For a game raised in cornfields and cow pastures, America’s cities have produced some pretty fine baseball players. In tribute to my own urban-suburban roots (from the mean streets of Washington, DC to the lean streets of Takoma Park, MD) I decided to select the best ballplayer from each of the 30 largest metro areas in the United States. The selections are based exclusively on where players were born, not where they were raised. In all, the exercise makes for...well...a list. That much I know.
Onward now! To the alleyways of Brooklyn, the boulevards of Los Angeles—to every ratpacked metropolis in America’s tensile webbing.
Forward! Toward the brightest lights, past the patterned lowlands and crooked wilds.
With pace! Along the canopies of concrete jungles.
Country boys need not apply.
Las Vegas teaches us two things. 1) The bigger the city, the better the talent. 2) The older the city, the better the talent. Because Vegas only recently emerged as one of the nation’s largest cities—thanks in large part to a booming tourism industry—its athletic legacy is predictably thin. In 30 years or so, the Las Vegas list will read a lot deeper, and a certain Bryce Harper might even top it.
Until then, Barry Zito, who actually spent most of his childhood in California, will have to suffice. After Zito, a worthy #1 and Cy Young award-winner, the drop-off is steep.
Tough break: Marty Cordova
For sheer brilliance, Smoky Joe Wood takes the title. His 34-win campaign in 1912 has no modern comparison, and had a broken thumb not shortened his pitching career Wood might have ranked among the all-time greats.
Instead, Cone slips into the void as Kansas City’s best. No slouch himself, Cone notched two 20-win seasons, won two strikeout titles, captured an AL Cy Young award as a member of the hometown Royals, and pitched a perfect game late in his career with the Yankees. Sure, he lacks an awesome nickname on par with “Smoky Joe,” but nicknames do not a pitcher make. I mean, it would be cool if they did. But they don’t. Yet.
Tough break: Smoky Joe Wood, Rick Sutcliffe, Ray Sadecki
A city long past its prime, Cleveland’s best players were mostly born in the late-19th and early 20th century when Northeast Ohio was one of America’s largest population corridors. They’re not bad players, just really dead ones—names familiar to only the most devout baseball historians
Among these dinosaurs, “Big Ed” Delahanty is our Tyrannosaurus Rex. Cutting an imposing figure at 6’1” and 170 pounds, Dalahanty towered over the competition in a career that spanned from 1888 to 1903. Playing for teams like the Philadelphia Quakers and the Cleveland Infants, Dalahanty hit .346 for his career and was one of the game’s first long-ball threats. Dalahanty’s career began when the Philadelphia Phillies’ second baseman died of typhoid fever, creating room for Dalahanty who would stick in the big leagues until his own untimely death at age 35 (caused by a mid-season plunge into Niagara Falls). So...um...I guess they don’t make ‘em like the used to?
Tough break: Sal Bando, Rube Marquard, George Uhle
Cincinnati is our first over-before-it-starts city. Cincinnati = Pete Rose. Equation complete. Pete Rose was born in the city, raised in the city, and starred for the city’s most successful teams. Then, for good measure, Rose went ahead and obliterated the career hits record. Odds are, 50 years from now Rose will still stand as the greatest player in Cincinnati’s distinguished history.
That said, a statistician could probably make the argument that Barry Larkin is the city’s best or most “valuable” native son. Larkin had more pop, was an actual defensive asset, and for sentimentality’s sake even fits the Rose model as a hometown kid playing for the hometown team
All of which is perfectly logical. All of which reinforces the notion that even the best logic cannot sustain itself against the preordained obvious—Charlie Hustle is Cincinnati baseball.
Tough break: Barry Larkin, Kevin Youkilis, Garry Maddox
A newish city nestled in one of the country’s most athlete-rich regions, some gleam in daddy’s eye will likely top the Orlando list in 30 years. Until then, honorary mouse ears go to the criminally underrated Tim Raines. Long a favorite of the stat-head set, the Sanford, Florida native was the Rickey Henderson of the National League in the 1980s—an OBP machine with power and rocketship speed.
If Bill James and Co. get their way, Raines will someday find his name in Cooperstown. For now, he will have to settle for this vastly inferior title.
