25 Most Beloved Players in Baseball History
Last month, we looked at the most average—yet beloved player in each team's history.
Outside of those markets, people would look at the names on that list and shrug their shoulders, completely unaffected by the players included one way or the other.
But in Atlanta, for example, Mark Lemke is a big deal.
When it comes to the most beloved players in the history of the game, we are undoubtedly talking about those who are far from average.
These are some of the best players in the history of the game who had a connection with the fans. Not just with their hometown fans either, these are players who are universally accepted by the masses.
Some simply earned the respect of fans around the league by their play on the field while others had the type of personality that people are simply drawn to, regardless of what uniform they were wearing—or maybe it's a combination of the two.
Let's take a look at 25 players who, for whatever the reason, are universally accepted, respected, and beloved in the baseball universe.
10 Who Just Missed the Cut
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This is obviously only a small portion of players for whom a strong case could be made for inclusion in the top 25, and they are listed in no particular order:
25. Tony Gwynn
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If you ask anyone to name the 10 best hitters in the history of baseball, Tony Gwynn's name has to be among the first listed. If he's not, I'd have serious doubts about the sanity of the person you're speaking with.
A 15-time All-Star who finished his career with a .338 batting average, Gwynn earned the respect of fans and opposing players league-wide and conducted himself with class and dignity throughout his career. His pure love of the game was evident with the ear-to-ear grin that he often wore on his face.
24. Willie McCovey
Photo courtesy of sportsillustrated.com.
A six-time All-Star and recipient of the National League's Rookie of the Year award in 1959 and the MVP award a decade later, Willie McCovey stood tall over the competition for more than 20 years, earning the nickname "stretch."
One of baseball's premier sluggers, McCovey clubbed 521 home runs, a few which escaped ballparks in both Montreal and San Francisco—which led to the unofficial naming of the body of water just behind right field in AT&T park as McCovey Cove.
When you consider some of the players that could have been chosen for the "naming rights" for the cove, including Orlando Cepeda and Willie Mays, it only re-emphasizes the fact that McCovey is as, if not more beloved than his incredibly talented teammates.
23. George Brett
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Nobody ever saw George Brett take a play off. A fierce competitor, we've seen him lose his mind, such as he did with the infamous "Pine Tar Incident," but Brett only played at one speed—full throttle—and that endeared him to fans and garnered the respect of his teammates and opponents.
A 13-time All-Star and the American League MVP in 1980 when he hit .390, Brett spent more than two decades in Kansas City, legging singles into doubles and becoming the driving force behind their World Series championship in 1985.
Upon his retirement from the game following the 1993 season, Royals GM Herk Robinson waxed poetic about Brett and the legacy that he left behind:
George Brett has always been a Hall of Famer, both as a player and a person. From the day he started his career at Billings (Montana) through his last game, George's work ethic and determination was second to none. His hard-nosed style, charisma and ability to deliver in clutch moments made him the first superstar in Kansas City. George's accomplishments and contributions during the last 28 years remain everlasting throughout the organization and our community. The Royals organization is proud of the fact that George has been associated with the Royals since the onset of his professional career.
22. Carl Yastrzemski
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If you tried to pitch a movie idea based on Carl Yastrzemski's career, you'd likely get thrown out of whatever office you were in.
The son of a potato farmer on New York's Long Island not only replaces one of the greatest players the game has ever seen, but does so in Boston of all places? And he puts together his own legendary career?
An 18-time All-Star, a three-time American League batting champion and the last player to win the Triple Crown in 1967, Yaz was the first player to rack up more than 3,000 hits and 400 home runs only in the American League.
Joe LaHoud, who played with Yastrzemski in Boston from 1968 through 1972, remembered Yaz's unquestioned love for the game:
Yaz did it all the time. We'd be on the road and he'd call, 'C'mon, we're going to the ballpark.' I'd say, 'Christ, it's only one o'clock. The game's at seven.' He lived, breathed, ate, and slept baseball. If he went 0-for-4, he couldn't live with it. He could live with himself if he went 1-for-3. He was happy if he went 2-for-4. That's the way the man suffered.
21. Duke Snider
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An eight-time All-Star who played alongside some of the greats in the game in Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese and Roy Campanella, Duke Snider stood out above his talented teammates as the driving force behind the Brooklyn Dodgers.
