Occasionally, I will either read an article or engage in a conversation that presents the question: “Who was the greatest baseball player of all time?”
Of course, everyone who participates in the discussion will undoubtedly interject their subjective insight as to why they believe their candidate should be considered as the greatest player to ever don a baseball uniform.
Within each discussion, there is always a glaring flaw to the argument that is ignored by everyone participating; with the exception of yours truly!
Apparently, I seem to be the only person on the planet who believes that no player in major league baseball should be considered in the “greatest player ever” argument prior to the year 1960.
Why 1960, you ask?
Although baseball was integrated in 1947 with the introduction of Jackie Robinson, the league had not totally integrated until 1959. Therefore, 1960 would be a fair starting point to begin the “greatest player of all” conversation.
The National League was first established in 1876. This simply means professional baseball played nearly one hundred seasons of “watered-down” competition prior to admitting Black, Dominican or Cuban players. However, when listing the greatest players ever, names such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, and many more are immediately mentioned.
Let me state that the intent of this editorial is not to imply that any of the aforementioned players could not warrant consideration on the “all time” list. They were obviously good players with enormous talent.
However, the problem is they never played against the best competition the sport had to offer. For nearly one hundred years, minorities were excluded from a sport (baseball) in which they excelled in epic proportion.
Would Babe Ruth still have hit 714 home runs if he had faced a young Satchel Page on a continual basis?
Would Babe Ruth even be in this discussion if he played his entire career in a league that would have witnessed Josh Gibson hit in excess of 900 home runs?
Would we even speak of Ty Cobb stealing bases if he had to play his entire career in a league that would have witnessed “Cool Papa Bell” as the fastest base runner/base stealer ever to play the game? It was said that Bell could circle the bases in an astounding 12 seconds. He once stole an incredible 175 bases in less than 200 games.
Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron were superstars in major league baseball; however, they weren’t even close to being the best players in the Negro Leagues in which both played. Imagine a league where those two icons would be considered mediocre to good! Scary…huh?
This leads to the obvious question: “How good was Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle or Ty Cobb?”
It’s unfortunate that we will never know the answer to that question because they never played against the best competition.
One could argue the segregated players played against the best completion that was put forth at the time and they excelled. However, that would be the same as arguing you were the best shortstop in your county during high school. If you didn’t play against everyone else in the state or country, then how would you be able to gauge the barometer as it relates to your skills?
Furthermore, let’s not forget the many “mediocre to good” players (in the segregated MLB) who never would have made the roster if the league was integrated from the beginning. Some of those household names might not be mentioned today due their lack of playing time.
To reiterate, I am not stating that any of the aforementioned white players did not have talent and could not be considered as an “all time great” player. I am just simply stating that we really have no idea how good they actually were due to the racial circumstances of the time.
It could possibly be that Cobb, Gehrig, Ruth, and others of their ilk could have simply been mediocre players…we will never know!
That being said, 1960 is the year that should begin the discussion as to the best players in MLB history.
It is from this point forward that you could actually gauge equal talent versus equal talent…regardless of race.