal and includes names that wouldn’t be on yours. Some will disagree with my selections or their order. That’s fine. I certainly heard from fans when I placed Alex Rodriguez ahead of Ken Griffey Jr. on my Mariners list.
In the end though, my choices say more about me than the status of these great players.
Without further ado, let’s begin.
10. Nolan Ryan (New York Mets version)
I’ve often wondered what possessed Mets management to trade Ryan and three other young players for a 29-year-old Jim Fregosi, a player coming off the worst season of his career.
Watching the hard-throwing Texan before he was included in one of the worst trades in baseball history would’ve added perspective on how far the future Hall of Famer progressed after being dispatched to the California Angels in December 1971.
As a member of the Mets, Ryan struggled with his control as he did throughout his career. But, he did pitch a 7-inning gem in the 1969 NLCS against the Atlanta Braves and surrendered no runs during 2.1 innings of relief against the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series that same year.
I most certainly would’ve enjoyed watching the Flushing version of the Ryan Express.
9. Ralph Kiner
Many fans are familiar with Kiner as a member of the Mets’ original announcing crew and the many occasions he butchered names or his own analysis. Still, those “Kinerisms” endeared him to Mets fans, including a younger version of me.
Kiner’s career was limited to just 10 seasons due to a back injury. However, he hit more home runs (369) than any player did during that decade. That’s why I wish I saw “Ralphie” during his playing days.
It’s worth noting Ted Williams (267) would likely have hit more dingers, if he hadn’t lost considerable playing time to serving in the military. Nevertheless, Kiner was an elite power hitter during his relatively short career.
8. Sandy Koufax
To call Sandy Koufax a late bloomer may be an understatement. But, he certainly knew how to finish strong.
The southpaw debuted at age-19 with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955, but his progress was initially restricted due to an assortment of issues including mishandling by management, poor control, and injuries.
Finally, everything came together in 1962 and Koufax enjoyed one of the most dominant runs ever experienced by a modern era pitcher.
Between 1962-66, Koufax won three Cy Young awards and was named league MVP. He earned these accolades by leading the majors in strikeouts, ERA, FIP, and pitcher bWAR during that span.
Unfortunately, the Brooklyn, New York native abruptly retired at age-30 due to elbow arthritis.
The native Oklahoman debuted at age-19 and was heralded as heir apparent to New York Yankees icon Joe DiMaggio. Can you imagine the pressure of playing for the most famous sports team in America and being expected to fill the shoes of the beloved Joltin’ Joe?
The Mick didn’t disappoint.
Mantle was destined to become the greatest switch-hitter ever. His 536 home runs stands as the record for most by a switch-hitter.
6. Willie Mays
I did see Mays play at Shea Stadium in 1973. By then though, the Say Hey Kid was 42-years-old and not a kid.
Much like the aging Ken Griffey Jr. I saw in 2010, Mays was no longer capable of the dynamic play that once thrilled fans across America for two decades. Sadly, pitcher Sid Fernandez has a higher bWAR as a Mets hitter than Mays.
Say Hey Willie’s blend of speed and power during his prime were unmatched and rarely repeated since he retired. Mays was the first player to have more than 600 home runs and 300 stolen bases. Only two other players have accomplished the feat since — Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds.
When discussing the greatest baseball player ever, Willie Mays is the first name that enters my mind. The 22-time all-star could do so many things and Babe Ruth and Bonds are the only player with higher career bWAR.
Seeing Mays at his best would’ve been an unimaginable treat.
5. Hank Aaron
Like Mays, I saw a fading Hank Aaron play. I even witnessed his historic home run propelling him past Ruth on national TV. So did the rest of America.
Seeing Hammerin’ Hank during his prime years would’ve added to the already steep admiration I have for him as a player and man.
Aaron is most recognizable for being a home run hitter, although he was so much more. Sure, he held the all-time home run record until passed by Bonds. However, the right-handed hitter was a two-time batting champion and earned three Gold Gloves.
How many of you knew Aaron has the third most hits (3,771) in the history of the game?
Yeah, Hank Aaron wasn’t just a home run hitter.
I’m old enough to remember Clemente tragically dying in a plane crash, while flying with supplies to an earthquake-stricken Nicaragua in 1972. But, I don’t recall his playing days.
Known for having a cannon for a throwing arm, Clemente is tied with Mays for most Gold Gloves (12) ever won by an outfielder.
The native of Puerto Rico isn’t often mentioned as one of the greatest right-handed hitters ever, but his .317 career batting average highest is among right-handed hitters with 10,000-plus plate appearances.
A baseball icon, who heroically died trying to people he didn’t even know. Yep, he makes my list.
3. Ted Williams
The most amazing facet of the Splendid Splinter’s career had nothing to do with his accomplishments on the field.
Rather, it was his service during two wars as an aviator in the United States Marine Corps. Williams’ service to his country robbed him of nearly five seasons of MLB action.
Despite his prolonged absences from the game, the Boston Red Sox outfielder managed to amass 2,654 hits and 521 home runs. Most baseball observers believe Williams could’ve challenged Ruth’s all-time home run mark (714) if it weren’t for his military service.
When Williams was on the field, he was simply the best hitter in the game. Perhaps, the best ever.
Amazingly, the six-time batting champion never led the league in hits during his 19 seasons. But, he led the league in walks eight times, has the highest career OBP of any hitter with 3000-plus plate appearances, and is the last player to hit .400 in a season.
2. Lou Gehrig
How influential was Lou Gehrig and the sport of baseball in 1939?
The terrible disease that shortened his life — Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis — is commonly referred to as Lou Gerhig’s disease.
Although he played in the shadow of Ruth and best known as a player for playing in 2,130 consecutive games, Gehrig was one of the greatest sluggers in the history of the game. The Iron Horse ranks third all-time in slugging percentage and on-base percentage trailing only Ruth and Williams.
In his last full season, Gehrig hit 29 home runs and slashed .295/.410/.523. This was considered a down season for the then-35-year-old. Sadly, he’d succumb to the disease bearing his name less than three years later.
I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like witnessing one of the greatest athletes of the young century wither away; yet courageously tell an adoring Yankee Stadium crowd he was the “luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
All the while, he knew he was dying.
Yes, I wish I saw Lou Gehrig.
The Baseball Reference play index is a wonderful tool for researching the game we love. One of the many search parameters offered to users is time period. An individual can choose specific windows of time or simply select an era.
Options for eras are usually associated with notable events — beginnings of leagues or expansion, for example. One of those choices (Integration) refers to the arrival of Jackie Robinson.
Naturally, Robinson is most identifiable as the courageous soul who broke the color barrier. He was also a great player worthy of Hall of Fame induction.
If you look at Robinson’s career totals, the stats don’t jump off the page. However, his skin color prevented from being a major leaguer until age-28. As a result, he lost several prime years he could’ve used to amass better numbers.
A more equitable way to look at Robinson’s playing career is by comparing his peak years (ages 28-34) to other greats during the same age period. When you do that, his greatness is apparent.
For more perspective, another late arrival to the big leagues — Ichiro Suzuki — posted a 38.5 bWAR during his age 28-34 seasons.
During an appearance at the 1972 World Series, Robinson was still fighting for racial equality by advocating the hiring of the first African American manager. Sadly, he’d pass away less than two weeks later. He was only 53.
At the time, I remember thinking Robinson looked so old. Perhaps, it was his white hair. After all, I was a kid and anyone with white hair was old.
As I’ve grown older myself, I now realize Jackie Robinson fought so hard and sacrificed so much to help move justice-for-all in the right direction. Perhaps, that battle robbed the American icon of more than just a few peak years of playing baseball.
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