The Baseball 100

The Baseball 100



The Pequod Review:

Joe Posnanski has always been a fine sportswriter, but over the last fifteen or so years his writings have gained significantly more substance too. This began with his excellent profile of the Negro League baseball star Buck O'Neil (The Soul of Baseball, 2007), and continued with his superb Substack newsletter. His latest book, The Baseball 100, is probably the best thing he has written to date, a delightful collection of a hundred essays recounting the game's greatest players. Posnanski's essays are generally about 6 to 12 pages each, and they typically weave together a mix of stories, statistics, and anecdotes in order to present highly compelling portraits of each player. Posnanski covers not just the stars (DiMaggio, Mays, Mantle, Cobb, Trout, etc.) but also the under-appreciated players — such as Oscar Charleston (ranked #5):

I want this one ranking to make you angry.

We are now close to the end, and all along I have tried to not mention the rankings. There's is a specific reason for this: The rankings are just a device. Someone once asked Orson Welles if Mr. Thompson, the man who goes in search of Rosebud in Citizen Kane, learned anything or grew at all throughout the movie. "He's not a person," Welles raged. "He's a piece of machinery to lead you through."

That's how I view the rankings ... they are here to give this book shape and to spark a few feelings...

I want you to feel the fury of this ranking, feel it down deep. I want you to think, if you as so inclined, "Look, I'm sure he was terrific, but there's no possible way that Oscar Charleston, who played in a struggling league 100 years ago, could possibly be the fifth greatest player of all time."

Or I want you to think, "Fifth greatest? That's ridiculous. He should be No. 1!"

Or I want you to think, "This is pure political correctness. We have almost no stats on Charleston. We have only a handful of quotes about him. You can't rank someone this high on the list based on a few crusty legends and myths."

Or I want you to think, "It's such an infuriating tragedy that we as an entire nation never got to see the greatest player in the history of baseball."

Or I want you to think, "How is it that I've never even heard of this guy?"

Or I want you to think several of those thoughts at the same time. This ranking, unlike the rest, is a statement and, even more, it's a challenge. Oscar Charleston is the fifth-greatest player in baseball history. I know it. And ranking him here is meant to make you think about what you think.

See, Charleston — Charlie, as he was called — is different. I would say he, more than Satchel Paige, more than Josh Gibson, more than Cool Papa Bell, more than any player in baseball history in my view, represents that time in America when African Americans were invisible to much of the country, when baseball was played exclusively by white men, when being black and playing ball was like howling into the wind.

"I'm truly tempted to research Oscar Charleston," Thomas Boswell wrote angrily in 1999 when Charleston was included on the Sporting News' 100 greatest player list. "Was he a 19th-century player? A Negro Leagues star? A legend in Antarctic sandlot ball? Who knows?"

Boswell's column was intended to make a larger point about how modern players regularly get overlooked and under-ranked, a fair criticism about all lists, perhaps including this one.

But he wrongly picked Charleston as his target. Why? Because Charleston is the one who challenges us. It's one thing to honor Paige, who was one of America's most charismatic figures and who actually pitched in the big leagues in his 40s and 50s. It's one thing to honor Gibson, whose home run legends have endured through the years and who died too young.

But Charleston? Even now, if you asked moderate baseball fans across America, how many would even recognize his name?

Yes, I want you to feel rage about this ranking. Because there are only two possibilities. One is that I'm over-ranking Charleston, perhaps out of a raw sentimentality.

The other is that this is about right, that he was one of the greatest — maybe even the greatest — baseball player who ever lived and most of America ignored him.

And — here's where the rage part comes in — we'll never know for sure.

He also carefully and judiciously handles more controversial players such as Curt Schilling (ranked #88):

In 2002 — the year after Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling were co-MVPs of the World Series and named co-Sportspeople of the Year by Sports Illustrated — someone in the Diamondbacks organization explained to me the basic difference between the two players.

The person said that with Johnson, teammates hated him on the day he pitched, loved him the other four days.

And with Schilling, teammates loved him on the day he pitched, hated him the other four days.