Tough break: Zack Greinke, Rickie Weeks
Okay. There really are no “tough breaks” in this category. Berkman is knees and ankles above the rest of the mediocre players in this group. The New Braunfels native, who should someday sit alongside Fred McGriff, Frank Thomas, Jim Thome and other greats who flourished in the heart of the steroid era without suspicion, has a career OBP above. 400 and a remarkable career OPS of .957. Thanks to his renaissance in St. Louis this season, fans are finally beginning to appreciate Berkman’s pure hitting prowess. All time, only a handful of switch hitters rank above him.
Tough break: Joe Horlen, Fred Norman, Gary Bell, Danny Jackson
A good duel here between old and new, one-dimensional greatness and multi-dimensional goodness. In the end, I opt for the latter and take Derrek Lee over Cubs great Stan Hack. While Hack was the better pure hitter—his inside-out swing was a constant menace to opponents—his career Slugging Percentage was a mere three points higher than his impressive career OBP of .394.
Lee, meanwhile, hit for power and average during his peak years with the Marlins and Cubs. Both were exceptional fielders and either would be a worthy representative of Sac-town.
Tough break: Greg Vaughn, Stan Hack, Bob Forsch
Dale Murphy was the Sandy Koufax of 1980s position players—a late bloomer with blinding talent and an abrupt decline. A dominant player for six consecutive seasons between 1982 and 1987, Murphy earned back-to-back National League MVP awards as a member of the Atlanta Braves. Although injuries didn’t end his career with the same emphasis that Koufax’s did, various ailment did lead to a stunning decline in the late 1980s and early 1990s and left plenty wondering what could have been.
Murphy is also just the type of genuine, All-American type that hipsters would love to love ironically. In keeping with the finest Portland traditions, that must certainly be worth something.
Tough break: Mickey Lolich, Johnny Pesky
Located 20 miles south of Pittsburgh, the US Census considers the 5,000-person steel town of Donora, Pennsylvania part of the Pittsburgh metro area. This matters because...this hamlet on the Monongahela produced two of the greatest players in the history of baseball, and its inclusion in the Census narrows this into a two-horse race between the town’s most prominent native sons—Stan Musial and Ken Griffey Jr.
Musial gets the edge by virtue of his being “the man” and Griffey Jr. being simply “the kid.” No statistics needed here. Nickname superiority for the win!
Tough break: Ken Griffey Jr., Sam McDowell, Honus Wagner, Hack Wilson
Roy Halladay. Pure. Like melting snow floating down a Rocky Mountain stream. Roy Halladay. Fierce. Like a noble grizzly reared on its haunches. Roy Halladay. Awesome. Like a grizzly bear with four “plus” pitches. Roy Halladay. Denver. Symmetry and synchronicity personified.
No matter where his career takes him, Halladay never stops looking like a dude from Denver. Outdoorsy beard, modest dress, every detail perfected without looking too urbane. Pure Denver. Like he stepped out of a cabin on the set of a Coors commercial.
Tough break: Honestly, no one.
Babe Ruth facts:
- He once bought a mansion, knocked down all of the walls, and turned it into one gigantic room.
- He once hosted a radio show about radio shows called “Radio Show.”
- If addressed by his full name he would compulsively perform two roundhouse kicks.
- He never blinked.
- He blinked frequently.
- He was a man of contradictions.
- He lived in his mind and ate with his foot.
- He harbored a bitter resentment toward jelly beans.
- He was born in Baltimore, Maryland.
I love Cal Ripken, but this is not an argument worth having. It’s Babe Ruth. Duh.
Tough break: Cal Ripken Jr., Al Kaline
Those who follow prep athletics know of Tampa’s rich baseball heritage. Of all the smaller, newer cities on this list, Tampa has produced the deepest roster of talent. From Dwight Gooden to Fred McGriff to Steve Garvey, the area has become legend for its incredible youth baseball programs. To wit, the 1980 Little League team from Tampa’s Belmont Heights neighborhood featured two future all-stars (Gary Sheffield and Derek Bell).
That team actually lost in the Little League World Series final to Chinese Taipei—a game I had the privilege of watching on ESPN Classic years later whilst unemployed. Undeterred, the squad returned in 1980 to lose once more to Chinese Taipei. USA! USA! USA!
