Picking the Best 3 MLB Players from Every Decade

Dan TylickiAnalyst IFebruary 20, 2012

Picking the Best 3 MLB Players from Every Decade

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    When people think of the greatest players of all time, a select few come to mind. When they think of the best players of a decade, those same people usually pop up. Babe Ruth symbolized the 1920s, and Albert Pujols symbolized the 2000s, just to name a couple. 

    When you expand it to include the top three players from each decade, however, it suddenly becomes a lot harder. Who do you keep in and leave out? How do you compare pitchers to hitters? If a player had staying power in three decades but wasn't consistently elite, does he get left off?

    Here are the top three players from each decade. 

1860s: Jim Creighton

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    In the 1860s, baseball was not exactly professional yet. The National Association of Base Ball Players existed at the time, but baseball did not reach much beyond the New York area just yet.

    Nonetheless, there was one player considered a superstar during that time, and that was Jim Creighton, who played for Excelsior of Brooklyn. From 1860 to 1862, the pitcher dominated the competition, even faring well against the dynastic Brooklyn Atlantics.

    He died of a ruptured bladder in 1862, possibly while playing a baseball game and hitting a home run. His death caused a war between baseball and cricket in the United States, as he was a star in both.

1870s: George Wright

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    Like Jim Creighton, George Wright was a two-sport star, participating in both cricket and baseball. At shortstop, Wright made his mark, establishing himself as perhaps the best position player of the 1870s.

    Wright spent most of the decade with Boston, and regularly led the league in at-bats and games played, and was great both on offense and defense. His 41 triples in the National Association is the record for that league.

    He was an early inductee into the Hall of Fame in 1937.

1870s: Tommy Bond

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    In the 1870s, pitchers were pretty much required to pitch every game for a team. Sure, there may have only been 60 games or so in a season, but they certainly added up.

    Nonetheless, no one seemed to pull it off better than Tommy Bond. He hit the 40-win mark three times, led the league in ERA twice, and often pitched over 500 innings in a season.

    He was pretty much done by 1880, but he still retired with 234 wins, most of them coming between 1874 and 1880.

1870s: Al Spalding

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    There are several players from the great Boston teams of the 1870s I could put here. Orator Jim O'Roueka and Ross Barnes both came close to making the cut, but I couldn't leave off Al Spalding.

    Spalding refused to lose during his eight-year career with the Boston Red Stockings and the Chicago White Stockings, and led the league in wins every year. His career 252-65 record naturally led to a 1939 Hall of Fame induction.

1880s: Cap Anson

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    Cap Anson was one of the first superstars of professional baseball, and may have been the best player of the 19th century.

    While some of his numbers are thanks to playing 27 seasons, the first baseman really hit his stride with the Chicago White Stockings in the 1880s. With them, he led the league in RBI nearly every year, and was right up there in batting average and hits as well.

    The 1939 Hall of Famer had a .334 career batting average, and was the first ever player to total 3,000 career hits.

1880s: Charley "Old Hoss" Radbourn

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    As he'll often remind you on Twitter, Radbourn won 59 games with 441 strikeouts for the Providence Grays in 1884. Of course, that wasn't all he did en route to being one of the best players of the 1880s.

    He led the league in wins and strikeouts several other years in the decade, and finished his career, mostly in the '80s, with 309 wins. His pitching prowess put him in the Hall of Fame in 1939.

1880s: Tim Keefe

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    While Old Hoss's prowess was mainly confined to a few seasons, Tim Keefe was the most consistently great pitcher of the 1880s.

    Keefe played for the New York Giants, among other teams, and won 42 games in 1886. He also led the league in ERA and games pitched three times, and led in innings pitched and strikeouts twice.

    Unlike the other original greats, he was not inducted in 1939, and the 342-game winner had to wait until 1964 to make it into the Hall.

1890s: Dan Brouthers

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    Dan Brouthers was a tough one to pencil in to one decade, as are a couple others later in the list. He could arguably switch places with one in either the 1880s or 1890s list. In the end, I went with putting him in the 1890s.

