The Greatest Living Ballplayer

I’ve been doing A LOT of reading this offseason and currently, I’m reading Richard Ben Cramer’s bio of Joe DiMaggio. The book reminded me on how, in 1969, he was voted as “The Greatest Living Ballplayer” and how he insisted on being announced as such. I immediately thought this wasn’t true. I don’t think there was any point in DiMaggio’s life where he deserved the title. In fact, you could argue that there was never a time where he was the “Greatest Living Center Fielder”.

So I decided to use Wins Above Replacement to take a chronological look of “The Greatest Living Player” from 1871-2013. WAR isn’t the be-all end-all in evaluating players, but it’s the best we have and it’s a fantastic starting point.

I separated Position Players and Pitchers into two different lists.

First, the position players:

Player WAR Start End Years
Ross Barnes 2.1 1871 1871 1
Davy Force 7.2 1872 1872 1
Ross Barnes 26.4 1873 1880 8
Cap Anson 93.8 1881 1908 28
Honus Wagner 130.6 1909 1922 14
Ty Cobb 151.2 1923 1929 7
Babe Ruth 183.8 1930 8/16/48 17+
Ty Cobb 151.2 8/17/48 7/17/61 13+
Rogers Hornsby 128.2 7/18/61 1/5/63 1+
Stan Musial 128.1 1/6/63 1965 3
Willie Mays 157.9 1966 2005 40
Barry Bonds 162.5 2006 Present 8

Now for the Pitchers….

Player WAR Start End Years
George Zettlein 16.4 1871 1872 2
Al Spalding 59.2 1873 1878 6
Tommy Bond 62.0 1879 1883 5
Jim McCormick 93.2 1884 1898 15
Kid Nichols 108.5 1899 1901 3
Cy Young 168.7 1902 11/4/55 53+
Lefty Grove 103.6 11/5/55 5/22/75 19+
Warren Spahn 100.9 5/23/75 1979 4+
Tom Seaver 121.4 1980 2002 23
Roger Clemens 140.3 2003 Present 11

A couple of notes
– If you want to exclude Bonds and Clemens for PED reasons, then Mays and Seaver would still be the “living leaders”.
– It’s pretty amazing that Cap Anson led all position players for 28 years. That span would be 3rd longest behind Cy Young and Willie Mays.
– Even if you want to credit DiMaggio additional “WAR” for the WAR (WWII), he’d still be well short of the leaders.
– If you credit DiMaggio for time lost to military service, you would also have to do the same for Ted Williams. He missed almost 5 years and finished with 123.2 WAR. He would need to average 7.5 WAR per season to pass Mays, which is actually not that outrageous considering his seasons during that time.
– On Old Timers Day at Yankee Stadium, as DiMaggio was announced as “The Greatest Living Ballplayer”, he wasn’t even the greatest ballplayer on the field at the time (see Mickey Mantle).