Tough break: Gary Sheffield, Dwight Gooden, Luis Gonzalez, Steve Garvey, Carl Everett, Howard Johnson
If Gary Sheffield came from the most talented neighborhood, then Berra can lay claim to most talented block. Berra grew up across the street from baseball decent/broadcasting great Joe Garagiola in a largely Italian section of St. Louis called “The Hill.” Never anywhere else have I heard of two unrelated people of the same generation living on the same block growing up to star in the same sport at the same position.
Lost in the clamor about Berra’s quirky wisdom and celebrity endurance and relentless winning is the remarkable depth of his skill. He was a player unto himself, a power-hitting catcher with exceptional contact rates (never K-ed more than 38 times in a year!) and uncommonly quick feet. He wasn’t some babbling goof ball. He was the very best catcher of his generation, who just happened to babble goofily on occasion.
Tough break: Ryan Howard, Jerry Reuss
A city of seamless beauty, bathed in coastal repose. A man of meticulous rigidity, burdened by his own misanthropy. San Diego and Ted Williams seem an odd match. Yet this is a list of excellence, and on that scale Ted Williams has few rivals.
I’ll admit, the first time around I didn’t do any background research before slotting Ted Williams into the #1 spot. Even in San Diego, an area known for its fantastic prep baseball, Williams would surely stand above the rest. The research confirms my hypothesis. The greatest hitter who ever lived is also the greatest hitter who ever lived in San Diego.
Tough break: Graig Nettles, Adrian Gonzalez, Mark Langston, Cole Hamels
Twin City residents must make the most of their short, temperate summer, because Minnesota has an impressive baseball legacy. Even more impressive, essentially every significant baseball player from Minneapolis-St. Paul—from Molitor to Morris to Mauer to Hrbek—spent some part of their career on the Minnesota Twins. Moreover, all four spent (or are spending) some of their prime years with the hometown club.
The one exception is Dave Winfield, whose time with the Twins spanned a couple of mediocre seasons at the very tail end of his illustrious career. It was everything Winfield did before returning to Minneapolis that earns him top billing—the defensive wizardry, pulsating power, and all-around toolsiness. No shame here in picking Molitor, but I’ll go with the better all-around player to represent the Upper, Upper Midwest.
Tough break: Paul Molitor, Joe Mauer, Jack Morris, Kent Hrbek
I salute anyone who can turn a childhood full of rain days into a successful major league career. While kids in SoCal basked in the glow of their perpetual summer, the players on this list were probably devising derivative ballgames involving tube socks and masking tape. At least rain encourages a brand of captive creativity.
A second salute goes out to Ron Santo, who emerged from the foggy, grungy pits of Seattle with great baseball acumen and a surprisingly sunny personality. RIP Ron. I already miss your delightful and uniquely incoherent brand of homerism. Seriously.
Barring any further collapse of the local economy, you can assume the Phoenix area will produce a bevy of homegrown talent over the next two decades. A newly gigantic metro area that features sizable surrounding towns like Mesa, Scottsdale, and Glendale, the Phoenix area figures to feature prominently in the prep baseball universe in the near future.
Someday soon, Andre Ether might end up being that great player from desert’s edge. He’s still young enough and good enough to fashion a hall-of-fame career. I somehow doubt Ethier will reach those lofty heights. He reeks of Nick Markakis to me—with fading power that suggests his career won’t be as long as we all initially hoped.
Tough break: Hank Leiber, Shea Hillenbrand...if you could even call it that.
This slot feels a little cheap. Riverside-San Bernadino? Hardly its own city, more a necessary bit of realignment from the Census Bureau due to Los Angeles’ population expansion. A metropole of questionable legitimacy.
What’s that? Question of legitimacy? Sounds like a Barry Bonds intro to me. He is already the sinister archetype of that steroids-era player we are all pretty sure was great without the steroids he almost certainly used. A-Rod and Clemens fit the same mold, but Bonds, with his unrepentant smugness, is the cache’s king.
It feels immoral to honor him and irrational not to.