While some consider New York to be spoiled now due to the success of the New York Yankees, consider this: not only did New York have three teams in the 1950's with the Yankees, Dodgers and New York Giants, but each team had a Hall of Fame center fielder—Mickey Mantle, Snider, and Willie Mays, respectively.
Mays might have been the most electrifying, but there was never a consensus on which of the three was the best player.
Like the other players on this list, Snider played for the love of the game and he truly appreciated what he was given: "Man, if I made one million dollars I would come in at six in the morning, sweep the stands, wash the uniforms, clean out the office, manage the team and play the games."
20. Pete Rose
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Pete Rose endeared himself to fans around the country with his all-out, blue-collar style of play, earning himself the nickname "Charlie Hustle."
Baseball's all-time leader in hits, Rose finds himself banned from the game due to betting on baseball while an active player and manager and on the outside looking in at the Baseball Hall of Fame, a place that he unquestionably belongs.
Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, talking about Rose's blue-collar style of play: "Pete (Rose) doesn't run with celebrities and he can't stand the phonies. His big buddy in LA ain't Sinatra, it's a funny old groundskeeper."
19. Willie Stargell
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The unquestioned leader of the Pittsburgh Pirates for more than two decades, Willie "Pops" Stargell was a legend in western Pennsylvania.
Named the National League MVP in 1979 at the age of 39, Stargell created a family-like atmosphere amongst his teammates, resulting in the "We are Family" mantra heard around Pittsburgh and Stargell's nickname, "Pops."
The stars on the hat were known as "Stargell's Stars", and he doled them out after games much in the way that high school and college football teams adorn their helmets with stickers. Good plays were rewarded with a star, which his teammates, like Al Oliver, wore with pride.
Said Oliver: "If Willie Stargell asked us to jump off the Fort Pitt Bridge, we would ask him what kind of dive he wanted. That's how much respect we have for the man."
18. Yogi Berra
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He didn't look like a professional athlete, standing 5'7", weighing 180 pounds and with ears that were far too large for his head. Yet on the field, Yogi Berra was a force to be reckoned with, and over a remarkable 19-year career, he earned the right to be called one of the greatest catchers of all-time.
An integral part of 10 World Series championship winning teams, Yogi would be named the American League MVP three times, including back-to-back awards in 1954 and 1955. He would be named an All-Star for 15 consecutive seasons, starting in 1948 and his last appearance coming in 1962.
Off the field, Yogi was never at a loss for words and became a go-to guy for the press. His uncanny sense of humor and clever wit gave birth to "Yogi-isms", which includes one of the most iconic and quoted lines in all of sports—"It ain't over 'til it's over."
17. Hank Aaron
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The man who many still view as the career home run leader, Hank Aaron put together a 23-year career that saw him be named an All-Star for 21 consecutive seasons, from 1955 through 1975.
Second all-time in career home runs with 755 and baseball's all-time leader in RBI (2,297) and total bases (6,856), Aaron carried himself with dignity and class in the face of adversity as he chased Babe Ruth's then career home run record of 713 in 1974.
Legendary broadcaster Vin Scully (can you think of a better choice) called the record breaking home run about as well as anyone could:
What a marvelous moment for baseball; what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia; what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron. … And for the first time in a long time, that poker face in Aaron shows the tremendous strain and relief of what it must have been like to live with for the past several months.
On a personal note, years ago my father and I were having lunch at the recently closed "Mickey Mantle's" restaurant in Manhattan when my dad said to me "See that table back there? Do you know who that is?"
As I turned to look, I saw a table of grown men who were hardly eating, all seemingly mesmerized by a large gentleman who was holding court. It was Hank Aaron.
We went over to the table and after apologizing for bothering him, I was unable to think. I simply shook his hand (which was massive compared to mine, considering that I was only 12 or 13 at the time) and said, "Thank you, Mr. Aaron, it's an honor." He thanked us for coming over, and we went on our way.
Hank Aaron—a class act on-and-off the field.
16. Lou Gehrig
Photo courtesy of myhero.com.
For more than 14 years, Lou Gehrig did the same thing every day—he got up and went to work.
But unlike others, Gehrig never took a day off, playing in a then-record 2,130 consecutive games, becoming the working-class hero for the working-class.
