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MLB Power Rankings: 5 Best Hitters from Each Baseball 'Era'

Matt TruebloodSenior Analyst ISeptember 1, 2011

MLB Power Rankings: 5 Best Hitters from Each Baseball 'Era'

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    Comparing Albert Pujols to Stan Musial really isn't fair. So much about the game is different, from the run environments to the nation's economy to the travel and exposure involved.

    Nothing stays the same, and as much as baseball treasures its traditions, it is as guilty as any American institution of changing all the time. It can be fun to parse debates a hundred different ways and argue the merits of Babe Ruth versus those of Ted Williams, but ultimately, the conclusions are hollow. A real resolution hangs just out of reach.

    So for today, let's have a different kind of conversation. Let's compare all batters ONLY within the eras in which they played. If you saw one of the entries on the following lists play baseball, you likely saw the others play, too. They played against each other and alongside one another. By setting them back that way, we can have a more productive conversation. Here are the five best hitters in each era of MLB history.

The Eras: An Explanatory Note

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    Baseball history defies simple delineation. Mark Grace led MLB in hits in the 1990s, but he's not a Hall of Famer. That's partially because hit totals are overrated, but mostly because decades are arbitrary endpoints. Baseball rarely cruises easily from one stylistic or competitive trend to another at a nice round year. Therefore, to show you what's coming up, here are the eras as we have broken them down for the purposes of this piece:

    • Ancient Times: Pre-1900
    • Dead Ball: 1901-1919
    • Live-Ball: 1920-1941
    • Integration: 1942-1960
    • Expansion: 1961-1976
    • Free Agency: 1977-1992
    • Steroids: 1993-Present

Pre-1900: A Whole Different Ball Game

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    Baseball was scarcely recognizable in 1892, compared to what we play today. In 1893, they finally moved the pitcher's mound back to 60 feet, six inches from home, but for a decade or so thereafter, there remained in place a large number of strange rules about walks, stolen bases and dress.

    A fistful of stars dominated in those days. Given the inferior equipment, non-existent conditioning and need for ballplayers to focus on other jobs during the winter, truly great athletes really stood out. Here are the best five.

5. Ed Delahanty

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    A three-time .400 hitter, Delahanty was also one of the great power hitters of antique baseball. He notched 808 extra-base hits, and finished with a .346/.411/.505 career batting line.

4. Roger Connor

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    For 25 years, Roger Connor owned the career home run record, with 138. He was, by pre-1900 standards, a middling average hitter, but between his historic power and historic mustache, he dominated nonetheless.

3. Billy Hamilton

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    There's a prospect right now in the Cincinnati Reds system whose primary—maybe his only—tool is speed. Hamilton could actualize his full potential, come to the big leagues, and reclaim, in something like 2023, after 50 years in the hands of others, the all-time stolen base record for the name of Billy Hamilton.

    The first Hamilton stole 914 bases, taking over as the all-time leader in 1897 and holding onto that distinction until 1977. But he was more than a speed demon, Hamilton got his opportunities by posting the fourth-best OBP ever, behind only Ted Williams, Babe Ruth and John McGraw.

2. Dan Brouthers

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    This photo was posed, obviously, but by all accounts, this was about what Brouthers' swing looked like. Small wonder, then, that he struck out only 238 times in over 7,600 career plate appearances. It is surprising, though, that this approach produced 106 home runs over a remarkable career in which Brouthers hit .342/.423/.519.

1. Cap Anson

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    Playing more or less 25 full seasons is a good way to pile up counting stats, but it's still impressive that Anson racked up 3,418 hits (or so, the official number changes periodically) and drove in over 2,000 runs in an era during which that sort of longevity was very rare and those numbers were not revered or often chased.

The Dead Ball Era: The Evolution of Man

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    Modern rules had largely pervaded the game by 1905 or so, but a lot of things remained fuzzy. Players wore minimalist gloves, and took pride in batting with heavy, sturdy bats that allowed them to control placement but that robbed virtually all of their power.

    It's no surprise that Connor held the home run record all through this period, since inside-the-park home runs became much less common but balls hardly ever flew over the fence. Here are five guys who stood out during that time when offense was at a premium.

5. Nap Lajoie

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    Hits became much easier to come by after the turn of the century, but a .338 batting average and over 3,200 career hits are always impressive feats. Power is a relative term for dead-ball hitters, but with over 900 career extra-base hits, Lajoie was no slap hitter.