    Brouthers played two decades of baseball, playing for the Buffalo Bisons and Detroit Wolverines in the 1880s, leading the league in doubles and hits frequently.

    He seemed to improve in the 1890s with Boston in the Players' League and National League, holding the league lead in batting average three times. He retired with nearly 2,300 hits and a .342 batting average, and became a Hall of Famer in 1945.

1890s: Kid Nichols

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    In the 1890s, the Boston Beaneaters were dominant in the National League thanks mainly to two players. On the mound, they had a great ace in Kid Nichols.

    Nichols joined the Beaneaters in 1890 and immediately went to work, winning 27 games his first year and finishing the decade with 297 wins. He led the league in wins three times, and while he never led in ERA, he was in the top three for most of the decade.

    He finished his career with 361 wins, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1945.

1890s: Billy Hamilton

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    The Boston Beaneaters had their ace in Kid Nichols, but they also had an offensive leader by the name of Billy Hamilton.

    Hamilton started his career with the Kansas City Cowboys before joining the Philadelphia Phillies in 1890. There, he led the league in batting average, runs and stolen bases several times.

    When he joined Boston in 1896, be became even better, leading the league in walks to go along with his great batting. He retired with a .344 batting average, one of the highest of all time.

1900s: Cy Young

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    Perhaps it was because of the shift from 19th-century baseball to the Deadball Era, but the legendary Cy Young seemed to get better with age.

    Young spent the 1890s with the Cleveland Spiders, where he put up consistently great numbers. When he moved to the Boston Americans in 1901 with the beginning of the American League, his numbers became eye-popping.

    Young led the league in wins three times, ERA once, innings pitched, shutouts, strikeouts etc. at least once, and brought the Americans to their first World Series victory.

1900s: Christy Mathewson

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    Given that the 1900s was the height of pitching, it's only natural that the majority of the top three be just that. Right behind Cy Young on the list is a pitcher who could have been even better, Christy Mathewson.

    Traded to the Giants in history's most lopsided trade (for a pitcher whose arm was done), Mathewson dominated the National League, leading the league in wins four times and strikeouts five times.

    He even had a season where he managed an ERA of 1.14. It's no wonder that he was one of the first five Hall of Famers, all of whom have obviously made their way onto this list.

1900s: Honus Wagner

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    Speaking of the first five, Honus Wagner was another of the first people inaugurated into the Hall of Fame. Looking at his numbers with the Pittsburgh Pirates, it's easy to see why.

    Wagner spent 18 of his 21 seasons with the Pirates, and during that time he was one of baseball's greatest pure hitters. He led the league in doubles, batting average, stolen bases, you name it. His defense was also quality. 

    The best shortstop in baseball history finished his career with 3,420 hits and a .328 career batting average.

1910s: Ty Cobb

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    Ty Cobb is one of those players who you just have to read about to believe, both for his abilities on the field and his actions off of it. 

    The latter is for another time. On the baseball diamond, there was no one tougher.

    It was news when he somehow did not win a batting title one season, and he led the league in nearly everything at least once, including home runs.

    He won the batting title eight of the 10 years in the decade, and one of the years he did not win was the subject of controversy. His career .366 batting average is the best in baseball history. 

1910s: Walter Johnson

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    The Big Train emerged onto the scene in the later part of the decade, and as great as his stats were, they may have been downplayed a bit due to spending his entire career in Washington.

    In the 1910s, he led the league in strikeouts all but once, wins five times, ERA four times, and won an MVP award. Most experts consider him the greatest pitcher of all time, and with the numbers he put up during and after the Deadball Era, it's easy to see why.

1910s: Grover Cleveland Alexander

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    While Walter Johnson dominated the American League during the latter half of the Deadball Era, Grover Cleveland "Old Pete" Alexander did the same to the National League.

    During his time with the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs, Alexander eclipsed the 30-win mark several times, kept his ERA under two six years in a row, and led the league in strikeouts four years in a row.