Tough break: Bob Lemon, Prince Fielder
Unlike any other athlete, a pitcher is truly alone. Set apart with his thoughts, he is at once stranded and ultimately in control of everything that happens around him. Inhabitant of his own dusty island, he stands with castled conviction over the swirling bursts of adrenaline on his shores. It takes a strong character to flourish in such contradictions.
And there must be something about the Detroit metropolitan area that breeds such men, because a stable full of great hurlers hail from the area. I’m guessing it’s the city’s distinct blend of crumbling industrialism, redemptive charm, and obesity. That and the motor oil. There is definitely something radioactive in that motor oil.
Tough break: Frank Tanana, Kirk Gibson, Billy Pierce, Bob Welch, Hal Newhouser, Milt Pappas, Derek Lowe, Pat Hentgen, Eddie Cicotte
I’ll admit, this choice has a bit of romance in it. Stick to the stats and Randy Johnson might easily rank first. But DiMaggio’s story has always had this undeniable San Francisco flavor to it. The son of an immigrant fisherman in a town so defined by that industry, DiMaggio’s roots became a part of the myth built around him.
Add the fact that only four center fielders in baseball history (Cobb, Mays Speaker, and Mantle) have accumulated more WAR than DiMaggio, and you’ve got a pretty compelling case.
Tough break: Randy Johnson, Dennis Eckersley, Joe Cronin, Lefty O’Doul, Chuck Hafey
In high school I was a bit of a Bostonophile, caught up in the mid-decade spate of regional crime dramas, underdog sports teams and Irish-flavored punk music. Thankfully, I’ve moved on and come to realize that movies/music aren’t better because they feature ethnic white people with accents. Now I only use that criteria to evaluate politicians and potential mates.
If Glavine talked like a South Boston townie, I don't think we'd consider him the greatest finesse pitcher of all time. We'd probably think he was a hardened criminal with streetwise wit and a dream of something more—who just happened to nibble on the outside corner.
Tough break: Jeff Bagwell, Wilbur Wood, Bill Donvan, Mickey Cochrane
This is easily the most surprising non-impressive metropolis. Atlanta is big and southern and somehow not a hub of baseball talent. I would think it’s only a matter of time before someone breaks through. Until then, I give you a man with calcified urine on his hands.
Tough break: Bryn Smith, Marquis Grissom, Wally Joyner, Bill Terry
I’m beginning to suspect that South Floridians aren’t simply apathetic towards the Marlins, they actively dislike them. Not hate. Dislike. They just find them annoying or counter to their values. Miami is a pretty showy city, a place where people care less about an item’s integrity or usefulness and more about its ability to incorporate floral prints. It's a place where people tan on the beach to be seen, but actually get their color at a salon.
I don’t think Miami residents want a baseball team known for its expert frugality and long-term prospecting. The city and the team make no sense together. The Dolphins understand their constituency, which is why they typically court big-name free agents and recently incorporated some top flight celebrity ownership. The Marlins think the upcoming stadium will save them. It won’t.
Also, Steve Carlton was an amazing pitcher who did lots of cool things with his slider and probably won’t talk to you because he thinks you are either an invading species of fungal plants bent on world domination or a newspaper reporter.
Tough break: Andre Dawson
Well, this is embarrassing. There I go in the introduction flashing my D.C. roots and now I have to return here to admit that D.C. has a pretty weak baseball legacy. Lots of great basketball players from the area, but not much with the hardballin’. And it’s not like I’m helping the cause, so don’t confuse this admission for a complaint.
The decision comes down to Maury Wills, a fairly one-dimensional position player; Steve Barber, a pretty good pitcher who totally went to my high school and Eppa Rixey, a pitcher who is probably better but that I’ve never heard of because I’m not ancient.
I choose Steve Barber, because I am the type of person who thinks that the association somehow makes me cooler.
Ahh damn, I can't do it. Maury Wills was fast. Fine. I choose him.
Tough break: Brady Anderson, Doc White, Don Money, Steve Barber, Eppa Rixey
Young blood on the Houston beat, contending for a title that should only get tougher in the coming years as locals like Anthony Rendon move through the ranks. Today’s deliberation features two established all-stars suffering through lean seasons. Between Crawford’s nagging injuries and Dunn’s historically putrid pace this choice feels ill-timed, like a shotgun wedding one week after the bride begins to show. Which makes sense if you’re folksy and don’t think about things too much…which brings us back to Houston. Bam!