4. Eddie Collins

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    Collins played on into the 1920s, but his definitive tenures were with the Philadelphia A's (on that famed $100,000 infield in the early 1910s) and Chicago White Sox (where he was the only man judged honest among the Black Sox persecuted by Kenesaw Mountain Landis). He finished his career with a sparkling .424 OBP.

3. Honus Wagner

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    Would people remember Honus Wagner if not for the famous 1909 tobacco cards, of which so few were made and for which so much money has been paid over the century since? One would hope so, because "The Flying Dutchman" was a great defensive shortstop who (by the by) had 3,415 hits and a .414 wOBA for his career.

2. Tris Speaker

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    In an era when home runs just did not happen, the best power hitter has to be the guy who clubbed the most doubles, right?

    By that logic, Speaker was the Babe Ruth of the Dead Ball Era, clubbing a still-record 792 career two-baggers. He also ran up a sensational .345/.428/.500 career line.

1. Ty Cobb

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    Everyone knows Ty Cobb. Some know him as the man with the best batting average in baseball history. Others know him as the guy who hit .420/.467/.621 in 1911. Many also know him as the racist bastard who may have killed someone, but got away with it, and who sunk into bitter reclusion shortly after his career ended. Very few of baseball's elite hitters have also been pleasant human beings. Perhaps, aspiring to Cobb's greatness, too many stars of the decades since have tried to emulate his ferocious style and surliness.

1920-1941: Two Decades in a Fat Man's Shadow

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    As mythmakers, the American sports media peaked too soon. No one will ever capture the American imagination quite the way Babe Ruth did ever again, at least not without being subsequently cut to ribbons by those who so readily crafted their fame (see Favre, Brett; Bonds, Barry; McGwire, Mark; etc.).

    We still draw the line between the Dead and Live Ball eras in 1920, the year Ruth transitioned into full-time outfield play, although in truth, the change was much more gradual. Guys who survived into the 1920s—Cobb, Collins and others—were the power hitters of their time, and along with Ruth, they helped show the way to a Golden Age of offense. Here are the five best sluggers from the overindulgent offensive years, 1920-1941.

5. Mel Ott

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    A great single-minded lefty slugger, Ott managed 511 home runs without giving away his on-base skills. He hit .304/.414/.533 for his long career, and remains one of history's underrated hitters on the whole. That leg-kicking form was not as goofy as it might look. In the days before most guys even threw 85 miles per hour, loading up for a violent weight transfer did not come with the same tradeoff of lost bat-speed advantage.

4. Jimmie Foxx

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    From 1929-40, Foxx averaged 40 homers per season. He dominated, posting an OPS 71 percent better than the league average. He hit 50 homers twice and 40 three times, finishing his career with a .325/.428/.609 line. That slugging average still ranks fifth all-time.

3. Lou Gehrig

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    Gehrig finished his career at .340/.447/.632. That's preposterous. He just tore the baseball apart, and had he not played alongside Ruth, he would still be remembered as a top five hitter in big league history. That his career ended on tragic terms, and that Gehrig developed a certain bitterness about the relative fame of he and Ruth, ought not to be counted against his powers at his peak.

2. Rogers Hornsby

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    From 1920-25, no one in the National League ever beat out Rogers Hornsby in batting average. No one had a single year with a better OBP than Hornsby's. No one had a single year with a better slugging average.

    For six seasons, Hornsby was the best hitter in the NL in every phase of offensive excellence. He ruled the world every time he stepped to the plate. Over that stretch, he hit .397/.467/.666. He also played in 17 other seasons. Enough said.

1. Babe Ruth

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    During the same stretch in which Hornsby so dominated the NL, Ruth won just one batting title. But he managed a .360/.497/.747 batting line during those seasons, so it's hard to say Hornsby was better. Ruth also hit 260 home runs during that window. That's just a fun little comparison. I don't think I needed to sell anyone on Babe Ruth.

1942-1960: War and Integration

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    As the nation plunged into war mode in December 1941, things began to change in the game itself. Over the ensuing years, the overall advantage would tip back in favor of pitchers, if only slightly. No one has hit .400 since Ted Williams (who, for our purposes, belongs to this era and not that one) did so in 1941.

    As the war dragged on, stealing Williams and so many other stars, the quality of the game began to backslide. Noting this degradation, Branch Rickey brilliantly decided the time had come to integrate the game. The ensuing changes would set the game on its ear. Here are five guys who kept their balance and stayed standing.

5. Joe DiMaggio

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    Center field was a sexy position in the Dead Ball era, highlighted by Cobb and Speaker. During those halcyon years for offense in the 1920s and 1930s, though, center fielders were overshadowed by corner men on the infield and outfield.