    His excellence did not translate to the live-ball era like Johnson's did, but during the 1910s, he was definitely one of the league's top players.

1920s: Babe Ruth

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    This was a no-brainer by any stretch of the word. After all, we're talking about the biggest superstar the game probably will ever know.

    Ruth was a fantastic pitcher in the 1910s, but once he joined the Yankees and became an everyday hitter, his greatness emerged. The numbers he put up were unthinkable at the time, and he changed the course of the game with his home-run hitting. 

1920s: Rogers Hornsby

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    While Babe Ruth was changing the face of the game with his home runs and superstar status, Rogers Hornsby was becoming the face of the National League in the 1920s by doing things the old-fashioned way.

    Hornsby regularly led he league in batting average, including hitting .424 in 1924, and won the MVP twice in the process. Even when he was bouncing from team to team, he still regularly led the league in a bunch of offensive categories.

1920s: Dazzy Vance

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    The 1920s were so dominated by Ruth and Hornsby without a clear top pitcher that it was actually tough to pick one. Heck, there were many on the 1930s list that missed the cut that I could have placed in this slot.

    In the end, I chose who was probably the best pitcher of the 1920s, Dazzy Vance. While other pitchers struggled in the '20s, Vance led the league in strikeouts seven straight times, and even managed to swipe an MVP award from Hornsby during his career 1924 season.

    He led the league in wins twice and ERA three times. He didn't get going until his 30s, so his career stats pale in comparison to many on the list with only 197 wins. Nonetheless, he's the top pitcher of that decade.

1930s: Lou Gehrig

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    Even before Babe Ruth began to decline for the Yankees, they had already found their next all-time great in Lou Gehrig, one of the true greats to play the game.

    Gehrig was already a star by the time the 1930s rolled around, and in that decade he was the rock of the great teams, playing virtually every game that decade.

    He won two MVP awards, led the league in runs and RBI frequently, and probably should have won more MVPs than he did.

1930s: Jimmie Foxx

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    Coming off the great numbers put up by Babe Ruth, the 1930s was an era of great offensive production. One of the biggest names of the era was Jimmie Foxx.

    The star of the Philadelphia Athletics and Boston Red Sox led the league in home runs and RBI many times, and he won the MVP three times with his power and great plate discipline.

    The main shock of his career was that it took until 1951 for him to make the Hall of Fame.

1930s: Lefty Grove

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    While the 1930s may have been a great decade for hitting, that doesn't mean they lacked in great pitchers. One who was not only dominant but underrated historically was Lefty Grove.

    Like Foxx, Grove split time between Philadelphia and Boston, and during his time with the A's in particular, he was dynamic. He started off his career by leading the league in strikeouts seven times, and led in ERA for most of the 1930s.

    He finished his career with 300 wins, including a 31-win season in 1931 that was capped off with an MVP award. 

1940s: Joe DiMaggio

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    In the 1940s, despite the best stars serving in World War II, the top three players were actually a no-brainer, even if it meant there won't be any pitchers on the list for this decade. The first is Joe DiMaggio.

    Joltin' Joe was the cornerstone of the Yankees for much of his 13-season career, winning three MVP awards and leading the league in batting average twice. He had a great rivalry between a member of the Red Sox who has to be included on this list as well.

1940s: Ted Williams

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    Perhaps the best pure hitter of all time, Ted Williams had a batting eye unlike any other, and he made his mark primarily in the 1940s.

    Like DiMaggio, he missed several seasons to the war, but when active, he won two MVP awards and should have won a third. 

    Teddy Ballgame won the Triple Crown twice and was also the last player to hit .400, hitting .406 in 1941.

1940s: Stan Musial

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    While Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams battled it out for supremacy, there was no question as to who the premier hitter was in the National League: Stan Musial.

    Stan The Man won three MVP Awards, and it's actually a surprise he didn't win more given his numbers.