Tough break: Adam Dunn, Curt Flood, Chuck Knoblauch
The straw stirred his first drink in the Philadelphia suburb of Wyncote, PA, before moving onto Cheltenham High School (my dad’s alma mater) and Arizona State University. What proceeded from there was a career of careening extremes—strikeouts, home runs, vapid selfishness, self-prophesied fulfillment. And it was always interesting. Maybe not affecting like Ali’s or Namath’s, but relentlessly fun and addictively watchable.
Tough break: Mike Piazza, Roy Campanella, Del Ennis
As the cities get bigger, the choices get tougher. Thankfully, Dallas provides us one last runaway winner. During a nineteen-season career with the Cubs, Banks hit over 500 home runs, drove in over 1600 runs, played in over 2500 games and smiled a lot. And that’s worthy of admiration, especially the smiling part.
Tough break: Kerry Wood, Greg Swindell
Though Henderson grew up in Oakland, he was born in the back of an Oldsmobile in Chicago and spent the first two years of his life in the Windy City. Perhaps it’s contrary to offer Chicago’s top spot—on a list filled with fantastic players—to a guy most associated with the west coast, but Rickey Henderson was so freaking good that he deserves a rhetorical ovation.
There are too many ridiculous Henderson statistics to summarize here—almost 50% more stolen bases than Lou Brock, a .400 career OBP, 297 home runs, more unintentional walks than anyone in history—so instead of boring you (which I probably already have) I’ll leave you with a quote from SI baseball bard Tom Verducci:
“Baseball is designed to be an egalitarian sort of game in which one player among the 18 is not supposed to dominate...Yet in the past quarter century Henderson and Barry Bonds have come closest to dominating a baseball game the way Michael Jordan could a basketball game.”
Tough break: Brett Saberhagen, Denny McLain, Kirby Puckett, Wally Berger, Greg Luzinski
In a crowded field that provides no clear separation, the choice eventually narrows to two superior hitters with remarkably similar careers: Eddie Murray and Duke Snider. Both Murray and Snider were fantastic all-around hitters—willing to draw a walk with oodles of power. Snider’s peak years were better than Murray’s (posting a WAR over 7.5 four consecutive years), but Murray had more quality years than Snider, and that consistency eventually landed him in the 500+ HR and 3000+ hit clubs.
Defensively, one might give the edge to Snider because he played center field and Murray played first base/DH, but Snider was actually a below-average center fielder and Murray a pretty decent one-bagger. So, in a 15-round decision, the judges voting 2 to 1 on points, I’m going to choose longevity over short-term greatness and actually decide against a guy named Duke.
Silver lining? A vote for Eddie Murray is a vote for cool afros. Democracy rules.
Tough break: Tony Gwynn Sr., Mark McGwire, Duke Snider, Darrel Evans, Jason Giambi, Dwight Evans, Darryl Strawberry, David Wells, Dave Stieb, Don Drysdale
New York has been the country’s largest city for ever single decade of major league baseball’s existence. As probability would have it, the list of great baseball players from Gotham runs through every era and angle of the game. Great pitchers, great hitters, great managers, great teams.
Sifting through all of this greatness from a statistical perspective is a bit numbing. Alex Rodriguez is probably the greatest New York-born players but he a) wanted to play for the Dominican Republic during the World Baseball Classic b) used steroids and c) is kind of a creep. I can’t put A-Rod here. I just can’t.
Instead I pick the gentlemanly Gehrig, a Yankee legend who grew up in New York, attended Manhattan’s Columbia University and set the standard for greatness at first base. The enduring image of him giving his final address at Yankee Stadium is as much a part of that franchise and that city as any in the rich history of New York baseball. For all of Gehrig’s on-field greatness, his .340 career bating average and ridiculous 1.080 career OPS, it is even more impressive that 70 years after his death the baseball community still mourns his loss in a genuine, almost raw sort of way.
That ought to tell us something about the man.
Tough break: Sandy Koufax, Whitey Ford, Jim Palmer, Alex Rodriguez, Lou Gehrig, Hank Greenberg, Joe Torre, Frankie Frisch, Edgar Martinez, Willie Keeler