Born to Play Ball - First Basemen
Lou Gehrig (1923-1939)
The Iron Horse
"He was a symbol of indestructibility - a Gibraltar in cleats."
- Jim Murray
Lou Gehrig, arguably the greatest first baseman to play the game, was never the top star on the New York Yankees because of a certain person named Babe Ruth. Together, though, Ruth and Gehrig comprised the greatest one-two punch in baseball history, leading the Bronx Bombers to seven World Series.
Born to poor German immigrants in Manhattan, later going to Columbia University, where he starred in both football and baseball, a Yankee scout signed him before he graduated. In June of 1925, Gehrig was put in the lineup, replacing the ailing, regular first baseman, Wally Pipp. It was the first of 2,130 consecutive games played by the Iron Horse - a remarkable record that few thought ever would be broken.
As great as Babe Ruth was as a hitter, Gehrig was nearly his equal. He still holds the mark for career grand slams, hit 493 home runs, had a lifetime batting average of .340 (15th all time), and averaged 147 RBI in his 13 full seasons. To put the RBI total in perspective, it would be 39 years before a player had 147 in a season. He won the Triple Crown in 1934 and two MVP awards.
Midway through the 1938 season, Gehrig began to tire and his stats were declining - many thought the long season was getting to him. However, during spring training in 1939, his decline continued and his season began dismally. On May 2, Gehrig went to his manager, Joe McCarthy, and said, "I'm benching myself, Joe." Gehrig took the lineup card to the unbelieving umpires. Before the game began, the stadium announcer addressed the fans, "Ladies and gentlemen, Lou Gehrig's consecutive streak of 2,130 games played has ended." In June, Lou went to the Mayo Clinic and got the bad news - he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease).
Later that same month he retired. July 4, the Yankees proclaimed, would be Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day. Between games of a double header that day, the starting line-up of the great 1927 Yankees team, dubbed Murderer's Row, gathered for a special ceremony. Gehrig's number 4 was retired - the first time a player had ever been given that tribute. And in one of the most memorable and enduring sports moments, Gehrig addressed the crowd: "Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."
Fewer than two years later, the Gibraltar in cleats succumbed to the illness that bears his name.
Jimmie Foxx (1925-1945)
"He has muscles in his hair."
- Lefty Gomez
He was nicknamed "The Beast" because of his bulging muscles and how hard he hit a baseball - third basemen were scared when Jimmie Foxx walked to the batter's box. Hall of Fame catcher Bill Dickey once said, "If I was catching blindfolded, I'd always know when it was Foxx who connected. He hit the ball harder than anyone else." Pitcher Lefty Gomez, who gave up a monumental shot to Foxx, quipped, "When Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon, he and all the space scientists were puzzled by an unidentifiable white object. I knew immediately what it was. That was a home run ball hit off me in 1937 by Jimmie Foxx."
Playing most of his career in Philadelphia and Boston, Jimmie Foxx was one of the most feared hitters in the game. He was a three time MVP and won the Triple Crown in 1933. His record of 12 consecutive seasons of 30 or more home runs stood until Barry Bonds broke it 2004. He was the second player to ever hit 500 homers and the youngest to achieve the mark until Alex Rodriguez in 2007. He finished his career in second place all-time in homers until Willie Mays hit number 535 in 1966. His posting of a .325 career average demonstrates he was far from an all-or-nothing hitter.
In 1932, Foxx hit 58 home runs, only two shy of Babe Ruth's record of 60. If Mother Nature had not intervened, he would have tied the Babe - two games in which he hit round trippers were called due to rain and the home runs were erased off the books.
Known as the right-handed Babe Ruth, Foxx was also the opposite of Ruth in another regard. The Babe started his career as a pitcher; Foxx ended his on the mound with a 1-0 record and a 1.59 ERA over 22 innings.
Eddie Murray (1977-1997)
"Eddie Murray's bronze bust in Cooperstown will chatter only slightly less than the man himself. The first line of text on the monument should read: 'He spoke rarely and carried a mighty bat.'"
He never won an MVP award, never led the league in home runs, runs batted in or average, yet when the baseball historians rank the all-time great first basemen, Eddie Murray always winds up in the top five. He never posted gaudy numbers except when one looks at the body of work over a twenty year career. In 20 straight seasons, Murray drove in over 75 runners - a major league record that may never be equaled.
With the exception of Mickey Mantle, Murray is easily the greatest switch hitter in history. He accomplished a feat that only three other players (Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, the other two) achieved: 500 homeruns and 3,000 hits. Steady Eddy was always in the top ten vote total for MVP.
As a member of the Baltimore Orioles, he led his team to two World Series, winning it in 1983. He helped the Cleveland Indians reach the playoffs in two of the three years he played there.