    He won eight batting titles, and his success continued into the 1950s, helping lead the Cardinals to multiple World Series championships.

1950s: Mickey Mantle

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    For those seeing a pattern here, every decade, the Yankees seem to have a top-talent hitter. They continued that streak in the 1950s with Mickey Mantle.

    Mantle was a staple of the lineup throughout the 1950s, winning a triple crown, three MVP awards, and leading the league in home runs and walks multiple times. He was still a good talent in the 1960s, but the 1950s was where he truly shined.

1950s: Warren Spahn

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    It's tough to call a pitcher in the 1940s or 1950s a top-three player with all of the offensive superstars that played during that time. One hurler that was able to squeeze in, however, was Warren Spahn.

    Spahn led the league in wins five straight years, and not only won a Cy Young, but finished second nearly every year that he was in contention. He was also a consistent strikeout winner early in his career, and between 1945 and 1963, he was arguably the greatest pitcher in the majors.

1950s: Willie Mays

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    The question I had with Willie Mays was not whether to include him on the list, but whether to have him in the 1950s or 1960s. I threw him in the 1950s admittedly due to a lot of other possibilities for the following decade, though I could have just as easily included Yogi Berra or Ernie Banks.

    Mays is the greatest five-tool player of all-time and put up amazing numbers during his 22-season career.

    During the 1950s, he led the league in triples, home runs and stolen bases multiple times en route to an MVP honor in 1954. That same year, he pulled off "The Catch" in the World Series.

1960s: Sandy Koufax

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    When the 1960s hit, the game of baseball moved back to an era of pitching almost as dominant as the deadball era. The top pitcher during this time was, without a doubt, Sandy Koufax.

    The lefty fireballer was unmatched from 1963 to 1966, where he won three Cy Young awards and an MVP, winning the pitching triple crown three seasons. When he was forced to retire, he was coming off his best season yet.

1960s: Hank Aaron

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    During Hank Aaron's long career with the Braves, he established himself as the Home Run King and one of the most consistent greats of all-time.

    Aaron led the league in home runs multiple times, and while his only MVP win was in the 1950s, he was consistently in the chase every year.

    Given that he played in a prime pitching era, his .305 batting average and massive numbers elsewhere may not even do him justice.

1960s: Bob Gibson

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    While Sandy Koufax was the predominant pitcher in the 1960s, once he had to retire, another clear leader emerged from the National League in Bob Gibson.

    The consistent pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals went from great to elite in the 1968 season, where he had an ERA of 1.12 and won MVP. He won a second Cy Young in 1970, and won a slew of Gold Gloves on top of that.

1970s: Joe Morgan

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    In the 1960s, Joe Morgan played for the Houston Astros and was merely a good player, but not great. Once he became part of the Cincinnati Reds in the 1970s however, he became elite.

    Morgan had two amazing seasons in 1975 and 1976 en route to winning a pair of MVP trophies. On top of a knack for playing small ball and hitting for power, his plate discipline was unmatched, leading the league in walks several times. 

1970s: Tom Seaver

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    If there was one pitcher with a stranglehold on baseball in the 1970s, it would be Tom Seaver, who spent the 1970s with the New York Mets and Cincinnati Reds.

    Seaver's first Cy Young came in 1969 with the Amazin' Mets of 1969, but he won two more in the 1970s, regularly leading the league in strikeouts and ERA.

    Thanks to his great numbers in that decade, he was not only a Hall of Famer, but had the highest vote percentage of any inductee (sans the unanimous vote for Lou Gehrig, but that was a special election).

1970s: Rod Carew

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    The third player for the 1970s may have been the hardest pick of any decade, as after Seaver and Morgan, there are a good 5-7 players who have a strong case for being here. Pete Rose, Steve Carlton, Reggie Jackson, and many others were definite possibilities.

    In the end, I went with the best pure hitter, Rod Carew. The seven-time batting champ won an MVP award in the 1970s, and led the lead in hits multiple times as well.

