The 10 Greatest First Basemen in MLB History
When you think of first baseman, you think of power. From Jimmie Foxx, to Willie McCovey, to Mark McGwire, and now Albert Pujols, first baseman are asked to hit the ball really far.
I've done two top-10s in the last month or so—left handed pitchers and catchers. At both positions, only a few legitimate Hall of Famers, or Hall of Fame candidates, were left off. At first base, there might be ten or more. A few of the players left off this list might surprise you, as might a couple of the players who make it.
Players are ranked on their entire careers. Career totals, peak-level performance, longevity, offensive and defensive play, as well as baserunning. Players are ranked based on their entire careers, not just their careers at the position, and active players are ranked only on what they have accomplished so far.
10. Willie McCovey
Willie McCovey, only the tenth-greatest first baseman of all time? It just goes to show how great the top nine really are. McCovey's raw offensive numbers don't do him justice, as he played his entire career in the 1960s and 1970s. He played 22 years in the big leagues, hit 521 homers and compiled a career OPS 47 precent better than the league average.
The 1959 Rookie of the Year, despite playing in just 52 games, McCovey really hit his stride in his mid to lat 20s. At 25, he hit 44 home runs. Two years later, he hit 39. Then 36. From 1963 to '75, McCovey was probably baseball's best hitter.
Though his prime lasted for more than ten years, he really peaked from 1965 to '67. Each season, he led the league in OPS, and received serious MVP consideration. His best year came in 1966, when he hit .320 with 45 homers and 126 RBI. He led the league with an OPS of 1.108, an incredible feat in any era, but nearly impossible in the late 60s.
He had a poor 1972 season, but rebounded with another couple of seasons of a 160 or better OPS+. McCovey was a tremendous all-around hitter. Though he never really hit for that high an average, with the exception of 1966, McCovey had some of the best power in baseball. In his prime, he walked well over 100 times a year. Had he played in the 1990s, or the '20s, or the '30s, he'd probably be more of a legend than he already is.
9. Johnny Mize
I think this might just be an unfair place to put Johnny Mize. You could make an argument that he deserves to rank in the top five, and he did lose several prime seasons to WWII. That being said, he debuted in the mid-30s, in a league dominated by Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx, and played through his career with Hank Greenberg hitting home runs in Detroit. He was probably the fourth-best player at his own position during the 1930s and 40s, so it's tough to put him much higher.
Mize was known as The Big Cat. He was a big guy, at 6'2'', 215 pounds, and he could hit the ball far. Four times he led the league in homers, including a 51 homer season in 1947.
Mize played only 15 seasons, though he was a Major League player for a bit longer than that. He lost his age 30, 31, and 32 seasons to the war. He still ended his career with 389 home runs. Had he played those three seasons, he probably could have reached at least 450-460, if not 500. For a guy who retired at 40, he really didn't get as long a career as most.
Mize was not just a great power hitter. He was a career .312 hitter, hitting over .300 the first nine years of his career and winning a batting title. By his mid-30s, when he was with the Giants, he could also walk quite a bit too, making him a truly complete offensive player.
Mize came into the league at 23. Two years later, he led the league in OPS. He did it again the next year, and again the year after that. He finished his career with a 158 OPS+, a batting average well over .300, an OBP of nearly .400 and a SLG over .560.
That's a pretty good resume.
8. Cap Anson
Cap Anson is really like no one else. He played 27 seasons, a record that will likely never be broken. He was the first member of the 3,000 hit club and a career .334 hitter. He hit .415 in 1872, when he was just 20 years old.
He hit .388 in 1894, when he was 42 years old.
He hit five home runs in his first 13 Major League seasons, then 21 in his 14th Major League season. This was mostly do to the park he played in during the 1884 season. The Chicago Cubs had the outfield walls moved in, and four of the five-highest pre-1900 home run totals belong to the 1884 Cubs, including a pre-Babe Ruth record of 27 by Ned Williamson.
Anson was also the first player to hit three homers in a single game, five in the span of two games. He finished his career with 97 homers, at the time one of the ten-highest totals in baseball history.
Anson was a great player, arguably the greatest of the 19th century, but there was one huge black spot on his record; Anson was heavily involved in instituting segregation in the National League.
7. Frank Thomas
Frank Thomas had one of the greatest offensive starts to his career in Major League history. Up to age 30, he was basically comparable to Jimmie Foxx and Albert Pujols. He fell off in his 30s, mostly do to injuries, and was a poor fielder who spent a lot of time at DH. But his offensive production early in his career was astounding.
