Born to Play Ball - Left Fielders
Ted Williams (1939-1960)
The Splendid Splinter
"Did they know how to pitch to Williams? Sure they did. It was great advice, very encouraging. They said he had no weaknesses, won't swing at a bad ball, has the best eyes in the business, and can kill you with one swing. He won't hit anything bad, but don't give him anything good."
- Bobby Shantz
Ted Williams has been considered by many to be the greatest hitter who ever lived - he certainly was one of the best ever. As a rookie, he led the league in RBIs, had a career batting average of .344 (7th best all time), and hit 521 home runs. He won two MVP Awards (1946 and 1949) and, besides Rogers Hornsby, was the only player to win two Triple Crowns (1942 and 1947). He is baseball's last player to bat over .400 (.406 in 1941).
Williams easily would have had 3,000 career hits and over 600 home runs had he not served in the military for five full seasons during his prime. He was a pilot in World War II and in Korea. Yet he never once complained or wondered what could have been his final career stats.
Playing his entire career with the Boston Red Sox and being the superstar he was, one would think he would have been revered by the Red Sox nation. Very early in his career an uneasy relationship with the Boston newspapers left him feeling that the "knights of the keyboard" were against him and he treated them rudely. His relationship with the fans wasn't as hostile but it was hardly warm. Williams could never understand how fans could boo a player who made an out, yet cheer when that same player hit a home run. He would never tip his hat to the crowd, even after the final at-bat in his career which was a home run. Eddie Collins once noted, "If he'd just tip his cap once, he could be elected Mayor of Boston in five minutes."
Yet through it all Ted Williams had no regrets. He once summed up his motivation: "A man has to have goals - for a day, for a lifetime - and that was mine, to have people say, 'There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived.'"
Barry Bonds (1986-2007)
"Is he better than Babe Ruth? Hell, I don't know. Who does know? Barry never pitched and won twenty games. I know that, but in his era, there ain't nobody close. And I mean nobody."
- Bobby Cox
At this point, there are few Americans who don't know of Barry Bonds. He has become the all-time home run leader, surpassing Hank Aaron, and he has been walked more than any other player in history - a testament to the fear that opposing pitchers and managers felt when Bonds came to the plate. Yet all of these accomplishments, let alone a record seven MVP Awards, are overshadowed by the steroid controversy that surrounds Bonds, Major League Baseball, and all of the gaudy statistics that have been amassed over the past decade.
Did Bonds take steroids? Yes, he got extremely large and muscular, hit far more home runs after the age of 36 than anyone in history, hit a record 73 homeruns at age 37, and only seemed to get better and stronger as he aged - an age when other players' skills began to erode - yet he is an all time great of the game. His induction into the Hall of Fame was a given before he was suspected of steroid use. He was a five tool player, hitting for average and power, stole bases and exhibited a good glove and arm in the field.
He has played for only two teams, the Pittsburgh Pirates for seven years, and the rest in his home town of San Francisco, for the Giants. He's never been warm to the media, and the media have returned the hard feelings. He has never been revered like his godfather, Willie Mays, a legend in the Bay area, nor as admired by fans across the country like Aaron. Much like Ted Williams and Ty Cobb, Bonds never endeared himself to the writers and the American public.
Love him or hate him, there is no question that Bonds was a special talent, one that comes about in a generation or two. At the time of this writing, more investigating needs to be done as to whether the all-time home run champion used performance-enhancing drugs. Yet few can deny that Bonds struck fear into every pitcher or manager on the opposing team. An early teammate of his with the Pirates once declared, "One day, he will put up numbers no one can believe."
Stan Musial (1941-1963)
Stan the Man
"He could have hit .300 with a fountain pen."
- Joe Garagiola
When Stan Musial retired in 1963, he held 17 major league, 29 National League and nine All Star Game records, and had more hits than anyone except for Ty Cobb. Easily considered to be one of the all-time greats of the game, he was voted #1 among the most underrated athletes by ESPN. Musial's name rarely arises when people talk about the best players in history. Opponents certainly knew about him. Pitcher Carl Erskine once said, "I had pretty good success with Stan by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third," and broadcaster Vin Scully, when asked how good Musial was, replied, "He was good enough to take your breath away."
Playing his entire career with the St. Louis Cardinals, he led the team to four pennants and three World Series titles in his first four years. He won seven batting titles and three MVP Awards in his 22 seasons, one of which he spent in the service during World War II. He averaged .340 his first 18 years before injuries and age dragged that mark to .331.
Like contemporary Willie Mays, he played the game with sheer joy and enthusiasm and he was rarely seen without a smile on his face. He once said, "I love to play this game of baseball - I love putting on this uniform." He was the All-American boy from Donora, Pennsylvania - which also produced Ken Griffey - and married his high school sweetheart. Sportscaster Bob Kostas stated, "All Musial represents is more than two decades of sustained excellence and complete decency as a human being." His statue outside the Cardinals' stadium is inscribed, "Here stands baseball's perfect warrior. Here stands baseball's perfect knight."
So how did he get the nickname "The Man"? Legend has it that Brooklyn Dodger fans would lament, "Here comes 'that man' again!" when Musial came to bat.
Pete Rose (1963-1986)
"I'd walk through hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball."
- Pete Rose
Pete Rose was a brash rookie who played the game with such energy and purpose that he would even sprint to first base on a walk. When Whitey Ford saw Rose, he off-handedly called him "Charlie Hustle," which Rose saw as a badge of honor rather than as sarcasm as Ford intended. Rose played the game full tilt, always sliding head-first into a base; he even ran over catcher Bob Fosse during an All Star game, separating the backstop's shoulder.
