Born to Play Ball - Shortstops
Honus Wagner (1897-1917)
The Flying Dutchman
"He was the nearest thing to a perfect player no matter where his manager chose to play him."
- John McGraw
Since he retired over 90 years ago, Honus Wagner has been regarded as the greatest shortstop of all time and one of the five or six greatest players ever. Contemporaries ranked him ahead of the legendary Ty Cobb. Wagner was the complete player package with no weakness. He was one of the first five players inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Wagner batted over .300 in seventeen consecutive seasons, winning eight batting titles. He was a brilliant base runner and his defense was nothing short of spectacular, especially when one considers the very small gloves used by the players. Despite being somewhat bowlegged, bulky and possessing long arms, Wagner was easily one of the fastest players - he finished his career with over 700 stolen bases.
When he retired in 1917, he held the National League records for career hits, doubles, triples, runs, runs batted in, stolen bases and games played. He played almost his entire career for the Pittsburgh Pirates, leading them to two World Series appearances (including the very first World Series in 1903), winning it all in 1909.
There are many legendary stories about the Flying Dutchman - how he would hold the ball at short until the very last moment, then throw out the batter at first by half a step - but the best was told by Burleigh Grimes: "One day he [Wagner] was batting against a young pitcher who had just come into the league. The catcher was a kid, too .... The pitcher threw Honus a curve ball, and he swung at it and missed and fell down. Looked helpless as a robin. I was kind of surprised, but the guy sitting next to me ... poked me in the ribs and said, 'Watch this next one.' Those kids figured they had the old man's weakness, you see, and served him up the same dish - as he knew they would. Well, Honus hit a line drive so hard the fence in left field went back and forth for five minutes."
Alex Rodriguez (1994-Present)
"He is what baseball needs right now. He respects the game, has a lot of class and image most people would pay for. I wish my daughter could marry him, but she's only two years old."
- Gary DiSarcina
While currently playing third base for the New York Yankees, Alex Rodriguez spent the vast majority of his career at shortstop, hence his inclusion here at that position. From 1996, his first full season, until 2003 he amassed not only all-time records for the position but also for anyone who has played the game. He is the youngest player to hit 300, 400 and 500 home runs. His average year is .306, 126 runs scored, 44 home runs and 130 runs batted in - and he seems to get better each season.
To put it in perspective, if A-Rod continues his pace for just six more seasons, he will approach 800 home runs by the age of 38.
He is among the hardest working players in the game, constantly striving to be the best he can be. Before he moved to third base, he was considered to have the best range of any shortstop in the American League, winning two Gold Gloves in the 2002 and 2003 campaigns. He might have won more had the fielding wiz, Omar Visquel, not been playing.
Rodriguez has won three MVP Awards, one with the last place Texas Rangers, a tribute to the numbers he posted. He holds the record for most homers in a season by a shortstop and he seems destined to set records for his current third base position.
Barring major injury, we may be watching one of the two or three best ball players in history. If he retired today, in the prime of his career, he would be a certain first ballot Hall of Famer. He receives his share of criticism, mainly because he is the highest salaried athlete in all of history, but love him or hate him, all baseball fans should sit back and admire him. The likes of him come around once in a lifetime.
Ernie Banks (1953-1971)
"He never complained about his team's bad luck or bad talent, never stopped playing the game for joy, never stopped giving his all, never lost his proud demeanor, and never acted like anything but a winner. He was a symbol of the Cubs' fans undiminishing resilience. If he could be happy to come to the park each afternoon, then so could we."
- Joe Mantegna
The "Mr. Cub" moniker fit Ernie Banks. He is the best player in Cubs history and one who rejoiced in the game, showing the enthusiasm of a dedicated Little League player. He often commented that he couldn't believe he actually got paid to play the game.
Ernie Banks was the first ever power-hitting shortstop, earning him two MVP Awards and a Gold Glove at that demanding position. From 1955 through 1960, he averaged over 40 home runs and over 100 runs batted in. He possessed a strong arm but his range at short was somewhat limited. He was an eleven time All Star and played in that mid-summer classic alongside the likes of Aaron, Mays, Clemente and Mathews.
At mid-career the Cubs moved him to first base where he actually played more games than at short. But his impact at short was so spectacular that the Hall of Fame inducted him at that position.
The ever smiling Banks was a fan favorite, especially when they heard his most remembered quote, "It's a great day for a ball game; let's play two!" The plight of the perennially failed Cubs certainly left Banks with some regrets but according to him, "The only way to prove that you're a good sport is to lose." "You must try to generate happiness within yourself. If you aren't happy in one place, chances are you won't be happy any place."
Robin Yount (1974-1993)
"He comes across as the classic hero of Ralph Henry Barbour fiction: the lean, humble, gracefully athletic Superkid who leaped from prep school to the major leagues in a single bound."
- Jeff Prugh
Many players never attain their due on the national stage because they might play for a small-market team that is seldom on television. That was certainly the case for one of the game's most underrated players: Robin Yount. Playing exclusively for the Milwaukee Brewers, he was one of the last of a dying breed - someone who spent their entire career with one team.