After a short cup of coffee in 1990, Thomas was the White Sox full time first baseman in 1991. That year, he hit .318, led the league with 138 walks and led the league in OBP and OPS, finishing third in MVP voting. He also led the league in OBP, BB and OPS the next year.
In 1993, Thomas hit .317, walked 112 times, hit 41 homers and drove in 128 runs, earning his first MVP award. In 1994, he hit .353 with 38 homers and 109 walks, leading the league in OBP, SLG and OPS. The season ended due to the strike after 113 games, and Thomas was awarded the MVP.
The next three years, his OPS was well over 1.000, and he hit 35-40 homers each season. In 1997, he won the batting title and finished third in MVP voting. At that point, he was 29. In 2000, he again put up MVP caliber numbers, hitting .328 with 43 homers, 112 BB and 143 RBI. He was second in the league in MVP voting.
The decline really started from there.
In 2001, he played just 20 games. The next year, he played 148, but hit just .252. Thomas had a good 2003 season, with a .390 OBP and 42 homers, but played just 108 games the next two seasons combined. He had a resurgent 2006 season with the Athletics, and finished again among the top five in MVP voting, retiring a couple years later.
His career offensive numbers—.301/.419/.555, 156 OPS+, 521 homers—could put him higher, but he spent part of his career at DH and when he was playing the field, he did so poorly.
6. Dan Brouthers
When we discuss the greatest hitters of all time, Big Dan Brouthers is usually left out of the conversation.
This is a mistake.
Brouthers was the best hitter of baseball's 19th century, and probably the most powerful before Babe Ruth. Playing in another era, he could have hit 500 home runs.
Brouthers was a career .342 hitter, a mark that places him ninth, ahead of the great Cap Anson. He won five batting titles and led the league in OBP five times. He led the league in slugging eight times and OPS eight times, including six straight years from 1882 to 1887. His 170 career OPS+ puts him eighth in baseball history. He also ranks fourth among first baseman in career WAR.
While he only hit 106 homers, that was a pretty large total in the 19th century. He has the eighth-most triples in baseball history and is 80th in doubles. He did this in just under 1,700 games. He's also among the top 10 in offensive winning percentage, and the top 20 in adjusted batting runs.
5. Jeff Bagwell
Baseball probably hasn't had a more underrated player over the past two or three decades. Jeff Bagwell could do just about everything pretty well.
He won Rookie of the Year in 1991. His OPS would be at least 30 percent better than the league average for the next 11 years.
In his best season, 1994, he won the MVP award, hitting .368 with 39 homers. He led the league in runs and RBI, and his 1.201 OPS was the best in baseball. That season, he won his first and only Gold Glove. Had the season not been shortened by the strike, he likely would have hit over 50 home runs.
Bagwell had five seasons above a 1.000 OPS during his 15-year career. He was a regular .300 hitter, he could draw walks, hit 40-plus homers, steal 20-30 bases and play solid defense. He led the NL in wins above replacement twice, finished second once, and in the top 10 six times. He led the league in OPS once, and finished in the top 10 in seven of 14 full seasons.
Bagwell finished his career with a .297 average, a .408 OBP and 449 home runs. Had injuries not ended his career early, Bagwell would easily have surpassed 500 home runs.
4. Hank Greenberg
Greenberg could probably rank a bit lower than this. Like Mize, he played during an era with several other great first baseman, two of whom where certainly better than him. He had a short career. He wasn't a great fielder. But his offensive production in the seasons he played places him in the top five.
Greenberg's 1933 rookie season was solid. He hit over .300, but didn't yet demonstrate the power he would later in his career. The next season, he led the league with 63 doubles. In 1935, he turned those doubles into homers, hitting .328 and leading the league with 36 home runs and 170 RBI, winning his first MVP award.
His best season came two years later.
In 1938, Greenberg hit .315, led the league with 119 walks and hit 58 home runs, tying Jimmie Foxx for the second most in a single season. Greenberg could have challenged Ruth, but his 59th homer was washed away in a rain out, and late in the year, pitchers were said to be intentionally walking him to prevent him from breaking the Babe's record.
In 1940, he again led the league in homers and RBI, winning another MVP. He missed most of the 1941 season, and then went off to war, missing 1942, '43, and '44. He returned late in 1945, and in his first game back, homered to give the Tigers the victory. The following year, he again led the league in both home runs and RBI. He spent 1947 in Pittsburgh, and after a drop in production, retired at just 36 years old.