    One major catalyst of change, of putting those men in the middle back into the spotlight, was DiMaggio, who could fly in center and also hit the cover off the ball. He might be overrated by the record book rankers because of his 56-game hitting streak, but his career numbers—.325/.398/.579 with 361 homers despite missing three full years due to the War—remain very impressive.

4. Stan Musial

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    You know what? Stan Musial was not actually a big-time power hitter. Despite his slugging reputation, the man with the sinfully sweet left-handed swing really was much more of a doubles and triples hitter. Still and all, he hit 21 or more homers in 10 straight seasons. He finished with 475 homers. But his 3,630 hits, and .417 career OBP, are more impressive feats.

3. Willie Mays

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    Mays is one of the great specimens of baseball history; he did everything well. His defense and speed technically aren't relevant here, but Mays was such a joy to watch as to somewhat transcend stats. He finished with a .302/.384/.557 career batting line, which is a bit less gaudy than the numbers of men who came before him, but then, he played in a more difficult world for hitters.

2. Mickey Mantle

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    His story is equal parts tragic and heroic. Perhaps those traits are more complementary than conflicting, a distinction without a difference. In any case, Mantle was an exceptionally (insanely) gifted athlete, and had he been healthier he might have posted even gaudier numbers than he ultimately did. He was as good at his best as anyone. He's also the best switch-hitter of all time.

1. Ted Williams

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    If a batter can have just on skill, Lord, let him get on base a lot. Williams performed that most important duty of a hitter better than anyone else ever has, to the tune of a .482 career OBP. Williams gave up years in the name of flying planes in both WWII and Korea, where his legendarily sharp eyes were no doubt a huge asset. Still, it's too bad he missed so much of his prime.

1961-76: Expansion

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    As everyone predicted, expansion brought records crashing down. Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's home run record. Fourteen years later, so did Hank Aaron. But between those two times, it was pitching setting records. This was the era of Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax, and those who survived it deserve extra merit for what they overcame.

5. Roberto Clemente

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    Clemente's arm in right field was his most impressive tool. But don't tell that to his .315/.359/.475 career line, compiled in an era dominated by moundsmen. He was the great average hitter of the day, and his teams scored a lot of runs because of his catalytics.

4. Joe Morgan

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    Always one to emphasize peak over longevity, I probably have Morgan higher than most would on a depth chart like this one. But when Morgan was good, he was so good. It was ridiculous. He won back-to-back MVP awards in 1975-76, and his ability to hit for some power, draw TONS of walks and steal bases all night cannot help but impress.

3. Dick Allen

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    Allen was a gifted musician, a smart and complex man and a scarily talented pro baseball player. He never got along with the media and rarely agreed with fans, and all that made him seem a prima donna, but you get to be a bit preening if you bash your way to a .292/.378/.534 career line. Allen deserved two MVP awards and won one of them despite his acrimony with writers. 

2. Frank Robinson

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    Cranking 586 home runs will put you near this list. Doing it in the era in which Robinson hit, when to hit that way meant demonstrating unparalleled strength and controlling the strike zone, will put you firmly onto it. Robinson shared Ted Williams' smoldering dedication to the craft of hitting, and at times, his very work ethic so intimidated opponents as to force them to make mistakes.

1. Hank Aaron

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    Strange though it may sound, Aaron's possession of the home run record sometimes makes it too easy for fans to overlook just how good a hitter he really was. He could do more than merely swing for the fences, as his strikeout rate (just 9.9 percent of plate appearances) and other stats remind us. Aaron was not even a slugger in the mode of the time, swinging for the fences and launching moon shots. His homers generally left the ballpark on a line, and it was rarely clear that Aaron had endeavored to hit them.

1977-1992: Free Agency, More Expansion and the AstroTurf 80s

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    In 1978, Lou Brock broke Billy Hamilton's 80-year-old career stolen base record. Brock held the record, however, for little more than a decade before Rickey Henderson took it over in 1991. That about epitomizes the 1980s in baseball, as speedy guys became all the rage. Power hitters still thrived, and became even more valuable for their rarity, but speed became a critical part of the game for the first time since the Dead Ball Era. Here are five guys who dominated, some fast, some not.

5. Eddie Murray

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    Murray was an absolute nightmare of a human being. I know a reporter personally whom Murray made cry in the late 1980s. He was rude, arrogant and surly. He could also hit.

