Just starting an interesting read from Joe Posnanski at SI on the 32 best players in baseball. No. 32 on his list is Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira. In the course of defending the choice, Posnanski says we’re in a “golden age” of first baseman and observes that there are probably fewer elite threes in baseball history than we think:
Fans of baseball history may think first base and immediately think about Lou Gehrig. Then, maybe they will think about Jimmie Foxx. Two all-time greats. Both played a long, long time ago.
OK, now, who is third-best ever? We’re not counting active players — so who is the third-best first baseman ever? Eddie Murray? Johnny Mize? Hank Greenberg? Jeff Bagwell? Sure, it could be any of those guys, but Murray was really more consistent than dominant. Mize was great, and he missed three full years because of World War II, but did you know that Mize was not even voted into the Hall of Fame by the baseball writers*? Greenberg only got about 6,000 plate appearances in his entire career. Bagwell, well, there are many different opinions about Bagwell.
*A sad miss by the writers, I think.
A few years back, Bill James ranked Mark McGwire as the third-best first baseman ever, but McGwire’s career has lost much of its steam the last few years. Willie McCovey has a strong case. Harmon Killebrew has his case, and he remains underrated because of his deceivingly low batting average and the low-scoring era in which he played.
Point is, that while we may think of first base as a glamour position now … it hasn’t often been that way. Well, it certainly is a glamour position now with Albert Pujols, Miggy Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez, Joey Votto, Ryan Howard, Paul Konerko, Billy Butler and on and on and on.
I think that’s basically right. But when Posnanski asked who was the third best (non-active) first baseman in history, after Gehrig and Foxx, I thought immediately of a guy he never even mentions: Stan Musial. Stan the Man hit .331/.417/.559 with 475 home runs over 22 seasons.
He ranks second all-time in career total bases (behind Hank Aaron); fourth all-time in hits (behind Rose, Cobb, and Aaron); third all-time in doubles (Speaker and Rose); and second all-time in career MVP vote share (behind Barry “asterisk” Bonds). All those bases didn’t just come from power, either. Musial was speedy, especially early in his career, amassing 177 career triples — or more than any first baseman in history save dead-ballers “Big Ed” Konetchy, “Big Dan” Brouthers, Roger Connors, and Jake “Eagle Eye” Beckley, all of whom retired before 1908.
Now I know, baseball historians will say Stan the Man was an outfielder first. But consider, while he played more innings in the outfield than at first (8972.2 versus 6215.2, respectively), he played more innings at first than in any single OF position. Consider also that over his career Musial played only 126 fewer games at first than Hank Greenberg, and Musial played three other positions! The only other knock on Musial is that he was by all accounts thoroughly average on the glove side. But first base is an offensive position. Defensive aptitude is a cherry on top. (Jimmie Foxx was a great fielder, but Gehrig was below average).
Last but not least, for those who like one number. Musial’s career OPS of .976 trails only Gehrig, Greenberg, Foxx, and McGwire among 1Bers. And all but Foxx have disadvantages: Gehrig and Greenberg had short careers; McGwire, well. . . .