Editor’s Note: NESN.com Red Sox reporter Tony Lee will examine one hot-button baseball topic each day in December. On Wednesday, he addressed the dangers of maple bats.
When Hall of Famer Bob Feller passed away last week, baseball lost one of the few remaining links to an era that is difficult to imagine to many of today’s athletes. Feller interrupted a stellar career by shipping out to serve in the Pacific arena of World War II, losing four years of his prime.
Surely, the remarkable numbers Feller posted before hanging them up in 1956 would’ve been even more impressive if he was not shooting down kamikaze pilots for four years. Feller won 25 games the year before Pearl Harbor and then 26 in 1946, his first full season upon returning. Until last week, he was firmly embedded in the age-old debate, who is the greatest living ballplayer?
The greats of Feller’s era are, sadly, down to a scant few. We’ve lost Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, others who could stake claims to being the best, at least at some facets of the game.
Fortunately, for the sake of the debate, one man considered by many to be the greatest ballplayer of all is still alive and well. Willie Mays, the Say Hey Kid, is 79 and resides in the San Francisco area, where he is able to make appearances at AT&T Park and remind everyone what greatness is and was all about.
In an odd twist, the man that many wanted to put alongside Mays on that Mount Rushmore of living legends is now facing a trial to determine, in part, how enhanced his legend was. Barry Bonds is still beloved by many in the Bay Area, but the rest of the baseball world views him with an asterisk, a great who made himself greater by uncool means.
That may eliminate Bonds from the debate for some, and if Bonds is out of the mix, then the real home run king still roams the landscape. Hank Aaron hit four points higher in his career than Mays and led Mays in many other major offensive categories, including, of course, home runs and RBIs, the latter of which he is the all-time leader.
Looking up and down several of those lists gives us some other options. There may be a few 65-year-olds in Cincinnati that tab Pete Rose as the best they’ve ever seen, and nobody had more hits. Rickey Henderson even claimed he was the greatest, and he has the top spot in several categories to support that claim. Stan “The Man” Musial is still playing the harmonica in the St. Louis area, sitting on 3,630 career hits, fourth all time, and a .331 career average.
What Mays had on all of them was an absolute mastery of his position and a reputation as the greatest defensive center fielder in baseball history. His 12 Gold Gloves are tied with Roberto Clemente for the most ever. The primary reason for Mays’ prowess in center, as evidenced by his memorable snag in the 1954 World Series, was speed, and perhaps no player in history had as wonderful a power-speed combination for such a long stretch of time as Mays.
He led the National League in stolen bases four times and home runs four times, never in the same year. Once a batting champ, twice a Most Valuable Player and a 24-time All-Star, Mays did it all over the course of a 22-year career. There is a conception that he hung around too long and that his 1972 and 1973 campaigns with the Giants and New York Mets took a little bloom off the rose. But few recall that Mays was still an elite player in 1971, leading the NL in walks and on-base percentage while finishing fourth in OPS.
Had he just hung them up then, it might’ve been awkward, and the fact that Mays held on for a total of 154 games after that should not take away from the fact that he was perhaps the best to ever play the game, and most assuredly the greatest living ballplayer.
Who is the greatest living ballplayer? Leave your comments below.