Murray spent the best part of his career with the Orioles before being traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988. In the last years of his career, he played for the New York Mets, the Indians, back to Baltimore, then the Angels, and finally again with the Dodgers.
He was a close friend with Oriole great Cal Ripken, Jr., and was the consummate team player. Yet his image with the media suffered. He rarely spoke to the press, preferring to go quietly about his business. Unfortunately, when the media reacted negatively to Murray's cold shoulder, the fans turned on him as well. He was never embraced like the more popular players such as Ripken. The baseball writers, however, knew of Murray's place in history, electing him on the first ballot to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003.
Harmon Killebrew (1954-1975)
"The homers he hit against us would be homers in any park, including Yellowstone."
- Paul Richards
Harmon Killebrew, a gifted athlete who was Idaho's all-state quarterback in high school, was discovered by a scout when the youngster was playing an impromptu baseball game. In 1954 at age 17, he was signed as "bonus baby" by the Washington Senators and, for the next five years, sat on the bench. Then he got his chance, slamming 42 homers in his first full season of 1959.
In 1961, the Senators moved to Minnesota, renaming themselves the Twins. Playing in the obscurity of the upper Midwest, Killebrew may not have been as well known as a player in New York but opposing teams knew of him and dreaded playing against him. He hit over 40 home runs in eight different seasons, led the Twins to a World Series appearance in 1965, won an MVP award in 1969, and was an 11 time All-Star. He is still the all-time American League leader in home runs (573) for right-hand hitters and surely would have hit over 600 homers if he hadn't languished on the bench for his first five years.
His nickname of Killer ill suited the quiet and kind slugger. He did not party like many in the big leagues. When asked what he liked to do for fun, the gentle man replied, "Well, I like to wash dishes, I guess."
He had a beautiful, compact, yet powerful swing, one that gave rise to the legend that Killebrew is the silhouette on the official logo of Major League Baseball. Many, including Major League Baseball, deny the story, but the similarity appears to be more than coincidental.
Willie McCovey (1959-1980)
"McCovey didn't hit any cheap ones. When he belts a home run, he does it with such authority, it seems like an act of God."
- Walter Alston
Willie McCovey was one of the most feared hitters in all of baseball during the 1960s and batting behind Willie Mays for one of the most powerful one-two punches in all of history. As a lanky first baseman, Willie McCovey had a long and powerful swing that produced mammoth home runs that simply demoralized pitchers.
He hit 521 home runs in a Hall of Fame career and retired with the most round trippers of any left-handed hitter in National League history - a mark that was eclipsed by Barry Bonds, also a Giant. Many speculate how many more home runs he would have had if he were not platooned for his first four years in the league, and if he had not played in windy Candlestick Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. He is credited with the longest homer in Candlestick history - a 500-foot slam in 1966. He was also one of only seven players to clear the right field roof in the 67-year history of Pittsburgh's Forbes Field.
His seventeen grand slams are the most in National League history, and he was the first player to twice hit two home runs in one inning. His crowning year came in 1969, when he was named the MVP. He led the league in homers (45) and runs batted in (126), finishing fifth in batting average with a .320 mark.
One of San Francisco's most revered athletes, his name graces the water beyond the Giants' right field (McCovey Cove) and his number 44 was retired. McCovey wore number 44 in honor of his fellow Mobile, Alabama, native, Hank Aaron.
Johnny Mize (1936-1953)
The Big Cat
"We always did know how to pitch to him, but some days when you're squatting behind the plate, Mr. Mize's bat swells up."
- Roy Campanella
Georgia native Johnny Mize was nicknamed Big Cat because he was such a smooth fielder but his career was defined by the bat he wielded. Four times he led the league in slugging percentage and home runs. He had such a great eye and excellent bat control that he is the only player to ever hit 50 home runs and strike out fewer than 50 times in a season. Like Hank Greenberg and Joe DiMaggio, he missed his chance at 500 career homers because he served three years in the service during World War II. One of Mize's records is quite unusual - he holds the record for most games (6) in which he hit three home runs.
Mark McGwire (1986-2001)
"His arms are bigger than my legs."
A twelve time All-Star and an impressive slugger, Mark McGwire hit nearly 600 home runs in a 15 year career. His 1998 home run chase for the record books (hitting a then record 70), along with Sammy Sosa, was the talk of baseball, if not all of sports. He hit a home run every 10.61 at bats, the best mark ever in history, beating Babe Ruth by a full at bat. He was named to the All Century team in 1999 and was a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. Yet his great achievements forever will be clouded by the suspicions of steroid use. His contemporaries Sammy Sosa, Raphael Palmero and even Barry Bonds will always be looked at through the same steroid lens. A career total of 583 home runs makes one a lock for the Hall's induction. Yet in his first year of eligibility, he received only 23% of the vote from the baseball writers - a clear indication that the steroids controversy will cloud this era's statistics.