    While the speedy infielder didn't have the clutch-factor of Reggie Jackson, he was still a fantastic, highly underrated hitter.

1980s: Mike Schmidt

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    The Philadelphia Phillies had a player who was great throughout the 1970s, but once the 1980s hit, he turned into an elite ballplayer. That man was third baseman Mike Schmidt.

    After leading the league in home runs and strikeouts for several seasons, Schmidt became the league-leader in home runs, RBI and walks in the 1980s, winning three MVP awards and several Gold Gloves in the process. 

1980s: Rickey Henderson

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    It's ironic that Henderson's only MVP win came in the 1990s with his career slowing down, because it was the 1980s where he truly showed his dominance.

    Henderson emerged on the scene in 1979, and immediately shattered stolen-base records, leading the league year after year. He also led the league in runs and walks frequently, and hit a good number of home runs to go along with his insane speed. 

1980s: Cal Ripken Jr.

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    The 1980s is yet another decade where the first two choices were rather easy, but the third takes a lot of thought. In the end, I have to go with one of the most consistent players throughout, Cal Ripken Jr.

    Ripken won Rookie of the Year in 1982 and MVP in 1983, and from then on was a mainstay in the Baltimore Orioles lineup, putting up consistently good power numbers while providing great defense.

    His numbers weren't as eye-popping as others, but then again, most players of the 1980s were either consistently solid or had a couple great years in an otherwise modest career.

1990s: Barry Bonds

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    While Barry Bonds is known more nowadays for his slugging in the early 2000s thanks to steroids, he was actually the best player of the 1990s in a chapter of his career that's suddenly become forgotten.

    Bonds started off as a five-tool player for the Pittsburgh Pirates, winning two MVPs in the early part of his career. He joined San Francisco in 1993 and won a third MVP there, all while regularly leading the league in walks and putting up great all-around numbers.

    Yes, his numbers got ridiculous in the 2000s, but they were great to begin with.

1990s: Greg Maddux

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    Despite the fact that the 1990s began an offensive era and saw home-run totals like we have never seen before, it also brought us several elite pitchers, the most notable of which was Greg Maddux.

    Maddux started off strong with the Chicago Cubs, winning his first Cy Young Award in 1992. After joining the Atlanta Braves in 1993, he won three more.

    He often lead the league in ERA and wins, and was able to stifle the decade's offensive firepower like few others could. 

1990s: Frank Thomas

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    I came very close to putting Roger Clemens here, but his best years were spread out over three decades. I nearly put Ken Griffey here as well, but he narrowly misses out to the better power hitter, Frank Thomas.

    The Big Hurt was feared throughout the 1990s, winning two MVP awards, regularly leading the league in walks, and consistently hitting for great average and power.

    Griffey got all of the endorsements, but Thomas was the better player when it was all said and done, even if both fell apart once 2000 hit.

2000s: Albert Pujols

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    The first player for the past decade is easy, as no one was even as close to dominant as Albert Pujols. 

    In his first 10 seasons, he was a nine-time All-Star, and only finished outside of the top five in MVP voting once. Though he is known for his power and ability to drive in runs, his ability to score runs is where he most consistently led the league.  

2000s: Alex Rodriguez

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    A-Rod is far from the most liked player in baseball, but despite that, you can't deny that he's been one of the best players since the turn of the century. 

    Rodriguez regularly led the league in home runs and runs scored, won MVP three times, and even in his down years, he still put up great numbers.

2000s: Randy Johnson

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    Generally, pitchers don't seem to get better with age and suddenly win four straight Cy Young Awards when they are pushing 40. Then again, most pitchers are not Randy Johnson.

    The Big Unit was a force for the Seattle Mariners throughout the 1990s, but with the Arizona Diamondbacks starting in 1999, he may have been even better. He led the league in strikeouts five times, as well as ERA and wins on multiple occasions. 

    The latter half of the 2000s was far less impressive, but his dominance early on and lack of a more consistent top pitcher gets him on the list.