It's a generalization, of course, and I'm sure not everyone felt that way. But it probably does get close to the heart of the two pitchers. Johnson was a grouchy son of a gun on the days he pitched. You didn't want to be anywhere near the guy. He took the mound with a Grand Canyon-sized chip on his shoulder and intended to strike out the world, and he did not want anyone to get near him. You couldn't talk to him. You couldn't approach him. He once threw a ball (somewhat lightly) at a photographer who was too close when he was warming up. Even his wife, Lisa, wouldn't talk to him on pitch days.

"I am the intimidator," he would say about himself.

But the other days, Big Unit was pleasant and even fun to be around, assuming you could get past the natural and menacing glare and daunting 6-foot-10 frame. He played himself in the movie Little Big League. He played himself on The Simpsons. He's done a few funny commercials. He can be quite a likable guy.

Schilling was the opposite kind of story. On game days, there simply wasn't anyone you would rather have on your team. Schilling was a ferocious competitor. He loved the big moments — the bigger the better. Even in his younger days, when he was wildly inconsistent and a self-described "idiot," he thrived in the playoffs, in the World Series, when the games counted most. And when he developed into an incredible pitcher, like he was from 2001 to 2004, he maintained that love of the spotlight. Something about him would rise up when the team needed him to win. He was at his best when his team needed it. 

And the other four days? Schilling was as he is now: opinionated, inflexible, thin-skinned, a loudmouth, a knucklehead, a jokester, a troll, a clubhouse politician, a nonstop yapper. "Sometimes," his Arizona teammate Luis Gonzalez said, "you need to unplug Curt to stop him from talking." Behind the scenes, teammates offered that sentiment in much more pointed ways. He drove them bonkers. He offended many of them. He was, in the words of more than one, a handful. He was, in the words of more than one, a jerk.

Some of this broke through publicly. At different times, teammates, columnists, and managers have called him "something of a con man," "a blowhard," "a phony," "self-centered, "self-aggrandizing," and "Red Light Curt" (for his relish for the television cameras).

Schilling was never that easy to figure out, though. Yes, he would pick fights, say offensive things, push the boundaries of taste and compassion. But he was also deeply generous. In his career, he won the Branch Rickey Award, the Roberto Clemente Award, the Lou Gehrig Award, and the Hutch Award, all of them for charity, community service, and displaying admirable character on and off the field. Schilling and Jamie Moyer are the only two players to win all four of what you might call MLB's integrity awards. He gave tirelessly of his time to support the military, to support children's charities, to support people in need. He was so devoted to the memory of Lou Gehrig that he named his son Gehrig and spent countless hours working with ALS charities.

And Barry Bonds (ranked #3):

There are basically two categories of opinion about Barry Bonds and his place in the game. The first opinion is that Bonds was the most absurdly astonishing player who ever played the game and while he certainly made mistakes and alienated people, his sheer awesomeness is what comes through most of all.

These are people who will go every now and again to Bonds's Baseball-Reference page just to gawk at it the way people might stand across the street from the red carpet at the Academy Awards and stare slack-jawed at the beautifully dressed celebrities. In 2004, for example, Bonds got on base more than 60 percent of the time, in large part because — yes, it still looks like a misprint — he was intentionally walked 120 times.

Yes, let's gawk at that.

The second school of opinion is that Bonds's stats and awards and accomplishments must be downgraded — or nullified entirely — because he used steroids to achieve them. This blatant cheating was never punished, not even by an asterisk when he passed the infinitely more admirable Henry Aaron on the all-time home run list. And this is one of baseball's great shames.

In addition, the opinion goes on, he lied about his steroid use constantly, and also he was a thoroughly unlikable guy — many of his teammates couldn't stand him, many fans say that he turned them off to the game entirely, and away from the field he has been accused of domestic abuse (he was never charged and has denied the allegations) — and it is best for all if he is just wiped out of baseball history entirely except as a reminder that cheaters, in the end, do not win.

You might not share either of these opinions in their entirety or their volume, but I suspect that you lean one way or another. Most people do.

That leads to an intractable problem: There's no way to write about Bonds that suits his two worlds. There is no safe meeting place in between. The people who love Bonds have heard enough about the cheating. Baseball didn't even test then. We have no idea how many other players used steroids. It was a part of the game then. And he was so much better than everyone else. Etc.