In 1986's The Greatest Stories Ever Told About Baseball, author Kevin Nelson put Gehrig in perspective:
Lou Gehrig was to baseball what Gary Cooper was to the movies: a figure of unimpeachable integrity, massive and incorruptible, a hero. Today, both are seen as paradigms of manly virtue. Decent and God-fearing, yet strongly charismatic and powerful.
15. Ozzie Smith
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A consummate professional who enthralled fans around the world with his acrobatics in the field, Ozzie Smith revolutionized the way defense was played by shortstops.
Nicknamed "The Wizard," Smith had an ulterior motive for his acrobatic displays: "I think of myself as an artist on the field. Every game I look for a chance to do something that the fans have never seen before."
He had his fair share of big hits and memorable moments over a 19-year career that started in San Diego but blossomed in St. Louis, perhaps none bigger than his game-winning home run in the bottom of the ninth inning during Game 5 of the 1985 NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
14. Roberto Clemente
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Already a first-ballot Hall of Famer when his plane carrying relief supplies to earthquake-stricken Nicaragua crashed on Dec. 31, 1972, Roberto Clemente was a special person.
A quiet, reserved superstar and a 12-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner, Clemente possessed the greatest throwing arm in the history of the game—only a fool would try and advance on the bases when he had the ball in his hand.
It was his unrivaled charitable work that really endeared him to people who were not fans of the game. Said Clemente: ''Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don't, then you are wasting your time on Earth.''
How many of today's players would say the same thing?
Not many. Clemente was truly one-of-a-kind.
13. Cal Ripken Jr.
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The heart and soul of the Baltimore Orioles for more than two decades, Cal Ripken Jr. put together a remarkable career that included a Rookie of the Year award, two American League MVP awards and 19 consecutive All-Star appearances.
Oh, and he broke what many considered to be the most unbreakable record in all of sports, Lou Gehrig's streak of 2,130 consecutive games played.
But it was the way that Ripken went about doing things that endeared him to his fellow players and fans alike.
Said Joe Torre:
Cal (Ripken Jr.) 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.
12. Willie Mays
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Remembered more for "the catch" than anything else, Willie Mays was a two-time National League MVP, Rookie of the Year and a 24-time All-Star. To that end, Ted Williams once said: "They invented the All-Star game for Willie Mays."
Arguably the greatest center fielder to ever play the game, Mays is as popular today as he was during the heyday of his career, more than 50 years ago.
Shortly after being enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Mays joined Mickey Mantle working in Atlantic City for the Park Place Casino (Bally's today). Bowie Kuhn, commissioner of baseball at the time, barred both Mays and Mantle from having any involvement with organized baseball, claiming the duo had violated baseball's rules against gambling.
Frank Sinatra, a legend in his own right, remarked: "Mr. (Bowie) Kuhn told Willie Mays to get out of baseball. I would like to offer the same advice to Mr. Kuhn."
11. Ted Williams
Ted Williams in his fighter during World War II, courtesy of weston55.blogspot.com.
A two-time American League MVP, a 17-time All-Star and arguably the greatest hitter that the game has ever seen, Ted Williams spent nearly 20 years patrolling left field at Fenway Park for the Boston Red Sox.
His .344 lifetime average is among the highest in history and his lifetime on-base percentage of .482 is not only the highest in the game's history, it's patently absurd. Think about it—Ted Williams essentially got on base every other at-bat.
While you're contemplating that, consider this: he finished his career with 2,654 hits and 521 home runs. Williams missed three of his prime years fighting for the United States in World War II, a patriotic act that nearly got him killed.
How much better could Williams have been without that detour?
Upon his death in 2002, legendary broadcaster Vic Scully looked back at Williams and his remarkable life:
It was typical of him to become a Marine Air Corps pilot and see action and almost get shot down. He was a remarkable American as well as a remarkable ballplayer. His passing so close to a national holiday seems part of a divine plan, so we can always remember him not only as a great player but also as a great patriot.
10. Ichiro Suzuki
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This may sound insane, but it's the truth.
Other than Babe Ruth, no player in baseball history has made a bigger impact globally than Ichiro Suzuki.
A legend in Japan before he even joined the Seattle Mariners in 2001, Ichiro captured the attention of baseball fans everywhere by putting up at least 200 hits in each of his first 10 seasons, a feat that not even Ruth himself had accomplished.