At the remarkable age of 18, the Brewers made him their everyday shortstop, one of the youngest everyday players in history. He opened the door for other power hitters to play short, such as Cal Ripken and Alex Rodriguez. His finest season was 1982, when he was named the MVP, leading the league in hits, doubles and slugging - the first American League shortstop to lead the league in slugging. His efforts paid off for the Brewers, reaching their first World Series, which they lost to the St. Louis Cardinals.
In 1989, Yount won his second MVP but this time playing center field. He played 1,479 games at short and 1,150 in center, the most ever by a player at two positions. Three years later Yount collected his 3,000th hit, a feat accomplished by only 19 players up to that time.
He is considered the greatest player in Brewers' history, but just a few years into his career, Yount considered another line of work: golf on the professional tour. Always a great all-around athlete, "Rockin' Robin" was a superb golfer. How serious was he about leaving baseball? Probably not very. His threat to play professional golf had more to do with the salary the Brewers were offering him. The club didn't call his bluff and Yount's salary demands were met, much to the relief of Milwaukee fans.
Cal Ripken Jr. (1981-2000)
"Cal is a bridge, maybe the last bridge, back to the way the game was played. Hitting home runs and all that other good stuff is not enough. It's how you handle yourself in all the good times and bad times that matters. That's what Cal showed us. Being a star is not enough. He showed us how to be more."
- Joe Torre
It was considered the most secure record in all of sports - Lou Gehrig's streak of 2,130 consecutive games played. Apparently, no one envisioned someone like Cal Ripken Jr. coming along, who went on to capture the nation's attention in 1995 as he approached the unapproachable record of the "Iron Horse," Lou Gehrig. Baseball needed a boost after a strike-shortened 1994 season when the World Series was cancelled and the 1995 season started late because of the strike. Baseball needed a Cal Ripken and in 1995 he played his 2,131st consecutive game.
Ripken was a throwback, playing every day and with the same team throughout his career, the Baltimore Orioles. He was a perennial All Star, a fan favorite and one of the best shortstops in the game. His defensive play was overshadowed by the flamboyant Ozzie Smith but Ripken had great range, a sure glove and one of the strongest arms in the history of the game. His arm was so strong that it allowed him to play five to ten feet deeper than others at his position and still throw out runners.
He collected two MVP trophies, two Gold Gloves and 3,000 hits over his 20 year career, as well as a World Series championship in 1983 - each a great legacy for any player. However, his contributions to the game go far beyond numbers. He was the all-American prototype, a person sorely needed by baseball to revive interest in the game, and it seems as though a higher being created this hardworking, clean-cut, talented and relentless player for the good of the game.
Cal Ripken continues as an ambassador for the game. He is most active in his Foundation to fund underprivileged children attending baseball camps to learn the sport Cal loves.
Ozzie Smith (1978-1996)
The Wizard of Oz
"Ozzie Smith just made another play that I've never seen anyone else make before and I've seen him make it more than anyone else ever has."
- Jerry Coleman
Ozzie Smith was one of, if not the, greatest fielding shortstops in history. His acrobatics on the field led to defensive highlights that defy the imagination. He won 13 consecutive Gold Gloves playing for the San Diego Padres and St. Louis Cardinals. The range he exhibited at short and a strong, accurate arm left many wondering how many people were playing between second and third base. Although he was a light-hitting player (.262 career average with 28 total home runs), his manager Whitey Herzog believes he saved his team 75 runs a year with his defense. He helped the Cardinals to three World Series appearances. In 2002, he was a first ballot Hall of Fame inductee - maybe the first player inducted for defensive skills.
Joseph Floyd Vaughan (1932-1948)
"I'd say he [Vaughan] was as good a man at short as I ever saw. He could do it all and he was a good hitter. He could hit for power and he could field for average. And could he ever fly around those bases."
- Rip Sewell
Spending his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Brooklyn Dodgers, Arky Vaughan had a career average of .318 with 19 homers and 99 runs batted in and was a nine-time All Star. At the age of only 23, Vaughan hit .385 for the Pirates and was anointed the next Honus Wagner. The comparison was unfair, and many thought that this Hall of Famer never lived up to his potential even though he finished his career with the second best average for a shortstop in the Hall of Fame. While a good fielder, Vaughan sometimes had trouble with muffing ground balls but his arm was always strong and accurate.
Joe Cronin (1926-1945)
"Hey, Millie, I brought you a husband from Kansas City."
- Joe Engel
When Washington Senators' owner, Clark Griffith, was told by scout Joe Engel that he had just purchased the then light-hitting shortstop, Joe Cronin, Griffith screamed, "You paid $7,500 for that bum? Well, you didn't buy him for me. You bought him for yourself. He's not my ballplayer - he's yours. You keep him and don't either you or Cronin show up at the ballpark." Little did Griffith know that Cronin would be the best player on the World Series winning Senators in a few short years, averaging over .300 each year from 1930 to 1933. Cronin's then was sent to the Boston Red Sox where he played his last ten years. He drove in over 100 runs in eight seasons and was considered the best shortstop in the American League. As a final note, Cronin married Clark Griffith's daughter, Millie, and his number 4 was retired by the Red Sox. Not bad for a "bum."