Rose left some amazing career statistics, including most games played, most hits and at bats, as well as most singles. He won one MVP Award, appeared in 17 All Star games, and collected three World Series rings. He was also versatile, playing more than 500 games at five different positions - the only player to achieve that distinction. Like Ty Cobb, Rose was never a power hitter, and at the end of his career, Rose was chasing Cobb's all-time hit record, a mark few believed would ever be reached.
With all of his records and achievements, one would think Pete Rose was a lock for the Hall of Fame. He would have been had he not broken one of the game's most basic rules - he gambled on baseball while playing for and managing the Cincinnati Reds. Many have argued that the Hall counts racists (Cobb), womanizers (Ruth), and others with some morally deficient characteristics among its inductees, and Rose should not be banned because he gambled.
However, what many fail to understand is that the integrity of the game suffers most when those who play wager on their own sport. Every professional sport posts signs in the locker rooms stating how detrimental gambling is to the game. Rose chose to ignore this most basic credo in sports, and he has yet to fully confess his guilt and express remorse. Until he does, the Hall will be off limits as it is for someone else who was implicated in a gambling ring during a World Series - Shoeless Joe Jackson. In addition, Rose is officially banned not just from the Hall of Fame but baseball itself, a move taken to ensure the integrity of our national pastime.
Carl Yastrzemski (1961-1983)
"I think about baseball when I wake up in the morning. I think about it all day and I dream about it at night. The only time I don't think about it is when I'm playing it."
- Carl Yastrzemski
Carl Yastrzemski replaced the legendary Ted Williams for the Boston Red Sox in left field in 1961. Imagine that for 45 years (except for injury, military service and playing as the designated hitter) only two players - both Hall of Famers - occupied left field, in front of the Green Monster, for Boston. While Williams was great, Yaz was beloved by the Red Sox fans as no other player in the franchise's history.
Yaz was an 18-time All Star, seven-time Gold Glove recipient, and an MVP winner in 1967, when he won the Triple Crown - the last person to do so. That same year, he led the Red Sox to the World Series, where they lost to the St. Louis Cardinals. He also appeared in the great 1975 World Series but came up short again, this time to the Cincinnati Reds.
Yaz is one of the very few players to hit 400 home runs and collect 3,000 hits (something that Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Joe DiMaggio never did), and was the only American Leaguer to do so until Cal Ripken, Jr. He also holds the American League record for games played and is tied with Brooks Robinson at 23 years with the same team.
Never a great speedster, he was an excellent left fielder, mastering all the nuances of balls hit off the left field wall (the Green Monster) at Fenway Park. He also had a knack for fooling opposing runners and hitters by acting as though he was going to catch a fly ball for an out, then turning quickly to catch the ball off the wall. Many sure doubles were turned into singles by Yaz' coy ploy.
Joe Jackson (1908-1920)
"I copied Jackson's style because I thought he was the greatest hitter I had ever seen, the greatest natural hitter I ever saw. He's the guy who made me a hitter."
- Babe Ruth
Do you know who has the third highest career batting average in history? If you guessed Joe Jackson at .356, you'd be right. Ty Cobb, Connie Mack and Ruth all claimed he was the best hitter they had ever seen. Yet Jackson was out of the game by age 31 because of his alleged part in the Black Sox Scandal, when several members of the Chicago White Sox "threw" the World Series after being paid off by gamblers. Jackson always claimed his innocence in the matter, saying he kept trying to return the $5,000 he received. Although he hit well during the Series, there were several instances where his effort seemed lacking. The Black Sox Scandal rocked the game's foundations so much so that a new commissioner of baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, banned the guilty for life from the game. Yet the legend of Shoeless Joe lives on, even the reported story of a nameless young boy who called out to Jackson as he entered the courtroom, "Say it ain't so, Joe." Reportedly Jackson's last words on his death bed were "I'm about to face the greatest umpire of all and He knows I'm innocent."
To this day, Judge Landis' edict prevents Shoeless Joe Jackson from being eligible for the Hall of Fame.
Rickey Henderson (1979-2003)
Man of Steel
"If my uniform doesn't get dirty, I haven't done anything in the baseball game."
- Rickey Henderson
Arguably the greatest leadoff hitter in history, Rickey Henderson ended his career as the all time leader in runs scored, stolen bases and leadoff home runs. He stole over 1,400 bases - to put that in perspective, that's over 400 more than second place held by Lou Brock. He also shattered Brock's single season theft total by swiping 130 in 1982. He terrorized the opposition whenever he reached base because everyone knew he would attempt to steal.
The odd part of Henderson's career was that he never stayed with any club very long, changing teams 13 times in his 24 seasons. He played on two World Series winning teams - the Oakland A's in 1989 and the Toronto Blue Jays in 1993.
Willie Stargell (1962-1982)
"I never saw anything like it. He doesn't just hit pitchers, he takes away their dignity."
- Don Sutton
Willie Stargell was a large, gentle man by nature, but with a bat in his hand he was ferocious, launching some of the longest home runs of his era. He finished with 475 round trippers for his career, playing in an era of low scoring games. He would have hit well over 500 homers if he had not spent his first eight years at Pittsburgh's cavernous Forbes Field, the largest major league park. He helped the Pirates to World Series titles in 1971 and 1979, when he won both the league and World Series MVP awards. Few loved the game as much as Willie. As he once said about playing the game, "It's supposed to be fun. The man [umpire] says 'Play ball' not 'Work ball,' you know."