If Greenberg had not missed almost four years due to the war, he could have easily hit 450-500 home runs. As it is, in 12 seasons, a couple of them just partial seasons, Greenberg hit .313, with a .412 OBP, 339 homers and a 158 OPS+.
He is one of nine players with a career OPS over 1.000.
3. Albert Pujols
Pujols is ranked on his career up to this point. While there is a reasonable argument to be made to put Pujols second, I just don't think he's done enough if he retired today. I have no doubt that by the time his career is done, he'll be in the top two.
Pujols is a great hitter. Since he came into the league, he's never once hit under .310, and only once under .320. He's hit 30-plus homers in each season and 40-plus five times. His OPS has been over 1.000 7-of-9 years, and that's not including the .997 OPS Albert put up in 2007.
Pujols has already won three MVP awards, and probably should have won five or six. He's led the National League in WAR six times in seven years. His OPS is fourth-highest in baseball history.
Pujols is also arguably the greatest defensive first baseman in baseball history. Keith Hernandez has him beat in Total Zone, but just barely, and Hernandez played about twice as many games.
He's only won one Gold Glove, but probably should have won several more by now.
I think Pujols ends up as the second-greatest first baseman ever. I don't think he'll quite make it to No. 1, but he certainly could. He's still playing at an MVP-caliber level. If he does this for five more years, he's the greatest first baseman ever.
2. Jimmie Foxx
Jimmie Foxx was probably, aside from Babe Ruth, the greatest power hitter of the pre-steroid era. Foxx also had a Pujols-like start to his career.
After three seasons of part-time play, Foxx got a full-time role in 1928 at just 20 years old. He hit .328 that season, but with only 13 homers. The next year, he hit .354 with 33 homers. The next year, .335 and 37. He had a somewhat down 1931 season (still an OPS+ over 140).
But he was just getting started.
By the early 30s, Lou Gehrig was establishing himself as the best player in the league. But Foxx would give him a run for his money.
In 1932, he had one of the greatest offensive seasons in baseball history. He hit .364, with 169 RBI and 58 homers, challenging Ruth's record of 60. He won the MVP that year, and in 1933, when he hit .356 with 48 homers and 163 RBI, he won the triple crown. The next three years, he would hit well over .330 with 120 total home runs.
After a down 1937 season, he returned to form in '38. That year, he hit .349, leading the league in BA, OBP, SLG, and OPS. He hit 50 homers with 175 RBI, just missing another triple crown. He won his third MVP that year, and finished second the following season, again leading the league in OPS.
Foxx finished his career with a .325 average. His .428 OBP ranks 10th all time, his .609 slugging fifth and his 1.038 OPS sixth.
1. Lou Gehrig
This one wasn't too hard. Maybe Albert Pujols can make it a bit more confusing by the time he's done, but right now, Lou Gehrig is easily the best first baseman in baseball history.
He ranks third all time in OBP, slugging and OPS, trailing Babe Ruth and Ted Williams in each category. He led the league in OPS four times, finishing second or third seven times and fourth twice.
If there was no Babe Ruth, Gehrig might have led the league in OPS nearly every season of his career.
Gehrig won two MVP awards, finished second twice and in the top five eight times. He led the league in hitting once, finishing with a .340 average, 17th in baseball history. He led the league in homers three times and retired with 493, at the time the third most in history. He also led the league in RBI five times, driving in more than 150 on seven occasions
Gehrig was an incredible player, probably one of the 10 best of all time. Foxx was great, and Pujols is up there, but I don't think there's any doubt as to who's No. 1.
Some Honorable Mentions
Looking at my list, it's a bit strange. I have one player from the 1950s to the 90s, and he ranks 10th.
I think the player on my list that will likely draw the most heat is Brouthers. He had a relatively short career and played during the 1800s, plus he's not a big name. But he led the league in OPS eight times, including six straight seasons. He was probably the greatest all around hitter before Honus Wagner, maybe even a better hitter than Wagner.
Bagwell is also a bit higher on this list than I'd assume most would rank him. I think he's extremely underrated. He did basically everything at an elite level. Short career, but elite all-around production.
I think Eddie Murray and Harmon Killebrew are probably the two best players not on the list.
I really wanted to include Murray, but I simply don't think he's as good a player as McCovey or Mize. Mark McGwire didn't make this list simply because, in my opinion, he didn't have the career numbers to quite make it. The steroid issues put him over the top. He'd likely be in the top 15 though, along with Murray, Killebrew, Dick Allen and maybe Rafael Palmeiro.
Don Mattingly, Keith Hernandez, Will Clark, Orlando Cepeda and either Norm Cash or Fred McGriff round out my top 20.