A phenomenal defensive player with one of the great throwing arms in the history of the game, Ichiro won the American League MVP and Rookie of the Year awards in 2001 and played in 10 consecutive All-Star games from 2001 through 2010.
Speaking to Ichiro's massive appeal, his agent, Tony Attanasio, once remarked: "When you mail Ichiro something from the States, you only have to use that name on the address and he gets it (in Japan). He's that big."
9. Kirby Puckett
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From his debut in 1984 through his last spring training in 1996, no player embodied the phrase "for the love of the game" more than Kirby Puckett. Hardly ever seen without a smile on his face, Puckett was the driving force behind a pair of World Series championships for the Minnesota Twins in 1987 and 1991.
Upon Puckett's death in 2006, John Smoltz, who battled Puckett as a member of the Atlanta Braves in the 1991 World Series, put into perspective how beloved and respected Puckett really was:
In 1991 in playing against him in the World Series, if we had to lose and if one person basically was the reason, you never want to lose but you didn’t mind it being (to) Kirby Puckett.
ESPN's Jim Caple, who covered Puckett and the Twins for the St. Paul Pioneer Press for nearly a decade, reaffirmed the love and appreciation that the Hall of Fame center fielder had for not only the game but especially for the fans:
I remember talking to Puck one day while he autographed 10 boxes of baseballs. I asked him whether he ever tired of it.
"Look," he said while signing a ball. "See how little time it takes to autograph a ball? If it takes me 30 seconds to make someone happy, why not do it?"
That was Kirby Puckett in a nutshell—he just made people happy.
8. Mickey Mantle
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If the term "five-tool-player" was in the dictionary, a written definition would not be necessary; a picture of Mickey Mantle would suffice. Mantle could do everything, and generally do it bigger and better than anyone else.
Said former manager Casey Stengel: "He should lead the league in everything. With his combination of speed and power he should win the triple batting crown every year. In fact, he should do anything he wants to do."
Only Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Derek Jeter can hold a candle to how beloved Mantle was and still is in New York and around the game.
Many believe that the knee injury Mantle suffered during the 1951 World Series when his cleat got stuck on a drainage pipe was indeed a torn ACL, an injury that was not able to be surgically repaired back then the way that it is today.
As Nellie Fox alludes to, there's a very good chance that the vast majority of Mickey Mantle's career was essentially played on one leg: "On two legs, Mickey Mantle would have been the greatest ballplayer who ever lived."
7. Jackie Robinson
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Nobody should have to endure what Jackie Robinson endured after breaking baseball's color barrier in 1947. Whether it was his teammates, opposing players or fans, people peppered Jackie with racial slurs and death threats and a complete and utter lack of respect.
Robinson remained classy and resolute in the face of adversity, being named the National League's Rookie of the Year in 1947 and their MVP in 1949 and never striking back with the same hatred and vitriol that people attacked him with.
Mickey Mantle recalled his first encounter with Jackie in the 1952 World Series, an event that made Mantle a fan for life:
After the game, Jackie Robinson came into our clubhouse and shook my hand. He said, 'You're a helluva ballplayer and you've got a great future.' I thought that was a classy gesture, one I wasn't then capable of making. I was a bad loser. What meant even more was what Jackie told the press, '(Mickey) Mantle beat us. He was the difference between the two teams. They didn't miss(Joe) DiMaggio.'
I have to admit, I became a Jackie Robinson fan on the spot. And when I think of that world Series, his gesture is what comes to mind. Here was a player who had without doubt suffered more abuse and more taunts and more hatred than any player in the history of the game. And he had made a special effort to compliment and encourage a young white kid from Oklahoma.
6. Derek Jeter
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Known to Yankees fans simply as "the captain", Derek Jeter has enjoyed one of the most successful careers of any player to debut in the past 20 years.
The only New York Yankee to reach the 3,000 hit plateau, Jeter has carried himself with class, dignity and a quiet confidence that has not only endeared himself to fans of the Yankees and women around the world, but his teammates, opponents, and anyone associated with the game.
While other superstars of his era have seen their names and legacies tarnished by steroids and other performance enhancing drugs, Jeter emerged as the face of the game, a shining example of someone who plays the game "the right way."
