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Greatest First Baseman

 

by Aman Verjee

 

1. Lou Gehrig

2. Jimmie Foxx

3. Cap Anson

4. Hank Greenberg

5. Mark McGwire

 

Honorable mention: George Sisler, Willie McCovey, Dan Brouthers, Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell

Best Defensively: Don Mattingly, Keith Hernandez, J.T. Snow, Sisler, Jim Bottomley

 

     Although managers like defensive skills in a first baseman, the most valuable skill for a first baseman to have is to drive the ball deep.  It's an easy position to learn, and so many great hitters hide out here - Frank Thomas, Mo Vaughn, etc.  That doesn't mean that J.T. Snow or Don Mattingly don't save a lot of runs by cutting down on infield errors, but it's not like they're going to the Hall of Fame anytime soon for their defense.

   And the ones we remember best are the ones who could put the slug on the ball, starting with:

 

1. Lou Gehrig

Batting Titles: 1 (9 top five AL finishes)

Slugging Percentage Titles: 2 (12 top five AL finishes)

On-Base Average Titles: 5 (11 top five AL finishes)

 

Click here for HOF Biography

 

     Few ballplayers evoke the memories that Gehrig does - the original "Streak" (2,130 straight games), the farewell speech (the most famous speech any baseball player has ever made), the seemingly indomitable will that gave way to a disease (Amytrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS - better known as Lou Gehrig's disease) which did as much to fell America's sense of innocence as Pearl Harbor.  And the object of it all was a man who could play like few others - despite hitting in a ballpark that was outright hostile to sluggers, what with it's deep alleys and long center field straightaway (right-center was 22 feet deeper in Gehrig's day than it is today; center field stood 461 feet away from home plate) Gehrig teamed up with Babe Ruth to form the most lethal 3-4 combination in baseball history.

     He finished with awesome statistics - 493 career HR, 1,995 RBI (third all-time) and a career .340 batting average.  He stands 5th all-time in on-base average and 3rd in slugging percentage; only Ruth, Ted Williams, Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby can claim to be as proficient at the plate.  Gehrig led the American League in on-base average 5 times (he also finished second, behind Ruth on 2 occasions, and finished third on 2 more occasions); slugging percentage twice (in 1927, 1928, 1930, and 1931 he trailed only Ruth - in 1933 he finished second to Jimmie Foxx); won a batting title in 1934, and still holds the all-time AL record for RBIs in a single season (184, set in 1927 - the same year Ruth hit 60 home runs).  From 1927 to 1937, he finished in the top five in both slugging percentage and on-base average, leading the league in runs created in 6 of those 11 years.  He led the American League in home runs three times, and he topped the loop in RBI five times.

     And what's more, his career totals should have been much, much better than they were.  Gehrig retired early in the 1939 season, when he was still only 35 years old - extrapolate his numbers for another reasonably productive five years and The Iron Horse may have been the best ever.

 

 

2. Jimmie Foxx

 

Batting Titles: 2 (7 top five AL finishes)

Slugging Percentage Titles: 5 (12 top five AL finishes)

On-Base Average Titles: 3 (11 top five AL finishes)

 

Click here for HOF Biography

 

     Never did 90 feet seem so close as when it separated Jimmie Foxx from the third baseman - infielders would have their gloves ripped from hands, so hard would "The Beast" take his cuts.  In virtually every AL park, there was a story to tell about a mighty Foxx homer - in Chicago, he hit a ball over the double-decked stands at Comiskey Park, clearing 34th Street.  His gigantic clout in Cleveland won the 1935 All-Star Game.  In Yankee Stadium, his blast high into the left field upper deck had enough power to break a seat.  In St. Louis, his ninth inning blast in Game Five of the 1930 Series just about clinched it for the A's.  In Detroit's Tiger Stadium, he hit one of the longest balls ever, way up into the left field bleachers.

     Foxx broke in as a catcher, won fame as a first baseman, and filled in elsewhere, including several turns on the mound.  He may be best known for his 58 HR in 1932 - a mark that stood as the major league record for right-handed hitters for 66 years.  Foxx might have hit more than 60 if not for a spell in August when he suffered from an injured wrist.  Five times he hit the right field screen in St. Louis; the screen was not there when Ruth hit 60 HR in 1927.  Also in 1932, a screen that Ruth hadn't had to contend with was erected in left field in Cleveland.  Reportedly, Foxx hit that at least three times.

     As a contemporary of Ruth and Gehrig, as well as Hank Greenberg and a young Joe DiMaggio, he was overshadowed in his peak years; yet, he still led the American League 5 times in slugging percentage, 3 times in on-base average, and 4 times in home runs.  In addition to being one of the greatest power hitters in major league history, Foxx could hit for average (2 batting titles) and draw walks (led the AL twice in that department as well).  He finished with a lifetime .325 batting average, which doesn't suffer much in comparison to Gehrig's .340.  And he could drive in runs - like Ruth and Gehrig, he topped 100 RBI in 13 seasons.

 

 

3. Cap Anson

 

Click here for HOF Biography

 

     Baseball's early years were characterized by many great player-managers, men like Mickey "Black Mike" Cochrane of the A's and Tigers; Ty Cobb of the Tigers; Nap Lajoie, Tris Speaker and Lou Boudreau of the Cleveland Naps/Indians; Joe Cronin of the Boston Red Sox; and Rogers Hornsby of the St. Louis Cardinals.

