I was going to move rationally around the diamond in my "greatest ten of all time" series, but I got frustrated with first base, and then with third, so I'll get to those later. For now, I have decided to focus on second.
Just off the top of my head, I will be considering, in no particular order, the following second basemen—accompanied by their career WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player):
Rod Carew (117), Eddie Collins (220), Bobby Doerr (113), Johnny Evers (113), Nellie Fox (95), Bobby Grich (113), Lou Whitaker (112), Bobby Lowe (91), Charlie Gehringer (155), Rogers Hornsby (201), Nap Lajoie (223), Bill Mazeroski(93), Joe Morgan (174), Jackie Robinson (89), Ryne Sandberg (118), Roberto Alomar (111), Craig Biggio (113), and Joe Gordon (84).
Several names immediately jump out as being far and away superior to the rest of the pack. The big pre-war three—Collins, Hornsby, and Lajoie—are all certainly in, as are Joe Morgan, Charlie Gehringer, and Jackie Robinson.
The justification for Robinson (who does in fact have the second lowest WARP of the group) is a no-brainer. Often lost in the shuffle of Jackie's more publicized role in baseball history is this—he was a truly sensational baseball player. Had he been white, Jackie Robinson absolutely, without question, would still have had a Hall of Fame career.
Normally, I don't like to give players credit for things they did not actually do. This is why I do not like to hear: "Tony Oliva would be in the Hall if it weren't for his bad knees, Mattingly would have been the best 1st baseman of the 1980's if it weren't for his bad back..."
This is crap. Oliva did have bad knees, and Mattingly did have a bad back. I imagine there are dozens upon dozens of players who would be in the HOF if it were not for some injury or mishap.
There are two exceptions to this rule that I find reasonable, racism and war. In the case of war, we can use Ted Williams as our example. Williams was the game's best hitter immediately before going to war, and the game's best hitter immediately following his return. It only stands to reason that he was also the game's best hitter in the intervening years, even if he wasn't on the field.
As for race: Jackie Robinson was 28 when he made his major league debut. The average major league quality player reaches their peak somewhere between the ages of 25-29. It is therefore, reasonable to assume that Jackie lost what would have been, at a minimum, two or three peak seasons, as well as several of a near-peak level.
When we imagine Jackie putting up these numbers, it is important to remember that he was, in fact, playing in a high quality league at this time. He put up numbers—just not numbers that we can see.
What follows is a rough imagining of what sort of career line Jackie might have put up, had he reached the majors at 22, when most of our HOF second basemen were already playing regularly.
H-2530, D-485, T-90, HR-244, R-1578, RBI-1223, SB-328, BB-1233 .311/.409/.474/.885
In addition to this, he would have had roughly 147 WARP, placing him in our upper echelon.
Also it seem that we can immediately drop Nellie Fox, Bobby Lowe, and Bill Mazeroski. Joe Gordon has only 84 WARP over his career, but he missed all of '44 and '45 to WWII, and took a full season back to adjust. It is reasonable to suggest that had it not been for war, he would rank much higher, given that he was worth 11.2 WARP in his last full year before duty, and 7.6 in his first full year back. We should expect him to have picked up roughly 24 WARP in the interim, which would give him about 110 for his career.
So, with our excisions, and our inclusions, we have, as definite: Nap, Rogers, Collins, Morgan, Jackie, and Gheringer.
This leaves four spots in the top 10 available for the following players: Joe Gordon, Bobby Doerr, Robbie Alomar, Craig Biggio, Lou Whitaker, Bobby Grich, Ryne Sandberg. Three of these seven must be cut, and that is what we will deal with next.
When looking at these players, what is most striking is how similar in value they all were. Unfortunately, I have to cut Joe Gordon first. With players grouped this tightly, I can't quite give him full credit for the unknown production of the war years.