Legendary sportswriter Gay Telese, who wrote of the seminal pieces of sports literature ever produced on Joe DiMaggio for Esquire titled "The Silent Season of a Hero" was asked if he saw any parallels between the two Yankee greats:
He's rather unique for a young man in the 1990s. Endowed as he is with all that talent, all that money and such impeccable manners-that makes him an anachronism. In this era of boorish athletes, obnoxious fans, greedy owners and shattered myths, here's a hero who's actually polite, and that has to have come from good parenting. You can't compare him to Joe DiMaggio, for DiMaggio didn't have bad manners — he had no manners. Where have you gone, man with manners? Here you are, Derek Jeter.
5. Ernie Banks
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The first black player to suit up for the Chicago Cubs in 1953, it didn't take long for the city and, shortly thereafter, the entire country to become smitten with Ernie Banks.
An 11-time All-Star and winner of back-to-back National League MVP awards in 1958 and 1959, his gregarious personality and unbridled love for the game was infectious—people were drawn to him.
Arthur Daley, who covered all things sports related for the New York Times, kept it short, sweet and to the point when talking about Banks' unbridled enthusiasm: "Ernie (Banks) rejoices merely in living and baseball is a marvelous extra that makes his existence so much more pleasurable."
4. Ken Griffey Jr.
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Ask any baseball fan who "junior" is, and immediately and without hesitation the name Ken Griffey Jr. will come out of their mouth.
Junior grew up around the game thanks to his father, who put together a solid 19-year-career himself. But the game flowed through Junior's veins, and it was evident in the way he played the game—which when coupled with his sweet swing and incredible defense in center field, only endeared him to fans even more.
While many of his compatriots in the league during his career have been linked to steroids or some other sort of performance enhancing drug, Griffey Jr. has remained free of allegation and is a shining example of a player who played the game the right way.
3. Stan Musial
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A 24-time All-Star, Stan Musial's statistics are impressive enough: a .331 lifetime batting average, 475 home runs and 3,630 hits. He won three National League MVP awards, finishing as the runner-up in four more races, and was generally regarded as one of the most affable, genuine players that the game had ever seen.
Bob Costas, while speaking about Musial for ESPN's "SportsCentury", hit one out of the park while attempting to explain why people around the country, not just in St. Louis, truly appreciated and loved watching him play:
He didn't hit a homer in his last at-bat; he hit a single. He didn't hit in 56 straight games. He married his high school sweetheart and stayed married to her, never married a Marilyn Monroe. He didn't play with the sheer joy and style that goes alongside Willie Mays' name. None of those easy things are there to associate with Stan Musial. All Musial represents is more than two decades of sustained excellence and complete decency as a human being.
He was an All-American boy living the All-American dream by playing America's pastime—and that was music for the masses.
2. Joe DiMaggio
Photo courtesy of hollywoodmemorabilia.com.
Whether it was his play on the field or his life off of it, Joe DiMaggio had the country's attention.
His 56-game hitting streak in 1941, a record that people have tried to reach but never come close to matching, remains as one of the most unbreakable records in all of sports.
A three-time American League MVP and an All-Star in each of his 13 seasons played, "Joltin' Joe" thrilled fans with his clutch hitting and amazing defense.
Like so many of his counterparts, DiMaggio missed three of his prime playing years while serving his country in World War II.
Years after their careers had ended, Ted Williams spoke about his arch-rival's legacy:
(Joe) DiMaggio was the greatest all-around player I ever saw. His career cannot be summed up in numbers and awards. It might sound corny, but he had a profound and lasting impact on the country.
1. Babe Ruth
Photo courtesy of sabr.com.
Before the musical genre was even invented, Babe Ruth was a rock star. A charitable man, Ruth's reputation for enjoying booze, red meat and loose women only made people love him even more, regardless of the fact that he was unfaithful to his wife.
The first power hitter the game ever saw, his mammoth home runs revolutionized the way that the game was played. Those same home runs may have single-handedly saved the game as it faced an uncertain future following the Black Sox scandal surrounding the 1919 World Series.
Ruth's popularity transcended the game and continues to transcend eras. Even today, nearly 70 years after his death, you would be hard pressed to find someone, baseball fan or not, who didn't know who Babe Ruth was.
Without question, the most beloved and immortalized player of all-time.