     Well, Cap Anson may have been the greatest of them all.  He was certainly the greatest player of the century - the 19th century, that is.  A stern, iron-willed leader, he had an unmatched sense of integrity and discipline as the game of baseball was becoming America's pastime; he could be a cruel bench jockey and umpire baiter, and he was also a racial bigot who played a significant role in keeping blacks out of major league baseball.  He led the NL in hitting 3 times and was the first man to get 3,000 hits.  In all but two of his 22 NL seasons, he topped .300.  He led the league in RBI four times and five times drove in more than 100 even though teams played fewer than 100 games each season until 1884.

     But his real strength was his head.  As a manager, he took his Chicago team to five pennants; an innovator, he perfected the art of basestealing, devised hit-and-run plays, was the first manager to use signals, and was one of the first to rotate pitchers.  he was also the first manager to institutionalize preseason training, he laid down strict training rules for his players and sometimes enforced them with his fists.

     His defense was supposedly his weakness - his record of 58 errors in 1884 is still a record for first basemen.  Still, they did field with bare hands back then.

 

 

4. Hank Greenberg

 

Batting Titles: 0 (1 top five AL finish)

Slugging Percentage Titles: 1 (7 top five AL finishes)

On-Base Average Titles: 0 (3 top five AL finishes)

 

Click here for HOF Biography

 

     Playing in the same era and in the same league as Gehrig, Foxx and Ruth must have been tough.  Just how deep was the first base position in the AL in the 1930s?  Consider this: from 1934 through 1939, Indians first sacker Hal Trosky averaged 30 home runs and 127 RBI per season - and didn't make a single All-Star team, because he had to compete for a spot with Gehrig, Foxx, and Tigers first baseman Hank Greenberg.

     Greenberg's career .412 on-base average (27th all time, behind Gehrig's .447 and Foxx's .428) and .605 slugging percentage (fifth all-time, behind Gehrig's .632 and Foxx's .609), don't suffer much by comparison to those of Gehrig and Foxx, and yet he never led the league in hitting or on-base average; he only led in slugging once.  He led the majors in home runs and in RBI four times each. 

     Greenberg spent three-plus seasons in the U.S. Army during World War II, and then he retired at 36, even though he was still good enough to play.  His career totals (331 HR, 1,276 RBI) don't measure up to Hall of Fame peers like Gehrig or Foxx, but in his prime he was just a notch below those two.

 

 

5. Mark McGwire

Batting Titles: 0 (0 top five AL finishes)

Slugging Percentage Titles: 4 (3 AL titles; 1 NL title - in 1997, he led the 

                                            majors in SLG playing in both leagues - 6 top

                                            five finishes)

On-Base Average Titles: 2 (1 AL title; 1 NL title - 2 top five finishes)

 

     A very tough call - an excellent case can be made for George Sisler, Willie McCovey or even Frank Thomas here.  The knock on McGwire is that in the batter's box he is one-dimensional - besides his home runs, what else is there?  He doesn't hit for average; he is a career .263 hitter.  He has no speed.  He hits agonizingly few doubles - 252 in his career - and steals no bases.  Fans love him for all the wrong reasons - because of his circus-freak home runs, not because he is a well-rounded athlete.  In the post-season, he has just 5 homers in 118 at-bats.

     But when he is on, there is no one better at intimidating pitchers or drawing walks - he gets on base as much as anyone, and his power is unmatched.  Over the past few seasons, he has demonstrated his value to his team by putting some of the gaudiest OPS numbers ever recorded.

     Now, Thomas is a premier slugger; in fact, at the plate he is probably McGwire's better because of his ability to get on base.  McGwire and Thomas are 6th and 9th all-time in slugging percentage respectively; Thomas is 6th all-time in on-base average, while McGwire is a respectable 67th.

     Thomas has finished in the top five in the American League in slugging 7 times; he topped the league just once, in the strike-shortened year of 1994.  McGwire has led his league in slugging 4 times, and might have won another in 1997 but he split his year in two leagues; he would have added another in 1999 had Larry Walker played in a sea-level ballpark.  While Thomas has led the AL in on-base average 4 times, McGwire has accomplished that feat twice himself.

     OK, so we're dealing with two of the all-time best hitters in baseball.  How do you place one ahead of the other?  Well, Big Mac played for many years in the cavernous Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, and was deft enough around first base to become an average fielder; Thomas is an atrocious fielder, costing his team a significant number of runs until the White Sox had the sense to DH him.  So I think McGwire has the total player edge.  The fact that he passed Maris - heck, he lapped him - and hits such monstrous moon shots that children come from far and wide to watch him it cinches it.

     What of Willie "Big Stretch" McCovey?  From 1965 through 1970, the Giants first baseman McCovey was a more productive hitter than even Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.  He led the National League in slugging percentage three consecutive seasons (1968-70), and in 1969 he set a still-standing record with 45 intentional walks.  But hitting with Willie Mays and Orlando Cepeda around you in the order makes thing a lot easier; McGwire has hit unprotected throughout most of his career.  McCovey's lifetime .515 slugging and .374 OBA both trail the numbers that McGwire (.592 SLG, .393 OBA) and Thomas (.577 SLG, .438 OBA) put up by substantial margins.

     McCovey's lifetime adjusted production (slugging plus OBA, adjusted for park factor) is 148% of the league average in his day; that is well shy of McGwire (164) and Thomas (177).

     What's most remarkable about Big Mac, when you see him approaching 600 HR, is that in 1992 he went into an awful tailspin - he hit .201, with 22 HR and 75 RBI.  In 1993 and 1994, he hit 18 HR - combined.  Few, if any, great players have ever suffered through two seasons like those in the middle of their careers.

 

 


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