    Murray never had as many as 200 hits in a season, never eclipsed 33 homers in a season and never won an MVP award. He defined slow and steady offensive production, and rode that mantra to the Hall of Fame as one of the five best switch-hitters ever.

4. Mike Schmidt

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    At this point, you may be wondering about that assertion about the pervasive speed that became a part of the game in the 1970s. After all, the first two men on the list for this era have been Eddie Murray and Mike Schmidt.

    Not so fast.

    Schmidt stole 174 career bases, including two years of over 20 in the 1970s and six other seasons with double-digit swipes. He also, as you might know, cracked 548 career homers, won three MVP awards and was frequently called by his full name.

3. Rickey Henderson

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    A leadoff hitter with Henderson's on-base skills makes any kind of offense run. Henderson walked almost 2,200 times in his career, a feat made enormously more impressive by the fact that he was not a major power threat. That said, he also swatted 297 career home runs, so he was well-rounded at the plate.

2. George Brett

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    Brett's pure stroke remains a terrific baseball image, and his sweet-swinging ways led him to 3,154 hits and a .305 batting average. He stole 201 bases, too, so he (like Schmidt) was faster than most remember. His 20 triples in 1979, and 137 career three-baggers, attest to the same fact.

1. Wade Boggs

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    Boggs did have sneaky speed, nor any other kind for that matter. He also did not have much power. What he did have, though, was one of the best starts to a career in big league history, and a whole lot of on-base skills.

    If Boggs had retired after his tenth season in 1991, he would have been just shy of 2,000 career hits, and his averages would have been .345/.435/.471. From then on, he actually was not all that impressive, hitting .300/.382/.396 over his final eight seasons. But he had already done enough damage, had his "decade of dominance" and was ticketed for the Hall of Fame.

1993-Present: Power Surges, Muscle Bulges and Bubble Bursts

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    You know, it was the damnedest thing. we all woke up one day, and everyone could hit. The league OPS leaped from .700 in 1992 to .763 in 1994. Home runs began to fly at record rates. The fans ate it up. The athletes, who were using a ton of supplements to make it all possible but who weren't technically cheating, just rode the wave of affection until Tom Verducci brought it crashing down with his 2002 steroids expose.

    In an era so chock-full of hitting talent, paring the list to five was tough. Mark McGwire, Vladimir Guerrero and Alex Rodriguez, among a fistful of others, should be considered honorably mentions.

5. Larry Walker

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    No eligible player with:

    • a .300 or better career batting average
    • a .400 or better career OBP and
    • a .500 or better career slugging average

    has ever been excluded from the Hall of Fame. Walker is an interesting test case, but although his chances seem faint, he does belong there. Yes, he played at altitude, and yes, he did so in an offense-friendly league setting. Even after park adjustments, though, he had a career OPS 40 percent better than average.

    Walker also brought an element of beauty to the plate. He was not an elegant athlete, but he hit so beautifully as to appear that way at times.

4. Frank Thomas

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    Thomas had the hulking figure that defined the steroid era, but (very likely, anyway) without using steroids. He was just an enormous human by nature, and that played to his advantage. Thomas was able to lunge down at the baseball, in a sense, without actually losing any balance or leverage. He could simply hit, and given his frame, when he connected, they went a long way. He also had a tremendous batting eye.

3. Manny Ramirez

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    He did utterly everything well in the batter's box. Ramirez drew walks, made contact, hit for huge and varied power (555 homers in his career, 547 doubles) and finished with a .312/.411/.585 batting line. That his latter-day transgressions made clear that he was a user, probably all along, doesn't count against him all that much in my book. What a hitter.

2. Albert Pujols

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    When your off year is a dip in rate stats and a battle for the league home run title, you're a pretty good hitter. Pujols' career numbers are going to look preposterous in the lens of history. Who will believe that, as steroid scandals ravaged the game, a single clean player came along and batted .328/.421/.618? That that player won three MVPs and deserved three others in a seven-year span? These things require a suspension of disbelief. Yet Pujols is real.

1. Barry Bonds

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    Bonds was and is an arrogant prick. He used steroids, regardless of any official finding or non-finding. He was a terrible teammate and a worse left fielder toward the end of his career.

    But he might be the best hitter of all time. Steroids make it possible to hit long home runs. They do not improve plate discipline. Bonds had that already, and when teams acquiesced and began pitching around him, it became impossible to get the man out. If you threw a single hittable pitch, he would clobber it. if not, he had first base. And it not so only in the 2000s. Look back at Bonds' great MVP season of 1993, for example. It just boggles the mind.

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