And the people who loathe Bonds do not want to hear anything about his steroid-laden numbers — those don't even count — and they don't want to hear weak excuses that it wasn't exactly cheating, and they certainly don't want to hear that he was a Hall of Fame player before he started using because we don't know when he started using. And anyway, he wrecked his own legacy. Nobody did that for him. He could have settled for being one of the best ever and not cheated in the first place. Etc.

So for Barry Bonds, unlike every other player, we have no choice but to write two stories. It works like so: If you like Bonds — or at least respect him enough to read about his greatness without losing your mind — you only need to read the sections headlined "For Bonds Fans." And if you dislike Bonds — or maybe just don't have any room in your mind for anything but criticism for him — you can stick with the sections headlined "For Bonds Critics."

If you veer into the wrong section, you do so at your own peril.

That's just the deal with Barry Lamar Bonds.

I also liked his description of how the Cy Young Award came about:

Ford Frick, the commissioner of baseball, had an idea: He wanted to create an award especially for pitchers. The way he saw things, pitchers were just not getting their due credit. Two pitchers, in particular, came to mind. One was Bob Feller, who had led the American League in wins six different times, but never won the MVP award. The writers gave those six awards to Joe DiMaggio (three times), Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg, and Yogi Berra.

Didn't Bobby Feller deserve one of those awards? Frick thought so.

He felt even more strongly about a pitcher in his favored league, the National League. Every year from 1950 to 1955, Frick believed that Robin Roberts had a powerful case as the league's most valuable player. During that stretch, he led the league in wins four times and in innings pitched five times, but the writers kept overlooking it. One year, they gave the award to his teammate Jim Konstanty, who pitched 150 fewer innings. Another year, they gave it to Hank Sauer for a perfectly fine but hardly awe-inspiring season — that was the season Roberts went 28-7, for crying out loud.

Frick couldn't shake this idea: Pitchers deserved their own award.

When he announced the idea of a pitchers-only award, however, many people rebelled against it. The writers misunderstood Frick's point and began referring to it as a "most valuable pitcher award" which suggested that Frick wanted to prevent pitchers from being considered for actual MVP. That bothered Frick immensely. He tried again to explain.

"Say for example that we would come up with a pitcher who won 30 games in a season," Frick said. "He probably would deserve to be the most valuable player along with winning the pitching award. I certainly didn't intend to take anything away from pitchers. I am a friend of the pitchers. That's why I thought it was a good idea to set up this award."

Ironically, one of those people who felt most snubbed was Feller, who had helped inspire the idea in the first place. Feller thought that Frick's pitching award amounted to nothing more than a consolation prize and that if Frick was serious about honoring pitchers, what he should have done was announce that the league should just give out one hitter award (father than one to each league and one pitcher award every year. He actually put a lot of thought into his idea; he even came up with a new voting group that would include:

-- One fan from each team

-- One reporter who covered each team

-- One player from each team

-- The manager of each team

Meanwhile, others thought the whole thing was ridiculous because pitchers were already getting their fair share of MVP awards. For all the griping by pitchers, United Press's Oscar Fraley wrote, they were not getting overlooked. He wrote that nine different pitchers had won an MVP, the most for any position. He went on to say that if baseball really wanted to honor underappreciated players, it should give out an award for the most valuable third baseman. Only two had won MVPs at that point.

So the pitcher award thing was considerably more controversial and contentious than you would think now. But in 1955, something happened that pressed Frick to follow his instincts and just introduce the award.

That was the year that Cy Young died.


When Young died on November 4, 1955, there was a great outpouring of love and support from the baseball world.

"He was truly one of the real workhorses of old-time baseball" Ty Cobb said.

"One of the true pioneers of the game," Tris Speaker said.

"He had the three requisites of all great pitchers, Elmer Flick said. "Speed, control, endurance."

"His great record will likely stand forever," American League president Will Harridge said.

"He was the greatest pitcher of all time, Ed Walsh said.

He was so beloved that Connie Mack's daughter refused to even tell her father about Young's death. Mack was 92 years old and she said that news like that could send him into a depression from which he would never recover. Cy Young was that great. He was that beloved.

And when he died, Frick understood exactly how he would finally break through all the noise and make his pitcher's award a reality.

He would simply call it the Cy Young Memorial Award. Nobody could argue with that.

These are intelligent, loving and even joyous profiles that transcend merely sportswriting. Highly recommended.