Next, as much as it pains me, I am going to cut Lou Whitaker. While he amassed excellent career totals, at his best he was not quite as good as the other five players listed alongside of him. His best five-year (not consecutive) WARP production was 41.3. This is fantastic, however, it is not up to par with our other five contestants, whose best five-year WARP are: Alomar (47.8), Biggio (49.6), Ryne (57.3), Doerr (55.6), and Grich (49.2).
One more player has to get cut. This is hard. Too hard, so hard in fact, that I am not going to do it.
How about that!
Now, my top ten: clearly, from these WARP stats, it appears as though the three pre-war players are far and away the best. I am bit leery of this, particularly with Nap, as it was far easier to dominate in the 19th century, and he didn't have to play against black people. Taking that into consideration:
1. Eddie Collins
Even with the aforementioned disclaimer, Collins has to be the best second basemen in baseball history. He's basically Joe Morgan if Joe hit .335 every year. A Gold Glove second baseman who ran fast and with great success, who hit for power (given the era in which he played), was always on base, and played gold-glove defense. I'm sure that if he were transported to the present day, he would be out-conditioned and outplayed by contemporary athletes, but no one dominated the position the way Collins did.
2. Rogers Hornsby
An indifferent defender. He was clearly the greatest offensive threat of all time at the position, and arguably the best right-handed hitter in baseball history.
3. Joe Morgan
Here is where my bias toward more contemporary players comes in. Morgan did not have some of the numbers that Nap put up, but he did it under much more difficult circumstances. It's truly unfortunate that he has a career in journalism, as a potted plant could offer more intelligent analysis, but he was possibly the best baseball player of the 1970s, and certainly the best second basemen of the postwar period. A perfect ballplayer, he and Eddie Collins fit into the small category of players who did literally everything well.
4. Nap Lajoie
Truly mind-blowing stats. Even if he did do much of it before baseball was baseball.
5. Charlie Gehringer
The mechanical man. From 1928-1938, only once was he not worth at least 10 WARP. Unbelievable.
6. Jackie Robinson
See above for details.
7. Ryne Sandberg
Before doing this, I would have thought it would be Craig Biggio in the seventh spot, but Sandberg's superior defense, extra time at second base, higher peak, and lack of a miserable, unwatchable decline phase vaulted him into this position.
8. Bobby Doerr
To some degree his offensive statistics may have been inflated by Fenway, but he still played Gold Glove defense, hit .288/.362/.461/.823, and hit 223 homeruns. All that despite retiring at 33, and missing 1945 to serve in the Second World War. He could rank higher.
9. Craig Biggio
Do you ever think about how inherently racist conceptions of "scrappiness" are? Biggio is remembered for his hustle, his dirty helmet, all that shit…If he had been black, I wonder if his legacy would have been different. Think about all the players in baseball who come to mind when you think "scrappy", are they all white? Biggio was truly fantastic, and the only reasons he doesn't rank higher are the awful last few years, and his time spent in the outfield and behind the plate.
10. Bobby Grich
Easily one of the most frequently snubbed, and undervalued players in the history of the game. Bobby Grich was a truly phenomenal talent, but fell into the category of players who do the wrong things well. He played excellent defense, but because he was more of a slugger at the plate, is not remembered the way lighter-hitting, slicker-fielding, faster runners were. He never hit for a very high average, and played in an era relatively low offensive production, but he walked a tremendous amount, and had a career OBP of .371.
Furthermore, Grich was always overshadowed on his own team. He came up with the Orioles of Brooks and Frank Robinson, Boog Powell, and Jim Palmer—and then went off to the California Angels, who featured Nolan Ryan, Don Baylor, Rod Carew, Fred Lynn, and later Reggie Jackson. But he truly was an all time great, and deserves a place in the Hall of Fame.
11. Roberto Alomar
Fell off a cliff at the age of 34. Had he exhibited even a sub-normal, decline phase, he would easily have cleared 3000 hits, 600 doubles, 500 steals. As is, he is still an all-time great.